Instructors Infuse their Courses with Racial Justice
The Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX) has been awarding grants for the past seven years to instructors who want to transform their courses. Grant winners were primarily focused on reducing the cost of their course materials for students—from replacing textbooks to creating lending libraries of supplies.
“Textbook affordability efforts help to reduce costs, promote access and increase exposure to diverse voices in course materials,” said Associate Director of Affordability and Access, Ashley Miller. “While these goals remain at the core of the ALX mission, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 prompted us to use the strength of the ALX program to figure out what we could do to take meaningful action to expand our scope to encompass broader social justice topics, and specifically to engage Ohio State students in learning opportunities that address racial disparities and injustices in this country.”
Several instructors at Ohio State share Miller's passion and have taken the opportunity ALX provides to infuse their courses with racial justice.
How are instructors including racial justice topics in their courses? Four instructors share their experiences working with ALX to replace textbooks, refine assessments and bring the real world into the classroom, all through a racial justice lens.
Ryan Skinner teaches courses in African American and African Studies, and he wanted to increase the bibliography for the department’s Major Readings course, taught by several faculty members. He said, “I wanted to build a comprehensive list of online texts to let faculty members see what’s readily available for their students.” Skinner worked collaboratively with Leta Hendricks in University Libraries to compile this list and ultimately provide students access to required course material either online or through library reserves.
Refreshing the course bibliography also allows Skinner and his students to explore lesser-known African populations. Skinner is planning to add the autobiography of Jason “Timbuktu” Diakité, a poet and hip-hop artist from Sweden. “The African diaspora includes places we might not have thought about,” Skinner explained. “There is a large population in Sweden and people are beginning to articulate what that means and are becoming more vocal about their sense of race.”
Leeann Lower-Hoppe teaches sports law courses at the graduate and undergraduate level. “The textbook was too static,” she said. “I couldn’t adjust the topics or the level of difficulty for my students and I wanted to be able to include more diverse voices.”
Lower-Hoppe worked with subject librarians at University Libraries who helped her find articles from authors of color, as well as video and podcast sources. “I wanted to give my students diversity in the medium for their course content as well,” she explained. “Students can choose the format that best fits their learning style or interests, and all the sources include BIPOC authors.”
Lower-Hoppe was also interested in exploring an anti-racist framework for her assessments. The ALX team connected her with other instructors who are using “ungrading” principles in their courses. She explained “Subjectivity and bias are inherent in grading, which adversely affects certain minority groups and doesn’t account for diversity in students and ideas.”
JR Rathjens, who taught Lower-Hoppe’s undergraduate sports law courses last semester, facilitated ungraded learning exercises with his students. Rather than being scored on right and wrong answers, students received credit for engaging with open-ended questions and sharing their experiences and beliefs on the week’s topics. “Reading responses from minority and non-minority students was enlightening,” said Rathjens. “What students bring to the table is varied, and their answers were very indicative to their lived experiences.”
Will Nickley teaches an industrial design studio course for third-year undergraduate students. As part of this course, he brings in professionals—designers, small business owners, small manufacturers—to add their expertise to the course concepts. Students have always found this experience valuable, but the professionals would have to volunteer and be able to take time away from their work in order to interact with students.
Nickley decided to use his racial justice grant from ALX to help fund this endeavor, allowing him to bring in racially diverse speakers, as well as international professionals. He said “creativity is often given away since it’s hard to quantify. Paying for their time provides equity.”
Rathjens is taking advantage of the new sports law resources to include current topics that are at play in our world outside of the classroom. As part of his curriculum, he included articles and discussions on the Rooney Rule and how this hiring practice is impacting the NFL. He said, “We need to evolve our courses as our students evolve,” and including this trending topic allows him to stay relevant and keep up with his changing learners. “Having the flexibility to adjust your course topics gives you the opportunity to rethink what you are doing, why you are doing it, and overall make your course a better experience for the students.”
Impact on Students
The work of these four instructors is making a big impact on the students in their courses.
Rathjens has observed that several students entered his class without any experience or even awareness of employment biases. Adjusting his course to include current topics and discussions has helped these students become aware of what others may face in the workplace.
Nickley shared that “students want to see themselves in practice after graduation, and bringing in diverse professionals can provide a sense of what the future might hold for them.”
In Skinner’s courses, students provide feedback on the materials which allows him to “create a balance of familiar and unfamiliar authors to satisfy interests but also expand boundaries.”
“Now after three successful Racial Justice Grant cohorts, we still feel the same sense of urgency to do this work,” Miller explained. “Together, we are producing our next leaders. We want to do what we can, even in small ways, to expose students to diverse perspectives, to spotlight voices from marginalized scholars, and encourage faculty to create space for conversation and reflection on issues of racial equity and justice.”