Here’s an inconvenient truth about inclusive teaching: there are no quick fixes. It’s inconvenient because faculty are stressed. They face pressures in their research, service, and increasingly in their teaching that the pandemic has made almost unbearable, and there seems to be no end in sight when it comes to the new tools, technologies, tips, and programs that faculty developers are rolling out to “support” their career advancement. So, when faculty come to me with a problem, they want an answer. A quick-guide on how to respond to microaggressions. Language for the disability statement in their syllabus. A new author they can add to their course to make it more diverse and inclusive. A new way to write their course policy on academic integrity or late assignments.
Some of the faculty who want a quick fix already “get it,” meaning they come in valuing diversity and inclusion and/or come in with a strong critical analysis (think antiracist, feminist, queer, critical disability, etc.). Others don’t necessarily come in with those values but understand that they need to do better, based on a complaint, evaluations, or an improvement plan of some sort. When they get a quick fix on our website, they often come back to us and say, “It didn’t work.” That’s because the formula of values and practice is missing the addition of a third variable: relationships. Who are you to your students? Do they respect you? Do they trust you? Do they respect and trust each other? How do they feel in your class?
Inclusive teaching and relationships
Inclusive teaching is built on relationships, and all inclusive teaching practices–whether it’s warm-toned language in your syllabus, universally accessible course design, diversity in the curriculum, helping students connect content to their lives and experiences–go further when there’s community and connection between students and between students and their instructors.
In other words, we need to take the time to create inclusive learning communities if we’re going to make the most of teaching and learning.
A big part of my job of coaching faculty is to ask them to pause for a second and explore the problem. Do I have a briefcase full of quick-guides? Yes, but first, I want to know more about their experience of teaching, and what is motivating them to seek out a solution. Oftentimes, it’s a sense of alienation from their students and a desire for authentic connection. Here are some examples of things I’ve heard from faculty when I ask them what they want for their students:
- “I wish they were more engaged in class/online.”
- “I want them to learn for learning’s sake.”
- “I want them to take ownership over their learning and their time and assignments.”
- “I wish they saw the value of this content in the way I do.”
- “I want more of them to come to office hours and to come more often.”
- “I don’t want to do harm/get it wrong.”
In all these conversations, faculty are highlighting a gap between what they value and what is happening in their interactions (or lack of interaction) with students.
The second question I ask in one form or another is, “Do your students know that this is what you want for them?” Another way of asking the question is, “Do you talk to them about this?” This is the humdinger. For so many instructors, whether they’re a TA, someone just starting out, or a seasoned professor with decades of experience, the answer is, “no.” For so many of us, we don’t stop to chat with our students about what our hopes and dreams are for the class, or what we expect from ourselves and from others as we embark on the journey. We don’t take a minute to laugh or process what’s happening in the world or on campus at any given time.
We often don’t allow ourselves these moments of connection because connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability goes against everything we’ve been taught about expertise, authority, and credibility in academia. But the research shows that students do better when they have strong connections with instructors and with one another (Huddy, 2015), and that relatedness is a big part of how students hold themselves accountable and adhere to shared norms (Kanet-Maymon et. al., 2015). Relationships are the bridge between values and practice.
The nuts and bolts of community and connection in the classroom.
So how do we do better at connecting with our students to set the stage for inclusive, resilient, and accountable learning?
Start strong. Introductions and low-stake interactions in the syllabus, in your communications, and in class can reduce intimidation and help students get ready to learn.
- Send a welcome email before your course begins, with the syllabus, a description of the LMS site, and an explanation of how to prepare (if applicable) and what they can expect on the first day.
- Introduce yourself as a scholar and teacher. Consider sharing other aspects of your life or identity that help students relate to you and understand you as more than a distant authority figure.
- Make time for students to introduce themselves and make use of icebreakers to find out more about one another.
- Begin each class session with a greeting. Check in with your students to see how they’re feeling about midterms, the weather, or current events and collective experiences if you feel comfortable.
Be transparent. Explaining what students will learn and do and why it’s important is a big part of building trust and respect.
- Give the why of the course and the material that they will learn. How does it connect to the broader curriculum? What will they learn and do? How does it connect to their careers and lived experiences?
- Embrace your role as a representative of the field and a role model for students. Share your own passion for the material, and what you like about teaching it and why you enjoy interacting with your students.
- Model a growth mindset for students by sharing your own challenges as a student, or even as a scholar and teacher. How did/do you overcome challenges?
Use warm-toned and success-oriented language. This helps students take ownership over their learning, course policies, and academic behaviors by charting a path to academic success, rather than the consequences for failure.
- Express care for your students in your descriptions, communications, and policies. Why is it important to you that students turn their work in on time? Or use notes but not the book on an assessment? Or to come to office hours?
- Give students a path to success. Be specific about what will need to happen to achieve their learning goals versus just to get the grade.
- Acknowledge challenges and provide a clear protocol for when things get tough or when expectations aren’t met. When and how should students reach out if they’re facing a challenge? How will you respond?
- Use your own style. Expressions of care and growth mindset need to be authentic to you if they are going to come across to students as genuine. If humor is your thing, go for it. If your style is more dry or formal, do that! The point is to encourage students to engage, to learn, and to do the right thing.
Create shared norms and goals. Policies will only get you so far. Students respond much better to a social contract where support and accountability–not punishment–are at the center.
- Ask your students what they want to get out of the course, and out of units and assessments to create a list of shared goals. Consider putting them in a shared document to revise/refer back to throughout the course.
- Ask your students what they can expect of themselves, of each other, and of you to create a list of shared norms and expectations. Consider putting them in a shared doc to revise/refer back to throughout the course.
From quick fixes to community and connection
It’s important that faculty developers and instructional coaches continue to provide short-term strategies for inclusive teaching. Concrete tips and strategies around pronoun usage, inclusive discussions, or syllabus language are things instructors can do now, and they’re a crucial part of fostering community and connection. But we must also continue to emphasize the importance of the long-term goals. If we thread authenticity through our courses with genuine attempts to connect with our students, we lay the groundwork for learning communities that are more willing to communicate across differences, that are more capable of accepting challenges, that are more accountable to one another, and that are more resilient to the increasing challenges of our time.
Jackson Christopher Bartlett, PhD, associate director for Instructional & Professional Development in Inclusive Teaching & Founder & CEO of Middletown Education Center, LLC.
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