To educate students on racial violence and brainstorm ways to abolish inequality at Duke, professors and departments chose to participate in the recent #ScholarStrike movement.
The strike, which took place Sept. 8 and 9, called on professors across the nation to participate in a “teach-in” on racial justice, including by cancelling classes and using that time to share resources and raise awareness about the need for reform.
Stephen Nowicki, professor of biology and former dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, was one of those who decided to take action in the classroom. Having first heard of the movement through Twitter, Nowicki viewed the strike as an opportunity to follow the examples of those in sports leagues who made statements and symbolic demonstrations in support of justice.
“If professional basketball and baseball take a strike to make a point, then shouldn't professional academicians?” Nowicki said. “The unfortunate reality is that the majority of people in academia, college professors like me, are white. As a colleague of mine put it: White silence is deafening. [The strike] was something I could do to make it clear to the students that I teach that I do support social justice and Black Lives Matter.”
As part of the strike, Nowicki said he canceled both his labs and his undergraduate classes on Sept. 8 and 9, a Tuesday and a Wednesday. In an email, he sent his students an explanation of the strike as well as a journal which reviewed “social activism and the role of underrepresented minorities” in his discipline. He then offered them the option of joining him during normal class hours for a conversation on “social justice and the role of underrepresented minorities” in science. Out of about 30 people in the class, around 15 showed up, he said.
Nowicki said that people were “quiet at the beginning” of the class, but after he and his teaching assistant told anecdotes about why they supported the movement, his students began to feel more comfortable.
“What happened was slow, first one student spoke up and then another,” he said, “and then we actually had a conversation. I wouldn't say it was profound or hugely transformational, but it was a real conversation about these issues.”
One of Nowicki’s students, senior Clarice Hu, had not heard of the movement but chose to attend the class discussion and appreciated the experience to learn from her peers.
“I had gone in honestly not being that sure what it was going to be about,” Hu said. “The email was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be talking about justice, equity and diversity,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t really see how that’s going to be related to biology.’ But I think just being open and going into these things and hearing what other people have to say is really important.”
Nowicki, a member of the Action for Justice, Equity, and Diversity Committee, said that the biology department is trying to be “very proactive” in the face of inequalities. The committee created a list of 22 action items and held town hall meetings for both graduate and undergraduate students to share their ideas and give feedback on AJED’s action plans.
“One of the areas they asked us for input in was how professors can support students and create learning spaces for them to feel comfortable,” Hu said. “It’s great to see the department mobilizing this semester and forming this committee, but obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Nowicki said that one of AJED’s action plans is to “review the introductory biology curriculum” and ask if the courses are as inclusive as possible. He cited talking to his students as one of the best ways of doing this.
“As Duke has become increasingly diverse, the voices are increasingly diverse,” Nowicki said. “The worst thing you can do, especially in an educational institution that has super bright, energetic, young people is what I call performative listening, where you pretend to listen and you don't really listen. You have to listen to things you hadn't heard before and register them and say, ‘Ok, now that I've heard that, what do I do with that? How do I change the way I think?’”
Nowicki said he doesn’t know if the #ScholarStrike was a one-time event, but he does know that social justice issues will remain prevalent.
“I think that students should become involved in all levels of civic engagement,” he said. “I would encourage them to find opportunities in movements that they feel are going to matter to them. They can even create their own movements.”