Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Faculty Spotlight | Liberty Hamilton and Mirza Lugo-Neris

Moody Faculty Spotlight: Liberty Hamilton and Mirza Lugo-Neris 

Published Fall 2020

The Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences launched its Inclusive Teaching Learning Community this semester under the guidance of assistant professor Liberty Hamilton and clinical assistant professor Mirza Lugo-Neris. The community brings together faculty, staff, and doctoral students in a space to plan, practice, and engage with inclusive teaching strategies. 

Mirza Lugo-Neris and Liberty Hamilton

Liberty Hamilton and Mirza Lugo-Neris, Faculty Spotlight of the Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence at Moody College

Mirza Lugo-Neris: In many of our conversations, and other conversations with faculty in our department, it became evident that many of us had the desire to implement these strategies but didn’t know quite where or when to start.

Liberty Hamilton: Both Mirza and I have been on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee here at Moody College for the past several years, and we had been talking as a group about ways of improving faculty and student teaching to better serve our diverse student population. One observation we had started with is that the field of speech, language, and hearing sciences is historically relatively homogeneous in terms of racial and ethnic makeup. For example, a small percentage of members of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), a professional society within our field, identify as an underrepresented racial minority -- only 8.3%. However, this does not reflect the diversity in the students that we serve, who increasingly come from diverse backgrounds, including a range of ethnicity, gender identity/expression, disability, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and more. So we wanted to do better, because fostering a culture of inclusivity is the responsibility of all faculty, not just those who identify as an underrepresented group.

Mirza attended a Faculty Development Institute at ASHA in Fall 2019, returning with the aim of bringing more inclusive teaching into her own courses. Attendance at the UT Faculty Innovation Center’s biennial Inclusive Teaching Symposium provided further encouragement. The following semester, the FIC put out a call to apply for funding of dedicated instructor learning communities.

MLN: When we wrote the proposal, we originally intended to have in-person meetings and provide lunch to make it a collegial and relaxed atmosphere. However, due to the pandemic, we had to shift all of our meetings to Zoom. I do think this helped increase our reach and expand who could participate online.

LH: The learning community is just that: a community. Despite the strangeness of the year and having all of our events done remotely via Zoom, we have had a great group come together and share their experiences, their ideas, and their challenges. When Mirza and I started the initiative, we recognized that we would like to learn from the experience too, so it is more of a peer group where we bring in experts and then discuss with one another. This was part of the  original intention, but I would say that the members of our community have really embraced the idea and I’ve learned so much from them as well. 

More than 29 SLHS faculty, staff, and doctoral students regularly participate in the learning community meetings. 

MLN: I think it was easy to recruit participants into this learning community. We scheduled an interest meeting over the summer and invited all of the SLHS faculty and staff community as well as doctoral students and had a great response. Coordinating a consistent meeting time involved looking at our department-wide schedule and finding times when faculty were not teaching, and then coordinating with department leadership and administration to schedule faculty and committee meetings around that. We’ve had a lot of support also from our chair [Rajinder Koul], as he sponsored continuing education credits for our initial meeting and our administrative staff have been amazing in helping with promotional materials and coordinating speaker honorariums, etc. 

LH: The Instructor Learning Community allows us to pay an honorarium to our external speakers. Often, diversity-related work is under-compensated and is more likely to be taken on by faculty of color or people who identify as belonging to an underrepresented group. We wanted to be sure that we not only listen to the experts we bring in, but also pay them for their time and expertise and show them that they are valued.

A key element of the SLHS community is the understanding that change can be both purposeful and incremental. 

MLN: As I mentioned earlier, a hallmark of our proposal and plan was for people to be able to take actionable immediate steps they can implement in their teaching and I keep saying that to the members of our community. A wise advisor once told me that when you change a syllabus or a course, you don’t throw the whole thing away and start over, you change about 10% every time. That starts with tweaking one or two aspects of the course, and in this case, we are doing it from an inclusive framework so that the changes that we make are purposeful in making our students feel seen, heard, accepted, and valued.  Because we also teach in the context of a health profession, this also translates into the content of our courses and the lives of the people we serve. So, I would say my hope is that these initial steps that we take as members of this learning community in examining our own biases and implementing inclusive teaching practices will lead to more and bigger steps that will have an immense ripple effect. 

It is important to highlight the importance of taking one step at a time. If we each make small but consistent changes in many areas of our professional lives, collectively, we can see a much bigger impact than we could each do on our own. Having a community of people to share those successes (and failures) with to discuss and problem-solve is invaluable.

LH: So far, we have discussed specific strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion in our curriculum in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences (with Dr. Valarie Fleming, the Chair of Communication Disorders at TX State and a UT alum!), Universal Design for Learning, and specific strategies we are using in our own classes including successes and failures. It's made me think much more deeply about my own biases and assumptions, and I hope will make me a better instructor.

The great thing about the learning community is that we are all learning together. I am inspired by my colleagues, our students, and staff, and I learn something new every time we talk. What I would take away from our learning community so far is that there are many many ways to incorporate diversity and inclusivity in the classroom. It's not only changing content. It's how you teach, what assignments you give, how you ask for feedback, how you engage with students, and how students engage with each other. I hope that we can take these lessons and apply them throughout the Moody College and across the Forty Acres!

What initiatives do you have planned for the future? 

LH: This coming Spring 2021 semester will be having another guest speaker, Dr. Nicole Marrone, to speak about research on health disparities in audiology and delivery of care at the US-Mexico border. We have been able to have speakers with perspectives from speech pathology, audiology, and education overall, both from UT and beyond. We are also planning some book club sessions where we will continue an ongoing discussion of "Race, Equity, and the Learning Environment", a book about inclusive pedagogies in higher education that was edited by Frank Tuitt, Chayla Haynes, and Saran Stewart. We are also hoping that it might be possible to have an in-person get-together in the Spring, but I think we have to take it week by week to see what will happen.

MLN: One additional event that I am most excited about is our final meeting of the year, where we have asked our learning community members to share and reflect on the changes they have made in their classes. We are hoping this can take place in the spring, like Liberty said, as an in-person event, but if not, we will adjust and make the best of it.