Department of Geography Racial Equity Assessment


As educators, the Department of Geography faculty and staff touch students’ lives in multiple capacities, in the classroom as well as through formal and informal mentoring relationships. This assessment provides principles, reflective questions and processes to help geography department faculty and staff to critically examine our own practices in interacting with students through a racial equity lens. Specifically, it addresses the third action item under the first goal, “Cultivate an inclusive campus climate,” outlined in the university-wide 2017-2021 Diversity Blueprint. Overall, department faculty and staff are encouraged to approach teaching & learning practices by asking “Who are my practices working for?” rather than asking, “Are my practices working?” In general, we encourage flexibility with norms or rules, recognizing that racism is often unconsciously written into university policies and structures that historically privilege whiteness. (Summer 2020, with thanks to Nell Gross and Soohyung Hur.)

The outcome of using this assessment is diversification of participation, research and academic success among geography students both graduate and undergraduate. 

There may be missteps. But with repetitive use of this tool, faculty and staff will gain experience developing equitable teaching and mentoring relationships with students. This is a reiterative process that must remain ongoing.

Feedback from Winter 2021 Instructor Survey

Care & Racial Equity

This section is informed by “Webinar VI: How to Express Care with a focus on Racial Equity (May 28, 2020)” as part of the six-part webinar series Racial Equity in Online Environments hosted by CUE at USC (recordings and transcripts available through the hyperlink).

Expressing and practicing care is integral to equity-minded advising, teaching and mentoring. Students who feel cared for by university staff and faculty are much more likely to be on track to achieve their academic goals and utilize university services. Over 30% of students of color report that they experience “low care” from both staff and faculty. In particular, Latina women report receiving least care from faculty. Overall, Asian men and women, Southeast Asian women, and Latino men experience lower than average care from faculty. From staff, Asian men report receiving least care, and Asian women, Southeast Asian women, and Latinx men and women experienced lower than average care. The survey is missing data for Southeast Asian men and assumes a gender binary, not accounting for trans, non-binary, and other gender-nonconforming students.

Questions to consider:

  1. Do you take interest in the academic, career, and life aspirations of students? 
  2. Do you make an effort to learn the names of students?
  3. Do you take note of important information about students’ personal lives?
  4. Do you check in with your students via discussion boards, in class, or during office hours throughout the course?
  5. Are you transparent with students about what it takes to succeed, such as how to take notes, what you are looking for in assignments, major requirements, finding resources, preparing for career opportunities, etc.?


Questions to consider:

  1. Is the labor of mentoring students distributed equally among your colleagues? Are there racialized patterns?
  2. Do you affirm students’ racialized experiences and are familiar with the challenges students of color face on campus?
  3. Do you express a willingness to be challenged by students to reflect on your own thinking around racial equity? 
  4. Are you familiar with on-campus resources that provide academic assistance, guidance for course selection, post-graduation plans, career placement, and culturally-specific support?
  5. Do you advocate for your students by fighting for change on departmental and institutional levels?
  6. Do you encourage students, including graduate students, to follow their own career inclinations and advocate with colleagues on behalf of diverse career options?

Course Design & Instruction


This section is adapted from the Syllabus Review Guide for Equity-Minded Practice created by Center for Urban Education (CUE) at University of Southern California (USC).

A syllabus is an important document that sets the tone for the entire class. Research shows that students are more likely to approach instructors and retain information better when the syllabus uses friendly and welcoming language (p. 29). Thus, reflecting on your syllabi is the first crucial step toward racially equitable teaching. 

An equity-minded syllabus exhibits the following: (1) demystifies college policies and practices; (2) welcomes students and creating a classroom culture in which they feel cared for; (3) validates students’ ability to be successful; (4) creates a partnership in which faculty and students work together to ensure success; (5) represents a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds and experiences in assignments, readings, and other materials; and (6) deconstructs the presentation of white students as the ‘norm.’ Read more on syllabus-related FAQs here (p. 26-28). 

Questions to consider, based on the six characteristics of an equity-minded syllabus:

  1. Is your syllabus written in plain language with limited academic jargon? (demystify)
  2. Does it explain how to use college-specific resources such as office hours, Canvas, university library resources, etc.? (demystify)
  3. Is it ordered and formatted in a way that highlights what students need to know to maximize their learning and success? (demystify)
  4. Does it convey a sensitivity to students’ differing skill levels entering the course and encourage them to seek help? (welcome)
  5. Does it convey a willingness to work individually with students who need extra help? (welcome)
  6. Does it include information on bias reporting and communicate a commitment to talk through racist and discriminatory comments/behavior in the classroom or on campus? (welcome)
  7. Does it articulate that students -- regardless of their stated intentions -- are capable of obtaining their educational goals? (validate)
  8. Does it articulate respect for students as autonomous, critical, and reflective learners? (create a partnership)
  9. Does it state what the instructor expects from students and what they can expect from the instructor? (create a partnership)
  10. Does it communicate the value of students’ racial/ethnic backgrounds as sources of learning and knowledge? (represent)
  11. Does it name and question historical and ongoing discrimination, racism, and marginalization as well as inequalities in major social institutions? (deconstruct)

If you want to do a more rigorous review of your syllabus, try the two exercises outlined in p. 8-9 and p. 17-22.

Course Content

Including scholarship from historically underrepresented groups in your field is imperative for multiple reasons. It provides a fuller understanding of the course topic and challenges the deep-seated racism in the academy. Moreover, students of color would be able to see themselves represented in their course contents, which conveys that their contributions and community knowledge are valuable. Revisit your course content regularly as equity-minded teaching involves ongoing reflection and revision.  

Questions to consider when planning course content:

  1. Does the course content integrate opportunities to learn about students’ different educational histories?
  2. Do you include readings and course materials from scholars of color?
  3. Are the readings, activities, and assignments culturally relevant and inclusive? 
  4. Does the course promote awareness and critical examination of students’ assumptions, beliefs, and privilege?
  5. Do the readings, activities, and assignments ask students to critically examine their assumptions about different racial/ethnic groups, and the privileges or disadvantages they accrue by virtue of their race/ethnicity?
  6. Do the readings, activities, and assignments ask students to examine the history and contemporary experiences of people and communities that face discrimination, racism, and marginalization?

Assessment & Grading

This section integrates information from: “Designing your course with inclusivity in mind” under Inclusive Teaching Strategies created by UW Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL); “Webinar III: Being Aware of Learning Opportunities and Constraints Posed by Online Teaching and Moving Towards Anti-Racist Practices (May 7, 2020)” as part of the six-part webinar series Racial Equity in Online Environments; and the Syllabus Review Guide for Equity-Minded Practice.

Assessments are useful for tracking student learning, but can also be a source of anxiety and distraction from learning by overemphasizing the grade over learning itself. Equity-minded assessments value a diverse range of skills and knowledges and recognize that seemingly race-neutral skills often carry implicit biases (e.g. eloquence) or privilege majority white educational backgrounds. In addition, grading with an eye toward racial equity prioritizes student learning over time rather than students’ readiness when they first join the course. You are encouraged to be intentional about your grading scheme and keep an eye out for racialized patterns the grades your students receive.

Questions to consider:

  1. What does it mean to do “well” in your classroom? Who more often demonstrates those ways of doing/thinking? 
  2. Do you offer different types of assignments and forms of assessment that give students multiple ways to demonstrate their learning and strengths?
  3. Do you include assignments that ask students to draw on their experiential knowledge and/or knowledge from their communities?
  4. Are there patterns in student learning that indicate a need for further inquiry, such as a specific assignment that students of color or international students seem to find overly challenging when doing well otherwise?
  5. Do you provide low-stakes opportunities for students to apply and experiment with their learning?
  6. Does your grading scheme reward students’ prior knowledge entering the course or their development and mastery of course content as the course progresses?
  7. Do you provide forward-looking feedback or feedback focused on “points lost”?
  8. Have you considered “alternative” grading options such as contract grading (p.31) or ungrading which are intended to direct student attention toward learning than the letter grade itself? Sample contract grading rubric available here:


Keeping track of students’ participation is a good way to measure which students feel most comfortable in your classroom. It can also provide useful information about whom your teaching approach is working for. Depending on their racial/ethnic identity, some students may experience both invisibility and hypervisibility in the classroom. Be vigilant to racialized patterns of participation. Equity-minded teaching entails noticing, understanding, and confronting how race/ethnicity shapes students’ experiences of the classroom space.

Questions to consider:

  1. Do you work with your students to create community norms?
  2. Do you offer various avenues to participate, such as large and small group discussions, online discussion boards, and comments made in writing?
  3. Who speaks up in large group and small group settings? Who does not speak at all?
  4. Do you make room for silence and encourage a diverse range of students to participate?
  5. Do you have strategies to address racist and discriminatory comments and behavior in the classroom? 
  6. Do you frequently offer opportunities for students to provide anonymous feedback and discuss the feedback with students?
  7. Do you validate students’ contributions when they participate?
  8. Do you encourage students to draw on their experiential knowledge and/or knowledge from their communities?

Online Teaching

This section is informed by research and recommendations presented in “Webinar II: Equity-Minded Online Teaching: Using Canvas as a Model (April 30, 2020)” and “Webinar III: Being Aware of Learning Opportunities and Constraints Posed by Online Teaching and Moving Towards Anti-Racist Practices (May 7, 2020)” as part of the six-part webinar series Racial Equity in Online Environments hosted by CUE at USC (recordings and transcripts available through the hyperlink).

Implicit bias tends to be more pronounced under circumstances of stress, lack of information, and time pressure. Therefore, being intentional about racial equity is especially important in the current climate where instructors are asked to quickly adjust to online teaching under the stresses of COVID-19. Online teaching presents a unique set of learning opportunities and challenges. Some of these challenges include access to technology and internet, access to an environment conducive to learning, and different class dynamics given the lack of in-person interaction. While the change to online teaching can feel overwhelming, remember to have compassion for yourself and your students as you make this transition. 

Questions to consider:

  1. Do you create opportunities for students to connect with you on a more personal level? There are several ways to do this. At the start of the quarter, you can share a quick 2-minute video introducing yourself. Once a week, you can share a short video, picture, quote, or a story to update students on what is going on in your life so that they get to know you better as the course progresses. Suggestions from “Webinar III: Being Aware of Learning Opportunities and Constraints Posed by Online Teaching and Moving Towards Anti-Racist Practices (May 7, 2020)” as part of the six-part webinar series Racial Equity in Online Environments.
  2. Did you gather information about students’ access to technology and the internet?
  3. Do you incorporate synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods?
  4. Does your course allow flexibility to accommodate students’ varying digital access needs?
  5. Do you share with students information about accessing technological resources for free or at a lower cost?

Additional Resources for Teaching

We are committed to fostering safe and inclusive spaces for teaching and learning. We recognize that multiple dimensions of difference can influence inclusion and learning experiences in the classroom, and that spaces of exclusivity can be both invisible and intersectional. The resources here provide guiding ideas and specific practices to help promote welcoming and inclusive spaces for teaching and learning.

Recommended Reading

Holley, L and Steiner, S. 2005. Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Life. Journal of Social Work Education 41(1): 49-64.

Warren, J., 2014. “After colorblindness: Teaching Antiracism to White Progressives in the U.S.” in Kristin Haltinner (ed.) Teaching Race and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.