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Innovative Course Enables Students to Gain a New Perspective on Justice, Bias, and Equity
The “UNCommon Course,” which was piloted last fall, has already offered its first cohort of students a meaningful way to explore some of the most critical issues facing the world while enabling them to reflect on their own experiences and biases.
April 30, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Alexandria French ’23 looked forward to engaging with her classmates each week this past fall while taking part in conversations that, she says, were a great way to “have fun while learning.”
These experiences were part of her “UNCommon Course,” the class she most looked forward to each week. She was one of the new criminal justice students in eight sections of the course when it was piloted for the first time last fall. French said she particularly enjoyed that it was an interactive opportunity for students to share their knowledge and opinions in a respectful way.
“Each topic was presented in a fun and engaging way,” said French, who transferred to the University last summer. “This course impacted me greatly, and I learned so much about the events that take place in our world and in our criminal justice system. It really was an eye opener. The course also helped me to become more comfortable having these conversations and to communicate more effectively. It really helped to break me out of my shell.”
‘Where empathy and compassion are born’
In an effort to address the many crises facing the country from the COVID-19 pandemic to social injustice, the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences piloted a new version of the University’s first-year common course – calling it the “UNCommon Course.” It focuses on self-reflection, and all new students – first years and transfer – will experience it during their first year at the University.
David Schroeder, Ph.D., acting dean for the Lee College, and Lorenzo Boyd, Ph.D., vice president for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University, are overseeing the course, which has been taught virtually amid the pandemic. Both experienced criminal justice professionals and educators, Dr. Schroeder and Dr. Boyd have extensive experience in police-community relations, as well as a shared belief in the importance of compassion and self-reflection. Dr. Boyd says he hopes the course challenges students to examine their views, biases, and stereotypes.
“The UNCommon Course is crucial in moving the needle of tolerance and inclusion on campus,” said Dr. Boyd. “This may be the first introspective look that many students have taken. It is not about others, it is about the proverbial ‘me’ in the conversation. If we can get people to understand why they view things the way that they do, then we can get them to better understand the ‘lived experience’ of others, and that is where empathy and compassion are born.”
‘It is transformational for students’
Peter Porrello ’24, who took the course with Dr. Boyd this fall, says that’s exactly the impact the course had on him. He said Dr. Boyd challenged him and his classmates to see all sides of a variety of issues.
“This course was one of the most valuable courses I took last semester,” he said. “I feel it is very important to students as, especially in today's world, we need to be taught to respect each other, no matter a person’s race, religion, gender, or political views. This class allowed me to move past my own prejudices and fears and allowed me to grow as a human being.”
During the fall semester, eight faculty members from a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, participated in the inaugural presentation of the course. The class begins with a module on self-reflection, which made up the first third of the course, prompting students to examine their own perceptions regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Beginning in the fifth week of the course, students switched to a “carousel” format, during which each section of the class is visited by a different professor who spends a week teaching a specific topic. This enables students to learn from several instructors who share their diverse and unique experiences and areas of expertise. Students then apply what they learned during the beginning of the course to the new material, and they engage in reflective and informed discussions on topics such as protests and social movements, race, privilege, class, and gender.
“This course is foundational to recognizing implicit and explicit biases and for students to better understand themselves and each other,” said Prof. Ronnell Higgins, a practitioner in residence in the University’s Criminal Justice Department and chief of police and director of public safety at Yale University. “It is transformational for students, and it has transformed how I approach teaching. It will continue to inform my approach to teaching going forward.”
As part of their final project, students discussed their experiences in the course and the way they developed a new understanding of themselves and the world. Dr. Schroeder hopes it challenges students to think differently about their communities while enabling them to become comfortable exploring preconceived notions they might have.
“You can’t lecture at students with this kind of material,” said Dr. Schroeder. “That would be a disaster. You’re not there to impart truths. You’re there to ask questions in a fashion designed to move students toward a learning objective. You’re a vessel, and this facilitation style allows us to meet the students where they are.”
‘Change the way many Chargers view their classmates’
Although piloted out of the Lee College and mainly taught by criminal justice faculty members, the plan is for a similar course to be offered to all students and taught by faculty from each of the University’s academic colleges and schools. The hope is that it will eventually include all new students at the start of their academic journey as Chargers.
Dr. Boyd says the course is important for faculty members as well, and that it offers an invaluable opportunity for them to challenge themselves and grow. Developing the “UNCommon Course,” he says, has been meaningful, and he hopes it is just as impactful for the students who take it.
“I’ve developed scores of new classes in my career, but never have I been more proud of the team effort that led to this class,” he said. “This will likely change the way many Chargers view their classmates and other Chargers.”
French, the criminal justice major who took the class last fall, says she appreciated the opportunity to learn from a variety of faculty members and from her classmates. She says it was a great opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge of some of the most important issues facing not only the criminal justice field, but the world.
“This class is important because it educates students on important topics that they must understand in order to enter the criminal justice field,” she said. “I hope it continues to open students’ eyes to things that they have never realized before. I also hope that it breaks students out of their shells and allows them to be more comfortable sharing their thoughts with others, just like it did for me.”