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From small beginnings, grad TAs & postdocs have big impact on inclusive learning

This spring witnessed many projects to make Cornell’s learning spaces more inclusive, but what does it take to put great ideas into action for change? On June 25, over 45 participants from across campus gathered to hear from a panel of innovative graduate students and postdocs who successfully implemented ideas for creating more equitable learning environments.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) and the Graduate School Offices of Future Faculty and Academic Careers and Inclusion and Student Engagement, the event featured a discussion on putting ideas into action and overcoming challenges. The discussion was followed by a networking session for participants to explore ideas for improving equity and inclusion.

“This discussion was an opportunity to highlight leadership by graduate students & postdocs on building inclusive learning experiences,” said Melina Ivanchikova, CTI’s associate director for inclusive teaching. “We also hoped it might inspire others working to help Cornell build a learning community in which everyone belongs.”

Amelia-Juliette Demery, PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who co-wrote a paper on making field work safer for scientists of marginalized identities, was motivated to start her project by her own experience, as well as from seeing a way to have a positive influence beyond her professional discipline.

Joshua Garcia, PhD candidate in Horticulture, echoed this idea, noting that one of his goals as a scholar is to ensure that people of marginalized identities do not have to go through the struggles he has experienced.

Garcia worked with Kavya Krishnan, PhD candidate in Soil and Crop Sciences, on teaching workshops and discussion groups as part of an effort to make classes in the School of Integrative Plant Science more inclusive for people of diverse backgrounds.

“If we are serious about making higher education more inclusive, we have to take steps to make our classes more inclusive because they are central to everyone’s experience in academia,” said Garcia.

Despite strong motivations, all the panelists encountered obstacles during their projects.

“It is not common to talk about inclusion or social justice in field biology,” said Kira Treibergs, Active Learning Initiative postdoctoral associate in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. She added that it took many conversations to get support for her idea of a teaching module on the experiences of Black birders and outdoor enthusiasts.

For Krishnan, convincing people that action is necessary was also the first hurdle.

“Sometimes it takes a big external force to get people talking about equity and inclusion,” said Krishnan, “but these can be overwhelming moments for people of marginalized identities, making it difficult for them to engage with the issue.”

Caitlin Kane, PhD candidate in Performing and Media Arts, who organized a series of workshops about feminist and anti-racist pedagogy for graduate students and faculty, noted that the importance of the task can be overwhelming too.

“It is easy to think that we need to design programs that can solve the problem at hand and somehow make oppression and discrimination disappear,” she said. “The reality is that no single event can accomplish that, but smaller events and programs can create momentum that others can build upon.”

“This was a wonderful opportunity to hear about and celebrate the fantastic efforts that people have made around the climate, community, and making a more equitable environment,” said Colleen McLinn, executive director of Future Faculty and Academic Careers at the Graduate School, “and a chance to start incubating new projects and building collective capacity for getting past obstacles to ideas we might want to try.”

For more information on inclusive teaching & learning opportunities, please contact CTI or the Graduate School Offices of Future Faculty and Academic Careers, or Inclusion and Student Engagement.

Dave Winterstein is a communication specialist at the Center for Teaching Innovation.

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Abby Butler