Teaching Diversity: Learning Your Students, Learning Yourself

Teaching Diversity: Learning Your Students, Learning Yourself

“Teaching Diversity: Learning Your Students, Learning Yourself”

In considering a title for this essay my first thought was to use the word “knowing” in place of “learning”. Certainly, being able to affirmatively claim the stance of “knowing” is a powerful and important quality of the educational process. As an African American woman who is part of the academy, I am often intrigued by the politicization of who gets to determine “knowledge” and what “knowledge” is valued, and under what circumstances it becomes legitimated. This has been the basis of much of the multicultural debate within academe and continues to spark debate among higher education’s policy-makers and “keepers of the canon”.

In the area of teaching diversity “knowing” has garnered an active and productive field of research and practice from an interdisciplinary roster of scholars. Some teachers-scholars that have had a lasting and profound impact upon me and upon the way I teach and think about teaching include hooks (1994; 2004), Banks (1995;1997), Adams, Bell and Griffin (1997), Ladson-Billings (1996), Lowen (1995) Nieto (2002), Hardiman and Jackson (1997), Giroux (2003), and Giroux and McLaren (1994). In my discipline of communication studies there is a very committed and productive community of scholars that continues to affirmatively support the dialogue about the importance of teaching diversity within our curriculum. The 2002 edited volume Included in communication: learning climates that cultivate racial and ethnic diversity provides a pedagogically sound basis for this dialogue. I strongly encourage teachers in communication studies to use the book as a primer to support their interest in teaching racial and ethnic diversity.

As I reflected upon the general process of teaching, and the specific process of teaching diversity the work involved in “learning” made more sense for this essay’s title. Yes, there are certain facts and figures that we can know. For instance, our society is experiencing major and profound demographic changes. It is predicted that by the year 2050 the number of white European Americans will represent about 53% of the population. By that time Hispanics living in the United States will account for 24% of the total population, eclipsing African Americans who have traditionally been the country’s largest racial minority group (Marger, 2003). The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 will begin reaching retirement age between 2010 and 2020, and the Census Bureau projections expect that nearly 90 million people in the United States will be age 65 or older by 2060 (Hines, 2001).

Those are the facts and figures that are “knowable”. However, the classroom that incorporates diversity within its content should encourage participants to move beyond the “knowledge” in order to learn and consider the potentialities of that knowledge for themselves, their community, their country and global society. In order to facilitate that process, I think that learning about self and others will support an environment where diversity education isboth dynamic and empowering. I see this “learning” as extremely rewarding because it has the potential to provide our students with the knowledge and the motivation to become engaged in civic issues and affairs far beyond the limited time that they spend with us in the academy. In order to meet this challenge, teachers must be willing to engage in learning.

Learning Your Students

As is the case with other content areas in most college classrooms, students who engage themselves, the teacher, and their fellow class members around the topic of diversity do so from different vantage points and with varying, multiple levels of awareness. Clearly, each person’s early socialization during their formative years has served to imprint upon them a world view of assumptions concerning race, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, age, sexual orientation, and ability/disability(Harro, 200). In an earlier CTE essay written with Robert Smith in Specialty Studies we addressed these realities of social development, noting that diversity is multi-faceted and that students will have varying levels of understanding, experiences, and sophistication across them. For instance, a member of the class may have a well-developed consciousness about race and racism but may have had limited experience about sexual orientation, or may have unaware biases about issues around this topic.

Learning requires multiple levels of engagement. As a social constructivist I subscribe to the notion that knowledge is most powerful when it emerges through interaction. In my teaching interaction is a vital part of the overall process that contributes to my ability to learn who my students are as participants in the class and how they understand course concepts. I encourage participants to distinguish between interactions that qualify as either dialogue or debate (see figure 1) and to think about which of these interactions have more utility for our class. The consensus is that dialogue can best facilitate where we want to go in our course. Levels of engagement that have been particularly helpful in promoting dialogic learning in these courses include employing written student journals and small seminar discussion groups. Both of these strategies encourage more introspection and more opportunities to share ideas, beliefs, and values in smaller, non-threatening venues. It also affords me the opportunity to provide immediate feedback to students in the manner that may be more useful to them. It is through these interactions that students are often able to easily and comfortably address their questions and concerns to me about the importance, clarity, and accuracy of the readings, lectures, video presentations, or class comments.

I’ve also found that students will have preconceived notions and expectations about you as their instructor. Their socialization lenses are fixed upon you and their expectations of who you should be are initially framed from these perspectives. As an African American faculty member teaching a student population that is over 90% white, the challenge to be accepted as a legitimate educator is present for both me and many other African American colleagues. In our casual conversations we often share stories of students who openly challenge our authority. At times the challenge may be directed toward our intellect or knowledge of the subject matter, at other times the focus is upon our suitability to lead. The implication here is: are you qualified to teach me? Gaining the respect of students is an issue most teachers must address, but the nuances of that process may be doubly affected when viewed through the lens of race, as well as other diversity dimensions (e.g. gender, culture, or national origin). What I have found in diversity courses is that some students will question your facilitation of the course. Are you presenting the material in an unbiased fashion? Are you treating everyone fairly across-the-board? This is an important issue for all teachers to consider, but it can be particularly difficult for a faculty member of color.

Learning Yourself

As scholars we often prefer one type of research tradition over another. I believe that this is also the case with our teaching. It was important for me to learn what pedagogies align or link/interface with my philosophy of teaching. For me, it quickly migrated away from the conventional mode of perceiving teaching as a linear enterprise (e.g. information transmitted to student which they passively receive). Freire (1970) rightly used the “banking” metaphor to describe this form of instruction that limits the potential for a student to create the learning in a way that is most accessible to her or him. From that tradition I moved toward thinking about teaching that promotes collaborative learning, and that is still part of my philosophical base. These days I am migrating toward and wish to more fully employ a critical pedagogy – a transformative pedagogy -- to my teaching. I believe that as a diversity educator critical pedagogy that seeks to transform the academy and the wider community is central to the work in my classroom. Here, the writings of bell hooks (1994; 2003) and the edited volume Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (Adams, Bell, and Griffin, 1997) have been very influential in my learning. These works have challenged me to learn more about who I am as a teacher, what I believe and how to best construct the learning environment for my students. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom hooks states that accomplishing transformation of academic teaching will be a lengthy endeavor that at times may be frustrating and disheartening:

To commit ourselves to the work of transforming the academy so that it will be

a place where cultural diversity informs every aspect of our learning, we must

embrace struggle and sacrifice. We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot

despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief

in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and

rejoices in collective dedication to truth (p. 33).

It has been wonderful to work in a university that supports my efforts to teach diversity and to infuse these issues across my courses. I hope that as UNCW explores revisions to the basic studies curriculum that it will adopt a diversity requirement to provide educationally sound opportunities to our students around these issues. My hope is that by adding a diversity requirement to basic studies academic departments will review their current offerings and fully support faculty who desire to significantly revise a current course or develop a new course with a diversity focus. In response to UNCW’s newly-adopted diversity initiative plan, establishing curriculum development grants and offering financial support for workshops that explore diversity education and pedagogy would demonstrate visible, proactive support for the university’s efforts to offer an expansive range of multicultural opportunities to our students.


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