Beat 'fluffy' race advice

December 22, 2006

Toolkit aims to help tutors understand new law and to be sensitive to students' cultural values. Olga Wojtas reports

A practical guide to help lecturers steer through a potential minefield of culturally sensitive situations and new equality laws has been launched by vice-chancellors to cut through the "warm and fluffy" advice often on offer.

The Race Equality Toolkit for Learning and Teaching, developed by Universities Scotland, addresses issues ranging from how a male tutor should behave towards female Muslim students, to how a Chinese student might have a different perception of plagiarism from a home student.

Universities Scotland said the guide had been published in response to demand from lecturers and institutions. They wanted guidance on complying with the Race Relations Amendment Act, which obliges public bodies to promote good race relations.

At the guide's launch this week, principal author Rowena Arshad, director of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland at Edinburgh University, urged academics across the UK to share their experiences. "All of us involved in teaching can do something with this toolkit, regardless of discipline," she said.

One case study focuses on a female Muslim student who becomes uncomfortable when at her first tutorial with a male lecturer he shuts the office door.

The guide says that the tutor should have offered the initial supervision with the door ajar or in a more public place such as the library or cafeteria. Once the relationship between the tutor and student is established, it is then acceptable to close the door.

Different cultural interpretations of plagiarism are also highlighted. The guide warns, for example, that plagiarism may not be properly understood by international students. "In Confucian culture, there is a belief that the teacher is always correct and therefore quoting (their writing) verbatim is encouraged," it says.

"Students whose first language is not English find it difficult to paraphrase a text they consider to have been written in perfect English.

Rather than risk losing the meaning or the context, students are likely to copy the material."

The guidance also says that staff should have access to a multifaith calendar, since students who observe religious festivals and events may struggle to complete assignments or sit all their exams.

Ms Arshad called for a much more open debate about the concepts of racial equality and ethnic diversity. One academic interviewed during research for the toolkit said: "Racism in higher education is mostly hidden and deeply denied."

It is only when lecturers opened up discussions about racism that problematic outlooks and preconditioned mindsets emerged and could be dealt with, Ms Arshad said. "If we talk in warm, fluffy terms about inclusivity, then some of these harder issues don't emerge," she said.

Details: www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/raceequalitytoolkit

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