Working toward an Anti-Racist Curriculum
Discussions of anti-racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion in curricula often focus on the humanities and social sciences: what books are read in American Literature classes, or whether psychological study participants are overwhelmingly white college students. These conversations might assume there isn’t room for anti-racism in STEM disciplines. After all, how can learning about the mechanics of cell division or statistical analysis be anti-racist?
A recent curriculum review undertaken by the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ Anti-Racist Working Group, however, challenged the idea that biomedical science coursework can’t be anti-racist. The members of the group, comprised of PhD students, reviewed two of the school’s foundational courses – Graduate Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Biology – through an anti-racist lens. Their subsequent recommendations were compiled into a set of course guidelines that include suggestions for integrating anti-racism into GSBS courses; updated diversity statements for syllabi to set a tone of inclusion, equity, and anti-racism; and a checklist that can be used by course directors to ensure their courses meet the standards set out in the guidelines.
“We have not asked for significant changes to lecture material,” said Tionna Ouellette, a third-year PhD student in the Neuroscience JAX Track program, “just in the way it’s presented to us. We have brilliant faculty at our institution who are familiar with a diverse field of work. What we ask of them is to show the diversity in the materials they present to trainees.”
“I think the most important recommendation [in the guidelines] is to highlight the work of scientists from various backgrounds who made fundamental discoveries, and who are making those discoveries now,” said Mike Rist, a third-year PhD student in the Immunology program. “Many times we only learn about the white men who made these discoveries. If we include the accomplishments of scientists from different backgrounds – as well as their pictures – we allow all students to see themselves in the work being achieved.”
Third-year Genetics PhD student Maya Gelbard agreed with Ouellette and Rist. “If I had to choose one recommendation to be implemented in all courses, I would choose to put scientific discoveries in historical context,” she said. “Often, our courses are so focused on teaching a large amount of scientific material that teaching the history of the research – and the people who did that research – gets forgotten.”
The Curriculum Review guidelines created by the student-led committee don’t just include recommendations for course content, but resources for instructors and course directors; specific examples of content, such as figures highlighting health disparities and examples of overlooked scientists from underrepresented groups; vocabulary guides to help instructors utilize terms correctly; and a checklist that guide course directors’ reviews of their syllabi.
“I really like the review checklist,” said Iris Montes, a third-year Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology PhD student. “I think it creates a simple, straightforward way for anyone to look over their course material and ensure it is being presented through a lens that highlights the diversity – and the lack thereof – in science.”
The rubric the group created provides concrete, specific steps any course director can take. “This document contains suggestions for how to design a curriculum that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Gelbard, “and provides an extensive list of sample recommendations.” Montes agreed: “We put together a document that is simple for faculty and staff to use to review their curricula.”
The focus on specificity, as well as adaptability beyond the two courses reviewed, means the guidelines have the potential be majorly impactful, both within GSBS and beyond. “I am proud that our suggestions can be incorporated into each program, and I hope this rubric is adopted Tufts-wide,” said Ouellette.
Rist is also proud of the rubric created by the curriculum review team, particularly the way he and his fellow students came together to learn from one another. “I was able to connect with students from my year who have a great deal of knowledge about the history of science and ideas for inclusive teaching,” he said. “I feel the rubric we developed will lead to effective change in how we communicate about science.”
Montes, Ouellette, and Gelbard all agreed with Rist’s sentiments. “My favorite part of working on the curriculum review was collaborating with students from various programs,” Gelbard said. “It created an opportunity to learn about things that were important to others that I might not have thought about,” Montes added.
“There was no one leader or driver for any part of this process; this collaboration and consideration for others is a good example of the culture at Tufts,” Ouellette said, adding, “I have great respect for the administration, who let us drive the process, supported our decisions fully, and provided us with resources we would not otherwise have had.”
“I’m proud that the students doing this equity work were compensated for their time,” Rist added. Each member of the curriculum committee – which, in addition to Gelbard, Montes, Ouellette, and Rist, included Jacqueline Garcia (3rd year PhD student in CMDB); Jacob Klickstein (3rd year MD/PhD student in Neuroscience); Valentina Studentsova (3rd year PhD student in Immunology); and Najah Walton (3rd year PhD student in Neuroscience) – received an honorarium in recognition of their work. The activities of the Anti-Racist Working Group, including the Curriculum Review, are supported by the generous GSBS alumni, friends, faculty, and staff who have contributed to the school’s DEI fund.
While the initial two-course review and accompanying guidelines are an impressive accomplishment, the members of the review committee don’t want the process to stop there. “I hope the recommendations set forth by the curriculum review are swiftly implemented by course instructors,” said Gelbard. “I hope the process, and the guidelines, can be further refined through course evaluations and faculty input,” said Montes.