Consider the experience of Jordan, a fourth-year political science major, who was told by his professor that many African American students do not pass her class (Brooms, 2017). This stereotyping can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, or what Claude Steele describes as a “stereotype threat,” which impacts students’ performance by challenging their academic ability or competence.
Remarkably, a recent survey of 164 faculty developers in Teaching and Learning Centers (TLCs) found that diversity and inclusion were not among the primary objectives guiding faculty development. Only 15 percent of directors in the survey identified multiculturalism and diversity as areas that needed more expansive practices (Beach et al., 2016). However, some TLCs are refocusing their efforts to become change agents in organization development, but such efforts can be transitory because, like other entities within the university or college, TLCs are not permanent fixtures of the organizational landscape and are subject to changing administrative leadership and fluctuating budgets (Schroeder et al., 2011). In the years following the recent recession, TLCs such as Endicott College’s Center for Teaching Excellence were closed, whereas others such as the Western Kentucky University’s Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence were closed and then reconstituted (Flaherty, 2014).
Nonetheless, shifts in student demographic data call for teaching strategies and classroom approaches that are responsive to rapidly diversifying student populations. Between 2004 and 2014 alone, undergraduate enrollment of white students in four-year institutions and master’s and doctoral universities dropped from 63.8 percent to 55.6 percent while the percentage of minority students steadily increased. Latino/a students were the fastest growing group, with representation growing from 9.2 percent to 13.5 percent. From a sheer demographic perspective, creating an inclusive learning environment in the classroom has become an academic priority.
As we reported in the Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (Stylus, 2015), a white male chair of educational leadership in a public, Western research university described how he instigated discussions of diverse learning styles in his department. He felt isolated in doing so, given the prevailing culture and the individualized nature of university teaching:
I think that one among many of the other factors we have to take in account when we talk about an education is also diversity of learning styles, of instructional strategies, and all of those kinds of different things that . . . make education so complicated and really make it a situation where you can’t only focus on any one factor because they all exert reciprocal influence on each other. If you start focusing on one thing, it sort of shifts dynamics in a different place. It keeps it all lively and exciting. But it also means that there is no kind of silver bullet approach to education.
In addition to inclusive teaching styles, faculty can be challenged in classroom settings by the polarized national climate coupled with what has been called “an epidemic of racist incidents” on college campuses (Jaschik, 2016). Faculty must simultaneously promote discourse and empower students to speak and also foreclose hate speech that actively disrupts the learning process. This double-edged sword can cause considerable nervousness and even avoidance when controversial topics are raised or discussed.
With the range of faculty concerns relating to diversity and inclusion in mind, what practical yet innovative approaches to diversity can be drawn from TLCs’ leading-edge practices? Here are just a few:
- Yale University’s Center for Teaching and Learning offers problem scenarios for classroom use with sample responses that address ways to ensure openness and student safety (https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/diversity-classroom).
- Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning shares information on classroom dynamics and diversity that includes tip sheets on managing hot moments in class discussions with specific examples (https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/examples-hot-moments).
- The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) offers a wealth of resources about inclusive teaching, including blog posts about current events, resources, white papers, teaching guides, and ways to respond to difficult moments. An innovative strategy is the use of the CRLT theater program, which uses performance arts to address topics of student diversity, inclusive teaching and learning, and instructional climate (www.crlt.umich.edu/multicultural-teaching).
Given these representative approaches, it is clear that TLCs represent a vital pathway to operationalizing the institutional mission for diversity and inclusion. In Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2015), we share the perspectives of Andrew, a white graduate in marine science at a Southern research university, who emphasizes the importance of diversity learning in the classroom:
For the most part, classes were either predominantly black or predominantly white, [which] may be because of certain courses of study that people have chosen . . . or because I was in [marine science, which does not traditionally have many] African American students. It does put a lot of pressure on them. . . . If colleges provide courses that include [a] description of diversity and their importance, I think that can reduce the social pressure that students might face who are not well represented based on their diverse backgrounds.
Beach, A. L., Sorcinelli, M. D., Austin, A. E., & Rivard, J. K. (2016). Faculty development in the age of evidence: Current practices, future imperatives. Sterling: VA: Stylus.
Brooms, D. R. (2017). Being black, being male on campus. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Flaherty, C. (2014, May 30). A ‘growth’ field. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/05/30/some-teaching-and-learning-centers-have-closed-after-recession-field-growing-over
Jaschik, S. (2016, September 26). Epidemic of racist incidents. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/26/campuses-see-flurry-racist-incidents-and-protests-against-racism.
Schroeder, C. M., & Associates. (2011). Coming in from the margins: Faculty development’s emerging organizational development role in institutional change. Sterling, VA.: Stylus.
Alvin Evans and Edna B. Chun, DM, are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.