The University Record, January 28, 1997

Workshop participants discuss inclusivity in the classroom

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

 

It took students and faculty about 30 seconds to agree that having a mix of students from diverse backgrounds seated in one room does not make a multicultural, inclusive classroom.

"Being in the same room is not enough. It is what we say in the room and how we relate and respond to each other," that determines whether a classroom is inclusive or not, said Marcus C. Ammerlaan, lecturer in biology. "How comfortable we feel in a classroom---how safe we feel---is the measure of how successful the multicultural classroom is."

Ammerlaan was one of approximately 75 faculty and students who attended an MLK Day workshop where they shared concerns and strategized about how to create an inclusive classroom. The workshop was sponsored by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT).

"Faculty and GSIs (graduate student instructors) really want to create inclusive classrooms and help students learn as much as possible but most are not sure exactly how to go about it," said Constance E. Cook, director of CRLT. "The risks of working toward an inclusive classroom are high because students may express their views more candidly and engage in heated discussions, but the rewards are substantial. Students feel more comfortable and learn more."

"The trick is figuring out how to discuss sensitive issues in an open way without either offending anyone or detouring the discussion," Ammerlaan said.

"I find myself wary of suggesting topics such as race or age," noted Jennifer L. Jackson, lecturer with the English Composition Board. "Instructors really need experience to handle a full-blown discussion about tense issues." Martha Hall Gach, program manager at CRLT, agreed with Jackson, saying later that "it is easier to stay away from conflictive topics if we don't know how to handle passionate behavior."

Despite these obstacles, participants in the workshop agreed that a safe, open multicultural classroom was an ideal to reach for and began brainstorming for practical methods that can increase comfort levels in the classroom.

 

LS&A Junior Amy B. Eiferman reminded instructors that it is critical that they know the students' names and use them. "Students in a diverse classroom need to get to know each other and understand each other's backgrounds and where they are coming from so they become individuals rather than tokens. It's hard to do that if you don't know their names."

 

LS&A senior Matthew M. Sims added that instructors need to remind their classes to think in terms of "I think this way because I come from this kind of background" so that they are open to other perspectives from other backgrounds.

 

Jackson suggested that instructors ask students to interview each other in the first week of the semester and then introduce their interview partner to the class. "These kinds of icebreakers lower everyone's guard."

 

A graduate student instructor in the sciences pointed out that students in labs might think it was silly to introduce themselves to the class, but asking students to report on their favorite and least favorite science class, and what made the difference, as well as their career goals and values, helps students get to know each other as individuals.

 

Michelle L. Segar, a GSI in the Women's Studies Program, said that she consciously "invited students to be open about their opinions and feelings. Otherwise, they won't do it."

Lisa DeFrank-Cole, a program assistant with CRLT, stressed that once the invitation is out there, it is important to set ground rules for discussing sensitive topics at the very beginning of the semester. Kristen P. Boyle-Heimann, a GSI in the School of Education, added that the "ground rules should be developed with the students" so that they are sensitized to the need for limits and for civility, and so they buy into the rules.

 

Others added that instructors should seek specific feedback early in the semester from students about the comfort and safety level in the classroom. Unless they are asked directly, students do not think to include those feelings in a classroom assessment.

Segar, who teaches a course in women's health, added that she encourages students to analyze health research by examining who was left out of the study---women, men, particular racial or ethnic groups, particular income groups and so on.

Ammerlaan added that "the truths we find . . . depend on the questions we ask," so to make sure all the questions are asked, he tells students at the beginning of the semester that he intends always to jump in and present the under-discussed point of view.