Category Archives: Diversity

When Teaching Becomes Resistance

I am of the opinion that education, by its very nature, is threatening. True education, not indoctrination — the kind that involves critical thinking, open discussion, and questions that may not have one right answer, or a right answer at all. More than ever, though, it seems like teachers are now in the position to make a major difference in how the upcoming generation perceives and responds to our political climate. There is a sense of urgency in my teaching now.

In conferring with colleagues from various disciplines and in various positions, I have come to realize that many of us share this sense. Every day there is a new example that I can use to bring the message home to my students. It’s hard not to care about stereotype threat when people are being actively blocked from entering this country based purely on their religion or national origin and people already in the U.S. are scrambling to distance themselves from the image of an ISIS terrorist. Healthcare access issues just became very, very relevant for my ongoing Abnormal Psychology class.

Of course, getting political in your teaching tends to draw fire. I have puzzled for long hours over how to balance my gut feeling that I need to say certain things in my class — things that should be nonpartisan facts — with my desire to be supportive and inclusive for all of my students, even those who voted for Trump. After all, talking over them is no way to help them see the mistake they made. No one has made waves about this yet, but I do worry sometimes that I will say something that goes too far or talk about something in the wrong way and the complaints and censorship will roll in.

So, I reach out to my colleagues — are you bringing current political issues into your classroom? How are you walking this balance, if at all? And what is your view on your role as an academic or educator in this very unfriendly time?

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Filed under Diversity, Preparing the Future Professoriate

Neurodiversity in the Classroom

As a clinical psychologist, I have seen multiple sides of the process for accommodating students’ unique needs in the classroom. I have served as the assessing clinician who makes an initial diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disorder, and I have been in the position of an instructor who needs to work with a student and disability services to ensure that the student has sufficient opportunity to succeed in my course. When I disclose that I have clinical training, I find a number of students coming forward to discuss problems with anxiety and other disorders that may impede their learning, although I have to be careful to inform them of the strict boundaries I hold in order to avoid engaging in inappropriate dual roles.

More and more instructors, even those without my specialized training, are beginning to recognize the presence of neurodiversity in their classrooms. Although this term has classically been associated with autism spectrum disorders, it has since expanded to encompass a wide variety of cognitive and emotional conditions and differences. Essentially, this is a movement to encourage the recognition of these differences as part of a continuum of human experience, on par with other disabilities or variations, and not strictly as pathologies that must be treated in order to bring someone into alignment with the norm.

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I thought it was timely to discuss neurodiversity in preparation for tomorrow’s VT GrATE Brown Bag on inclusiveness in the classroom. More specifically, I’d like to share my perspective and some ideas I’ve had about how to make students at many points on the neurodiversity continuum feel more welcome in class.

Put advocacy in the hands of the student, not the institution. Although some diagnoses are easily recognized and accommodated (e.g., ADHD, learning disorders), others may not be. Tweak the language in your syllabus so that even students without an official letter from disability services have an opportunity to talk with you about their needs and see if anything can be done to improve their learning. It may not require a big change from you. For example, I recently heard about an instructor who purposefully uses large type on slides and provides captions for videos shown in class to better accommodate those with visual or hearing difficulties. As another example, many students are not served well by a traditional lecture format, and your adjustments could make a major difference in their grade.

Offer options. I have frequently had students with social anxiety come up to me after class and disclose their fears about doing group work or having to give a presentation. I don’t shy away from these learning opportunities or typically let students off the hook for doing them (exposure is the gold standard treatment for anxiety), but I do try to make it so that the entire grade isn’t based on one or two assignments, and I ensure that other assignments are less directly dependent on social interaction. You could consider extra credit, which all students will appreciate but will directly help students who lose points for not having polished speaking skills. Another idea is to allow students to divide up group work based on their strengths–maybe the shy student can write up the paper, and another student present it. Both will be expected to contribute equally, but neither feels as if he or she is forced to be uncomfortable.

Be kind when students struggle. Almost every semester, I have at least one student who faces insurmountable obstacles that keep interfering with his or her performance. In several cases, the student has disclosed to me that after many attempts to get to class and catch up, his or her mood disorder, relationship distress, or traumatic experience has caused a formal medical leave to be necessary. You don’t have to be a doormat, and I certainly encourage laying out a clear late work and absence policy in your syllabus, but know that it’s okay (and often very appreciated) to be flexible and supportive. One student I had withdrew due to depression in the fall, was back in my class in the spring, and got an A. I can’t help but think that my supportive attitude may have encouraged her to want to work with me again.

I’m really curious about what you all have to say about this topic during our brown bag. See you there!

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Critical Pedagogy: Be Helpful, Be Honest, Be Human

I was surprised to learn this week that critical pedagogy is kind of already what I do in my classroom. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples. For example, this semester I am teaching a class that focuses on classical and operant conditioning. For the midterm project, I asked students to critique an advertisement and break down the classical conditioning being used in the ad to get consumers to purchase the product. To go beyond this, I asked them to spend time in class discussing how conditioning might be used in presidential campaign and attack ads (how is conditioning used to “sell the product” of one candidate or block the “sale” of another?). I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some students, but many of them did give me insightful, thorough written responses that pertained to both major political parties. My students are the architects of their own learning, although I am there to provide blueprints for them. I find myself repulsed by the notion of Fromm’s “necrophilous” person, who thrives on control and believes that education begins and ends with passively transferring knowledge into student receptacles. I note, however, that I could be doing more to encourage students to question the material itself, not just the potential limits of its application, and this week’s readings helped me realize that I could still grow.

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Kinchloe’s overview of Freire’s life and work brings up an interesting effect of classrooms based on critical pedagogy, which is that people from diverse and traditionally oppressed walks of life who may have previously been denied access to the academy can find a new, hopeful place in higher education. In such a classroom, these students would be encouraged to apply the course material to their own struggles and engage in problem naming, critiquing and solving in a way that can benefit their corner of the world. A teacher with a better grasp of critical pedagogy than I might be able to understand how the individual perceptions of these students impact the teacher’s delivery of the material and make some adjustments. A classroom like this would be inclusive and collaborative, with diversity playing a starring role rather than being tucked away in a corner and forgotten. Naturally, this brings up some of our previous discussion on how to construct an effective “brave space” to facilitate healthy, challenging student engagement. It seems that building a successful “brave space” is necessary for allowing students to confront real issues in their communities and feel comfortable and confident enough to challenge the status quo of the material.

I had a couple thoughts on how these two topics might intersect, drawing from Shelli’s slides on critical pedagogy. One is that I think we have to establish the classroom as “ground zero” for making these changes. I’ve used this term before, but what I mean here is that students need to feel safe and at home in your classroom before they will feel comfortable using that space to create and work on difficult problems. I draw an analogy to the adoption system: if you adopt a child, one critical step to helping him or her feel “at home” living with your family is to allow him or her to help create a room of his or her own. This may involve picking out a paint color together, buying sheets and curtains, and choosing furniture. This is a space in which the child has had some input, sending the message that his or her ideas matter. In the same sense, you can allow students to play a role in establishing an atmosphere of respectful and contemplative discussion, and this will give them a “base” to work from when critically evaluating and applying course material. In other words, students ought to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions on a topic in your classroom, so that they can feel more comfortable doing so out in the world.

Another thought I had was about unpacking and reconsidering power dynamics in the classroom. To be honest, it takes a lot of pressure off me (especially as a graduate student) if I can admit that I don’t know everything about a subject and allow there to be room for questioning what is covered in the textbook. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with asking a student to let me go out and do some independent research about a question, rather than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s not on the test.” Freire makes the point that teaching and learning have to occur together to foster critical pedagogy. My experience is that taking off my “instructor hat” and just being more of a guide to my students by asking the questions that will help them work through their own thought processes is effective for helping students settle into the course, and it also seems to make me more approachable when they need help. This practice may help level the playing field for students who are underprivileged or at a disadvantage.

Another of Shelli’s points is to allow personal and political aspects of the material to seep into the room. Part of this process, which goes along with my above point about power dynamics, may be to allow students to see the “human” side of their instructor. I had an unexpectedly emotional moment like this a few weeks ago, when I took Christian’s advice and brought up the recent police shootings to my students. I started out by saying that I was available if anyone wanted to talk about what had happened, and I ended up making the point that a lot of what we talk about with conditioning is used when prejudice and discrimination occurs and students should think about what we’ve discussed when they watch the news. It was interesting to see my students’ faces as I talked about this topic, which has never impacted me directly but does bring up an emotional response because of my commitment to social justice. I could tell that they were really listening to me in a way that they hadn’t before, even as I transitioned somewhat awkwardly into my lecture. After class, a student even asked me if my research was about racial violence, and remarked that I seemed to know and care a lot about the topic. This was unexpected and touching. I’ve talked about the judicious use of self-disclosure before, and I think a little of it goes a long way.

The more I think about it, it seems like critical pedagogy–especially when combined with both deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter–is essential for distinguishing ineffective from effective teachers. I hope that I can continue to grow in my effectiveness by using what Freire wrote so passionately about.

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Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy, Diversity

Turning a Safe Space into a Brave Space

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Thanks to Kelley Woods-Johnson for inspiring this post.

“Safe space” and “trigger warning” have become loaded terms over the past several months, particularly after the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago sent a letter informing incoming freshmen that the university would not permit the installation of safe spaces in its classrooms. The faculty of the university responded with a letter of their own, accusing the Dean of stripping students of their right to make demands about their own education. As an instructor in the psychology department and student in a mental health-focused field, I have been asked many times about my opinion on safe spaces and trigger warning. My response is typically that these terms are more nuanced than they may seem, and how one interprets their meaning has a lot to do with the opinions one forms about them.

The Dean’s letter characterizes safe spaces as walled-off anti-intellectual realms where students are “safe” to remain entrenched in their own perceptions and opinions without being challenged or exposed to new points of view. From this perspective, I can understand the outrage and protective response from the faculty, who clearly believe (as I do) that students should seize the opportunity in college to explore novel ideas in the pursuit of developing their own independent self-concepts. Furthermore, the faculty and I share the opinion that an atmosphere of mutual respect is an essential ingredient for preserving classroom spaces in which truly free–and safe–exchange of ideas may occur. In my view, then, a “safe space” is defined as one in which students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and, in exchange, agree to be open to and respectful of the potentially opposing opinions of others. It sets up the foundation that the classroom is not a place to be intimidated or harassed, but a place in which one can seek to learn about new, important and meaningful experiences and ideas.

Naturally, there will always be a “counselor” or “therapist” side to me, and it occasionally wars with the “instructor” side of me when it comes to issues like these. The former side feels concern for students who may have experienced trauma that prevents them from approaching these topics with open eyes. In trying to be fair to these students, I see the need for “trigger warnings” in highly specified situations. The latter side, then, tries to include such warnings as needed while informing students about the purpose of the potentially triggering material and encouraging them to see it for its educational merit. I strive to have a clear purpose for everything I show and to not shy away from controversial or probing questions. I pride myself on not letting my students “shy away” from critical thinking opportunities.

With a foundation of mutual respect, the appropriate use of warnings about potentially triggering content, and the establishment of a “safe space” as defined and agreed upon by all participants, I believe that we can move toward the use of “brave spaces” in our classrooms. In my view, the construction of a successful “safe space” naturally leads to the emergence of a “brave space,” in which students and instructor share ideas and together shape their understanding of the curriculum. In a “brave space,” students can fully identify with the topics of discussion and discover their relevance and value. It is a “brave space” not only in terms of the flow of ideas but also in building a sense of trust, such that students are free to question the material and instructors are free to ask students to engage more fully with the material and approach higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in working with it.

In closing, I have a few ideas about how I would create a “successful safe space”:

  • Negotiate the space cooperatively with students. Consider the message conveyed by an instructor independently establishing a safe space; although it may seem harmless and natural, it could also convey a message steeped in privilege and set up the belief that student voices don’t matter in your classroom. Instead, seek their feedback about what kind of space would be beneficial to them, and keep the conversation going throughout the semester so that students who come into contact with unexpectedly triggering material can speak up about their concerns. Along with this, send a clear message that students are welcome to confide in you if they have reservations about the course and how their experiences might negatively impact what they are able to get out of the course. If possible, seek opportunities for compromise rather than defaulting to the option that students who are worried about being triggered can just be exempt.
  • Show, not tell. Often, syllabi convey that instructors expect respect and participation from students with few overt statements about what students can expect from the instructor in return. Model mutual respect by using preferred pronouns, responding promptly to student questions (even if a little outside research is needed), and adhering to stated office hour schedules.
  • A little disclosure goes a long way. In clinical psychology, some believe in the sparing use of self-disclosure as a method for building rapport with clients. This could also be useful in the classroom. If you have an opinion on a controversial topic, feel free to share it, as long as you have already established the purpose of the discussion and your openness to disagreement. If used tactfully, this technique can help “humanize” you to students and get them to open up.
  • When in doubt, use a “trigger warning.” I would never use a “trigger warning” to, say, open a discussion of the role of implicit bias in police brutality. This topic could be triggering, but in my view, its importance in our current political climate and impact on less privileged communities outweighs any potential (and valuable) discomfort experienced by my students in discussing it. However, I would consider warning students who may have experienced racially-motivated violence if I were going to show a video clip that depicts police brutality against a person of color. My style would be to convey the importance and purpose of the clip and prepare students for what they are about to see, and let them know that I and the rest of the class will not think negatively of them or punish them if they become overwhelmed and need to step out. To avoid singling anyone out, I might frame this as “anyone is free to use the restroom at any time.”

This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it promotes some constructive discussion at our brown bag this week. My overall message and point in writing this post, however, is to ask you to reconsider your perception of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and think about whether they could be useful to you.

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#WomenWhoVoteTrump: A Study in Internalized Misogyny

Trigger warning: this post will discuss sexual assault as it has been presented on the national stage.

When I logged onto Facebook today, I was greeted by this image:

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Admittedly, I didn’t think the Trump campaign could get any weirder. I keep waiting for Mike Pence to jump out of a nearby bush and tell the nation that we’re on Candid Camera. I’m not surprised that Donald Trump admitted on tape that he is a sexual predator, a story that has been corroborated by several brave witnesses since it first broke. I’ve been much more surprised by the reaction to this news.

Over the last few days, as the Trump campaign has descended in firey freefall, women have become the central target of those hoping to woo voters away from Trump and those staunchly defending him. Yesterday, after 538 showed that Trump would win in a landslide if only men were voting, Trump supporters–male and female alike–got #repealthe19th trending on Twitter. This hashtag refers to the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Today, the hashtag being promoted by Trump supporters is #WomenWhoVoteTrump, in which female Trump supporters list the reasons that they are proud to be voting red in November. These comments focused heavily on how the media has mischaracterized female supporters and twisted the truth to make Trump look like a disgusting pig.

Out of my own morbid curiosity, I looked at some of the posts with this hashtag. What I found was a study in internalized misogyny, which is the notion that women have come to identify with and perpetuate sexist attitudes (which harm them) as a result of oppression by a patriarchal society.

For example, many women eschewed stereotypically “feminine” qualities (e.g., being emotional or weak) in favor of stereotypically “masculine” qualities (e.g., being rational and self-sufficient):

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Another aspect that came up frequently was slut-shaming (and its twin, victim-blaming). #WomenWhoVoteTrump were willing to demean other women to make the point that they were different and had a higher moral standard.

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One male user used sexy pictures of women to promote the brand of #WomenWhoVoteTrump:

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After I emerged from this rabbit hole, I felt utterly confused. Hillary Clinton is by no means a perfect candidate, and I have frequently railed against the notion that women should feel obligated to vote for her because of #girlpower. At the same time, though, I return to the image at the top of this post. The fact that #WomenWhoVoteTrump can pick and choose which gender-based causes they want to rally behind (preventing trans individuals from using the restroom that best fits their gender identity) and which they want to ignore (advocating for women who were directly harmed by Donald Trump’s privilege and scope of influence) suggests to me that internalized misogyny is alive and well and still being perpetuated by those who would turn women against one another in pursuit of their higher ideals. Before November 8th, I hope that #WomenWhoVoteTrump (and some of the #WomenWhoVoteHillary) will take a moment to engage in self-reflection and make a decision that reflects their beliefs and values as individuals, rather than trying to fit into a woman-shaped mold. No matter your political beliefs, let’s stop allowing any media outlet or candidate to tell us who we are.

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Night of the Heinous Subtweet: #Millennials and Stereotype Threat

Colleagues, there is a dangerous threat roaming our campus as we speak. They are sitting in our classrooms, standing in line at our restaurants, and hanging out in our movie theaters. Each time we attend a VT football game, we are putting ourselves at their mercy. But we must be brave and call out this threat by name. They are… the youths.

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I couldn’t help returning to our discussion from two weeks ago when thinking about my blog post for this week. Our conversation about the modern generation of students was peppered with stereotypes: millennials might be outreach-oriented, digitally savvy and politically correct, or they might be self-absorbed, out of touch with reality and overly sensitive. Someone brought up the excellent point that many people in GRAD 5114 would also be included in the millennium generation. For a long time, I made excuses as to why I belonged in a separate category; I could remember dial-up and Wall Street-sized cell phones, I still played outside a lot as a child, I learned cursive in elementary school. But now, perhaps because of all the unfortunate accusations being lobbed at the younger generation in the current political season, I’ve taken a defensive pride in the label.

Is it possible that our millennial students succumb to stereotype threat? For example, if students are bombarded with the message that they are lazy and entitled, could this negatively affect their school performance? Could it be that students who constantly hear that they are obsessed with social media sometimes have difficulty working on their in-person social skills? Might teachers be inadvertently hampering their progress by not acknowledging and fighting back against these stereotypes in the classroom? Furthermore–and this is a sinister prospect–might some members of the older generation be using these stereotypes to prevent the next generation from overtaking their roles?

So, how could teachers work to combat millennial stereotype threat in their courses? Claude Steele provides some good guidelines that are worth repeating here. One approach is to use positive feedback to motivate students, particularly when you make it possible for them to recognize and praise their own accomplishments. Although you run the risk of feeding into the oft-cited phenomenon of youth entitlement, you could also help these students notice when their hard work has produced quality results. Another approach is to take an incremental perspective and emphasize that students can achieve better performance in your class with increased effort. Be willing to work with students using language they can understand, and set yourself up as being approachable from the get-go so that they feel comfortable disclosing their struggles; this will remove some of the unnecessary professorial “mystique” (and possible generation gap; not everyone in our course would say they are a millennial) and help them see that you are willing to guide them as they work to meet your challenges. Finally, it can be helpful to characterize diversity as a classroom enhancement rather than a hindrance. Show your students that inclusion of their perspectives is a valued part of class discussion, and be willing to modify your strategies to make the subject more accessible for them. Reading a few Tweets won’t kill you, and it might spark their inspiration. Don’t be that teacher who refuses to “keep up with the times” out of laziness or spite.

But, you know… don’t be Bree Van de Kamp, either.

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Manifest Destiny, Implicit Bias and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Contrary to at least his own belief, Donald Trump was not the first person to think that we need to “make America great again.” In the 19th century, American settlers advocated a policy of manifest destiny in which they expanded the nation as far and wide as possible, so that American virtues and ideologies would touch the furthest corners of the continent. Although it may not have been said overtly, this policy implies that some people, namely Native Americans already living on the land in question, will be steamrolled in the process.

Unfortunately, this process is still ongoing. Events such as the current Dakota Access Pipeline expansion, which is occurring against the will of the native peoples, are often met with media silence or only limited, fringe source-based coverage. As the video below shows, native protestors and their allies are being challenged by pepper spray- and dog-wielding guards. The construction company has already begun to desecrate the land, some of which serves as a burial ground for tribal elders, despite the attempts of the native peoples to slow or halt the project.

Why are these actions being taken by people engaged in non-violent protest? I think what we are seeing when we watch this video clip is an intersection of privilege and implicit bias. Those involved in building the pipeline are perpetuating the notion of manifest destiny and taking what they view as theirs, ignoring the pleas of the native peoples who reside on the land. They are able to move forward so freely because of their privilege, which is based in status and finances but may also be aided by race and gender. As for the violence, I would suggest that the decision to use pepper spray and attack dogs to control the protestors is based at least in part in implicit bias against Native Americans. Cultural stereotypes of Native Americans cast them as “savages” who are wild, uncivilized, and violent. Implicitly, then, there may be a belief that violence is the natural first step to use in combating them. I doubt the response would have looked like this if the crowd of protestors had been entirely White. Interestingly, I also think this theory could be applied to the violence we have seen against Black men and Black Lives Matter protestors, as Blacks (especially young men) are also portrayed as wild and animalistic.

This complex situation merits more widespread coverage, so please share it with your friends.

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Intro post for Diversity & Inclusion

This post is a placeholder for my first post in the category, “Diversity.”

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