Thanks again to David Brooks for putting into words what I have decided should be a foundation in the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity plan of every university. Or, if you disagree with me on that point, then at least, for me, his article put into words an epiphany I had on returning to teaching. His article appears to be about challenges in leaders of Southern Baptists, but his thoughts apply to a lot more than that. And, for me, it described challenges with every university's attempts at DEI.
He writes: see https://www.nytimes.com/.../the-southern-baptist-sexual...
"The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.”
“If you look at people with a detached, emotionless gaze, it doesn’t really matter what your beliefs are, because you have morally disengaged. You have perceived a person not as a full human but as a thing, as a vague entity toward which the rules of morality do not apply."
I learned when my father, Morton Coleman, died that was an extraordinary gift to the City of Pittsburgh and to generations of students at Pitt and UConn (see https://www.postgazette.com/news/obituaries/2019/01/29/Obituary-Morton-Moe-Coleman-University-of-Pittsburgh-Pitt/stories/201901290061 or https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/news/moe-coleman-remembed). And, I met many of his former students at his funeral and I have run into many of his students in my academic travels. My father loved teaching. He retired in the 1990s to make room for new faculty, but continued to teach as an adjunct faculty member until he died. He had a unique way of truly being curious about everyone and truly caring. In fact, I now realize that he epitomized David's words in the classroom- he saw every student through his lens "It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path."
After a year back in teaching at a minority serving institution after serving as provost (and having worked on diversity, equity and inclusion issues during 25 years as a senior administrator), I realized that David's words regarding moral behavior is what it is all about with respect to inclusion and equity in the classroom. And, I am glad to discover that, despite being on the neurodiverse spectrum, that I inherited my dad's authentic and genuine interest in truly connecting to each student irrespective of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religion, age or other noticeable differences-- and that the response of this full range of students to believing that I genuinely and authentically care is amazing- amazing in the sense of the rewarding notes and comments I receive from them (see my teaching page); rewarding in seeing it foster their engagement and learning, at a time when so many students seem disengaged; rewarding in them trusting me enough to open up about their life stories or their personal challenges, and most rewarding when students find courage to tackle mental wellness problems or change their mindset to believe in themselves.
All the diversity training, all of the diversity plans, all of the articulation of visions for a diverse, inclusive and equitable for a university that I promoted and participated in, can never achieve their goal if there is not a culture of "seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path." To do that requires a great deal of energy, but it is energy well spent.
University culture evolved to a standard practice of seeing people with a "detached, emotionless gaze, perceiving them not as full human beings", but as a thing (e.g., a student retention number, a diversity metric, a financial cost, an obstacle to progress, an accomplishment that creates good public relations, etc), - even as we espouse the most progressive, righteous and woke ideas. Although it has been rewarding in some ways to hear students tell me I am the first professor that they felt cared about them, it breaks my heart that these positive statements to me reflect a cold and distant culture, particularly towards average students. This culture accepts, maybe even promotes, hiding behind jargon, training and hyperbole to encourage or enforce inclusive behavior, with little encouragement or reward for spending the energy it takes to simply engage with, care for, and to be curious about colleagues and students.
Academics worship transparency and finding truth. Yet, the actions indicate as a culture where we do everything we can to make ourselves opaque to colleagues and students. We also avoid honest conversation and communication as if they were the COVID virus.
I admit, though, that in the classroom, I try hard to follow David's definition of moral behavior. I don't think that has translated fully in my life. So, the criticisms above can be levied on me. But, thank you David- you inspired me to be better.