July 18, 2024
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Tough Conversations

CCPA discussion group strives to bring inclusive pedagogy into the classroom

Image Credit: illustration by David Skyrca. Photos by Jonathan Cohen and pixabay.com..

What voices are heard in your classroom, which eager hands called upon to answer a question? And which go unheard, absent from the assigned readings and assignments, from class discussions, from the ranks of professors standing in front of the room?

To create a classroom where all students can thrive requires facing difficult truths and addressing the legacy of white supremacy undergirding so many institutions, including higher education. Long central to the teaching philosophies of the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA), inclusive pedagogy takes a step in that direction.

In fall 2020, CCPA increased its focus on this topic with a series of dialogues led by Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration John Zilvinskis; Professor of Public Administration Nadia Rubaii; Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership Bogum Yoon; and Assistant Professor of Human Development Marguerite Wilson.

“What’s important for faculty to understand about inclusive pedagogy — although I prefer to think of it as social justice pedagogy because it is more attuned to the power dynamics at play inside and outside the classroom — is that it benefits all learners, not only those from marginalized groups,” Wilson says. “A rising tide really does lift all boats.”

The timing wasn’t coincidental. Last May, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer ignited Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe and drew attention to the nation’s legacy of racial injustice.

In their initial calls to action, organizers drew attention to the multiple forms of structural violence in the United States and globally: police violence against Black individuals, the increasing threat of white supremacy and fascism, a global pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color, and economic collapse.

There are uncomfortable truths that must be faced, including this one: the conventional forms of inclusion — the melting-pot approach that calls for acculturation or assimilation — are themselves based in white supremacy, Rubaii points out.

“Our responsibility as educators is to help prepare students to be good citizens and to promote democratic principles, and that requires that we help them better understand the inequities and injustices, and help provide them with tools to be responsive to that,” Rubaii says. “One way to do that is to model in the classroom approaches that are inclusive.”

Doing the work

At its core, inclusive pedagogy engages learners in examining and deconstructing the norms we take for granted, explains Yoon, a researcher in literacy education. These norms have power and are often used to silence individuals who don’t fit their definitions. It’s not just an American problem; ultimately, all societies operate under hidden power structures that work in favor of some groups or agendas, and against others.

In practice, this recognition might involve taking a critical look at textbooks and syllabi to see whether only certain perspectives or identities are represented. Readings may shift to include diverse authors, including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, immigrant and international voices, and class discussions might be structured to listen to a wide range of voices.

There are other adjustments, too: using various types of graded assignments in class to not disadvantage introverts or those with different communication styles, learning to properly pronounce the names of all students in the class and respecting personal pronoun preferences.

“By focusing on the course content, we instructors sometimes forget that we work with cultural and social human beings who bring their diverse identities and experiences into learning,” Yoon says. “In applying an inclusive pedagogy, content is taught by incorporating learners’ identities and their cultural references as a meaning-making process.”

For these efforts to be effective, some deeper work is also involved.

Faculty members aren’t blank slates, and inclusive pedagogy takes into account the instructor’s own position with respect to race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, language, disability and more. That means regularly and honestly reflecting on how faculty members’ own identities and privilege affect how they approach the classroom space, how students respond to them and their ability to understand the experiences of marginalized groups.

“It requires some serious self-reflection on the part of faculty to recognize their own contributions to exclusion in various ways and to understand that it may — particularly for white faculty — require real discomfort,” Rubaii says.

Let’s talk

CCPA’s inclusive pedagogy group offers a space for faculty to explore this practice through dialogues in a supportive and collegial atmosphere. In 90-minute sessions every other week, faculty discuss measures they have tried in their own classrooms, what has and hasn’t worked, and concerns and challenges they face. The sessions are largely unstructured and everyone is welcome.

Their goal is two-fold: to help faculty feel better equipped to create a classroom environment that supports students from all backgrounds and identities, and to ensure all students can fully realize their potential in every class and in CCPA and Binghamton University as a whole.

“For faculty, being inclusive in your teaching is as important as being able to deliver a lecture or grade a paper,” Zilvinskis says.

About a dozen CCPA faculty members have participated in at least one session so far. Because of the pandemic, sessions are held online.

Conversation in the group is free-flowing, but also includes set topics. While the first scheduled meeting for the spring semester focused on syllabi and the start of classes, for example, the group spent much of the time discussing representation in course content and the power dynamics between faculty and students based on identity, Zilvinskis says.

The goals are far-reaching, extending beyond course content areas to address uncomfortable societal issues and structures. As such, progress can’t be measured with a simple number or metric. The organizers are considering ways to support educators who aren’t integrating inclusive pedagogy into their classrooms but would like to.

“Progress can be seen when we are all willing to participate in difficult conversations and listen to others’ opinions that are different from our own,” Yoon reflects. “I hope to see progress as we continue to engage in the dialogue of inclusive pedagogy.”

Posted in: CCPA