By Amer F. Ahmed, EdD, & Shayla Herndon-Edmunds
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) continues to be an area of emphasis in higher education during turbulent social times. Over the past few years, discussions about DEI have increasingly begun to focus on student experiences (particularly with regard to their social identities) in the classroom. This has caused faculty to reconsider their pedagogy and how to best meet the needs of the rapidly diversifying students in our classrooms.
Developing inclusive pedagogical practices for the classroom is not an overnight process. It requires self-examination by faculty with regard to their own identities in relationship to their students. In addition, considering student-centered approaches that harness student experiences can deeply enrich the learning that may emerge.
Develop “Norms” With Students
The key to creating a learning environment in which students feel comfortable sharing with one another starts with asking them what they need to feel safe to share their experiences. Despite being a widespread practice in cocurricular learning spaces, the development of “norms and agreements” for difficult conversations as well as open and expressive engagement is still not a widespread practice in many curricular classroom environments. Taking the time at the beginning of a course with students to ask what they need to freely express their experiences and perspectives is well worth it. In creating a list of agreements, it is important to seek consensus from the class regarding the list that they develop and ultimately commit to.
See Dr. Viji Sathy, senior lecturer of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, work with her students to develop classroom norms in a video excerpt from the ACUE module “Promoting a Civil Learning Environment.”
Refer to (and Adjust) Class Norms Throughout the Semester
After creating the list, it is important to document it in a format in which all students will have ongoing access to it as they proceed through the course. Should a student feel like an agreement was not adhered to, faculty members can help consider how best to address the concern. This may include considerations for editing the list of agreements in a manner that may better meet students’ needs than the original list. As a faculty member, this moves us out of the center of the learning process and into a facilitative role that holds learners accountable to themselves as opposed to you.
Create a Safe Space for Self-Expression
Although this may seem time consuming, it helps to create environments in which students feel safe to share and express, especially regarding sensitive and challenging topics. This is particularly true with discussions that relate to marginalized aspects of student identities that often shape and impact their perspective on a number of topics (e.g., women, non-White, LGBQIA, low income, disabled, etc).
As a faculty member, taking the time to help create a safe space for engagement can cause interactive learning to occur in transformative ways that otherwise might not emerge in the class. The key is for faculty to be conscious of their own background, identity, and experiences as related to the course content.
In this excerpt from our Technique Talk on diversity, Dr. Jerome Williams, executive vice chancellor and provost at Rutgers University-Newark, discusses the need for instructors to examine their own backgrounds.
Here are some additional best practices to consider for managing the classroom experience:
• Learn about the cultures and identity groups represented in your class and on your campus. Understanding the cultural values and beliefs that may inform a student’s behaviors can help you to avoid making assumptions that lead to microaggressions.
• Explore your own learning and experiences of race, gender, religion, age, sexuality and become more aware of how they influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
• Instead of relying exclusively on the class roster, ask students to email their preferred names and pronouns to you prior to the first day of class.
• Provide examples that are diverse and use authors and experts who are diverse.
• Do not ask a student to speak for his or her “group” (e.g., asking a student for the Latino perspective).
In a clip from ACUE’s “Embracing Diversity in Your Classroom” module, José Bowen, president of Goucher College, discusses how to avoid spokesperson pressure.
• Contact Theory suggests that greater contact with another group reduces biases and stereotypes. Recognize that your students will have varying degrees of exposure to diversity and create opportunities that allow them to have contact with people who are different.
• Be an intentional role model. When dissonance occurs in class, demonstrate empathy and perspective-taking, and challenge comments, labels, or behaviors that are problematic, disrespectful, or judgmental.
• Challenge students to identify and bring forward missing voices and perspectives.
While every discipline and classroom is different, the need for students to have a safe learning environment is universal. These best practices represent a fraction of the ways that faculty can meet students where they are, create safe space, and enhance the learning environment while demonstrating for students how they can do the same.