Building an Inclusive Classroom: Challenging the Status Quo

This is the fifth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, Knowing Your Students, and Questioning Your Assumptions. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

The history of admissions processes and policies in higher education is a study of economic, social, and cultural gatekeeping with all the trappings of racism, classism, and misogyny you would expect to find in such a milieu. Even as higher education strives for inclusivity, the gatekeepers and the gatekeeping inherent in higher education continue to uphold this status quo.  Against this backdrop, inclusivity in the classroom represents a paradigm shift from the exclusionary gatekeeping devices of the teacher-centric model (sage on the stage) towards a learning-centric model (guide on the side).

In the classroom, challenging the status quo can and does take many forms, and faculty members can begin this process by asking themselves some important questions about their methods and approaches:

  • Why am I using this resource, material, assignment, and/or activity? Is it the way I’ve always done it?  Does it help meet my learning outcomes?  Does it engage students?  Is it the best way to engage students in learning?
  • Why am I using this approach to learning? Is it the way I’m most comfortable?  Is it easiest for me?  Is it the best way for students to learn?  Does it make the learning accessible to all of my students?
  • Why am I providing feedback in this way? Is it the way I’ve always done it?  Is it easiest for me?  Do the students engage with it?  Is it easy for them to understand and apply?  Does it help them achieve the learning outcomes?
  • Why am I managing the classroom this way? Is it the way I’m most comfortable?  Is it easiest for me?  Does it engage my students?  Is it easy for them to contribute and participate?  Does it respect these contributions?

 

There are no “right” answers to these questions, but in an ideal classroom, there should be some overlap:

Inclusion Blog2

How do you get there?  As you build an inclusive classroom space and work towards this ideal, you should be prepared to be uncomfortable—and you should also probably prepare to that it will make some of the students uncomfortable.  If you benefit from the current gatekeeping status quo, then shifting the paradigm to an inclusive practice is going to make you uncomfortable.  You will need to shift your thinking and approach to the classroom.  This may mean everything from innovative syllabus design and finding ways to gamify the classroom.  It could also mean changing the way students access your course, including finding ways of bringing the backroom student to the front of the class to improving accessibility in your course design.

For students who benefit from the current status quo, these changes challenge them to find new ways of learning that are outside of their frame of reference.  They may find your attempts to engage back row students a waste of their time, and they may scoff at an illustrated syllabus.  For the students who do not benefit from the status quo, they, too, may be uncomfortable with the changes.  Students who are used to being overlooked will now have to exercise their voice in the classroom.  To combat these feelings for all of the students, you will need to be clear, explicit, and transparent with your approach, so that they feel supported as they step outside of their comfort zones.

Higher education does not need gatekeeping and gatekeepers.  We need educators who build inclusive learning spaces where students seek their own keys to success.

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About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa 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.

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