Inclusive Teaching in Exclusionary Times

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it feels like an out-of-body experience trying to write a post that engages with teaching and learning US History in this particular historical moment. My students are finding it difficult to remove themselves from their urgent and fraught present; my colleagues perhaps even more so. I know that history–and in particular the type of empathetic approach to the past that historical study empowers us to have–offers much to us and to our students as we all try to untangle the complicated strands of what the election of Donald Trump as president means for us individually and collectively. US history is in many ways the story of how racist structures shaped a diverse and multicultural society, and it also the story of how that “society” often recoils (sometimes violently) at its diverse and multicultural character. This country is not old at all, historically speaking, and its past–seemingly at a distant remove for many of our students–is actually a lot more immediate than most give it credit for. As historians and classroom practitioners, we know this.

But that’s not what my students or my colleagues wanted to hear in the hours and days after the election. Don’t get me wrong–they know that context is important, that the Trump movement reflects larger historical currents, they know all that stuff. But the sense I get is that, right now, they don’t really want to talk about the election and its aftermath in those ways. 

And right now, I’m not sure I do, either.

Structures of inequality and white supremacy. Privilege and power. The tangled knot of how the US and its people have constructed “race” over their history. Can those subjects compete, in this immediate and raw present, with the very real fears my students have? Deportation. Hate crimes. Having a marriage invalidated. Losing vital health coverage. Themselves or family members being deployed to somewhere like Syria. And, perhaps most essentially, about living in a society surrounded by people who may very well have voted for the literal and living repudiation of their right to exist as citizens? I know that these fears are the products of those structures of inequality. I know that we cannot stir these things apart. So do my students. But they don’t need a scholarly construct in which to place their visceral fear, anger, and sadness. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I’m  in the shape to provide that for them anyway.

So what do we do? Stop class and “just talk” for the rest of the semester? I don’t think that serves any of us well; indeed, I think that is in some ways to surrender our agency and forfeit that of our students. But the other side of the spectrum is equally intolerable; to compartmentalize the present milieu and remove it from our classroom spaces in favor of “learning” does violence to our students’ and our own sense of self-awareness and identity. That doesn’t promote learning at all. As is the case on so many occasions, a sense of balance informed by an awareness of our pedagogy and our student’s needs seems essential here.

As someone who works in Faculty Development, directing my university’s teaching and learning center, I’m fortunate to be in a professional community where lots of really smart and experienced people are thinking about these very things. In fact, I’m drafting this post while attending the national conference for faculty development/teaching and learning folks, and the very air here is suffused with these types of discussions. One set of resources that I’ve found useful, and have passed on to many faculty colleagues, comes from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. For those of us struggling with even the basic questions of if and how to address the election in our classes, this page on post-election classroom teaching and its linked resources are a good place to start. What I like about this page is its emphasis on inclusive teaching, an enormously valuable pedagogical framework in general–not just for “troubled times.”

Inclusive teaching is best seen as a continuous practice of critical reflection. In our classes, with and among our students, are we using strategies that include all of our students in the class space and collective endeavor of our courses? To answer this simple, but far from easy, question, we ought to reflect upon the ways we interact with our students and the ways in which we create space for our students to interact with each other. Moreover, we need to be continually assessing our course content–are we selecting and creating assignments and activities that represent a narrow band of voices and perspectives? Or are we inviting our students into a wider, richer, and more challenging intellectual world through a variety of scholarly voices and historical perspectives? Did I assign a bunch of monographs all written by men? Are my primary source readings only drawn from high politics and not other social or cultural spaces? Do my assignments ask students to create their own analysis of historical perspectives, or merely parrot established arguments? Finally, we should think about how we mediate between ourselves, our course content, and our students: are our day-to-day classroom practices inclusive? This question ranges from considerations we’re all generally familiar with (differentiated instruction, perhaps, or our pacing and tone during lectures) to the less-tangible aspects of our practice (in what ways are we helping our students to connect with the material? Who are we calling on in class, and how often?)

Don’t get me wrong: like any set of ideas or tactics, inclusive teaching is no cure-all. But expecting that type of magic solution is a fool’s errand. What inclusive teaching does, though, is remarkably important and offers us hope for difficult times. It is a pedagogical mindset that challenges us to be critically reflective practitioners. It asks us to see ourselves and the work we do from the perspective of others. In this sense, it helps us connect this essential trait of historical scholarship-the ability to discern and comprehend various perspectives-with our own teaching to make us better practitioners of both history and pedagogy. Most importantly for our current context, though, is that inclusive pedagogy asks us to make a commitment to an entire approach. As the saying goes, “it’s not a moment, it’s a movement.” Inclusive teaching is a teaching and learning worldview that encompasses everything from course design to daily practice, from content selection to student assessments. Sometimes a particularly difficult event can be a clarifying experience, one that helps us remember and affirm our core values. I think this is particularly true of this fraught political climate as it intersects with our role as educators. We have an opportunity to model for our students the type of empathy and inclusion, discernment and generosity, that seems to have gone missing in many public quarters. This is essential work in any context; it will only become more so as we enter an uncertain era.

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