In order to get the program underway, the 20 original fellows were organized into five-person pods, each consisting of one senior faculty member, one junior faculty member, one graduate student, and two undergraduate students. The smaller groups were designed to encourage candid discussions and a range of perspectives. One pod drafted concrete proposals for reform. Another produced a syllabus with an inclusive reading list for the English department’s writing course (ENG W-131) that all IU students are required to take. A third pod prepared materials on race and gender that illuminate the impact of colonialism and slavery on a country’s wealth or poverty that can be incorporated into introductory economics courses.
The first order of business was for the fellows to ponder how their own backgrounds—social, economic, religious, geographic, ethnic, racial—influence their behavior in the classroom. Together, they read Teaching to Transgress by feminist activist and cultural critic bell hooks. In it, hooks traces her own path through academia as a working-class black student from the South and the ways in which school became alienating and repressive.
The personal essays the fellows wrote in response are courageously revealing. Several faculty members admitted that they had not previously understood how precarious classrooms can feel to people who do not share their privileged background. One student fellow wrote his essay in the form of a test that is graded by a professor who gives him a C- for not supplying conventional responses. He wanted to illustrate how an exam can be used to shame, humiliate, and categorize students instead of helping them learn and grow.
The essayists’ variety of tone and approach is unsurprising, because Henne-Ochoa strove for diversity as she chose the fellows. She balanced considerations like race, economic class, rural/urban origins, year in college, and military status, among others. She also made sure that the fellows came from disciplines across the College, including psychology, chemistry, English, and folklore and ethnomusicology.
Arranging for two undergraduate students in each pod was intentional, with Henne-Ochoa figuring that the undergraduates might be intimidated by the faculty and so would appreciate a fellow student as back-up. She was right. Kovener Fellow Caliel Hines, a rising senior from Indianapolis, who’s majoring in neuroscience, admits that his pod was intimidating at first. “One of the vulnerabilities for me was not having degrees attached to my name. The professors were experts in their subjects. It felt like the imposter syndrome. But what debunked that was that the professors allowed my personal experience to be equal to their academic experience. That broke down the wall.”