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Faculty, this is our time to be students

From online teaching to promoting diversity and inclusion, we have a lot to learn

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
August 13, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 31


Illustration of students in a classroom.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
If you're not learning, you're not growing.

“OK, class, I’m going to put you into breakout groups and you’ll have 10 min to work together on the questions from the slides.” I see the notification pop up on my screen that I’ve been invited to join “Breakout Group 5,” and I dutifully click the button to be teleported through the Zoom universe to a breakout room with two of my colleagues. Yes, that’s right; this time, I’m the student. My colleagues and I are taking part in a 3-week course focused on online teaching as we prepare for a fall semester that will be anything but typical. At the same time, I’m spending much of my days engaged in conversations within my lab, department, and college about why our academic systems have been so slow in our progress toward racial justice and what we can do to accelerate the changes that are needed to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities. I’m realizing how much I still need to grow in order to be an effective ally.

In all these situations, the discomfort is palpable. But, that’s a good thing—it means I’m learning. As faculty, we spend much of our days being the “expert” in the room with regard to the topic being discussed. This happens when we’re teaching a class, giving a research seminar, or explaining chemistry to our friends and family. For many of us, this is our comfort zone. However, current events are showing us that now more than ever, we need to leave that comfort zone, embrace the idea of being students, and recognize that we will make mistakes as we put our learning into practice.

Many of us will be teaching online this fall, and even for those teaching in person, we will likely have to modify our approach to accommodate distancing requirements. That means we need to learn new ways of teaching. Let’s be real, few of us ever received in-depth training on how to be teachers, at least not at the level that would be expected for something that is such a large part of our job duties. Rather, we’ve accumulated ideas about pedagogy from the occasional workshop or advice from a colleague. Up until now, we’ve at least been able to rely on our own experiences as students and draw from examples of what to do and not do. With the exception of those who have taken numerous online courses, those examples no longer apply as we face the challenge of engaging with students through a computer screen. Fortunately, there are experts who have devoted their careers to instructional design and online teaching, and we can learn and adopt practices that will make for effective courses, whether online or in person.

Similarly, few of us have received in-depth training on how to promote inclusion and justice in our teaching and mentoring. Again, we may have some personal experiences to draw upon, but these are far from sufficient, especially if we have benefited from multiple forms of privilege. Fortunately, this knowledge is available if we are willing to listen to and learn from the experts. A good place to start is to read about the lived experiences of those in groups that have been historically excluded or minoritized. If you are not sure where to look, social media is a great resource. For example, if you have benefited from racial privilege and want to begin educating yourself about anti-Black racism, search for #BlackintheIvory and start reading. C&EN also recently featured Black members of our community who were willing to share their stories and perspectives at Additionally, you can spend time educating yourself on the accomplishments of Black scientists, as highlighted by #BlackinChem and #BlackinChemRollCall.

It is also critical to take what we’ve learned and turn it into action. Our policies and practices create the environment of our classrooms and research labs. If we are willing to take a hard look through the lens of privilege, we are likely to see the ways that these policies and practices benefit some but exclude others. We can look to the experts on social justice and inclusion to craft new policies and modify our practices. And, we can look to the experts on institutional change to learn how to make these new policies and practices effective and sustainable.

Learning how to be better educators and allies is not easy, and we can’t ignore the link between online learning and inclusive excellence. Moving online amplifies structural inequities that make it more difficult for some students to succeed than others, and many of these inequities are the result of systemic racism in our country that has granted unequal access to social mobility and socioeconomic privilege. However, addressing these challenges is essential if we hope to foster a diverse community in our field.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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