Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

In recent years, conversations about diversity in the college classroom have necessarily focused on the inclusive learning space.  For many in higher education, inclusivity is the natural progression for colleges who are working towards practical applications of diversity initiatives, some of which have come under criticism for being well-intentioned but not concrete.  The rise of campus ‘safe spaces’—itself not without critique— has extended into the classroom, prompting further discussions about the definition, role, and best practices of inclusivity in higher education.

Inclusivity, in its academic methodology, means building a classroom (and campus) environment wherein faculty members and students share in the creation of a learning space in a way that respects all of the constituents, their lived experiences, and learning needs.  The constituents of the classroom (and again, we can extend to this to the campus) are encouraged to engage in constructive, challenging dialogue and to support others who are sharing their lived experiences.

The role of the faculty in an inclusive classroom is to act as a model for the types of behavior, engagement, and collaboration required of the space.  Faculty members should be transparent about their processes and policies and establish guidelines for engagement.  The course content, moreover, should reflect a variety of experiences and perspectives and mirror those of the students in the course.  The challenge for the faculty member is not to shy away from academic rigor in such environments, but rather to communicate the parameters of that rigor.

Throughout this series, when talking about inclusivity in the classroom, I will use the word ‘build’ rather than ‘create.’ Inclusivity is a creative process, certainly, but to use the word ‘create’ elides the work—by students, faculty members, and the even the institution—it takes to establish an inclusive learning space.  It also suggests that such learning spaces are mysteriously self-generating and that some students, faculty, courses ‘have it’ and that others ‘don’t.’ The idea of ‘creating,’ moreover, implies that students and faculty members are somehow inherently inclusive, which ignores the realities of different lived experiences.

‘Building,’ on the other hand, accounts for the time and effort of students and faculty, connotes the necessary collaborative efforts, and forefronts the conversation of inclusivity as one that requires deep engagement.  Students and faculty members must confront privileges and assumptions, they must learn (but not co-opt) the lived experiences of others, and they must work collaboratively towards a shared, mutual goal.

Throughout this series, we will be working on ‘building’ a definition of the inclusive classroom, its elements, and its practices.  The other parts of the series will cover the following:

  • Reflecting on privileges.
  • Knowing your students.
  • Questioning your assumptions.
  • Challenging the status quo.
  • Collaborating in the classroom.

As we continue with this series, we hope that you will ‘build’ along with us in the comments.  Please share your thoughts, fears, and hopes about inclusivity in the classroom as well as your own experiences and best practices.

References

Bart, M. (2012). Strategies for creating a more inclusive classroom. Faculty focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/strategies-for-creating-a-more-inclusive-classroom/ Retrieved: 2/10/17

Busteed, B. (2016). Inclusivity means opinions count. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/12/06/colleges-must-move-simply-asking-peoples-opinions-making-them-count-essay Retrieved: 2/10/17

Hammond, R. (2016). Setting the Tone for Inclusion on Campus Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president, Trinity College. The chronicle of higher education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Video-Setting-the-Tone-for/238304 Retrieved: 2/1/17

Turner, S. (2016). Dear higher education – This is why your diversity initiatives are failing. Advancing diversity. http://www.advancingdiversity.com/dear-higher-education-this-is-why-your-diversity-initiatives-are-failing/ Retrieved: 2/10/17

Zhang, Y. and K. Mansouri. (2016). Point/Counterpoint: Do safe spaces belong on college campuses? USA Today College. http://college.usatoday.com/2016/11/22/viewpoint-point-counterpoint-do-safe-spaces-belong-on-college-campuses/ Retrieved: 2/1/17

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

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