Over the summer, President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, along with nearly 300 faculty members, attended workshops to encourage conversations on racism and strategize ways to challenge systemic bias.
The workshops, organized by the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) and the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity (OFDD), were aimed at reflecting on the ongoing reality of systemic anti-Black racism and to collectively strategize actions faculty can take at individual, interpersonal and institutional levels.
“The participation of the president, provost and such a large number of faculty in these workshops reflects a long overdue start of serious and deep reflections on racism here at Cornell,” said Avery August, vice provost for academic affairs and one of Pollack’s advisers on diversity and equity.
Aiming to provide faculty with opportunities to continue this work, IDP next month is launching a semesterlong course for faculty, Building Connections with Dialogue.
An academic initiative at Cornell since 2012, IDP promotes communication among those coming from different perspectives, experiences, and social identities by encouraging attendees to develop and practice dialogue skills fostering inclusiveness.
IDP director Adi Grabiner-Keinan, executive director for undergraduate diversity education, said the summer workshops produced “honest conversations about our goals” for fostering more dialogue with students and colleagues.
“Surfacing differences and similarities allowed participants to make connections with each other around common goals,” Grabiner-Keinan said, “but also to learn from the differences and to push each other to explore new or additional ways to make change.”
Since the fall of 2018, all incoming undergraduate students have been required to participate in the IDP session, “Community at Cornell,” during orientation week. This year, incoming faculty members participated in a two-hour IDP session, “Communicating Across Difference,” at the new faculty orientation held in mid-August.
“We wanted to ensure that the university is providing the tools for faculty to deepen their understanding of perspectives across cultures, races and backgrounds,” said Yael Levitte, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity. “It’s important that colleagues appreciate how individuals from diverse life experiences may view the institution and how colleagues can support one another’s ability to thrive at Cornell.”
Attendees in IDP courses practice critical dialogue that seeks to increase understanding of social identities in the context of systems of inequity. Co-learning is a foundational component of critical dialogue, where participants are both teachers and learners, and are asked to speak from personal experience by using statements that begin with “I”.
“Learning to lean into the emotional dimensions of conversations about race, racism and inequity has probably been the most challenging – and valuable – take-aways for me in working with IDP,” said Kelly Musick, professor and chair in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, in the College of Human Ecology.
IDP also provides instruction in the LARA (listen, affirm, respond, add information) method, which is used in conversation to help create shared understanding.
“Too often in academia our discussions with others turn into debates,” said attendee Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences, and chair of the Department of Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “LARA is an effective way to keep the interpersonal interaction respectful and supportive of the other person.”
Another attendee, Eduardo M. Peñalver ’94, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School and professor of law, has made some behavioral changes based on what he learned in the course.
“One thing I noticed is how hard it can be to listen attentively and empathetically when meeting with someone over Zoom, as we all are doing these days,” he said. “The difficulty of making eye contact is compounded by email notifications and Slack alerts and all kinds of other chimes going off on my laptop that pull my attention away from the conversation I am having. I am now in the habit of turning Outlook, Slack and other notifications off when I am engaged in conversations that require empathetic listening.”
Nearly 50 faculty will start Building Connections with Dialogue in October. The course will be led by Jumoke Warritay, diversity education specialist with IDP.
“Our hope is that the impact of this course will be evident in the changes participants attempt to make in their respective classrooms, departments, and academic relationships across campus,” said Warritay.
In addition, the Center for Teaching Innovation, and the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble are collaborating with IDP and OFDD on programs addressing campus climate initiatives.
Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager with the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.