Q&A: Jenny Sharpe on equity, diversity and inclusion in the Humanities Division

Published: February 9, 2022

The flyer for the workshop held in the fall (Courtesy of Jenny Sharpe)

By Anushka Chakrabarti

We sat down with Jenny Sharpe, Professor of English, Gender Studies, and Comparative Literature, to discuss her role as the Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Division of Humanities.

How would you characterize the last few years of your work?

Jenny Sharpe: It has to be contextualized by recent events. In 2019, I was working mostly with Lisa Felipe, who runs the Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) program – designing inclusive teaching workshops.

After the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, there were calls across the university to address structural racism. So Barbara Van Nostrand, the Executive Director of Academic Programs and Student Affairs at the Division of Humanities, and I put together a workshop, “Confronting Structural Racism in Higher Education,” and we did it in person in Fall 2021, just because we wanted to have a community experience during the return-to-campus quarter. We brought in an outside facilitator who turned out to be a UCLA humanities alumna – Jenn Wells – so there’s a nice connection there. Of course, addressing structural racism can’t be fixed in one workshop or afternoon, you know, as it  really needs to be ongoing.

Can you discuss “inclusive teaching”?

JS: First of all, inclusive teaching is to understand what it means and how you can be inclusive and that works on a number of different registers. It could work on registers of identity; it could work on knowing to use the correct pronouns. You want to make sure you don’t use language that may have been acceptable in a certain era but is now identified as insulting or disrespectful.

The EDI office has a great one-page reference sheet (on page 6) that I’ve shared with departments. The point is to level the playing field. Our students come from different backgrounds, from elite high schools to transferring from community college. So you also want to respect the educational experiences of all, and not just teach to the top 10% of the class.

How you write a syllabus and the way you interpolate students in the classroom makes a huge difference, and I know it from first-hand experience  because I’m a first-generation college student. At the time, I didn’t feel I belonged and  it took me a long time to have the confidence to feel comfortable with the idea that college was the place for me. So, I understand very much how just a very small shift in the classroom can make a difference.

What are some structural changes made in the division?

I don’t want to take credit for all these things that have been done I see myself as a resource because I work on these issues in my research. Like I said, you cannot get rid of structural racism in just one afternoon workshop, but the first thing you do is you begin by identifying what the problems are. For example, humanities has historically been perceived as the holder of culture, but for the longest time, that culture was very Eurocentric.  This was not my change, but I’d like to give credit to the CMRS, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, changing their name to the CMRS Center for Early Global Studies. On their website, they have this wonderful multi-axis approach which looks beyond Europe. So it’s introducing EDI into knowledge and knowledge production.

Anything else that you would like to add?

The pandemic has created a crisis situation in terms of how to teach remotely as well introducing different questions of access if students don’t have computers. Technology and space affect education and are equity issues, and we try to deal with them the best we can, but I feel that the sooner we can return to the classroom, the better for all.

When you start doing this job, you see the three terms of EDI – Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity – in every single aspect of education. Those issues come right to the fore and cannot be overlooked as they are integral to the whole not just the university, but to our society.