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NECIT at Rhode Island College

By Carol R. Shelton

Education is under scrutiny in our communities. Headlines herald the low achievement level of our students at almost every level. This winter (3/7/05), the Providence Journal reported data from a national education research organization that outlined the low graduation percentage rates of students who arrive as freshmen at Rhode Island College but who after six years, fail to graduate (Jordan, 2005). This spring, The New York Times began a series of articles with the theme "Class Matters," focusing on the influence of class on American life. One story explored the relationship of socio-economic class to retention among college students from working class backgrounds (Leonhardt, 2005). The article suggested that working class students were much more likely to drop out of college than their middle class counterparts.

Headlines and talk show hosts and their callers are quick and eager to blame poor educational achievement on teachers and teacher unions. They often complain of the poor quality of teaching in the primary and secondary schools in our communities and fault the undue influence of the teacher unions which they assert care more about fringe benefits than they do about student achievement. The usual list of social problems is also included and targeted for blame, including single family households, illegal immigration, and loss of family values. The rants and finger pointing add very little light on a subject that is extraordinarily complex and which needs thoughtful attention and dynamic action rather than knee jerk responses based on limited analyses.

No observer of contemporary culture can deny that changing demographics as well as social and cultural mores have created challenges for teachers at every level of instruction. This paper will focus on undergraduate education and will make a case for the need of institutions to support faculty development initiatives which can better prepare instructors to meet the problems they face in teaching at the undergraduate level. This premise is based on the belief that teachers will improve instruction and change their methodologies when they are given the time to analyze classroom problems and the opportunity to develop and experiment with new and creative pedagogical tools to address current teaching challenges. In addition, an institution's belief in a "scholarship of teaching" as a valuable focus of inquiry will encourage faculty to unleash as much energy on exploring teaching as an area of research as it might on a specific content area.

The University of Massachusetts in Boston (referred to as UMass Boston) has pioneered a faculty development initiative aimed at improving the teaching environment on its campus. UMass Boston is an urban campus serving the surrounding metropolitan community, and like Rhode Island College, is considered a commuter college/university. Of course it differs from the Rhode Island College campus because it is a research university granting doctoral degrees. But in many ways, especially in its approach to undergraduate education, Rhode Island College and UMass Boston, have many characteristics in common. Perhaps chief among these is the fact that both offer opportunities for working class and low-income people from the urban communities where the college/university is situated to pursue and attain a baccalaureate degree.

In 1983, under the leadership of Esther Kingston-Mann, professor of History at UMass Boston, the Ford Foundation provided a grant to the university to support a series of faculty development seminars aimed at improving education by focusing on the importance of inclusive teaching. Since the initial seminars in the 1980's, the university has continued supporting these faculty-led seminars so that as of today, more than one-half of all UMass Boston faculty members have participated in them.

Inclusive teaching is a concept that suggests that educators have an obligation to meet the needs of a variety of learners, from traditional students whose education has prepared them well for college level work, to those students who come from many different countries, who speak different languages and who may need a different kind of pedagogy to meet course objectives. It includes a style of teaching that addresses the needs of those whose working class backgrounds have left them with a sense of powerlessness in the academy. Inclusive teaching improves learning for all in the classroom, in the same way that diversity in education improves basic education for all.

In 2001, the Ford Foundation, impressed by the achievements of UMass Boston's faculty development model, made a commitment to support a similar initiative in several other New England colleges and universities and thus NECIT (New England Center for Inclusive Teaching) was born. NECIT operates under the aegis of UMass Boston. NECIT is a faculty-based consortium of colleges and universities fostering faculty development for inclusive teaching and learning, including disseminating pedagogical "best practices," developing curriculum projects, and advancing the scholarship of teaching.

The goals of NECIT as described in the 2004-5 annual report (2005) include the following:

  • Serve as a means for connecting faculty within and across institutions in the New England region who share an interest in pedagogy as it relates to inclusion of diverse student constituencies and curriculum transformation.
  • Show through organizing conferences, publishing research, and facilitating the exchange of ideas how attention to inclusive pedagogy and curriculum transformation strengthens rigorous academic standards and critical thinking skills in students.
  • Turn the spotlight on factors that facilitate student learning, and in so doing to articulate the components that characterize inclusive teaching and stimulating curricula.
  • Increase the visibility and demonstrate the value of inclusive pedagogy as part of the academic enterprise, so that faculty and administrators will be more likely to invest time, money and resources in improving pedagogy and transforming curriculum.
  • Cultivate a culture of respect for the scholarship of pedagogy, and provide forums and opportunities for faculty and staff to develop and present their research on the scholarship of pedagogy.
  • Maintain and develop a library of resources on inclusive teaching and curriculum transformation that is accessible to educators in the region.
  • Encourage educators to view themselves as learners.

Rhode Island College has been the recipient of such a grant, along with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Leslie University and Massasoit Community College. In each of these schools during the spring 2005 semester, a group of faculty/staff met in a weekly seminar exploring issues aimed at understanding some of the pedagogical problems that they confront and working at developing strategies to improve classroom instruction. Each member was given course load credit for his/her participation. The University of New Hampshire, Middlesex Community College and Emmanuel College are funded for the fall 2005 semester.

During the spring '05 semester at Rhode Island College, the cohort, referred to as NECIT Fellows, included: Dan Weisman and Jay Nimmagadda from the School of Social Work, Elizabeth Henshaw and Elizabeth Rowell from Elementary Education, Mustafa Ozcan from Educational Studies and Aaron Bruce from the Unity Center. I am the seminar leader, although the seminar was an exercise in egalitarian collaboration. Our discussions began with an exploration of the factors that seem to prevent our students from expressing their voices in the classroom setting. We considered problems of confidence, language, and intimidation. Interestingly, our discussions also led us to a discussion of how the current political environment has silenced our voices as faculty and staff at times. Political correctness, fear, and even the recent controversy that swirled in the Providence Journal surrounding a student's public criticism of the philosophy of the School of Social Work (Bishop 2005) have had a chilling effect on faculty, despite the protection of academic freedom. Although many students find silence more comfortable, others challenge perspectives that address social issues like poverty, racism, homophobia and racial and economic injustice.

We have benefited from sharing our perspectives with one another and we have explored pedagogical strategies that might be useful in approaching subjects that are controversial. Certainly we have offered each other support to take risks in challenging students and shared novel approaches to teaching in our classrooms. We benefit also from our academic diversity as we come from a variety of different disciplines which provided us with a myriad of lenses with which to examine an issue. We believe that interdisciplinary work may one of the most effective tools to develop comprehensive answers to the problems we face in meeting the needs of our current students.

Our work culminated with a project that we hope to pursue during the summer. Each of the spring '05 Fellows has been engaged in writing a paper that attempts to articulate a personal pedagogical autobiography. The diversity of the cohort served as a springboard from which we are analyzing how our background experiences prepared us to become the teachers we are at present. In each piece we are preparing examples of classroom problems, process, successes as well as failures which we have encountered in our efforts to improve our teaching from the perspective that all students should have the chance to learn. As we have reflected on our own struggles learning how to teach, we wondered whether our experiences might be useful or helpful to prospective college educators who become scholars in a particular discipline, but who often find themselves at their wits' end when they walk into a classroom. As we have moved forward with this project we have learned that the spring '05 cohort at Leslie University is engaged in a similar enterprise. We may very well find ourselves collaborating on an intercollegiate as well as an interdisciplinary project.

The fall 2005 cohort of faculty and staff have been chosen and will continue the NECIT initiative. It is our hope and expectation that even without Ford Foundation funding this grassroots faculty initiative will continue beyond the end of 2005, which is when the current grant expires. There are currently conversations between NECIT and Ford to pursue related faculty development initiatives. In the meantime, we feel it is important to continue to encourage interdisciplinary conversations and to develop strategy sessions to address pedagogical opportunities for inclusive teaching. Important also is uncovering the institutional barriers that may prevent our students from achieving. All of us can improve the work we do in educating students, but particularly those students who come to us with complex needs because of their diverse backgrounds and learning styles.

The assumption is that Rhode Island College will continue to support the NECIT Faculty Development initiative and a new cohort will be asked to apply during the fall 2005 for the spring 2006 seminar. Interested faculty members are encouraged to check out the NECIT web site at www.necit.umb.edu. On October 16th, 2005, all are invited to attend the NECIT Annual Conference where faculty from all of the NECIT institutions as well as from other colleges and universities in New England meet to focus on inclusive teaching. Many of our Rhode Island faculty members have participated in the last few years and have found it to be an extraordinary experience, providing us with the opportunity to participate with colleagues from many different disciplines and who together with us desire to improve and enhance the work we do in our classrooms to reach all of our students. To do this work, the need to move beyond the anecdotal and begin to think about the scholarship of teaching. NECIT has provided us with the opportunity to begin to explore these exciting possibilities.

Carol Shelton

References

Bishop, B. (2005). Indoctrination 101-Does social work work in R.I.? Providence Journal, February 9, B5.

Jordan, J. (2005). 60 percent of RIC freshmen fail to graduate in 6 years. Providence Journal, March 7, 1,4.

Leonhardt, D. (2005). The college dropout boom. The New York Times, May 24,1,18-19.

New England Center for Inclusive Teaching (2005). Annual Report Academic Year 2004-2005. Boston: University Of Massachusetts Boston.

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Page last updated: March 15, 2006