IDP Guide

Inclusive Curriculum Review

Recently, many departments and programs at Cornell have initiated or are initiating a review of their undergraduate, graduate, and professional student curricula. These efforts, precipitated by recent acts of racist violence, are aiming to help address the structural inequities that have existed in higher education since its inception. Another motivation includes Cornell’s university-wide commitment to train students as leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Intergroup Dialogue Project has worked with numerous academic units to examine issues related to equity, power, and inclusion in teaching, research, mentoring, and department culture. As departments and programs begin this process of curriculum review and revision, this guide is intended to complement what is out there already. For thinking about inclusion on the syllabus level, there are many thoughtful and helpful resources already available. There are also numerous resources available for those seeking to learn more about social identities, power, privilege, and discrimination, including the work of scholars at Cornell.

How to Use This Guide

This guide provides frameworks, questions, and tools to help academic units lead and engage in meaningful and productive conversations about inclusive curriculum review. It is not a roadmap or outline for how you should be conducting this process of inclusive curriculum review — such a roadmap would be impossible considering the varied histories of fields and the different needs and goals of each unit. Some departments or programs, for example, may not struggle as much with gender equity but are more concerned about race and socioeconomic status. Others may have done considerable work on disability and accessibility, but now recognize they need to take a closer look at sexuality and nationality. Some units may have been reflecting on issues of equity and inclusion for the past few years, and others are just beginning this process.

This guide is a resource for you to consult when planning and facilitating your department or program’s inclusive curriculum review. It is up to you to decide which social identities and inequities you want to pay close attention to, based on what you have gathered from your own experiences in the department, your conversations with students, the discussions in the field more broadly, and the data provided by specific surveys already conducted by Cornell. 

As you read through, take note of which topics and questions will be helpful for your department or program’s process. Not all of them will apply equally to every single department or program, and we encourage you to adjust the material here to better fit what your department or program needs.

Goals, Challenges, Opportunities

At the start of any process, we have found it helpful to spend time articulating goals, challenges, and opportunities as a group. This conversation gets people on the same page, so committee members do not find out much later into the process that they were operating with very different aspirations. This conversation can also help shape the future direction of the curriculum review and figure out what kind of structure will best support your department or program’s effort.

  • What do you hope to achieve in your curriculum review and revision?
    We recommend pushing past the most obvious responses (e.g. “I want to make the curriculum antiracist” — we hope that is a given) and being even more specific with your goals. Do you want your curriculum to help students of color and women feel more included and represented in the field? Do you want to teach and study important theories, questions, and arguments explored by marginalized scholars that are not usually introduced in your classes? Do you want your curriculum to challenge canonical theories and views? Do you want your curriculum to address in a substantive way the histories of classism in your field? Do you want to train students to detect and address homophobia and transphobia in the field? We often find that while many share the vision of an inclusive curriculum, there is actually much difference in how people imagine enacting that vision in practice. Consequently, we find it crucial to ask people first to articulate their own specific goals and then share these goals with others at the beginning of a curriculum review process.
  • What challenges do you foresee for yourself in this process of revision and implementation? For the group charged with this process? For the department as a whole?
    Taking some time to reflect on potential challenges or concerns and then finding a forum to share them with others can help a group build trust and connection, especially since many may share challenges and concerns. Some may be worried that a conversation around any kind of curriculum revision will cause long simmering disagreements around the strategic direction of the field to erupt. Others could be concerned that their colleagues are not properly equipped with the knowledge and skills for such an endeavor (e.g. some departments may collectively lack knowledge about disability). Others may be working in an argumentative culture without established communication norms or mechanisms for achieving consensus. A conversation about the potential roadblocks to the process allows you to anticipate and proactively address such challenges rather than letting them overtake the substantive discussion.
  • What are the opportunities available to you in this process to make the department and the curriculum more welcoming and inclusive?
    Answering this question early on and revisiting it (both for yourself and as a group) is helpful because it serves as a reminder of what is at stake in the curriculum review. This process will likely involve time, energy, and commitment, so linking it to broader systemic change is crucial. The curriculum review process is an opportunity to reflect and state the department’s position on what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean for the field and to formulate your unit’s vision and strategy for education in that context. Some members of the community are excited to challenge and disrupt the traditional canon of texts or topics. Others are committed to helping marginalized students feel more intellectually at home in the discipline. Still others see revising the curriculum as an opportunity to show that the field is deeply engaging with its social context. Engaging in this process can send a message to students, related fields, and the university, about your commitment to create a truly inclusive environment, which addresses historical marginalization and bias. Furthermore, such changes can shape the way that future members of your field will engage with difficult topics, conduct research, and teach.

Possible Topics for Discussion

Often, many of us will want to work immediately on changing the curriculum itself without first taking time to reflect on personal experiences and the field itself. Jumping right to changing the curriculum often results in piecemeal solutions that don’t address the pervasive hold inequity has on our disciplines. Conversations to acknowledge the ways structures of inequity (e.g. racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.) have proliferated in the academy will take time. We encourage you to dwell with the topics and questions below that you feel demand thoughtful attention during your process.

  • Thinking about your own experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student, when did you feel most included in your studies? Did you ever feel excluded or marginalized, and if you did, when? How did your social identities (e.g. gender, race, sexuality, citizenship, religion, socioeconomic status, disability status, etc.) inform your experiences of being included or excluded?
    Faculty members’ values, motivations, and positions about the curriculum are influenced by their own experiences as students (in addition to their experiences as researchers). These experiences also shape the bias and assumptions that enter our classrooms. Sharing some of these experiences among colleagues early in the process helps build trust in the group and gives group members opportunities to learn more about others’ motivations for revising curricula. While we acknowledge that some of these experiences may be difficult to share, we think it is important that group members reflect individually on their own experiences as students and their social identities. It will be crucial to hear from everyone in the group about how they were impacted because social identities and inequities impact everyone. For example, it is not just nonbinary, trans, and cisgender women faculty whose experiences are impacted by gender. Cisgender men, too, have been impacted by their gender identity as well.
  • What is the typical pathway to becoming a faculty member in your field? Where in this pathway do you see roadblocks to access for those who are marginalized in the field/discipline? How do these roadblocks in access impact what kind of scholarship is taught in classrooms?
    While it may not be immediately obvious how the accessibility of the field itself could impact making an inclusive curriculum, it is important to acknowledge how the social and historical dynamics of the field may impact the kind of scholarship that gets taught to students. For example, if fields don’t have many BIPOC scholars, BIPOC students may not see the field as a possibility for them, which in turn perpetuates the lack of racial diversity in a field. By centering and assigning the work of BIPOC scholars in a curriculum, the department can help counteract its own optics and show commitment to the work of BIPOC scholars. Familiarizing yourself with the work of marginalized scholars through your curricula can also allow you to be better advocates for them through the tenure and promotion process, whether at Cornell or elsewhere.
  • Are there disciplinary academic practices and norms that consistently sideline or discount the work of marginalized scholars or work on identity and power?
    In addition to thinking about the pathways for training future faculty members, it is important to think how a scholar in your field moves from a research question to a research finding to a peer-reviewed publication. In some fields, this process is resource-intensive in a way that is challenging for marginalized scholars. For others, the “hidden curriculum” of unspoken rules and norms in academic institutions can stymy or stall research and publication, especially when work is being peer-reviewed. Though many of these issues cannot be solved with curricular changes, you could consider revising courses to address your field’s hidden curriculum for all students as well as workshops on publishing research for graduate students if those don’t exist already.
    We also encourage you to consider if there are points at which scholars’ biases can impact the research process. For example, in some fields, scholarship on race, gender, sexuality, or disability may be viewed as ancillary, niche, or irrelevant to the wider concerns of the field. And in many fields, the biases of the researcher could impact the articulation of research questions and the writing of research findings. We ask you to consider the ways bias and discrimination can show up in the research process because these biases and discrimination are often replicated in our curricula. In introducing or training students to the ways of thinking in our own disciplines, it’s necessary to be aware of how the discipline itself is impacted by bias and discrimination to more effectively imagine how we can counteract it in our teaching.
  • How can equity and inclusion be scaffolded meaningfully across your entire curriculum?
    A meaningful education in equity and inclusion requires multiple opportunities for learning that increase in complexity and challenge over time. Relegating engagement with issues of equity and inclusion to a short module in an introductory course or a “diversity” week in different courses sends the message that equity and inclusion are afterthoughts rather than important components of learning. Adding a required “diversity” course, especially if equity and inclusion are not woven into other curricular offerings, sends a similar message. The greatest impact can come by figuring out ways to build opportunities for engaging with equity and inclusion across the curriculum and showing students how relevant it is for the “core” courses of your field. A missed opportunity for many departments and programs is to think also about how citational practices are taught in your field. Citation provides a great opportunity to show students how we can challenge inequities in everyday academic work by thinking deeply about who and what kind of work we are citing.

Best Practices for Conversations

This section is separated into two parts. The first part offers tips for you to consider when thinking about who should facilitate this process.The second part offers concrete communication tools that we think will help conversations stay productive.

Selecting Leaders and Facilitators

Different departments and programs will have different criteria for selecting the leaders who will facilitate curriculum review conversations. For some departments, the most obvious person will be the chair or the head of the diversity committee. For others, it may be the DUS and/or DGS. Some departments may prefer that the process is led by someone not in a formal administrative role. Below are some practices that have worked well for us when facilitating conversations with academic units.

  • Do not facilitate or lead alone. Though co-facilitation requires extra preparation (getting on the same page, dividing responsibilities, discussing ways to support each other), we find the security that comes from knowing someone else is sharing leadership to be invaluable. There are many other benefits to co-facilitating. It means getting input from another person when making decisions on how to lead the group, being informed by different experiences when planning, and representing more identities. It also means having support if the conversation becomes personally challenging.
  • Be mindful of institutional power positions in the department or program. While junior faculty and RTE faculty may want to get involved in this process, we also urge you to keep in mind that facilitating a group of senior colleagues from a more precarious position in the department is an extremely challenging task. Sometimes, an assistant professor or an RTE faculty member may have important expertise that make them the best choice for facilitating. In these cases, having this colleague co-facilitate with a supportive and thoughtful senior faculty member will mitigate but not entirely eliminate this power imbalance. It is also important for the department or program to recognize in a meaningful way how challenging it would be for an assistant professor or RTE colleague to help lead/facilitate this conversation.
  • We encourage facilitators to review relevant resources about the state of their field, the experiences of marginalized people in the discipline, and the power imbalances that exist at the university and in their unit. 
  • Depending on the unit’s specific goals for making an inclusive curriculum, it will be important to take into account the identities of those who are facilitating and/or involved in the process. For example, an antiracist curriculum review process where none of a department or program’s BIPOC faculty are meaningfully involved will likely not lead to successful changes. Because marginalized faculty members are often overburdened with service work or in precarious institutional positions, it is crucial to ask what they would need from the department or program to feel supported in leading or participating in these conversations. 
  • There are cases in which faculty in certain departments will have no meaningful representation from marginalized groups they want to be more inclusive of. For example, there are some departments on campus with no out LGBTQ+ individuals, and other departments with no Muslim members. In these cases, it is even more imperative that facilitators read about the challenges faced by these groups in academic environments and to consult other units on campus. If consulting with another unit, recognize in a meaningful way that you are asking them to do significant work for your department or program.

Communication Tools

There are certain tools and practices we always make sure to use when entering into challenging conversations in our courses and workshops. Some that we feel could be helpful include:

  • Community Agreements
    Setting expectations not just on what you’re going to talk about but how you’ll engage with each other helps create a space where thoughtful and productive conversation can occur, even about challenging topics.
  • LARA
    This communication tool is especially important for remaining in dialogue with others when challenging topics, emotions, or opinions emerge.
  • Strategic Questioning
    This tool provides a framework to think about your conversation in two stages. First-level questions will help establish a shared understanding of important issues in your group. Second-level questions will help you imagine new possibilities for your curriculum.

Potential Sources of Conflict to Consider

As our questions in the previous section indicated, a conversation about curriculum review invokes the personal experiences of those in the room and debates on the state of the field. It will also likely involve passionate individuals who feel an urgent need to create change confronted with some people who may resist change. Both parties will have individual visions on what is best for the field. Because the stakes are high, it is almost inevitable that there will be conflict. 

We encourage you not to shy away or avoid conflict but to work with it by encouraging each other to share the motivations and experiences informing your disagreements. We’ve found that avoiding conflict or resorting to compromises without a deep understanding of divergent views usually results in small and temporary fixes. We list below common sources of conflict that arose in our conversations with academic units related to issues of equity, inclusion, and power.

Zero Sum Game

Some may argue that including more teaching on anti-racism in the curriculum, for instance, will necessitate removing other topics in the curriculum. Instead of moving immediately to a middle ground curriculum that will make everyone the least unhappy, we encourage you to start a conversation of why certain parts of the curriculum must be preserved. Instead of assuming that certain parts of the curriculum are not up for debate, it may be more helpful to examine each part of the curriculum in light of the department or program’s goals for learning and inclusion. What is important for all students in a field to learn, and what may be more appropriate for students who are interested in a specific subfield?

Competing Strong Visions

As you talk through the potential changes for the curriculum, you may encounter individuals or groups of faculty who have strong yet divergent visions about how to revise the curriculum. Others will be strongly in favor of keeping the current curriculum. In these cases, we think it is important to allow people to express their motivations for advocating for a certain curricular vision. Furthermore, it may be helpful to ask the entire group to consider seriously the merits of each proposal (including a proposal to leave the curriculum largely unchanged) before jumping to critique. Seriously considering the merits of competing visions will often yield greater clarity on the goals of the curricular review process and allow for more creative and imaginative thinking on revising the curriculum.

Direction of the Field

Finally, any curriculum review is likely to bring up differing views on the strategic direction of the field. Common arguments relate to change in the curriculum leading to weakening of the intellectual integrity of the field. Others may be concerned that the field, as it is now, is outdated, which means it will struggle to remain relevant, or too homogenous in makeup and thought, which will hinder intellectual growth. Rather than shy away from these conversations, we encourage you to engage productively with these differing views as they are likely important conversations for your department or program to have in the long term. If you do decide to engage with the direction of the field, it will be crucial to ask who historically (in the department and the broader field) has had the power or privilege to decide what “counts” as legitimate scholarship in the field.

Additional Resources

Effective Teaching is Anti-Racist Teaching

Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching & Learning provides recommendations for anti-racist course goals, class content, classroom discussions, assessment, and instructor self reflection.

Decolonizing Your Syllabus, an Anti-Racist Guide for Your College

Hossna Sadat Ahadi and Luis A. Guerrero of Palomar College provide some background on making an anti-racist syllabus and provide useful reflection questions as you revise your own courses. They provide a helpful bibliography.

Revolutionizing my Syllabus: The Process

Dr. Chanelle Wilson provides a first-hand account of her own process of decolonizing her syllabi.

The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy

This article provides a social justice pedagogy model and concrete suggestions for STEM educators.

Decolonization is not a metaphor

This article provides an introduction to the terms “decolonization” and “settler colonialism.”

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Cite this Guide:

  • APA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. (2021, April). IDP Guide: Inclusive Curriculum Review. Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference. https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-inclusive-curriculum-review/
  • MLA: Intergroup Dialogue Project. “IDP Guide: Inclusive Curriculum Review.” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, April 2021, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-inclusive-curriculum-review/
  • Chicago: Intergroup Dialogue Project, “IDP Guide: Inclusive Curriculum Review,” Intergroup Dialogue Project – Dialogue Across Difference, Cornell University, April 2021, https://idp.cornell.edu/idp-guide-inclusive-curriculum-review/