DIAP course development funds help increase emphasis on diversity and inclusion in Waston's curriculum

The Watson Institute's Diversity and Inclusion Plan committee funded three faculty members in their efforts to create a greater focus on diversity and inclusion in the institute's teaching and learning.

Each semester, the Watson Institute's DIAP (Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan) committee invites Watson-affiliated faculty to apply for funding to create or revise courses that address issues related to diversity and structural inequality. The committee awards successful applicants up to $1,500 per course to hire a student research assistant to support their efforts. They funded three courses for the 2023-2024 academic year.

According to Watson's DIAP Committee Co-Chair Melissa Nicholaus, the committee began asking faculty their thoughts on diversifying their syllabi in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. "One of the first things Nadje [Al-Ali] and I did when we took over as committee co-chairs was send out a survey to Watson faculty to ask if they address anti-black racism in their classes," she said. "Through the ensuing conversations, we realized there was a lack of resources for faculty thinking about diversifying their syllabi." 

Nicholaus said that after conversations at DIAP meetings, the committee resolved to make funds available to faculty to hire students to do research and help them find ways to incorporate more diverse perspectives into their courses if they wanted to. The program is entering its third year and the committee is currently accepting applications for the 2024-2025 academic year. 

For the fall 2023 semester, the committee granted awards to three Watson faculty: Associate Professors of the Practice of International and Public Affairs Dany Bahar and David Blanding, and Watson Family University Associate Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs John Eason

Bahar's course, Translating Evidence into Economic Policy, which was open to Master of Public Affairs and undergraduate economics students, offered case studies of important and challenging policy questions for students interested in careers in policymaking, with a focus on quantitative methods useful in analyzing those questions.

Bahar said he used the funding to hire a student who gathered materials to help him address the topic of universal basic income and conditional cash transfers. 

"What we do in the course," said Bahar, "is take a look at a big policy question. We look at the evidence and try to determine how to make policy based on it." "We contrasted two policy options — whether it is better to create a universal basic income where a certain amount of cash is distributed to everyone or to target vulnerable populations instead." 

Bahar also addressed the theory issue of student loan forgiveness with the class. "On the one hand, student loan forgiveness is a regressive policy because the people who tend to make more money benefit the most from it," he said. "For example, if you went to law school, you might have a lot of student loan debt, but you're also likely to be earning a higher salary," said Bahar, "The question is should the government be helping someone who just went to law school and is earning a high salary."

"But on the other hand," said Bahar, "if you look at wealth — the amount of money people actually have — it turns out the policy tends to help disadvantaged minorities and people who don't have the generational wealth to fund their education." "So in that sense," he said, "it turns out to be a very progressive policy."

Bahar noted it was very helpful to have a student assistant who could help him research these topics and compile materials for the class in advance. 

Bahar also used his DIAP funding to help create a new class on economic development and growth for the Master of Public Affairs program. In the class, Bahar plans to address the issue of international poverty. "We are going to address the issue of what prevents developing countries from growing economically," he said. 

In the class, Bahar plans to touch on the histories and cultures of developing countries, as well as the institutions that have been created to promote economic development. "What we're really addressing," he said, "is how to help people — the most vulnerable people — overcome the state of poverty they're in through economic growth."

Bahar stressed the importance of incorporating multiple points of view in order to create a successful course. "I think the whole point of including diversity, thinking about diversity in our classes, is how can we understand each other's points of view," said Bahar. "What we're trying to achieve is to help students understand the same concept from different points of view. I think the way I try to achieve that in the classroom is by exposing them to how the same issue affects different populations with different backgrounds, different ethnicities, et cetera," he said. "Hopefully, that motivates students to participate more in class and share their thoughts, and also to understand how others see things."

Blanding used his funding to revamp an already existing MPA course, Race and Public Policy. "The section that I'm teaching will focus on educational equity, criminal justice, and environmental justice. The same subjects that were covered in the other course, but they'll be through this different lens in different contexts," said Blanding. "I want to lean into the racial implications specifically. One, because that's my area of expertise, but also because I think it provides us an opportunity to assess and perhaps address policy problems in those issue domains that are distinct," he said.

Blanding said he recently hired a student researcher, Brown University senior Lakia Munnerlyn, to help him identify new reading material that falls in line with the course objectives and allow him to explore different content. "There are some great things that come out every single year," he said, "and I think it's really important for us as faculty to be constantly exposing students to the new information that's emerging in the field."

The newly revamped course will have a greater focus on intersectionality. Blanding said he wants to explore "intersections of race and other identities or cleavages in society and how those things might jointly affect public policy." Blanding said he plans to particularly focus on the intersection of race and gender, but notes "there are other cleavages that are important as well" including socioeconomic status and LGBTQ+ identities. "Because," he noted, "the reality is that when you're talking about something like criminal justice or education or environmental justice, it's not the case that everyone in a particular group is equally affected by those things."

It's good to see that faculty are taking advantage of this opportunity to create a more diverse and equitable curriculum for both undergraduate and graduate students at Watson.

Melissa Nicholaus Watson Institute DIAP Liaison
Melissa Nicholaus

John Eason used his funding to develop an International and Public Affairs senior seminar, Prison Abolition as Policy, in which he and his students tackled a major policy issue in the United States — prison abolition — in a unique, hands-on manner. Eason and his students served as policy advisors to the city council of Blythe, California, a city that is facing the closure of its second-largest employer, the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.

The class culminated with the students presenting their findings — culled from a semester of intensive research — to the Blythe City Council on December 7, 2023. Eason and his students offered advice on how the city could best navigate the looming prison closure.

Nicholaus said the DIAP committee has been pleased with the faculty response so far. "It's good to see that faculty are taking advantage of this opportunity to create a more diverse and equitable curriculum for both undergraduate and graduate students at Watson," she said. She added that she looks forward to more faculty participation for the 2024-205 academic year. 

Apply for Watson DIAP course development funds

Read more about John Eason's senior seminar