From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities.  As a way to continue the discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion.  This post features the discussion led by Cal Angus and Nirmala Iswari for the roundtable “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom

Leaders: Cal Angus & Nirmala Iswari

I co-led, along with Nirmala Iswari, two short discussion sessions at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium: Exploring How Issues of Diversity Intersect with the Writing Classroom. Our sessions attempted to address how TOs might go about engaging with controversial campus events or topics in their classrooms. Rather than wait for these issues to erupt in our classrooms, we wanted to provide TOs with a framework for bringing up campus issues in their classes early and often, even using them as lenses for different units or rhetorical strategies. This way, when something does happen during a semester, students are accustomed to talking through it in a mediated manner, and are hopefully even able to see it as an occasion for listening and learning from their classmates.

In our discussion sessions, we talked about establishing a routine that works for you, as the instructor, when bringing up controversial topics. Participants referenced one method shared during one of last year’s Center for Teaching sessions on diversity training, which emphasized a three-step approach to opening up a difficult conversation in the classroom:

Observe: Verbally acknowledge the atmosphere in the room, i.e. “I noticed that when you brought up _____, many people grew quiet or uncomfortable,” or “I’m seeing a lot of eye rolling or indications that people have differing opinions on this issue.” Bringing this out into the open makes you and your students witnesses to what is often an unspoken allusion.

Expressing Thoughts/Feelings: After acknowledging that a difficult topic has been broached in the classroom, express to the classroom why you think it’s important to stop and talk about it. i.e. “I think we should spend some time discussing this as a class so we can hear all the different points of view on the subject, and so no one feels silenced in this space.” This is also a good chance to draw connections between opening such a conversation and the lesson for the day, or the learning objectives for the unit.

Concrete Actions: Make clear the next steps the class should take to proceed with discussion. “I’d like for us all to get in a circle, and for people to raise their hands when they have something to say. We’ll spend the next twenty minutes listening and responding to our classmates, followed by ten minutes of reflective writing.” Be sure not to step away from the discussion, and to remain an active moderator, perhaps even adding a time limit or turn limit to prevent people from dominating the discussion.

Among our two groups at the symposium, we also discussed how campus issues can be used as a lens into both the personal and the broader national or global community. Students sometimes resist digging into their personal histories, especially early on in class, or else feel uncomfortable talking about larger social problems that could remain abstractions in their minds (racism, sexism, class etc.). But by talking about Black Lives Matter graffiti on campus that was vandalized, or past UMass admissions policies toward Iranian students, we can put these larger issues into context for students. Below you will find three scenarios that TOs were asked to read and discuss how they would address these issues in class, or how they might incorporate them into a lesson plan.

Stumbling Blocks

We also discussed that this is not a perfect framework, and that bringing campus issues into the classroom will often be more personally fraught for some students than others. This was one of the stumbling blocks we tried to address during our symposium discussions, but despite talking about it as a group, we didn’t get far in how to address it. Different TOs shared their strategies: some said they set clear expectations on day one about the political and personal content students are expected to engage with in their class, while others said they sometimes allowed their students to steer away from uncomfortable topics in their writing if they noticed it made them exceedingly uncomfortable.

In the end, it was pretty clear that there are some major obstacles or flaws with relying too heavily on campus events to form the backbone of a class. But the general consensus between our two discussion groups was that as a supplementary part of the classroom, discussing and analyzing controversial campus issues could provide a new way for students to examine rhetoric with personal relevance, as long as discussions are mediated and managed by the instructor. Instructors shouldn’t veer away from discussing such things, especially since often the chance to step outside of assigned readings is welcomed by students.


Please note that this is not intended as a “controversial issues worksheet” for students. Rather, these were used as examples for TOs at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium, specifically those who wanted to discuss how they might address these issues in the classroom, or how they might incorporate them into lesson plans.

  1. In spring 2015, Black Lives Matter activists and members of the campus Black Student Union gave a makeover to the UMass campus graffiti wall in the central residential area with the slogan of the movement for racial equality and against police brutality in African American communities. The next day, the Black Lives Matter graffiti was painted over with “All Lives Matter,” with many of the activist slogans erased with red paint by unidentified individuals.
  1. In February, 2015, UMass administration made the decision to bar Iranian students from enrolling in specific programs in the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences, citing federal recommendations that to do so could endanger national security. After the news broke, the Boston Globe ran an article in which State Department officials were quoted as saying they had never heard of such a restriction, and that UMass was “rare if not unique among U.S. universities” for instituting the admission ban. Around this time, negotiations for a nuclear deal between the U.S. government and Iran were ongoing. UMass eventually reversed its decision after vocal negative reaction from the UMass community.
  1. In 2014 the federal government pledged another $3 billion in support of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programs. The same year saw federal support of the humanities education increase only slightly to $145 million. Meanwhile, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that graduates of the class of 2008 who majored in STEM averaged a significantly higher salary than those majoring in the humanities. A New York Timesarticle, however, still found a reason to major in the humanities: many STEM jobs could be easily computerized or traded overseas in the coming decades.

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