Academic Day sessions focus on diversity

Service learning and children's literature among topics during interdisciplinary discussion panels | October 21, 2003

For the third straight year, the University celebrated Academic Day on campus, with faculty presentations, speeches and student performances highlighting a daylong event that this year brought to light the issue of diversity.

The event was started by University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., in 2001 to celebrate the University’s role in society and bring to light topics of importance to the institution. Last year’s Academic Day examined proposals for the new honors program, “Philosophy, Politics and the Public,” a new interdisciplinary minor, “Catholicism and Culture,” and the key strategic issues and questions needed for the University to excel in the future.

The first Academic Day focused on a new academic vision statement that was crafted by faculty as a road map for the University’s direction for the next decade—a road map that includes increasing the University’s diversity.

“That document speaks strongly as to what we want Xavier to be, and it speaks on diversity and how to enrich our learning environment,” vice president for academic affairs Roger Fortin said in the day’s opening remarks. “Diversity is a much larger term than most of us think—it’s all-inclusive and includes race, cultural, gender differences. It invites all of us to live our lives more open to different perspectives, and it invites us to do more.”

Fortin closed the opening remarks with a notice that the University will hold a follow-up session in November on how to integrate what we’ve learned about diversity into the everyday life of the University.

The day also included three faculty sessions in which diversity was the main subject. In the morning, two sessions ran concurrently.

One session focused on “Educating for Equity and Social Justice: A Model to Develop Students’ Cultural Competence Through Service Learning.” Six faculty members—Hilreth Lanig, Jan Goings, Deborah Hess, Shelagh Larkin, Kathleen Smythe and Winston Vaughn—spent the past 10 months researching service learning and student preparedness for life in a multicultural environment. The group presented an update on their efforts in the form of a model for infusing service learning objectives across the curriculum.

Although still a work in progress, the heart of the new model is a partnership in which students, faculty and community members all assume the roles of teachers and learners. This new approach focuses on a community’s assets—what it has to offer—and is a major departure from the more traditional, deficit-based approach that focuses on what a community lacks, Lanig said. The model also includes regular facilitated periods of reflection to ensure participants get the most from their experiences.

At the session, the faculty members asked for—and got—feedback from the University community and the community at-large. Lanig said some development remains to be done, including a means of measuring the effectiveness of the new model. The group has yet to set a target date for completion.

The second session focused on “Understanding the Complexities of Diversity through the Simplicity of Literature for Children and Young Adults.” The session examined how literature reflects a culture and influences children’s views of themselves and others, and that one route to a more tolerant world is through the careful selection of books for children and youth.

While the “Dick and Jane” series presented the white middle-class family of the 1950s as the ideal, its words and pictures did not reflect true dialogue or complete images of the times, as it excluded many Americans. In contrast, much of today’s children’s literature incorporates more worldly views and presents a variety of families and homes as the norm.

“High quality children’s literature is the degree to which it tells the truth,” said Leslie Prosak-Beres, reading program director. “It does have an impact on them in terms of what we show them.”

The presentation by Prosak-Beres, Diane Ceo-DiFrancesco and Isaac Larison also advocated an early introduction to foreign language study because it exposes children to different cultures at an early age.

“Language learning is more than memorizing vocabulary and grammar,” said Ceo-DiFrancesco, assistant Spanish language professor. “It’s communication, and embedded in it are the cultural norms of the society.”

The presenters advised book buyers to select titles with multicultural views on issues such as religion, housing, families, fine arts and social etiquette, but to look for more than pretty images. “In so much of children’s literature, you find diverse people in books, but not the underlying premise of their experience,” said Larison, assistant professor of education.

The afternoon session, “Understanding Diversity and Gender Globally and Locally,” involved presentations from faculty members on the University’s gender and diversity studies committee. The faculty members attended a weeklong workshop in July, titled “Transforming Knowledge and Power,” and along with sharing the insights gained at the workshop, they also shared information from their research as well as their plans for a gender and diversity studies course.

The proposed course, “Gender and Diversity Studies 200,” is designed to be co-taught by professors of different disciplines. Jody Wyett, from the department of English, and Nancy Berteaux, from the department of economics and human resources, delivered sample lectures from the course illustrating how different areas of study can lend different interpretations to gender and diversity studies. Bertaux discussed the history of economic independence of women. Wyatt discussed relative examples from women’s literature.

During the session, participants from across the Xavier community broke into interdisciplinary discussion groups to build definitions for the words “gender” and “diversity.” The definition as defined by the program then was discussed by Sarah Melcher from the department of theology.

Discussion groups then discussed how gender and diversity are studied and taught in various disciplines at Xavier.