On Diversity & Inclusive Pedagogy, Academia could do better

In this post, I wanted to make a brief comment on diversity in general, discuss diversity in higher education, and then I have a few thoughts on diversity in professional offices. I’ll conclude by talking about inclusive pedagogy. It goes hand-in-hand with creating a community environment and appreciating the opportunity for innovative thinking.


Image Credit: jlrsousa’sBonecas

I am a proponent of diversity. I believe it broadens our horizons and aids us in our personal development.


Katherine Phillips in “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” makes some interesting and thought provoking statements on diversity and how it enriches our thinking environments and fosters creativity. Based on decades of social science research, Phillips distills the idea of diversity down into this concept: “The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives.” 

Building on the idea of informational diversity, it makes sense to reason our best classrooms, labs, and studio environments will develop through having a diverse group of students in our academic programs. So why is it that some programs seem to struggle with diversity? It’s not that they aren’t diverse because they don’t want to be, but I believe for reasons relating to outreach, recruitment, access, and privilege. These reasons could be thought of as barriers to diversity and are born out of different contexts.

Outreach is the first barrier to diversity in higher education. One of the major tenants of land grant universities is to serve the people of the state/area that it calls home. We in higher education talk a big game about outreach and connecting with the community, and in most cases, this would be warranted because an impact is being made. But I bring outreach up as a barrier because I believe that we could be trying harder to connect with the communities we serve and sharing our knowledge with them. It’s hard because it takes effort, but we should be trying harder to integrate with area schools and not just feel satisfied if we have a “successful” program for just one or two years. We must be relentless in our outreach–especially to the youth–for they are the key to our future and we need to spark the imaginations of children so that they might grow up and respond to the complex problems our world is facing.

I participated in a water conservation conference (fair) targeted at primary school students when I was a little girl. There were probably hundreds of children there exploring the booths, learning about water, and getting a taste of what applied science looks like. I didn’t know then that this would be such a momentous occasion for me, but it always stuck with me. I’ve always cared about conserving natural resources and environmental issues and this educational event was just one of many that contributed to my research and philosophy today.  Had the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi State University Extension and other sponsors not put on the fair, I wonder if I would have developed my passion for protecting the environment?

Recruitment is a barrier to diversity for both the institution as well as potential students. If students out there don’t know that they could go on to higher education, they end up getting missed entirely. For universities to attract quality students, they need prospective students to be aware of the opportunities in front of them.  Waiting until students are in their final years of secondary school is almost too late to start. Sure, institutions of higher learning could get lucky and attract top students who are planning to go to college. Conversely, had they targeted younger students sooner, they could have sparked the curiosity of a young student and set them on a path they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. It comes down to more than just outreach from the university–individual programs would benefit from spending time outside the silo–or inviting prospective students in–so that they can learn about what their options might be for programs of study.

Think about how you found your profession. Was your track slated for you? Did you discover your discipline early in life? Did you experience a crisis and fall into what you’re doing because a career counselor had experience interpreting Myers-Briggs Personality Tests** and Career Aptitude Tests for wayward students?

**this link leads to a version I found online and I can’t be sure of the accuracy of the instrument…but I’d be willing to guess that it’s accurate enough to be fun!

For some, like myself, I didn’t really know what a landscape architect (LA) did let alone what the entire discipline was about when I stepped foot in their courtyard at Mississippi State University so many years ago. In retrospect, the choice made sense, because my father is in construction and excavation and my mother is a Master Gardener, but I never thought of it as an option for myself because I didn’t really understand what LA’s actually did! From experience, I see where a gap in my learning early on (not understanding the profession) meant that it took me much longer to discover my calling because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe what was missing for me. Could the LA Department have found me sooner? Would that have made a difference in my trajectory? It’s hard to say, but I do know that it was an opportunity nearly missed and I am grateful that I started down this path. Had I not asked “what if?” I would likely still be serving Jager-Bombs, draft pints, and pizza in Starkville, MS’s most beloved and iconic establishment Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern.

But I digress.

If I hadn’t been recruited into both my Master’s program at MSU and again for my attendance here at Virginia Tech, I imagine I would be living a very different life than I am right now. I count myself lucky to have been both in the right place at the right time AND to have been fortunate enough to get noticed!

Access is a barrier to diversity for obvious reasons. It is well accepted that there are certain groups in the population that have less fundamental access to education, let alone higher education. Perhaps the barriers manifest due to financial constraints, (error in) standardized testing, or just not having the support at home so that a student doesn’t feel like they can dream big and pursue interesting careers.

Privilege. Ok this one is a little bit difficult/uncomfortable for me to talk about and so I am going to address the topic gently. First, if you aren’t sure what privilege is, I have linked a short video below that is a good introduction on the topic.

Video Credit: Buzzfeed (Boldly) “What is Privilege?”

Merriam-Webster gives two definitions for privilege: “:a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor :prerogativeespecially:such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office.” 

Talking about privilege is uncomfortable for me because I do enjoy certain privileges–and for a long time, I really had no concept of this, and for that I am more than just a little embarrassed. I think of myself as a caring, empathetic person; yet, how can I be if I am/remain completely clueless about the issues and challenges facing my fellow humans? Don’t get me wrong. I follow world news and am aware of conflicts around the world and the unfortunate plight of man in different places where there might be one or more factors (climate, resource limitation, social network, governance, systemic racism, etc.) beyond a person’s control that work against the success of that person. Peggy McIntosh’s piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” identified several conditions of life that resonated with me–some that I did enjoy and others that I didn’t.

For me to be able to talk about and comment on privilege means I have to unpack my own so that I can bring a heightened level of awareness to the front of my attention. I can’t be thoughtful about the issue in general if I don’t spend a little time trying to identify, for myself, what privilege has meant in my own life. In a nod to Shankar Vedantam’s theories in his book & podcast “The Hidden Brain,” I have to take back control of my brain and suspend the autopilot function.  I day this because it has been extremely easy to not address my own implicit bias and think about how privilege manifests in my own life.

The difficulty I struggle with when talking about privilege is not unlike what Arao & Clemens describe in their (2013) article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” where people participating in this discussion feel uncomfortable as they are pushed to think through the issue and come to terms with their own privilege. I don’t feel unsafe, but what I do feel is a twinge of guilt for being ignorant in the past. I feel frustration for others who are dealing with obstacles in their lives every day. I understand the implicit imbalance in our society and that there are some people who are deeply wounded by their circumstance. I can’t apologize for being born into the life I am blessed to have, but I can honestly say that I am sorry that “the deck” (of life) was stacked for some and not others.

Privilege is an ugly and uncomfortable part of our (global) culture. By law and in the eyes of God, we are all equal; but by birth and circumstance, we are not. So what does that mean for learners, prospective students, and the university?

Well, if we accept that different people inherently expose us to new ideas, cultural norms, and ways of thinking that promote creativity, than it means that we need to be reaching out to those underrepresented students who do not enjoy the same level of privilege as those in the majority/power/white males. I’m not saying that white males should not be recruited or encouraged to attend college–what I’m saying is that we should try doubly hard to reach the Latino/a, African-American, Native American, female, working-class/poor/rural students who likely experience hardships with respect to access, outreach, and recruitment into higher education and would undoubtedly benefit from the environment and also bring their own diverse experiences to it. When people with less privilege have their needs met and a pathway to success, there can be no limit on their potential achievement.

Research says that students do better when they see people like them as their instructors and as practitioners in their profession. Claude Steele discusses these ideas **2 articles in the reference section** and concludes that students do better when they are 1) not worried about not doing well because of being stereotyped and 2) when in groups that contain people of similar background.

So between outreach, recruitment, access, and understanding privilege, the university (and academic programs in general) can work to increase the informational diversity of academia by inviting eligible students from diverse backgrounds to come study. I firmly believe that we need more underrepresented people–people of color, women, etc. in higher education and working as professionals in their discipline in the work force. Humanity is diverse and we should promote an environment of active inclusion and once we get the students through the door, show them that they matter through inclusive pedagogy in the classroom.

Inclusive pedagogy is the final and most important piece. We, as academics and rising educators, must be sensitive to the humanity present in our classrooms and that each individual has their own story, their own set of goals, and motivators–ideas that will define their individuality as well as their homogeneity with the rest of the group. We may be a diverse population, but first and foremost we are human beings. Successful instructors facilitate active learning through setting up an environment that allows every student to feel like they belong, like they are appreciated, and like they have something to contribute.












C.L. Bohannon leads freshman in a sketching course outside Burruss Hall. In this critique, everyone’s work is reviewed and everyone participates in the discussion.


Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces.” The Art of Effective Facilitation.

McIntosh, P. (n.d.) “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

Philips, K. (2014). “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American.

Sands, T. (2017). “A special statement from President Tim Sands.” Virginia Tech News.

Steele, C. (2010). “Reducing Identity and Stereotype Threat: A New Hope.” Whistling Vivaldi.

Steele, C. (2010). “Mysterious Link Between Identity and Intellectual Performance.” Whistling Vivalidi.


  • Normally I would say I “enjoyed” your blog post, but I will say that I found this post thoughtful and illuminating for me because you discussed and acknowledged some of the issues with diversity and inclusion that I have been struggling to think about and to articulate. Especially how the lack of diversity I am seeing in the students in my classes and in the faculty and professionals in my field are being caused by barriers that happen long before they come to my class.
    Three years ago I noticed an increase in the number of students who were becoming interested in agriculture, sustainable food production and food systems who did not come from an agriculture background. I am excited about this change but for the past few years have been thinking that our current curriculum and way to teaching probably dosne’t serve these students very well; agricultural degrees have been taught by and taught for people who left a farm and are going back to a farm, not for people who may have never even been to a farm. For the past few years I been thinking about the difference in skills and experience these two groups of students bring to my class, but if we really want to see a more diverse group of people growing our food (we definable do, more diversity and just more people), then I also need to think about where I am recruiting these students and how I can help them overcome barriers of access and privilege.

    • Sorry, there are several typos and partial sentences in my reply. Trying to think and type at the same time can be challenging.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks for reading this week, Bethany. I am still trying to work through these issues for myself so that I can be better equipped to talk about them as they come up–in class, in assignments like this, in my own day-to-day experiences. To me, if a person ignores that privilege is even an issue, than they are missing the whole point. Like I was saying in my post, when you look around in my profession, it is almost embarrassingly white and male–and why is that? (There is a history lesson there for the evolution of landscape architecture in the U.S. but I’m not going to attempt to unpack that right now.) I have a hunch this disparity in social representation is the case for many professions. So I appreciate you talking about your observations in your discipline and how the educations we provide in higher ed don’t always serve our students as well as they could. We are an ever-growing and changing society and I believe that there is plenty of room for more diversity, especially among underrepresented groups.

  • Amy Hermundstad says:

    I agree with Bethany – this was a very insightful and thoughtful post! I really appreciated that you discussed so many different barriers and were willing to talk through some challenging topics. There is so much in here and I would love to just sit down and talk with you about this post, but I wanted to mention that I really appreciated your last paragraph. You described several factors that affect whether students are able to study in a particular program/university/context, and you also stated that we need to support students once they get to these various settings. I definitely agree! For the longest time, I didn’t realize how much privilege I had given my background and my parent’s backgrounds. To name just a few, there were many things that I knew about college simply because my parents and my sister went to college (I knew what the admissions process was like, I knew what resources were available, etc.). So I think we as educators can better support our students once they get to these educational settings so that students can persist as well. However, in supporting students, we can sometimes take a deficit-based approach where we focus on what an individual or group is missing. Like you said in your last paragraph, we should set up environments where all students belong and feel comfortable contributing. As I was reading your article and reflecting on what you wrote, it made me think of this article from my field that discusses different types of capital and the relationship with persistence, and I thought I would share it here. It is related to engineering but I think the concept is applicable in a wide range of contexts. The article is Community Cultural Wealth: An Assets-Based Approach to Persistence of Engineering Students of Color, and you can find it here: http://su8bj7jh4j.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=Community+Cultural+Wealth%3A+An+Assets-Based+Approach+to+Persistence+of+Engineering+Students+of+Color&rft.jtitle=Journal+of+Engineering+Education&rft.au=Samuelson%2C+Cate+C&rft.au=Litzler%2C+Elizabeth&rft.date=2016-01-01&rft.issn=1069-4730&rft.eissn=2168-9830&rft.volume=105&rft.issue=1&rft.spage=93&rft.epage=117&rft_id=info:doi/10.1002%2Fjee.20110&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=10_1002_jee_20110

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Amy, thank you for your feedback and I appreciate you sharing that article with me. First, I’d like to say that I would enjoy a dialogue about privilege (with anyone who wanted to tackle it) because it is such a difficult subject to discuss–especially if you’re the one with the privilege. By unpacking these personal issues, I think it makes us a more understanding and empathetic society. I am trying to bring more of this into my own teaching philosophy!

      I really liked how the author frames the concept of capital and how students of color enrich the environment just by being present and bringing their personal experience and perspective to the table. This idea of community cultural wealth makes sense and I agree that it does play into what I was talking about in my post. The 4 examples of the Community Cultural Wealth are very interesting and I am going to spend some time thinking about this article and how to tie those concepts into my philosophy on diversity and inclusion. “All we have” are the concepts and ideas that we internalize and carry with us as we face the obstacles in front of us every day. For students (in general) to be successful, I would argue that they would need to accrue positive capital and community cultural wealth in their support structure. This is likely a greater foundation need for people of color because they have to face bias and the ugly side of privilege each and every day.

  • Zhanyu (Grace) says:

    Hi Sara, thank you for taking the time to write this post. I agree with the others that it was very thoughtful and covered a broad spectrum of very important topics. Privilege is a very difficult topic to talk about, and watching the video really hit home the differences in privilege for different people. But it is important that all of us (with various backgrounds and privileges) are thinking and talking about it, even if it’s in cautious baby steps. The discomfort is likely experienced by everyone in various degrees. Going through this course as well as the Citizens Scholar Seminar really made me think about outreach differently; not just in their importance, but also in the way they are delivered and what that means for diversity and inclusion. The same is true with pedagogy, as you mentioned. I think what’s great about this post is that having so many facets of diversity and inclusion packed in one post really helped me look at the big picture and how each aspect are connected. So thank you again!

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Grace,
      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog this week. I felt compelled to tackle these issues because like you said–it’s important that all of us do so. I took Citizen Scholar, too! I agree with you on the importance (and timeliness) of that seminar. I really enjoyed that class for what it helped me to understand better how to reach out and help. Our ideas can often be well-intention-ed, but misunderstood, so it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the community. That class was full of topics that made me slightly uncomfortable (because I had to really think and was beginning to question my values and experiences to date) but in a good way! It helped me grow as a person and as a scholar. I was glad for this prompt on diversity and inclusion in this class because it gave me an opportunity to discuss some of those ideas that have been swirling around in my head since I returned to graduate school.

  • Kathryn G Culbertson says:

    Thank you Sarah for writing such a cogent blog post this week (you seem to have a knack).
    The Buzzfeed video you shared was incredibly powerful. And, I think that there is tremendous opportunity in creating communities of allies to push forward in issues of prejudice and ignorance.Ive always considered myself a first generation American (my grandparents were Italian immigrants) and thought it was enough to relate to others as such. But the conversation last night, and your post have started me thinking about how much more I could do to further conversations about inclusion and diversity.
    . Wouldn’t it be cool to do the same experiment here at VT? I’d be interested in working with others to make that happen.
    I’m wrestling with how to be of service in continuing this conversation. Last night was incredibly revealing to me. I’ve always felt like an immigrant, myself, but clearly not had to deal with the level of prejudice most of the International students have encountered.
    How can we continue to advocate for inclusion and diversity as a #GEDIVT group?

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