One approach to dealing with classroom diversity

February 15, 2019

Kelly Cresap provides tips on dealing with classroom diversity.

As a follow-up from Dr. Aja Martinez’s session on racism at our faculty orientation last August, and from Cristina Walter’s Jan. 15 department-wide email (“Diversity and Inclusion Statement for Syllabi”), I’m posting below an approach I take to diversity issues in week 2 of my classes. I want to make “diversity inclusion” a vital part of our classrooms instead of a formulaic or pious one. I’m not proposing my approach as a model for PWP adoption; rather, as a prompt for discussion as we’re finding a new way into the discussion of how to treat this issue.

In week two, after introductions, I assign cultural diversity reading and spend some time focusing on how it relates to the immediate classroom. It goes like this:

News flash: the teacher for this class is a tall white male.

That may appear entirely obvious, though for me it raises issues worth considering for a few minutes.

My height, for instance, gives me an advantage in some situations. You’re seated for most of the course. If I don’t consider my height as an advantage, I might end up playing the role of Looming Monolith at the Front of the Room. Since I have considered it, I choose to sit down for at least part of every class, and yield the lectern to others. That doesn’t solve the issue, which may also surface as we’re talking one-on-one. However, I’m letting you know now that it matters to me that it not be entirely avoided, or treated unconsciously.

The “white” and “male” issues are not as easily addressed. Does anyone know when women were first invited to become UMD students? It was 1916, a little more than a hundred years ago. What about black students? That waited until 1951, except in the segregated Eastern Shore college. The university had a long time to gestate as a white male club, and many would say it retains aspects of that club mentality today.

It bothers me that I don’t *have* to bring these issues up: I could just carry on with the next item on the syllabus, never acknowledging these advantages and how they relate to a classroom setting.

Of course, they’re not the only divider issues that might come up this semester. What others might surface?

[Here I become a scribe, writing their ideas on the board. After a minute or so of this, I ask:]

What’s missing from this list?

[I expand the list to include elements they tend to omit, such as “class/income,” “religion,” “political affiliation,” “language acquisition,” and so on. I continue:]

This list isn’t complete, and the discussion isn’t complete. However, if we expand the list indefinitely, we run the risk of losing some of you, who may think now that the course is about  list-making, or the pressures of having the right attitude toward a growing host of “isms.” A certain tendency toward excessive virtue in this regard has had a cost on some college campuses. Most of you would agree that Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are gifted comedians, right? They no longer accept university gigs because they’ve had too much pushback for doing their forms of edgy comedy. It’s been like a straitjacket for them.

If you feel in the past few minutes that I’ve just outfitted you with a new straitjacket, I want to be the first instead of the last to know about that.

This is not to lessen my commitment to creating a pro-diversity classroom. It’s a way of strengthening that commitment.

Above all, if you feel yourself in a silent minority … if you harbor a feeling of “Am I the only one who…?” … I want to hear about it. That might relate to being the only student from a certain country, or the only transgender student, the only non-STEM major. It may be that you’ll help guide us toward a new, more inclusive classroom.