Transgressions, Confessions, and Microaggressions: Impressions of the AAC&U 2019 Diversity, Equity, and Student Success Conference
By Jon Boroshok, Communication Instructor at Southern New Hampshire University
Since we both have advanced degrees and invested in college savings plans, my wife and I always assumed our children would receive a higher education. As a professor, I realize how fortunate or, yes, privileged, we’ve been.
I teach a “Rock and Roll Edition” of Visual Communication and Media Literacy on campus at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). One of our topics looks at suburban parents’ reactions to rock music in the 1950s compared to parents’ reactions to rap and hip-hop today. While it’s not quite Drake versus Elvis, we see similar misunderstandings, fears, and prejudices. It’s a great discussion topic full of teachable moments and even more opportunities for me to get into trouble.
Maybe I’m one of today’s parents. The elephant in the room isn’t just my “Dad Bod,” it’s my demographic. As a white, fifty-something male, I don’t check many diversity boxes, but I want to be sensitive to topics that do. While discussing soul, I’d like to keep the sole of my shoe out of my mouth.
As a starting point for learning more about how to discuss race and inequalities in the classroom, I enrolled in the White Ally Tool Kit course at SNHU.
Next, thanks to a grant from our President’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (PODI), I attended AAC&U’s Diversity, Equity, and Student Success Conference in Pittsburgh in March 2019. From the many great sessions, I learned valuable lessons to bring back to SNHU.
Just like our students, faculty need to get out of their comfort zones. The first thing I noticed at the conference was how few people looked like me. Is this what every day feels like for some of my students? At least it was by choice for me. I could always walk away.
SNHU does many of the right things already, including following a formal diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. Much of the conference focused on creating inclusive campuses, and I realized that our problem isn’t serving our diverse student population—it’s getting professors (like me) to recognize the diversity in front of us.
There are many faces of diversity. One panel session at the conference, “Fostering a Culture of Student Success Grounded in Equity and Identity Consciousness,” taught us that diversity does not only include people of color or LGBTQ+ identities. There are also ethnic and economic differences as well as challenges faced by first-year students. There are veterans, students facing mental health issues, and food-insecure students. We’re more diverse than I understood.
Look at all of a student’s identities, not just one demographic. Schools and their faculty need to be “identity conscious.” Jason Rivera, chancellor for student academic success at Rutgers University, implored us to know campus metrics such as the percentage of our students that are Pell Grant eligible. Have SNHU’s demographics changed in recent years while my assumptions and practices have not?
I have microaggressed. It wasn’t intentional—it was a combination of ignorance and insensitivity. In “Examining Microaggressions for Engaged Inclusivity,” conducted by Claudia Leiras and Alisha Davis (both of Grand Valley State University), I heard stories of how stereotyping and generalizing can influence interaction between faculty and students. I wondered how many offenses I've committed. I’ve certainly made comments that have “othered” people.
People are oppressed and stressed by assumptions, affecting how they perform academically and how they engage socially. SNHU’s data shows us how students who are more involved on campus are happier, perform better, and learn more. But if they don’t feel welcomed and safe, how can we expect them to get involved? We need to be proactive and inclusive.
I need to use more gender-neutral, inclusive language in class. As a communications professional, changing messages should come naturally. I added my preferred personal pronouns to my email signature and syllabi. It wasn’t about me—it was to send a subtle message of acceptance to my students. I’ve always made my students sign the last page of the syllabus. Now that page also asks them what their preferred name is, and that’s what I call them and use on the sign-in sheet. It’s a matter of showing respect for our differences. I’m going to make mistakes—I still struggle grammatically with the singular “they” and using norms and defaults like heterosexuality and middle class. I tell my students that I’m a work in progress and that they should feel free to correct me or call me out (my family already does). They appreciate that.
Another aspect of diversity is welcoming all opinions and fostering civil discourse. One casualty of our newfound sensitivity and awareness is that some less-progressive opinions seem to be stifled rather than discussed. As Alisha Davis of Grand Valley State University explained, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” There’s a risk of some people feeling censored. That may lead to backlash against diversity and proliferation of a bigoted narrative in the media and online. All opinions must be heard if they are expressed civilly.
Diversity must extend to all levels of the institution. Bonding with a few colleagues in the evenings after the sessions, I learned of their own diversity struggles as faculty and staff members, including feeling like a token faculty member or not being fully supported by colleagues.
Creating inclusivity, diversity, and equity is challenging. It’s not going to happen overnight. It might not even happen during my career. I don’t have the solution, but I’m determined to not be part of the problem.