Faculty hope change in approach to first-year program will help more students participate in classes

Every first-year student starts their Whitman College experience in Encounters. A yearlong course that helps all students become familiar with the ways of thinking, analyzing and writing, Encounters provides the basis of a liberal arts education.

The program is meant to level the playing field for students from a range of backgrounds and experiences. This year, Encounters features a refreshed curriculum and a new philosophy toward teaching the course in a more inclusive way.

A Growing Conversation

Conversations around “inclusive pedagogy” — teaching made accessible to all students regardless of background or learning style — have intensified over the past several years at Whitman College and in the greater educational community, said Lisa Perfetti, associate dean for faculty development at Whitman.

“We started thinking about these issues on our own a while ago. We started to think about what do all first-year students need, and what is different about what they’re coming in with,” Perfetti said.

Whitman’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) developed workshops and seminars about creating an inclusive environment for specific types of students, such as first-generation, multi-lingual learners and members of the LGBTQ community. In 2017, the CTL brought in physicist Mary James, dean for institutional diversity at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for a one-day workshop with faculty.

Associate Professor Delbert “Hutch” Hutchison said James’ workshop was the most productive he had ever attended, and it shifted the way the evolutionary biology and environmental studies instructor thinks about teaching.

“What I liked is everything she said was applicable to every student,” Hutchison said. “It’s not about treating people differently — it’s about treating people in a way so that everybody can do better.”

In 2017, sociology Professor Helen Kim was appointed director of the Encounters program, formerly known as Core. In July 2018, she was appointed interim vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. As Kim listened to faculty and students talk about Encounters, she noticed an opportunity to improve inclusivity.

“I thought, ‘Hey! We have this cool first-year experience that all first-year students are required to go through, and there are 27 faculty members, and there’s a weekly faculty session devoted to the program. This strikes me as an op­portune time to get a group of faculty members to think about how to do more with inclusion and building a sense of belonging.’”

Building Inclusive Classrooms

This year’s Encounters syllabus is the most diverse ever taught in the course’s 30-year history, said Kazi Joshua, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. Readings focusing on the history and culture of Whitman and the Walla Walla area are combined with others emphasizing life experiences of a variety of different cultures and backgrounds, in place of Eurocentric texts.

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, Whitman’s curriculum must be kept up-to-date to reflect the diversity found on campus, creating an environment where students feel welcome, Joshua said. He wants students to be able to see themselves and their cultures in their studies.

“If we’re going to have a broadly diverse student population, then in their course of study they should be exposed to a variety of human experiences and cultures,” Joshua said.

However, a diverse curriculum only goes so far.

Interim Dean of Students Kazi Joshua teaches an Encounters course in 2016.
Interim Dean of Students Kazi Joshua teaches an Encounters course in 2016.

“It is not enough to have a diverse curriculum when the experience of students in the context of engagement in the learning environment is one in which they feel they are strangers on their own campus,” Joshua said. “So, the ability for a teacher to teach both content that represents a broad range of human experience and a classroom with students who come from a variety of backgrounds is crucial. How, for instance, do I create an environment where all students are involved and all students learn?”

Because Encounters serves as an introduction to Whitman’s expectations for students and its values, it was especially concerning for Kim to find that students felt excluded from the learning experience. Students who feel excluded do not engage as strongly with the content, causing them to build weaker “habits of the mind” than their peers, Kim said. That missing foundation can have a snowball effect, causing some students to struggle at Whitman.

“It’s not just about wanting to create a classroom where students belong for the sake of belonging. It’s a building block for them to sustain their interest in the classroom to what it is they are actually able to accomplish in the class,” Kim said.

Encounters is an intense, discussion-oriented class, so creating a classroom where all students feel free to participate is paramount.

“What happens when you have out of 16 people, two people talking all the time? And it’s a classroom that says that discussion is really important. Do you let that go along, or do you switch things up? You have to try to give people the opportunity to participate orally in different ways, so everybody feels like they have a contribution to make,” Kim said.

One Piece in the Puzzle

The fine-tuning of the Encounters program comes at a time when Whitman is solidifying its commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity in other ways.

In 2018, the Board of Trustees approved the college’s strategic plan, which includes priorities to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion; increase access and affordability for all students; and update and innovate the curriculum.

In the past few years, the faculty approved new guidelines for tenure and promotion that require faculty to demonstrate the ways they are creating inclusive classrooms. This is the first academic year the guidelines have been in effect. A working group is also analyzing Whitman’s general education program, including Encounters, to evaluate not only the content but also the pedagogical approaches.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Julia Ireland leads an Encounters class.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Julia Ireland leads an Encounters class.

“We learn better when we learn together,” said mathematics Professor Barry Balof, who serves as chair of the faculty. “If we approach things as a collaborative effort, then that’s a better methodology all around.”

Shining a spotlight on inclusion also serves to enhance the profile of the discussion.

“I think the diversity strategic plan gives us reference points. We can kind of help see the story of those efforts and be able to locate ourselves in time and chart our progress by these documents,” Perfetti said. “It’s important for people to recognize where they’ve been and where they’re going.”

The college’s curriculum has not undergone a revision for 10-15 years, and around half of the faculty currently at Whitman were not here for the last overhaul, Joshua said.

“We know this is an opportunity that has not occurred for more than a decade. So, people are eager to ask, ‘What are the key things that we could be committed to?’” Joshua said.

An Inclusive Future

In addition to their other duties, Joshua, Kim and Hutchison are among the 27 faculty members currently teaching Encounters. As discussions around inclusive ways of teaching continue, all are excited to see how that knowledge branches out to other classrooms.

“This is the one course that all students at Whitman are required to take to graduate,” Joshua said. “We believed that this course was formative. What better place for these high school students who happen to be on a college campus, who are strangers to each other, to learn in this way?”

Since taking the workshop on inclusive teaching in 2017, Hutchison has applied principles in his science classes, while continuing to engage his Encounters students in new ways. For him, it’s not about focusing on what makes students different — it’s about empathizing with them and understanding their backgrounds.

“It was nothing new that you realize everybody’s different. I came from a rural environment from a high school that didn’t prepare me for college,” Hutchison said. “Not everybody comes to college and understands what’s happening all around them. Students have so many experiences with which I can’t understand, but I can try to be empathetic. I can remember that everybody matters — and try to let them feel like they matter. ‘You were selected to be here for a reason. I have every faith that you can and will succeed — and I’m here to help you do that.’”