Cultural competency is a work in progress. As a straight, cis-gender Caucasian woman, I have experienced some inequality but not to the extent of others—something that the current criticism of white feminism has thrown into stark relief. However well-intentioned I may be, successfully teaching a diverse body of students requires the ability to step out of myself and consider what I may be missing, to listen instead of speaking, and to learn to accept the criticism of students and colleagues as an opportunity to learn. I am by no means perfect, but I am willing to be wrong and to learn to be a better teacher, researcher, and colleague.
Over years of teaching I have learned important strategies for creating a more inclusive classroom, for example: not asking students of color to speak for an entire group, avoiding gendered language (saying “you all” instead of “you guys,” for example), and being certain to “see” all students in the class and not simply the students who feel confident being more vocal. Once a healthy classroom environment is established, by far the largest student concern is that students see people like themselves in the course material. At the beginning of each semester I ask students to respond to a series of writing prompts, which includes the question “what worries you about this class?” In my Intimate Relationships class, students who were asexual, reported mental disorders, identified as LGBTQ+, never intended to marry or have children, or engaged in polyamory worried that the class held nothing for them.
I vividly recall observing an LGBTQ+ student as they responded to a YouTube video of the spoken word poem “To The Boys Who Will One Day Date My Daughter,” by Jesse Parent. The student slouched in the front row, feet kicked out, fiddling with their pencil, largely ignoring the video. Near the end of the piece, Parent pauses, then says “To the girls who may one day date my daughter . . . .” The student’s head shot up, they sat up in their seat, and their countenance and body posture suddenly expressed interest and attention. Laws and social norms may enforce equality, but it is the small, everyday moments that produce a feeling of inclusion. I strive to create these everyday moments through inclusive language use, course content, and media use.
To date, most of the textbooks I have reviewed do not begin to address this level of diversity, which means bringing in outside materials: videos, academic articles, reputable blog posts, and so on. I am embedded in an online community for the teaching of Sociology, where members routinely share materials that can be drawn from to represent a more diverse world in the classroom. Mirroring diversity in course materials is a work in progress for me.
As a first-generation student, I understand how difficult it can be to navigate the “hidden curriculum” of college life—the unspoken norms, values, and expectations that other students seem to navigate with ease. I address these issues by, first, telling students that I am a first-generation student, second, by building assignments into my courses that teach adult learning skills, and third, by making myself accessible to students who have questions. One semester I helped a first-year student who had never used a computer to send his first email. There should be no shame in not knowing how to “do” college.
Working with students with disabilities as an Adaptive Technology Specialist at Kansas State University gave me the opportunity to understand how the college classroom can create challenges for some students. Arranging for accommodations for students with disabilities (like coordinating and filming sign language interpreters for an online class, arranging for transcription services, learning to use adaptive software, and working with students whose anxiety or dyslexia made exams a harrowing experience) has informed choices I have made in my courses. For example, the reading guides I provide in Intimate Relationships and Victimology help all students focus on important material. Reading guides then lead to frequent, low-stakes, untimed open-note/open-book quizzes given online, reducing anxiety and allowing for use of adaptive technology. When we allow for technology use, we empower students with cognitive or physical disabilities to function on their own instead of being reliant on another person. The student can focus on learning rather than the problem of access.
Students with race, class, or gender privilege often resist course material that reveals deep inequality that benefits them. I have found that when students hear the personal experiences of their peers, they find it much more difficult to dismiss new ideas. Yet some subjects—like race—are so politically and emotionally charged that leading a guided discussion can be difficult. In my Victimology class, I circumvented this problem by asked students to write, anonymously, about an instance of racism they had experienced, witnessed, or heard about, telling them that I would read them aloud and that they could turn in a blank sheet if they chose. After collecting them, I shuffled their responses and then read them, one after the other, without comment. The effect of 30+ stories of racially motivated experiences from a visibly diverse classroom was profound. We were able to identify commonalities among the stories and tie them to course material in a way that allowed students to determine at what level they felt comfortable participating, and no student was singled out. Students often comment in assignment feedback and sometimes on teaching evaluations that they learned a great deal from their peers and from class discussion—many times what they learned is that they are not alone, which is as important of a lesson as the course material.
In summary, my approach to diversity is a work in progress; an ongoing practice of questioning myself and my pedagogy, develop my listening skills, and using the sociological imagination to make my own self, and by extension my privilege, strange. I speak authoritatively when I can, and create opportunities for my students to tell me what they know. In my experience, my willingness to listen to my students and reach for expressions of difference has allowed for profound learning for all of us, and it is through a collaboration between myself and my students that we together create a more diverse learning experience.