Thursday, September 4, 2014

Inclusive Excellence in the Classroom

Tips for success in relation to diversity in the classroom
Prepared by Jesús Treviño, Ph.D., Senior Diversity Officer and Associate Vice-President for Diversity, Office for Diversity/Office of the President, University of South Dakota and the Center for Teaching and Learning

In considering campus diversity, it is clear that challenges and opportunities manifest themselves throughout the institution, but in particular the college classroom. One of the challenges of diversity involves situations where faculty and students continue to experience conflict and tension particularly related to the different views and backgrounds represented in the classroom. Examples of these types of conflict include a heterosexual student exclaiming in class that gays and lesbians do not have a right to exist and refers to the Bible to support their argument. Or a faculty member asking the only Latino in the classroom to educate the rest of the class on the topic of Mexican immigration patterns, a topic with which the student is not very familiar. Similarly, three male students continuously disrupting the class by directing sexist comments at a female teaching assistant and an instructor asking a Veteran to share her traumatic experiences in war without clearing it with the student first are also examples of the challenges that diversity poses in the college classroom. Add to these incidents of cultural and personal misunderstandings, institutional discrimination, inadequate or no training for faculty on issues of diversity in the classroom, and lack of student preparation for engaging in productive classroom discussions, and what emerges is the possibility of a tense college campus and classrooms waiting to be disrupted.

On the positive side, there are instances where faculty have used and are using diversity in the classroom as an opportunity or asset to enhance teaching and learning. Examples of this include an instructor who organizes a fishbowl discussion of male students to discuss their attitudes toward women after a student makes a controversial remark in class. Or a faculty member teaching students about the difference between a debate and a dialogue in order to have productive expressions of free speech and thereby enhancing the learning process. And finally, students receiving and learning about ground rules for classroom discussions related to respect, free speech, and personalizing the issues are also examples of using diversity as a tool for achieving desired educational outcomes. In sum, the prospects of diversity involve using multiple perspectives, cultures, languages, and other characteristics that different social identities bring to the class as an asset or a tool to create greater understanding and knowledge about these issues. This task is not easy and requires special skills and techniques.

Inclusive Excellence requires that we create inclusive learning environments that are attentive to issues of diversity. Issues related to differences manifest themselves across all courses, assignments, curriculums, and pedagogies. The following are suggestions for addressing issues of diversity in the classroom. Professors are not required to implement these suggestions, but rather these are intended for those faculty members who want to create inclusive learning environments.

How, what, and who we teach matters when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness. The books, readings, case studies, word problems and examples presented in the classroom can either include diverse communities by drawing on the history, culture, and experiences of different groups, or they can exclude those same communities by obliterating them from the curriculum. It goes without saying that teaching tools have to be selected carefully to be sensitive and validating to diverse communities as opposed to stereotyping and offending.

Issues of diversity manifest themselves across the curriculum. Even in courses where it is a common belief that issues of diversity are not present, such as math and physics, not only do you have the challenges cited above, but you also have student behavioral issues related to diversity (e.g. microaggressions, conflict, misunderstandings, etc.). In any course, you will find students representing multiple groups, including race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, veteran status, age, and other social dimensions found on campus. It is important to be attentive to those dynamics and how they play out in the classroom. For example some students do not want females, gay/lesbian, international, or Native Americans in their assigned work groups.

It is important to establish ground rules for dialogue, interaction, and behavior at the beginning of each course. This is critical because it will validate the students from diverse backgrounds, create trust in you as an instructor, and establish a safe space for interaction. Moreover, in case conflict emerges you can always refer the students back to the rules of engagement.

Include the diversity statement approved by the University Senate in your syllabus to convey your values and beliefs about diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. “The University of South Dakota strives to foster a globally inclusive learning environment where opportunities are provided for diversity to be recognized and respected.”

Consider assigning projects that contribute directly to diversity and inclusiveness on campus. These are different than community service projects (which are important) in that they address diversity issues at USD and make positive contributions to the university community.

Set clear parameters when assigning projects. Make it clear, for example, that you do not have to show pornographic images in a class presentation to make the point that sexism is alive and well in our society. Ask students to include opposing perspectives in their papers or assignments as well as consensus views.

If you make a mistake while teaching, simply apologize and move on. You can also use your mistake to educate the students by engaging them regarding assumptions, believes, or other reasons for the error. You will gain the trust of the students. (Note: Use this judiciously and sparingly).

The social identities of each faculty member influences how students perceive and receive them. Research suggests, for example, that women of color and white women receive low teaching evaluations in those courses where diversity is the central topic. International faculty members get complaints from students about their accents. Women have to work harder than men at establishing credibility in the classroom. The issue is not that there is something inherently wrong with social identities themselves. Rather, the problem is the perceptions that are held of those identities.

A large part of understanding diversity in the classroom is getting to the groups that may be present in your classroom. Equally as important is understanding yourself as a faculty member. Getting to know your bias, hot buttons, teaching style, issues about which you are passionate, privilege, likes and dislikes, and other personal characteristics will only help you in dealing with classroom issues.

Just because there is tremendous diversity in the classroom does not mean you should be apprehensive about it and fear that at any moment you will make a mistake. You are not expected to know the dynamics, history, and experience of every social identity in your class. Simply acknowledge that there is diversity, do your best to address issues that come up, apologize and correct mistakes whenever possible, and proceed to teach. Make an effort to educate yourself.

1. Develop a new course on diversity and inclusiveness.
2. Embed diversity and inclusiveness into an existing course. 
3. Consider books or readings on or by African Americans,
Chicanas/os, GLBTIQ members, Veterans, Disability, Gender,
and other marginalized communities.
4. Mentor a female, Gay/Lesbian, African American, first-generation college, Veteran, Latino, Asian American, Native
American, or other diverse students.
5. Work to understand and establish a “safe and welcoming” classroom climate for all students.
6. Serve on a college or department diversity committee.
7. Find out what the department is doing to practice Inclusive
8. Start a discussion with other faculty/administrators
designed to learn more about experiences of diverse faculty
in the department.
9. Learn about and address microaggressions between
students in the classroom.
10. Learn about and address microaggressions directed at
faculty, in particular faculty of color and women.
11. Inquire about diversity and inclusiveness in discipline
related associations, conferences, and initiatives. 
12. Help recruit diverse students into the discipline. 
13. Work with Human Resources to understand how to practice diversity and inclusiveness in job searches including search committees, advertising, job descriptions, interviewing, job negotiating, etc.
14. Insert a diversity statement into a course syllabus. For example: “This course adheres to the principles outlined in the USD Diversity and Inclusiveness Statement and the concept of Inclusive Excellence by creating a safe and welcoming environment for everyone”.
15. Consider diverse learning outcomes in your course.
16. Take responsibility for addressing diversity issues in the
School or Department. Don’t assume that diversity and inclusiveness is the domain and responsibility of faculty of color, women, or other marginalized faculty.
17. Work on improving the climate in the department for yourself and everyone else.
18. Inquire about diversity efforts at the institution as a whole (e.g., recruitment of students of color, status of GLBTIQ students, Issues confronting Women Faculty, etc.)

  • Jesús Treviño, Associate Vice-President for Diversity, Office for Diversity 605-677-3925. 
  • Bruce Kelley, Center for Teaching and Learning, 605-677- 6518
  • Roberta (Bobbe) Hakl, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action 605-677-5651
  • Kim Grieve, Vice-President for Student Services and Dean of Students. 605-677-5331

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