History Has Its Eyes on Us! Pedagogies of Inclusiveness
By Annette Finley-Croswhite
This month the Center for Faculty Development and the Office of Faculty Diversity & Retention will host an event about Confederate statue movement featuring Professor Jonathan Leib, chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography. (See our interview with Dr. Leib in this edition of FacSheet). That event also allows us to discuss how such politically charged moments can have an impact on our students in the classroom, in this case our minority students especially.
For many years, scholars have drawn attention to inclusive pedagogies supporting an approach to teaching that takes into consideration the backgrounds of students in any classroom. Inclusive pedagogies promote consideration of classroom community as well as course content. Attention is devoted to social belonging and creating a climate where students get to know each other and work together. "To build community, we must recognize the value of each individual voice," bell hooks once wrote. In my own classes I often do this by focusing on naming stories and having students discuss how they got their name, how it is pronounced, and what they like to be called. I begin by telling them the story of my own name and why I've always been called by my middle name, Annette, as opposed to my first name, Stephanie. I explain that I resented teachers who insisted on calling me Stephanie, and so I want to recognize what students want to be called. Research shows that students with international or ethnic names are often ignored by students with more common names, especially in contributing to discussion posts. This focus on names on the first day of class — whether online, via Zoom, or on-site — thus helps to create an inclusive climate with a focus on mutual respect. It is also easier to pursue group work once students have overcome the awkward barrier of not knowing each other's names. Community before content is key.
Inclusive strategies also focus attention on assignment design and recognize that students come into any class with varied backgrounds and skill sets and knowledge about how colleges and universities operate. First-generation college students are at a distinct disadvantage in lacking familial knowledge about academia. I'll never forget when one student told me she didn't know it was possible to discuss course content with faculty in office hours. She thought one had to have special permission to talk to a faculty member outside of class, in what she called a "by-invitation-only event." Diverse backgrounds also mean that students may not instantly recognize the purpose of the coursework we design. Inclusive pedagogies thus pay close attention to how assignments are explained and structured. Mary-Ann Winkelmes, an art historian and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University, has developed a strategy called TILT, for Transparency in Learning and Teaching in higher education. She believes it is "urgent" that we "make learning processes explicit and equitably accessible for all students" in order to facilitate learning. The TILT method includes: 1) providing students with information about how they learn, the purpose behind assignments, and an explanation of the skills to be used and knowledge to be gained on specific assignments; 2) explaining to students in detail the tasks they will need to complete in order to do assignments; and 3) referencing the criteria for success, including rubrics as well as a discussion of real-world examples of work in the specific discipline. "Students do better when they are conscious of how they learn," Winkelmes articulates.
Content is obviously a key focus within inclusive pedagogies. Designing an inclusive course means paying attention to the kinds of perspectives and experiences explored in the material used in class. It means drawing on a wide range of examples to include multiple voices in course content, and that usually means revising and redesigning courses that have been taught for many years. Evoking inclusive pedagogies also involves recognizing and discussing the biases within any academic discipline. One might encourage students to consider the numbers of women, minorities, and underrepresented people in their chosen field and reflect on the impact such demographics may have had on their discipline and the privileging of subject content within that discipline.
Finally, inclusive pedagogies also take into consideration the way the real world interacts with classroom scenarios. We are living right now inside a pandemic at a moment when the realities of racial injustice have also come to the fore, especially for those privileged within society who do not live with the negative ramifications of race on a daily basis and are thus often blind to its consequences. We must recognize that many of our students are traumatized by COVID-19 and/or by events linked to racial violence. In terms of the latter, most faculty are not trained in critical race theory even though the content of our courses and their revision might today touch on race, racism and anti-racism. This knowledge forces us as teachers to consider trauma-informed pedagogy, an approach that encourages instructors to recognize the impact of trauma on student lives, and to be more attentive in the classroom to actions or course content that might "trigger" negative reactions. It is particularly important now to consider the trauma our minority students may be feeling in reaction to contemporary social injustice. Medical specialists refer to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and studies of Holocaust survivors have theorized that DNA contains biological memory that can have negative consequences for second- and third-generation survivors, taking the forms of hypertension and psychological distress, to give just two examples. We can assume, therefore, that the same is true for the descendants of other kinds of violence, such as the cruelty tied to slavery in the United States and the abuses of Jim Crow. We must recognize as well that many student spectators to the current manifestations of racial violence that we see all too frequently on the news today are also traumatized. Being knowledgeable about trauma pedagogy in the current environment should thus be utmost in the minds of college and university teachers.
This article begins with a bow to a song penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda for the musical "Hamilton," "History Has Its Eyes on You." In the wake of George Floyd's murder in May 2020, many colleges and universities crafted impressive statements denouncing the outcomes of racial injustice that were then posted to official websites. But how history "remembers" this moment inside academia in general will also likely be tied to how course content is transformed — or not — by the incorporation of inclusive strategies in all that we do. As scholar-teachers and instructors, we must remember that history really does have its eyes on us!