Let’s talk about Maria. If you talk to Maria’s professor, he will tell you that she is an excellent student: she comes to class early, turns in her homework, and participates in class discussion. He’ll talk about her essay where she compared different models of masculinity in Gilgamesh and her oral presentation on “bad boys” in Greek mythology. He might also say that he encouraged Maria to take his class on reading poetry in the spring. Hi! My name in Melissa, and I once spent a semester during my undergraduate career as Maria. I’m not sure why this professor called me Maria (despite initial attempts to correct him): did he misread my name on the roster, did I not pronounce it clearly on the first day, or did I just “look” like a Maria? I’ll never know.
I bring up this minor (and now humorous) interlude of my undergraduate career because it illustrates a few important point about “knowing” your students. First, the professor was not really interested in knowing me as a student or a person, since the first way you demonstrate that interest is by knowing and using someone’s correct name. Second, the professor did not listen to me when I tried to correct him further demonstrating that our relationship was merely about my course output. And finally, this moment clarified for me that he didn’t really know any of his students. At all. We were all “Maria” in that course. If “Maria” had been a student who needed additional support and relationship-building in the classroom, she probably wouldn’t have succeed in this course. If “Maria” was an easily embarrassed student, an introverted student, or an at-risk student, she probably would have dropped the course or stopped coming entirely after a few weeks of being called the wrong name.
When it comes to building an inclusive classroom, we must start with the people in front of us. We must get to know them—the whole person—in order to support their success. How do we get started?
Review internal demographic statistics to get a sense of the student body, especially incoming students and conduct research into general trends for student enrollment. This demographic information can help you to tailor lessons and assignments to the students you’ll have in the course.
On the first day / week of class, start learning student names, doing ice breakers, and learning about their personal, academic, and professional goals. These small gestures set the tone of inclusivity.
Building in deliberate times and spaces in the classroom for non-coursework discussion. Usually, in a traditional face-to-face setting that happens before and after class. In the online classroom, this could take the form of “coffee house” discussion boards and voluntary collaborate sessions.
Engaging in small talk in discussion boards, emails, and before and after class. Knowing that one of your students plays intermural soccer and that another one is excited for their first niece makes helps build important bonds that will make coming to you about course assignments, questions, and performance much easier.
Really encouraging office hours, including using that time for student conferences, making one hour mandatory for each student, and using them to check in on groups. By inviting students into your office space, you are moving beyond the lip-service of accessibility.
Throughout the term, following up with students after an absence, writing to them about their excellent participation, and leaving worthwhile, engaging feedback on their work. Again, these moments of consistent and deliberate invitation to engage demonstrate your commitment to their learning.
By being sincere and deliberate about getting to know your students, you send a clear message that you want them to be a part of the classroom, that you value their contributions, that you see them as unique individuals engaged in the learning process, and that they are not just another “Maria.”
About the Author
Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College. Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl. She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.