Inclusive Teaching: Sometimes you need to have that challenging conversation

For this week, we are focusing on inclusive teaching and how to make every student feel comfortable in your classroom. To me, inclusive teaching means that every student of mine feels comfortable participating in class, standing in front of the class to give a speech, and feels comfortable to sit in my class knowing that they are safe. Most professors I have had go to great lengths to ensure that the classroom is an inclusive environment, even when faced with a challenging situation.

Sometimes, you need to have the tough conversation.

In the communication field, a large portion of research examines race, gender, representation, and communication amongst different cultures. Our graduate classes are small, and are no bigger than 16 people usually. We call them graduate seminars, and spend most of our class time discussing the readings and answering some discussion questions. Often, these discussions tackle challenging and largely controversial topics that are not typically discussed in the classroom. Our seminars are filled with “tough conversations.” Last fall, we were each sharing a life-changing event, and the class ended with many of us in tears.

The tough conversation often yields a better understanding of not only your peers, but also the topic of discussion.

After the video on microaggressions, I realized that a woman’s life is filled with mircoaggressions. As a woman myself for 22 years now, I did not even realize what a mircoaggression against women was. This prompted me to look it up, and took me to this article from The Way Women Work, describing several different kinds of microaggressions that women can experience in the workplace.

The first that they stated was calling a woman a nickname. If we are being completely honest, I thought that this was my own pet peeve that I always hated when men called me “sweetheart,” “honey,” “darling.” The second was that men are often described as “young and promising,” when women are often described as “young and inexperience.” I remember reading somewhere that a woman will not apply to any job that she feels she is the least bit unqualified for, and a man will apply to jobs that he feels he is remotely qualified for. Maybe this is a result of the way that we describe young woman as compared to how we describe young men? The other microaggression that stood out to me was men superiors getting in a woman’s personal space without permission. I once had a boss that would constantly lean over my shoulder and rest his chin on my shoulder, which would make me very uncomfortable.

These may be instances in the workplace, but it is imperative to be mindful of these microaggressions when teaching in the classroom as well. Students from all walks of life are going to be walking into your classroom, and you must be prepred for any lived experience a student can carry, as well as the unlived experience that a student has. A student with no similar lived experience can sometimes cause more damage than a student that has experienced many microaggressions.

In undergrad, I was in a women in American politics course. It was a class of 20 women and three men, and two of the men hardly spoke. The one man that spoke felt that it was necessary to state…aggressions, not even microaggressions at the class against women. And he had a girlfriend. The professor would listen to his opinion, then open it up to the class, where he would get it handed to him daily. I cannot imagine that every woman in the class was able to brush off his comments, though, and sometimes they cut deep.

As a teacher,  it is imperative to consider that your actions have consequences–even the smallest thing you do. Homero put it best a few weeks ago, when he stated that someone in your classroom is always looking up to you. You are always a role model. The inclusive classroom is yours to make.


5 Replies to “Inclusive Teaching: Sometimes you need to have that challenging conversation”

  1. Thanks Brittany for your post! I appreciate many of the examples that you provided of behavior that is wrong and unprofessional in the workplace. I find it repulsive that a man supervisor would rest his chin on your shoulder during work – ugh. That is the kind of stuff that makes me sick and I am so happy that behavior like this is being called out for what it is.

    In your discussion about classroom microaggressions, you mentioned that one of the men stated his aggressive opinions every day and then got ganged up on by the rest of the class (something I would have loved to have been there for!). However, I am curious as to what kinds of things this man was saying. Was he just saying offensive and degrading things about women? Were they genuine political opinions that he expressed that were opposed to the others in the class? I think there is an important distinction to be made here between degrading comments and opposing opinions.

    In your opening paragraph you state that students need to feel ‘comfortable’ and ‘safe’ for it to be an inclusive teaching/learning environment. How does this relate to the free exchange of ideas that colleges and universities are supposed to uphold? Does being comfortable and/or safe mean that students are protected from ideas that might make them feel uncomfortable because they disagree with them? It seems to me that there is a line that needs to be drawn between intentionally hateful/disparaging speech and speech that expresses a genuine difference of opinion, but figuring out where this line gets drawn and who gets to draw it seems to be the tricky part. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for your reply! In response to your questions left in your last paragraph, I would have to agree with you that there is a fine line. All students should feel comfortable sharing their opinion, but I do feel like there is an invisible line that should not be crossed. It would be horrible if a history class was having a discussion about WWII and someone raised their hand saying that the Nazis might have had a great idea. There should always be a free and clear exchange of ideas within reason. It is also really easy in today’s society to think that just becuase someone disagrees with your opinion, they are in the wrong. There is definitely a fine line, and I’m not sure how I would react if put in the same position that some of my professors have been put in.

  2. Thank you Brittany for your post! I completely agree with you. Women have to deal with microaggressions much more than men have had to do. It always amazes me any time during my weekly meetings with my fellow public speaking GTA’s when the female GTAs bring up instances where they have been openly challenged in class, and I do believe a large portion of the reason why I have not been as much is because I am a man. Women clearly have always had to consider this component really in any profession so thank you for bringing that up.

    In your last paragraph you said something powerful; as a teacher we are always the role model. This idea is something I still grapple with at times, especially since with my students I am not that much older than them. It was not that long ago that I was an undergrad willing to pester my teacher constantly if necessary. Having the responsibility of teaching students material, handling grades, and on top of all that creating a good classroom culture has made me appreciate the work professors do on top of their own research responsibilities especially at a research one institution such as Tech. We as teachers have this awesome responsibility, and it is important we do everything possible starting with the right inclusive pedagogy to ensure our students are in the best possible position to succeed.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post! I also agree with my peers’ comments. Also, I am so so upset by your boss putting his chin on your shoulder. What are boundaries?!

    I, too, think it is important to have the tough conversations in class. I remember in my master’s program, we had a lot experiential activities (I’m a marriage and family therapist) so this meant calling out the elephant in the room if students didn’t feel safe, or comfortable enough to learn. It’s interesting you mentioned your classmate’s disruptive comments in class because we had a student — who is privileged in so many ways — not respect personal boundaries and who would stare at the women in the class. It became so disruptive to our learning that one woman spoke up and told the only woman professor in our program. She then told the rest of the faculty and they took space out of our next class to address the concerns. Actually, PRIOR to the discussion, the professor we came to originally had us come to her office to process the concerns. She was not anticipating the entire cohort of women to come, so we had to move to a bigger room. Her reaction was pivotal to our success in the class. She handled our concerns with grace and empathy. Although she was unaware this was happening in class, she never once doubted us when we gave a list of our concerns about safety with this one student.

    It sounds like we’ve both had positive experiences with professors being able to “handle” the intensity of the situation. How do you handle difficult dialogues in class as an teacher?

    1. Thanks for your reply! It’s so sad that so many women share these experiences. Reading your class experience was really intriguing! As a teacher myself, I am not sure how I would handle such a situation in my classroom. I feel like it’s definitely a case-by-case basis, and if you go in with a binder full of conflict resolution strategies, it gets a bit too corporate, when college students can see right through that. I would like to think that I would stand my ground when faced with that situation, but if it reallty escalated, I am not sure what I would do. Students should feel valid in their opinions and that my classroom is an environment that will allow them to do that, but in my reply to shoagland, I stated that there is definitely a fine line. The unlived experience is what can be detrimental to a classroom environment. I am curious to hear your thoughts on how you would handle a similar situation!

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