The Bay to Bay Learning Symposium is a yearly collaboration between the USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota Manatee campuses. Photo courtesy of Joy Powell/Connect.
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Diversity in Action: Learning between bays at the Bay to Bay Learning Symposium

“Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance,” said Phil Wagner, University of South Florida Sarasota–Manatee (USFSM) professor and first faculty speaker of the fourth annual Bay to Bay Learning Symposium Feb. 8.

The Bay to Bay Learning Symposium is a yearly collaboration between the faculty of USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota Manatee campuses. It’s hosted by the USFSP Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) and the Online Learning and Instructional Technology Services (OLITS).

Every year, the symposium is held for faculty between the two campuses to learn through connecting with each other in ways that can be brought back to the classroom. The topic for this year’s symposium was Diversity in Action.

As a professor, Wagner prefers to start off his lectures with an activity, and that is how he started his presentation as the first faculty speaker at the symposium. He drew everyone’s attention to the sheets of paper on their tables. He told everyone not to write their names on their papers but rather to read through their statements and put a check mark by a statement if it applied to them. After everyone was finished, the papers were swapped between tables.

“In your hand, you hold the identity of someone else in this room… Think about how powerful that is,” Wagner said.

He emphasized the importance of starting conversations on diversity with identity and asserted that conversations that don’t “are dead on arrival.” Wagner also highlighted the importance of inclusion, which he defined as the active engagement with diversity.

“Inclusive is active, is intentional,” Wagner said. “It is ongoing. It is never fully done.”

He read the statements that were on the paper and asked everyone who was physically able to stand if a statement applied to them.

Statements included questions of:

  • Having a disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Interracial dating
  • Sharing a room with two or more siblings growing up
  • Chronic illness
  • Having parents that were divorced, separated or never married
  • Being bilingual
  • Having been to a reservation
  • Having a tattoo
  • Receiving state-funded welfare as an adult or child
  • Not owning a car
  • Having Jewish ancestry
  • Being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • Growing up in a rural area
  • Being Christian
  • Having been the only one of a certain racial background in a group
  • Recovering from drug or alcohol addiction

At the end of his address to the audience, Wagner asked everyone to stand up if any of the statements on the paper were checked. Nearly everyone in the room stood.

Following Wagner was USFSM professor Jody McBrien and her presentation “The Last Time You Did Something For the First Time.”

McBrien drew from her experiences of teaching abroad with developing nations, such as Uganda, and how learning and interacting with other cultures helped her develop a better sense of her position in her culture in relation to people from other cultures.

McBrien spoke about the importance of learning about the cultures of the students she was teaching. Returning to the U.S. also gave her insight.

“After a few weeks, all I had to do was hop on a plane to get back to privilege,” McBrien said.

McBrien told the symposium that people frequently accustom themselves to patterns and schedules to the point that they stop learning new things and having new experiences.

“Go somewhere that you wouldn’t otherwise,” she said.

McBrien spoke about Elizabeth Lesser’s Ted Talk Take “the Other” to Lunch and how it inspired her to implement a similar exercise in her classroom.

“Find someone whom you disagree with and take them to lunch,” McBrien paraphrased from Lesser’s talk. “Listen carefully. Do not defend your position. Do not persuade.”

A member of the audience asked McBrien if any students had any negative feedback from their experiences with this exercise. She said that every semester there might be one or two students who didn’t enjoy the exercise but the responses were never anything “terrible.”

Following McBrien was University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Kathleen Gibson-Dee who discussed what she called “The Privilege Project.” The project was the culmination of her desire to “bring statistics to life… and for students to come to [her] class.”

“If students understood the privilege they had just by being able to attend a university, they might value their education more, work harder and understand those who had less,” Gibson-Dee said.

The project spanned for the entire semester and began with students writing an essay on their thoughts of privilege. Then they would take a survey where they would answer questions that would assign them a certain number of points depending on their answers. The higher a student’s points, the more privilege they had. The surveys were taken at home and the students recorded their scores as well as their thoughts on the survey anonymously.

Gibson-Dee shared a few of the scores and responses from the survey. The responses that were shared varied from apathy to optimism. One student in particular, who had a low score, made a comment how, despite not having a lot of privilege, they were able to accomplish a lot and anyone could do the same if they worked hard enough. This comment, in particular, stuck out to Gibson-Dee. She said that society frequently blames people who lack privilege for their own lack of privilege.

After their surveys and essays, Gibson-Dee made a fictitious, personalized character for every student based on their essays. Every character had the name of one of the students in the class and demographic information that told their life story. The class, ages, ethnicities, physical and mental abilities of the characters all varied.

“I wanted to demonstrate to my class [that] privilege is not present because of situations that are not in someone else’s control,” Gibson-Dee said.

She instructed her students to think about what their character would be doing several times a day over a couple of days and what they would think of the student’s lives. After a few days passed, her students retook their privilege tests as if they were their characters.

Gibson-Dee said the project made her students intrigued and excited about statistics. They wanted to know how this kind of change in data is possible. Her students asked questions about the effects of the context of a survey such as differences in location, culture and background. They learned about statistical hypothesis testing and that the way in which surveys and questions are constructed can affect answers.

“I was surprised by how well it worked,” Gibson-Dee said. “My students took it seriously. They were so driven by curiosity, and I was deeply moved.”

After the lunch break, president of the University of Maryland, Freeman Hrabowski, gave the keynote presentation for the symposium. Hrabowski served as chairman for President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.

In his presentation, Hrabowski addressed gender and racial disparities between different majors, college graduates and in academia overall. He first asked the attendees of the symposium what they thought the statistics were.

“Why do I ask you the stats instead of just telling you them?” He asked the audience.

He said the tactic pushed members of the audience to draw their own conclusions based on their perceptions and match them with reality. Hrabowski discussed his work within the Choice Program, an academic remedial, which offers a second chance to nonviolent juvenile offenders.

“If you give a child structure and love, all things are possible,” Hrabowski said.

Hrabowski also highlighted the importance of innovation and the allowances for improvement and growth through technology.

Upon closing his presentation, Hrabowski emphasized six words: thoughts, words, actions, habits, character and destiny.

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