Student Identities Online: Equity and Access in the Zoom Classroom

May 22, 2020
UPFs Ashley and Skylar deliver a faculty workshop.

March and April are always a busy time for the Bok Center’s nine Undergraduate Pedagogy Fellows (UPFs). In the pre-COVID-19 era, they would spend these months visiting departments and programs across the FAS, delivering workshops on student identities and classroom power dynamics to Teaching Fellows (TFs) and faculty. This year, instead, they found themselves moving their work online. As the semester comes to a close, the UPFs reflect on how online teaching and learning has surfaced new ways for them to help instructors think about the undergraduate experience.

“COVID-19 has shed light on inequalities in the classroom,” observed Patrick Cespedes ‘20. “Whether it be connectivity issues, tumultuous home environments, or radical time zone differences, students are facing unprecedented challenges as they navigate a difficult and unfamiliar academic system.”

Making these inequalities and challenges visible has always been fundamental to the UPFs’ work. In particular, the UPFs emphasize the experience of students of marginalized identities in order to communicate how patterns of social oppression can be perpetuated in the classroom. “By exploring how a student’s identity and background can impact their classroom experience,” Cespedes explains, “we provide suggestions as to how instructors can adjust their teaching methods and think about the broader issues involved.”

Over the past two years, the UPFs have delivered workshops for TFs and faculty in sixteen different departments. This semester, however, required new ways of thinking about identity in and out of the classroom as the whole concept of “classroom” was turned on its head. “As I watched so many people become affected and was affected myself,” Hannah Ezer ‘22 reflected, “it felt like there was no room to speak out about how I was feeling, but the weekly UPF meetings were places where my concerns were amplified and taken into serious consideration when shaping our outward-facing work.”

The product of the UPFs’ teamwork and collaboration is a renovated, online version of their “Introduction to Undergraduate Identities” workshop. Ezer and Lisette Leon ‘21 piloted the online workshop for a cohort of the Anthropology Department’s TFs in early April. “I appreciated their views on the TF/undergraduate power dynamics,” one participant responded. “Specifically, I found their insight on TFs exhibiting care to be informative.” Another attendee concluded, “It was a great reminder that I should be a good listener to become a TF—reaching out my words and my heart could be more powerful than I thought it would be.”

As instructors in the College prepare for the possibility of an online fall semester, the UPFs look ahead to continuing to provide instructors with tools for understanding their role in cultivating classroom dynamics supportive of marginalized students. And as the Bok Center continues to attend to equity and access as foundational components of any effective teaching and learning experience, we look forward to working alongside the UPFs to offer instructors strategies for shaping online classroom dynamics toward more equitable and inclusive ends.