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Sensitivity training without pointing fingers

A new online portal makes it easier for instructors to include the diversity of the student body into their curricula

Freiburg, Apr 18, 2017

Sensitivity training without pointing fingers

Photo: Baschi Bender

Felix Wittenzellner from the Office of Gender and Diversity at the University of Freiburg has developed a toolbox to help address the issue of „diversity“ in instructors’ curricula. He has placed materials on an online portal that instructors may use to integrate representative class materials that reflect the diverse student body. Alexander Ochs sat down with him for a chat.

Mr. Wittenzellner, what do you mean by the terms „diversity“ and „gender“?

Felix Wittenzellner: Each and every one of us at the University has special traits and backgrounds: diversity means to include everyone. In legal terms, for instance, there is the General Equal Treatment Act that defines six dimensions of diversity: religion or worldview, ethnic background, disability, age, gender and sexual orientation. In addition, there are other dimensions or characteristics such as your social background or existing educational level that can determine your college performance, general performance or failure. That is what we mean by “diversity“.

Boiling the essentials down to one page: Felix Wittenzellner presents a concise, summarized version of the toolbox. Photo: Patrick Seeger

How is the toolbox designed?

This piece of the gender-and-diversity portal refers to “diversity in the curriculum”. It includes several chapters. First, there are checklists for various subjects. You can get a quick overview of the topic and then delve into further tips, PDFs or links. There is already a ton of information online; you just have to know where to look. We are trying to make all of it available on the portal. There is also a glossary with deeper definitions of terms relating to diversity. For instance: what does accessibility really mean – in terms of space, in terms of teaching materials?

What does the toolbox offer?

We offer tips for specific areas in the curriculum, but also practical suggestions. For instance, as an instructor I should be familiar with the various consulting services at the University. Not everyone knows to whom students can turn when they have questions about how they can compensate for certain disadvantages they may have. Or about child care. Let’s take the example above regarding accessibility: if I hold an event, am I able to check whether the room I’ve been given is accessible to people with limited mobility. Or: is there appropriate technology available – such as inductive loop systems for the hearing impaired? If not, how can I gain access to the specific learning aids? In addition, there are practical references for instruction itself: on the first day of class, I can find out where my students come from both geographically as well as educationally through playful exercises.

Is the intention to speak to people in a politically correct manner and to be inclusive? To not exclude anyone through language?

It is also about language, including verbal, body language and communication through images. Through my instruction I already transmit certain attitudes. If I only ever speak about the male doctor or the female nurse, those images could become fixated in the minds of the students as well. My intention is to provide sensibility training. We speak about these topics without pointing fingers.

Photo: Baschi Bender

What are some of the standard mistakes in communication or in people’s behavior?

I would say the dimension gender is the most decisive factor. Think about this saying: out of 99 female students (aus 99 Studentinnen) and one male student (einem Studenten) in the German language, it becomes 100 students (100 Studenten). Or think about the expression “to be chained to a wheelchair”. If I were to take it literally, it would mean then: „Someone has been nailed down and he can’t get away.“ Critics would ask what the fuss is all about, but for those who are impacted, being excluded can be really frustrating.

What do you think about the breadth of information in the toolbox?

We have kept the glossary rather tight, limiting ourselves to one or two paragraphs. We also limit the length of the handouts while concentrating on the most important information. If we are able to boil the essentials down to one page, that’s great. We aren’t always able to do that, but we try. After all, it’s about being „accessible“ so we ensure the scope of the information doesn’t put people off, but rather that the subjects are presented as concisely as possible.


Online portal “Diversity in the Curriculum”