Texts of Engagement: Reading and Writing for Inclusivity in Any Discipline

[Guest post by Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing, JHU]

As part of the Lunch and Learn series, Karen Fleming (biophysics professor) and I gave presentations on fostering an inclusive classroom environment, summarized in the previous post.

In this follow up, I’ll offer some resources that seem to me versatile enough to use in different kinds of classrooms, and toward different ends. I’ve divided them into the categories below; the sources in the first three sections, in particular, can nearly all live quite comfortably in most disciplines.

What is college for?
Why bother with stories
How textual analysis works
Ideas for writing assignments

What is college for?

Cartoon rendering of an illuminated light bulb.Plenty of college students, from visibly diverse backgrounds and otherwise, feel mystified by the academy, at best —and overwhelmed by it, at worst. One way I try to help them find their footing is to engage them in examining university culture.

In my courses we use the sources below, and others, for informal “response writing.” I’m not using these sources to teach academic argument, although plenty of them have elegant arguments built into their narratives, and my students do notice that. I use them in hopes of activating their engagement and imagination about what their undergraduate experience will mean for them—to give them glimpses from the skybox.

Here’s a sampling:

Anna Deveare Smith raises the stakes of higher ed in her Chronicle interview “Are Students “Learning Anything About Love Here?’”

In “How to Live Wisely,”  Richard J. Light describes the Harvard course “Reflecting on Your Life.” Students explore: What does it mean to live a good life? What about a productive life? How about a happy life? How might I think about these ideas if the answers conflict with one another? And how do I use my time here at college to build on the answers to these tough questions?”

Mark Edmundson, first in his family to go to college, takes on undergraduate experience at research institutions in “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“The Cosmos and You,” just a few paragraphs long, tells the story of an astronomy student who asks her professor the big question: “How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the smallness of us?”

Julio M. Ottino and Gary Saul Morson write about empathy, engineering, and more in “Building a Bridge Between Engineering and the Humanities.”

Neil Koblitz advocates for clear, engaging storytelling in the sciences in “Why STEM Needs the Humanities.”

Lyell Asher’s essay “Low Definition in Higher Education” takes on Anna Karenina, safe spaces, and more: “Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.”

Nicholas Lemann’s “The Case for a New Kind of Core” proposes “a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum,” with skills categories: information acquisition, cause & effect, interpretation, numeracy, perspective, language of form, thinking in time, and argument.

“The Astrophysicist Who Wants to Help Solve Baltimore’s Urban Blight” tells the story of a Hopkins professor and the Baltimore Housing Commissioner teaming up to tackle our vacant housing problem.

Finally, a dated but still very popular article among my students is Thomas Friedman’s “How to Get a Job at Google.” To a person, every student who has read this has been surprised. At JHU as at many other schools, it’s common for students to see college as a means to an end—professional school, a big job. Living in the future tense, focused almost entirely on the retroactive value of college they plan to enjoy after graduation, they default to a safe, well-worn path of coursework and GPA management. Friedman’s article, like many of those above, nudges them a bit on this.

Why bother with stories

Sea turtle rendered as a multi-colored mosaic.A central tenet of the Expository Writing Program at Hopkins is that our students engage in meaningful writing. Our students write to contribute to an ongoing intellectual conversation about a genuine problem or question. We expect students to think not only about their argument, based on the evidence at hand, but also about the implications of their argument.

Thus if I’m asking students (in my classes, mostly STEM majors) to enter a critical conversation about a short story, I have to be sure we are explicit about how it could possibly matter whether or not they make a compelling argument about a piece of fiction—you know, something that never really happened.

So, in class we ask the question: Why bother with stories? Here are some resources that have helped answer this:

Short fiction warrants a column in the New York Times op-ed pages in David Brooks’ “The Child in the Basement,” which nicely models a summary (of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) and then offers three socially relevant readings of the text.

Diaa Hadid’s interview with Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, “2 Sisters in Pakistan Find They Have a Lot in Common with Jane Austen” illustrates connections between upper-class contemporary Pakistan and the England of Austen’s novels.

Two TED talks: The well-known “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Raghava KK’s also wonderful 4½ -minute “Shake Up Your Story.”

Here’s an idea I haven’t tried yet: put Adichie’s talk next to John W. Krakauer and David Poeppel’s “Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias,” which is also about the “danger of a single story.”

Most recently: Lindy West writes in her op-ed “We Got Rid of Some Bad Men. Now Let’s Get Rid of Bad Movies”: “Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives.”

All of this depends on analysis, of course, and especially textual analysis…

How textual analysis works

Budding tree growing out of the center of an opened book.There are lots of ways to teach students how to do textual analysis (aka close reading). A few favorite resources:

“Twenty Titles: One Poem,” by poet Douglas Kearney, helps students see different interpretations (titles) of the same data (the sculpture).

Here, students analyze the poem “Since You Are Mortal” (Simonides) and then turn over the page to see how the translator, Danielle S. Allen, interprets it.

Danielle S. Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (excerpts)

John Oliver, “Migrants and Refugees” (1:12-1:54)

NPR Code Switch Podcast: Camila Domonoske, “When ‘Miss’ Meant So Much More: How One Woman Fought Alabama — And Won”

Two more TED talks: John McWhorter’s “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!” and Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden’s “What We Learned from 5 Million Books”

Ideas for writing assignments

Colored pencils arranged in a row.Again, just a quick sampling of texts that have worked well with first- and second-year students. My colleagues have loads of their own, as you likely do as well.

Summarizing an academic article:

Lin Bian et al, “Messages About Brilliance Undermine Women’s Interest in Educational and Professional Opportunities”

Samantha P. Fan et al, “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication”

Martha C. Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom”

Finding an interpretive question in a text and reasoning through it:

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “She Unnames Them”
Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”
ZZ Packer, “Brownies”
David Sedaris, “Repeat After Me”
Alice Walker, “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
Patricia Williams, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
EB White, “The Ring of Time” (the whole essay, including the section on Florida and segregation)

Entering a critical conversation about a text:

Build an argument about EB White’s “The Ring of Time” by responding to Craig Seligman’s review “Mr. Normal”

Build an argument about Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” by responding to the Butler’s comments in the Afterword about love and slavery

Build an argument about Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” by responding to two of the following: Morrison’s prologue to Playing in the Dark; Elizabeth Abel’s “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation”; David Goldstein-Shirley’s “Race and Response: Toni Morison’s ‘Recitatif’”; and Danielle S. Allen’s prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 9 of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education.


Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, PhD, has been teaching at Johns Hopkins since 2007 and co-chairs, with Professor Fleming, JHU’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Images source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing and Karen Fleming, Professor, Biophysics, presented on Fostering an Inclusive Classroom.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky led off by describing the Expository Writing program. [See presentation slides.] Students learn in small class settings (10-15 students) how to write and academic argument using evidence. The academic argument is framed as an ongoing conversation—they say (identifies the problem or viewpoint), I say (recognizes a flaw in the argument and establishes a thesis to correct the flaw), so what? (what’s at stake or what’s next?)—to which the student is contributing. The vast majority of her students are in the STEM fields. This is the background for Brodsky’s introduction of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

Students bring their complex identities and a sense of whether or not they feel they belong on campus to the classroom. Brodsky seeks to make sure that her curriculum includes reading diverse authors. Students are given a number of choices for each major writing assignment so that they can find something that interests and speaks to them. Additionally, students do informal writing on topics fincluding What is College For? Learning (science of learning, recent research, advice), School (campus life, student realities, ideas for redesign), Stories—why they matter, Words (language change, texting, big data). For each topic area Brodsky identifies a number of articles that students can choose from to read and write a response.  She tries to make topics current and relevant, and to be flexible, for example, after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, “I offered my students supplemental reading. I hoped to show how the JHU community engaged in local, ‘real-life’ struggles with rigorous, historically responsible, and creative thinking.” She encourages interdisciplinary conversations so that students don’t shut themselves off from possibilities.

Brodsky works with students who are afraid of writing and finds that different approaches work for different students. She is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In the classroom she practices eight ways of teaching.

  1. Giving students permission to fail successfully. The writing process is all about Slide from Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky's presentation listing 8 ways of learning.drafts and revisions; students learn that their first efforts may not work well, but they can learn from mistakes and rewrite.
  2. Using color highlighting while reading, by Brodsky and the students, to understand how an academic argument works.
  3. Sorting through key words used in an academic argument to understand how language works. For example, when identifying a flaw in an argument, key words are repudiate, contest, reject. Next, Brodsky has students perform textual analysis, by looking at a text and deciding whether it is either a conversation over coffee or actual textual analysis. For example, the text being analyzed is a comment on this quote (taken from a John Oliver segment): “A former British prime minister once described refugees as a “swarm of migrants.” Answer A is: “That made me crazy.” [conversation] Answer B is: “The word ‘swarm’ suggests invasion, threat, as well as equating humans to insects.” [textual analysis]
  4. Using Lego building blocks with statement taped to the sides, students “build their argument.”
  5. Learning to analyze and interpret by practicing describing things in different ways.
  6. Employing different ways of talking and discussing in the classroom. Students prepare elevator talks, engage in think/pair/share activities, anonymously share worries and wishes on index cards, and write questions to establish knowledge.
  7. Crafting a succinct “elevator pitch” to streamline their own academic argument.
  8. “What I mean here is to help and expect students to engage fully in their work on campus—not just their science brains for science, or even just their intellectual skills for their courses. Rather, they come here with richness of experience far beyond the academic classroom.”

In engaging students, Brodsky helps them to see frustration as unrealized potential and uncertainty as curiosity. She drew on a 2013 interview with British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips: “A student who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. ‘You’re really just increasing my allowance,’ she said.”

By engaging in inclusive teaching practices, Brodsky has given her students the freedom to learn.

Karen Fleming started off by stating her goals for an inclusive classroom: To create a learning environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas and questions, where discussion brings multiple diverse questions and all opinions are considered, and where student experiences of marginalization are minimized. Two of the many challenges that instructors face are unconscious bias and student stereotype threat. [See presentation slides.]

Fleming noted that 99% of our cognitive processing uses unconscious reasoning. Unconscious bias stems from our experiential expectations; bias being an error in decision making. Expectation bias is grounded in stereotypes such as women are not as good at math or spatial learning; Hispanics and African Americans are lower achieving than Whites; Hispanics, African Americans, poor, and obese people are lazy; male athlete are jocks (muscular but not smart); Asians have higher math abilities; and blondes are less intelligent than brunettes. Stereotypes are cultural and both faculty and students have biases.

Fleming described a research study on science faculty and unconscious bias [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male studentsPNAS 109: 16474-79.] The study was headed by Jo Handlesman, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, Yale University. Fleming walked through the study details, noting that the institutions selected—research intensive universities—were geographically diverse, the demographics on faculty participants agree with national averages, and it was a randomized double-blind study (n = 127). Science faculty in biology, physics, and chemistry were asked to rate the application of a student for a lab manager position in terms of competency and hireability. Faculty participants were randomly assigned an application with a male or female name—the applications were otherwise identical and designed to reflect high but not outstanding qualifications.

Both male and female faculty participants showed gender bias by rating the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They were willing to offer a significantly higher starting salary (and more career mentoring) to the male applicant. And, perhaps surprisingly to women in the audience, both female and male faculty were equally likely to show gender bias favoring male applicants and to offer the female candidates a lower salary. One possible explanation? Male stereotypes meet the expectation for the lab manager position.

Slide from Karen Fleming presentation showing male and female stereotypes.Expectation bias occurs when we hold different groups accountable to different standards. When a man performs well in a traditional male-type task, this performance is expected. When a woman performs well in a traditional male-type task, this conflicts with stereotypic expectations. As a result, her performance is closely scrutinized, and she is required to repeatedly prove her competence.

We can check our biases using tests set up by Project Implicit. “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Look for tests on bias concerning gender, race, religion, disability, age, sexuality, weight, skin tone, and more  in the Social Attitudes section.

Fleming then discussed the issue of stereotype threat. For students, performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. And, culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group. She referenced a study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 [CM Steele and J Aronson (1995) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.] At Stanford, 114 undergraduate students volunteered for the study. They were given a test composed of Verbal GRE questions. First they took a test that was presented as diagnostic, a measure of intrinsic ability, and then a test presented as non-diagnostic, a laboratory tool for studying problem solving. The results showed that invoking stereotype threat (diagnostic test) affects performance of students who identified as African-Americans in an evaluation setting. Further, having to identify their race before taking the test, “race-priming,” increases the results of stereotype effect on performance in an evaluation setting.

How can instructors be more inclusive? Fleming offers these suggestions.

  • Establish a Growth Mindset
  • Set clear, equal and high but achievable expectations for all students
  • Include material created by people of different backgrounds
  • Pay attention to group dynamics (especially compositions of small groups).

As both Fleming and Brodsky reminded the audience, instructors can change the way they teach to be more inclusive, identify their biases, and work to establish a positive classroom climate.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo (© CER), slides from Brodsky and Fleming presentations


Fair Play—Gaming to Identify and Understand Racial Bias

A colleague recently attended an academic conference during which he had an opportunity to attend a workshop demonstrating Fair Play. Fair Play, a video game developed at the University of Wisconsin with awards from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Millennium Foundation and supported by the University of Wisconsin System Administration’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant program, allows players the opportunity to simulate the complex experience of a graduate student. Specifically, according to the website, “Fair Play provides players with the opportunity to take the perspective of Jamal Davis, a Black graduate student on his way to becoming a renowned professor. In this game, players experience racial bias during interactions with other characters, as well as in the virtual environment.”

Screen shot taken from the Fair Play website showing the four main characters and a link to the Fair Play Game Trailer.Players move through five chapters experiencing typical graduate school challenges (identifying an advisor, managing funding, making friends, publishing, and attending conferences); these are magnified through the lens of being an African American confronting biases. The goal is to identify and name biases.

While workshops, such as the one my colleague attended, are available, it is easy to download and play the game on your own. You can view a trailer to get an idea of the content. Even novice gamers will pick up the navigation quickly as the interface is straightforward and explanations are provided along the way. The exercise is enlightening. Although the game centers around graduate student activities, the lessons to be learned are universal, and would benefit faculty and graduate student future faculty alike.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Fair Play Screenshot: http://fairplaygame.org/