Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

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

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.

Millennials

In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Knowing Your Students

This is the third installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The other installments include: Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place and Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

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.

Inclusivity Blog

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.

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Creating Syllabus Policies

By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The syllabus functions as a contract between the students and the faculty member regarding the academic experience in the classroom and the standards for that experience.  Often, when writing our syllabi, we get lost in the legalities of our policies, trying to out-maneuver that loop-hole driven student just waiting on our rosters. (The old adage that faculty “can write a student’s name next to every syllabus policy” comes to mind.)   While it’s important that we are clear and concrete in our policies, it is equally as important that we use this document as a space to demarcate the learning environment: what are your standards for student work and engagement? how do you see your role in the classroom? what standards do you have for participation? how should students conduct themselves in discussion?  Focusing on these questions help us to build an engaging learning experience not simply avoid a disastrous one.

When creating policies for your syllabus, keep in mind some best practices:

Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bullet lists.

Read for tone.  The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance.  Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters. 

Consider the course.  Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it.  For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy.  Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.

Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations.  For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.

Avoid distractions.  It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you.  Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.

By keeping these best practices in mind, you will help students to not just to understand your standards for academic work, dialogue, and engagement, but to see themselves reflected in the learning experience you are building.

 

About the Author

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. Melissa Wehler 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 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.

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

This is the second installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The first installment, Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place, provides an introduction to the topics covered in the series.

Building an inclusive classroom begins well before the first student registers for the class or a textbook is selected for the reading list.  In the classroom, a faculty’s identity—privileges and disadvantages—is represented in explicit and implicit ways.  Explicitly, our identities are represented by our bodies, our language, and our appearance (yes, even if we teach online).  For instance, whether or not I choose to confront my gender or race in the classroom, my body still signifies them.  Implicitly, the knowledge, belief, values, and skills that inform our actions, behaviors, and attitudes have come from our lived experiences.  The course materials I select, test questions I write, and syllabus policies I create are the culmination of my experience—positive and negative.

To create an inclusive classroom, therefore, we should recognize and acknowledge our socially conferred privileges (and disadvantages) and how they influence our pedagogy. When we talk about socially conferred privilege, we are referring to the social systems that provide certain persons or groups special advantages or rights on the basis of an unearned status.  Commonly, we talk about privilege through the lens of race, gender, ability, religion, age, and class, though it’s important to recognize that these are far from the only privileges that faculty confront personally and pedagogically.

In the classroom, inclusivity begins with the faculty member who establishes the basic parameters of the class, which are based on their own unique circumstances: their training, experiences, and philosophies.  Because courses begin in the personal, we must acknowledge our own socially conferred privileges as part of our pedagogy.

By no means an exhaustive list, here are some ways to help start this process:

Take a personal inventory.  A personal inventory will help you recognize (perhaps for the first time) your socially conferred privileges. A personal inventory can focus around a specific set of privileges such as race, gender, or ability or it can be a mixture of different types of privilege.  You can use a pre-created inventory (such as this one from Routledge or the lists provided by Barnett).  You can also generate a personal inventory by listing out privileges you experienced in the span of a week or a month.

Seek out resources.  Start locally.  Campus resources such as the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Diversity Office provide training and materials specific to your campus life and culture.  Then, think globally.  Professional organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, also have resources for faculty about diversity, inclusion, and privilege.

Invite conversations.  Conversations about privilege are happening informally on college campuses all of the time, but faculty can also find ways to ‘invite’ these conversations: create a brown bag series, invite guest speakers, or organize a book reading.  Faculty might also organize a viewing of a documentary or webinar followed by a moderated discussion. Remember, if you invite conversation, it’s important you listen to learn and not listen to respond.

Acknowledging and understanding more about our personal privileges helps us to recognize where these privileges manifest in our pedagogy.  Once we are able to see ourselves more clearly, we are also able to see where our personal privileges have created gaps in our teaching approach.

Here are just a few areas to consider:

Challenge privilege.  For instance, avoid normalizing certain behaviors in the classroom that privilege one student or student group over another, especially with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels.  For more, see Goodman’s lists about ways to challenge privilege identity in the classroom.

Representation matters.  Course materials should be representative not only of the subject being taught but of the subjects being taught.  Course materials (textbooks, articles, studies, tests, examples) should incorporate a range of experiences and identities that reflect the students in the class.

Vary approaches.  Part of ‘unpacking the invisible knapsack’ means that just because it worked for you as a student or that it worked/works for some students, doesn’t mean that it worked/works for others.  By varying your approach to teaching (lecture, small group, discussion, flipped), you build opportunities for different students and different strengths.

Appeal to the experts. When a difficult situation, conversation, or topic comes up in class, give the students the scholarship and allow them to do the deep digging.  Not only is it a great exercise in critical thinking and problem-solving, but it demonstrates that this conversation is historical, robust, and on-going.

Listen actively.  Listening doesn’t just refer to answering questions or responding to a point during discussion.  It includes reading body language, word choice, and tone.  It can also mean ‘listening’ to the silences: the emails not returned or the questions left blank.  Responding to these moments validate students’ experiences whether through positive feedback or an acknowledgment of their concerns.

Conversations about privilege inside and outside of the classroom can be cloaked in feelings of shame, guilt, and blame; however, personal discomfort with confronting privilege is no excuse to shy away from the topic—just as students, peers, and even ourselves cannot ‘opt-out’ of systems of privilege.  Instead, by recognizing, understanding, and challenging privilege personally and pedagogically, we, as educators, make the first concrete step in creating an inclusive classroom.

References

Adams, M., L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds. (2007).Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Barnett, P. E. (2013). Unpacking teachers’ invisible knapsacks: Social identity and privilege in higher education. Liberal Education. vol. 99, no. 3. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/unpacking-teachers-invisible-knapsacks-social-identity-and

Goodman, D. J. (2010). Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities. Diversity and Democracy.  American Association of Colleges and Universities. Spring 2010. vol. 13. no. 2. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/helping-students-explore-their-privileged-identities

Flaherty, C. (2016). Racial literacy as a professor’s responsibility. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/06/20/aaup-sessions-center-professors-role-and-responsibilities-regarding-classroom

Maher, F. A. & M. K. Tetreault. Diversity and privilege: We need to understand how privilege works before we can make diversity work. Academe. AAUP. January-February 2009. https://www.aaup.org/article/diversity-and-privilege#.WLcMB2_yuUk

McIntosh, P. (1989) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. The National SEED Project. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

 

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.

 

 

Bringing the “Back Row Student” to the Front of the Class

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The under-engaged student is perhaps the most elusive types of students you will encounter during your teaching career.  More often than not, they are the disembodied names on your roster, the ghostly presence of a student that you might begin to think was never real at all.  When they come to class, they are usually late, sit in the back row, put their headphones in, and their head down.  In an online class, they tend to vanish suddenly and quietly, reemerging to take an exam or submit an assignment.  These “back row” students present some interesting challenges, but also some of the most rewarding teaching experiences.

Here are some quick techniques on bringing the “back row student” to the front of the class:

  • It starts on the first day. Setting the right tone of the first day is crucial to engaging the under-engaged student.  Ask them to weigh-in on the “rights” and “responsibilities” for the class.  Allow them to vote on any negotiables such as assignments, readings, and topics.  By doing so, they have a hand in their learning experience and feel more responsible for its outcome.
  • Give it a personal touch. Whether you are online or face-to-face, find ways to engage students in the learning process.  Send a personal email.  Respond to every student at least once on a discussion board.  Come to class early.  Stay late.  Even the smallest gesture can make a big impression.
  • But don’t take it personally. Too often we don’t engage the ‘back row student’ because we take their non-participation personally.  We see their texting, yawning, or ignoring as an indictment of who we are as educators and human beings.  Rather than put ourselves out there (even as we ask them to), we shut down.  Instead, take a quick survey (I like the “Keep doing, Quit doing, and Start doing” survey) to refocus on the classroom experience from the student’s perspective.
  • Move it! When you stand at the front of the class, you are going to engage the students in your direct sphere of influence.  Walking around the rooms and through the aisles helps you communicate to students that you are targeting each one of them with your message.  In an online class, this might mean doing a weekly ‘check-in’ post to let students know that distance doesn’t mean distant.
  • Move them! If possible, on the first day, ask students to move into the empty seats in the front rows by using a “light touch”: a joke, an anecdote, or a simple “I’d appreciate it.”  If they try to move back to the last row, ask again (and again) until they realize that there is no “back row student” in your classroom.  Moving online students can be difficult, but there are ways to do it.  Create a quick video response to a discussion board post, ask a follow-up question, and write on students by name if they are being too quiet.
  • Round robin. Have students complete a quick feedback assessment and go around the room to ask for their responses.  Make it clear that you can’t “opt out” of participation even if you have to “come back to them”—demonstrating that students can’t hide from engagement. For online students, you can rotate a discussion leader position for each week, so that everyone has the chance to share in the responsibility.

When we can engage an under-engaged student, we may make a positive, lasting impression. As faculty members, we play a crucial role in the acculturation of a student to college and eventually to the world beyond it.

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.