Reflecting on Diversity Discussions in the Classroom: A Praxis Workshop Follow Up

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Mitch Lorenz and Yang Li, Graduate Assistants, Reinert Center

In our final Praxis Workshop of the semester, attendees explored the challenges of broaching the topic of diversity with students in class discussions. Participants reflected on how diversity discussions fit in their classrooms and what challenges they face when planning diversity discussions or when they occur spontaneously. In continuing the Ignation principle of reflection, we are revisiting the major points of the workshop and reflecting on our insights as teachers.  See James Fortney’s blog post related to the content of this Praxis Workshop for additional context.

What is “diversity?”

A working definition put forward in the workshop identified diversity as individual differences or similarities that are also characteristic of an individual’s social identity. The use of the words “difference” and “similarity” highlight that diversity can take almost infinite forms, sidestepping the notion that diversity is only important for race, gender, sexuality or other forms of difference most commonly associated with the term “diversity.” Secondly, the clarification within the definition that these similarities and difference must be related to social identity is what really solidifies the “diversity” component, as difference in shirt color is unlikely to be social identity related, but many other visible and less obvious components of identity may be relevant in the classroom.

Why Diversity Discussions?

This question represents the most challenging aspect of the topic of the recent Praxis Workshop: WHY should I prepare for diversity discussion in my classroom?  As a psychologist (Mitch and an international student in School of Education (Emily), we found it easy to imagine ways in which diversity discussions would be important in our teaching. In psychology, many topics in the course content are specifically related to diversity, providing numerous opportunities for discussions related to diversity. For Emily, her experiences as a student provide great insight into how diversity discussions, even when not directly necessary for class content, can help make students feel more comfortable engaging with each other, and the course material. She shares this example:

As an international student, sometimes in a course, such as American Educational History, you still feel that diversity discussions will enhance learning. Discussing diversity may help students realize that one individual country’s history or character is not only relevant within their borders, but also the whole world. In a curriculum theory course based on understanding and analyzing the American economy, politics, and culture, it would not have been necessary to engage in diversity discussions to teach the content. However, our professor did engage students from different countries to discuss their countries’ educational history and create a global dialogue to ease the misunderstanding of the clichés and stereotypes associated with various countries. By the end of the class, we all had a more open-minded and friendly relationship with one another. We understood that every method and way of teaching has advantages and disadvantages and when we all cooperate and share more thoughts and concerns about our education, we see more similarities than differences.

This example illustrates how the addition of diversity discussions when they were not necessary based on the course content helped ease discomfort of international students, allowing for more productive work in the class. For teachers in some fields (e.g., physics, math), diversity-specific course content (e.g., bias, stereotypes) is unlikely but engaging in discussions related to diversity may still help students learn more effectively. Remember, diversity discussions are not only initiated by instructors but may also occur spontaneously through prompting from a student question, comment, or reference to a recent event. This alone necessitates at least being prepared for diversity discussions should they arise. Here are a few other reasons we think diversity discussion are important in STEM classrooms in which the link between diversity and the course content may not be obvious:

1)      Avoiding diversity discussions altogether ignores differences between the instructor and students and between students. How students interact with course content may differ depending on how aware they are of these differences and how they interpret them. An example of this is differences in how majors interact with course content compared with non-majors, who may feel an acute difference in their status in the course.

2)      STEM fields are rife with stereotypes. For example some groups are commonly stereotyped as low achieving (e.g., women in math) and others are stereotypes as high achieving (e.g., Asian students in math). See this relevant post on stereotype-threat as an example of one way in which diversity has a direct impact on achievement, especially in STEM fields.

Preparing students for the “real world.” Course content is only one aspect of preparing students for life after college and awareness of how difference can impact your field will lead to graduates better equipped for navigating diverse workplaces.

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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