Rethinking Our Academic Structures: An Interview with Dr. Mark Kohan

In connection with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Exhibit on Implicit Bias that is being hosted at the Homer Babbidge Library at the University of Connecticut, we sat down with Neag School of Education’s Assistant Clinical Professor Mark Kohan, one of the people instrumental in bringing the exhibit to UConn. We discussed the topic of implicit bias in classroom settings and how educators and administrators can rethink their approach to curriculum, classroom spaces, and support for individuals in the academy in light of implicit bias.


How does the topic of implicit bias enter into your work?

There’s a whole host of biases that take place that impact students and their learning…For example, something like a zero tolerance policy. That disproportionately falls on students of color, as does graduation rates and the achievement gap whether you’re talking about that in a K-12 context or university setting,..There’s often a real cultural mismatch where the norm is feeling comfortable in white dominated spaces. Well if you’re not white, you might not feel so comfortable in some of these spaces.

Mark Kohan is a teacher educator and assistant clinical professor in the Neag School of Education. His work has focused on creating new educational and professional development opportunities for school-community-university stakeholders to collaborate through principles of action research and to develop inquiry-based and culturally-responsive educational partnerships that support community development and educational change.
Mark Kohan is a teacher educator and assistant clinical professor in the Neag School of Education. His work has focused on creating new educational and professional development opportunities for school-community-university stakeholders to collaborate through principles of action research and to develop inquiry-based and culturally-responsive educational partnerships that support community development and educational change.

Also how curricula gets created and implemented matters. Are students positioned as co-generators of curriculum. Are they helping to implement it? I think working from inquiry-based models is really important in disrupting the traditional bias that is inherent in how a lot of curriculum and courses get set up.

I think space and environment is also really big. I’m talking about how we utilize space.  Representation matters in those spaces. If our walls are blank, that says something to our students, and often times, it says something to them about us. But what happens when our walls look dramatically different? Or we don’t have walls in the ways we’ve had them in the the past? What happens when we look at a classroom space as a performance space or a design studio? Does that map on better with certain groups experiences than others? I think there’s a lot to be said about representation in terms of space.

We also need to diversify our teacher and educator workforce, and that’s not a silver bullet. Just because we have more representation doesn’t mean it automatically does something…

The retention piece is huge. We have a lot of really good diversification efforts taking place at UConn. There’s capacity growing in meaningful ways in trying to diversify our workforce here, but we also have to spend a lot more time and attention on the retention, promotion, and growth of everyone that we bring in. We have to have a lot more supports in place when we bring new or larger populations into an existing structure. Everybody needs more supports around. What could that mean? To me that’s exciting because that means there’s new possibilities for learning and for growth because we are stronger through our diversity.

I’d like to see us be culturally sustaining which is an added layer where we really have spaces and learning environments that are multilingual on a regular basis, that are very attentive to a broad range of social and cultural identities that people are bringing into those spaces. The way in which you’re reading a workforce that looks either very much like you or doesn’t look anything like you on a regular basis– that communicates things to students, faculty, and staff, so we want to get out in front of that in terms of what we can offer and our own limitations. I think that’s a powerful thing to be comfortable admitting– just how much we don’t know and how much we don’t know about each other.

I think it’s very important that we find mechanisms that allow us to cross borders and boundaries more fluidly. One of the ways I’ve done that is that I’ve helped develop and run penpal partnerships programs and different kinds of bridge-building community efforts between schools, community organizations, and campus.

Was part of the point of that for students to interact with people from different backgrounds?

Absolutely. One of the things around implicit bias in particular is the notion of in-group and out-group. We make big assumptions about the out-group, but we give a lot of preference and leeway to our in-group, and so it was really important that we disrupt those notions.That’s really delicate work so you have to really help develop new kinds of communities and care….

[In education] We’re asked to be narrow in ways that are becoming more and more magnified as resources become more scarce and that’s really concerning for me because that often means we get more constrained, and we stay very much within the borders of our of our own discipline. It means we narrow the curriculum to chase particular kinds of mandates, and so I think that’s all the more reason we need cultural brokers, and we need people willing to organize around particular stories, or a museum exhibit, just because they want to get to know each other better.

The topic of implicit bias is often such a negative one. What gives you hope?

My whole career as both a teacher and community and teacher educator has been about how do we address opportunity gaps when we know they are so sustained over long periods of time, and  one of the ways we’ve attempted to address that is by starting with relationships, building community, and then making sure that those students own their own voices and have a seat at the table. When I was teaching high school and then in college, our students went on big trips to cross these physical borders and boundaries…

At the university level, any conference proposal I would write, I would write with my students and community partners, so they could go, and it was always an ensemble cast. We were all getting a chance to weigh in and learn from each other as a community, and I don’t think we have good structures [in the academy]. Everything we do is to celebrate the individual. I think we’re way past due in terms of thinking about a pair or a small group of people and finding ways to recognize and honor just how important it is when people are not isolated in their educational growth. I think we need new understandings of what counts as a dissertation, new understandings of what counts as innovative and meaningful work in the academy…and that’s where we get a pedagogy of hope or of possibility.

We use these kinds of experience to ask big questions about ourselves and our structures. Should our structures continue to reinforce some of the things that they currently do? And if not, then what are some ways that we could think about addressing them meaningfully together?


We invite you to comment below on your perspectives on implicit bias in college instruction. How have you seen it operating in the classroom? What approaches have you used to try and combat it in your practice and pedagogy?

Resources:

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