Who Are You Excluding? Seeing the Diversity in Your Classroom

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

When developing this year’s theme of Inclusive Teaching, Reinert Center staff and advisory board members considered this question: Who are we excluding in our courses?

Even without being aware of it, our courses may create unnecessary obstacles to learning for some or many of our students.

For instance, my classroom might be a space where extroverts are implicitly rewarded for jumping into class discussions quickly, verbally.  Or my exams may be designed in ways that implicitly reward students whose language proficiency allows them to read English as quickly as I do.

The content in my course might artificially distort students’ views of who is allowed or encouraged to be scholars in my field. Or I may ask (at the start of a term, as a way to build connections with students) where students’ families used to go on summer vacations, not realizing that I am potentially alienating students in certain socio-economic classes who may not have had the means to go on summer vacations.

By not explaining that I assign student groups randomly, I may inadvertently lead minority students in my class to wonder if they’ve been placed in a group as a “representative” of their racial or gender or nationality group. Or when using my perceptions of a student’s physical appearance to determine which pronoun to use in referring to her or him, I may unwittingly reinforce a binary view of gender identity and create an exclusion for a student who experiences gender in a non-binary way.

These are just some of the ways our choices in course design and instruction may – without our intending to – reward certain kinds of learners or identities and perhaps disadvantage others. We all do this; in many ways, it’s unavoidable. Intuitively, we often design courses that would work very well for the kinds of students we ourselves were but not necessarily for diverse group of students who enroll in our courses. Therefore, it can be useful to examine our course design and instruction choices through the lens of different kinds of difference, in order to identify – and mitigate – possible sites of difficulty.

Particularly on campuses with a majority-white (or majority-female or majority-Christian) student body, it can be difficult to see the different kinds of difference within our classrooms.  Here are just some of the kinds of diversity we encounter, whether differences are immediately apparent to us or not:

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The list goes on. And no student, no instructor, is just one of these things. Identity is inherently intersectional.

In the end, we cannot know all the different kinds of difference that are represented within a single group of students in a single classroom. But we can become aware of our own personal biases, assumptions, and expectations, as well as the ways in which these may create barriers for students.  And we can engage students in a range of activities and discussions that help us to better understand who they are and what they need to be successful in achieving the rigorous learning we want for all students.

To see some common strategies for uncovering the diversity within a classroom see this Resource Guide on Seeing the Diversity in Your Classroom [LINK].

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu.

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