Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion Task Force: Chammie Austin, Kathleen Cooper, David Johnson

There is a growing recognition of the need for faculty to facilitate the creation of a classroom environment that is more inclusive and encouraging of diverse perspectives. While many faculty acknowledge the significance of this issue, many continue to struggle with how to effectively establish these learning environments. This workshop will assist faculty members with identifying challenges of and generating strategies to support an active, inclusive, and diverse learning environment.

What is diversity? And why does it matter?
Diversity is a term that can have many different meanings depending on context. For many of us, diversity is conceptualized along ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, political affiliation/beliefs, and gender lines, just to name a few. Diversity, however, can also refer to the unique experiences, backgrounds, and skillsets that students bring to their learning environments. Diversity matters, in part, because our students come to Maryville with varied experiences and preconceptions that significantly impact their learning and the overall learning environment.

What is an inclusive environment?
The inclusive classroom is one in which both instructors and students collaboratively work together to establish an environment in which every member feels a sense of safety, support, and are equally encouraged to express her or his perspectives. Moreover, an inclusive classroom environment takes into account the varied worldviews and experiences that students bring and encourages an exploration of how these varied worldviews and experiences inform their learning. Faculty promoting inclusivity in the classroom take appropriate steps to validate the various perspectives of the student learner and avoid marginalizing practices.

Potential Topics of Discussion

Establishing an inclusive classroom environment requires addressing a range of concerns/challenges. Below are a few topics that we hope proves helpful as you endeavor to provide the type of environment that promotes and maximizes learning for all students.

  • Examining our hidden/unconscious biases
  • Addressing an Ethnically Diverse Student Population
  • Discussing Gender Differences in the Classroom
  • A Closer look at Social Class Dynamics and the Learning Environment
  • Inclusion Strategies for Students in Various Colleges and Schools
Inclusion and Diversity Workshop Questions/Points to Consider

Below are a few questions we ask you to ponder prior to attending this workshop. You do not need to write any responses, but at least give some thought to these and be prepared to share in an engaging discussion.

1. How do you define/understand diversity and inclusion?
2. What aspects/types of diversity are most salient to you? Your area?
3. What are some of the challenges/controversial issues you deal with as they relate to diversity?
4. Can you identify any obstacles/barriers to creating an inclusive environment specific to your area of teaching?

Suggestions for Establishing a Culturally Inclusive Environment

Below are some suggestions for establishing an inclusive environment that research has shown to increase participation and facilitate learning.

1. Establish safety/ground rules.
Setting the ground/safety rules is an important first step in creating an inclusive classroom environment. Students should be made aware that all perspectives will be respected. Students should be encouraged to participate in establishing the ground rules. Rules should be shared at the outset of the class and periodically throughout the semester as needed.

2. Be genuine and authentic and encourage this in students.
One of the ways that we as instructors can foster an inclusive learning environment is to open, honest, and authentic with students. Of course, this does not mean that we disclose every thought that we have, yet that we are genuine in our interactions with them. Research suggests that we do more harm to the learning environment when we are less than genuine (e.g. sugarcoat) our feedback to students.

3. Adopt an openness to learning perspective.
While instructors are often the experts/authority on course subject matter, students also bring a wealth and variety of “expertise” to the learning environment as well. As instructors, we can better cultivate an inclusive environment and one that is respectful of diverse perspectives if we are open to learning about the various expertise that student bring to the active learning environment. Adopting an openness and willingness to learn from students de-emphasizes the inherent power dynamics that exists as well as conveys a sense of valuing the students’ contributions.

4. Convey interest and understanding by asking questions and taking an interest in students’ perspectives/experiences.
Course instructors can promote an inclusive learning environment by initiating an inquiry into students’ various perspectives. Asking students (rather than waiting for them to share) and taking an interest in their experiences promotes a sense of belonging that much of the literature indicates is an important aspect of maximizing learning and retention.

5. Take ownership of statements/perspective.
As course instructors, it is imperative that we use “I” statements and model taking ownership of our thoughts and beliefs. In addition to modeling this responsible behavior, we also help students to discern personal opinion/values/beliefs from scholarly evidence, if the two are different.

6. Avoid having a “cultural representative.”
Research has demonstrated that one of the more effective ways of hindering the establishment of a culturally inclusive environment is to “elect” a “cultural representative.” Research suggests that even well-intentioned faculty often select a cultural representative or mascot to speak for the other members of their demographic group.

7. Be brave.
There will be instances where difficult topics will arise and warrant discussion. Rather than avoiding these topics/dialogues, inclusive environments allow and encourage these discussions to happen. One way to facilitate these difficult dialogues is to acknowledge how scary and uncomfortable the conversations can be.