Inclusive Pedagogy feat. Offensive Language

I wanted to start this post by addressing a video I just saw: ‘How microaggressions are like mosquito bites‘. Too often, I find that discussions of ‘sensitive topics’ (or insert your other favorite euphemism) happen in this uncomfortable sort of somber monotone. As if the very nature of these topics somehow necessitates a level of caution, so we don’t step on anyone’s toes. What I loved about this video is that it said a big f*** you (don’t follow the link if you are offended by potty-mouths) to that notion of caution, and tackled the concept of microaggressions using the language of pissed off and frustrated Millennials. It also managed to capture the idea of microaggressions, with a half dozen or so examples, in less than 2 minutes. And the use of humor made it all the more memorable.

While I found this video to be extremely effective, I recognize that my positive feelings towards it would not be shared by everyone. And that idea brings us to today’s topic, inclusive pedagogy. The Teaching Commons at Georgetown University defines inclusive pedagogy as the creation of a space that works for all students. So while the microaggression video worked for me as an educational tool, it’s unlikely to work for everyone. Recognizing that we all learn and grow in different ways is an important distinction, especially as it relates to inclusivity in the classroom.

The Georgetown article discusses some evidence that marginalized students feel excluded from our education system. An important point made was that “techniques that help improve the academic performance of students in marginalized groups tend to benefit other students, too.” I should also note that one of the citations for this claim comes from one of VT’s very own [Haak et al. 2011]. This quote reminded me of a recent conversation I had with one of my faculty mentors. They were discussing diversity in higher education and made the point that there is often a false choice between hiring diverse candidates and excellent candidates for research positions. As if increasing diversity comes at a cost of quality… The Georgetown article provides a line of evidence to counter this all-too-prevalent belief, that in fact the recognition and value of diversity can increase excellence.

Perhaps at the core of inclusive pedagogy is what the article calls a growth mindset – “the belief that a student’s abilities, interests, and capacities can change.” I think inclusive pedagogy, like all authentic efforts to increase inclusivity, is itself an optimistic concept. If we can focus on teaching our students as individuals, and recognize that their uniqueness requires a level care and thoughtfulness, I think we can achieve a fuller and richer educational experience for everybody.

P.S. I feel like I always end these blog posts on an optimistic note and recognize my own loftiness and perhaps false sense of positivity. Maybe it’s because things are a mess at present [COVID et al. 2020], or maybe because I’m watching West Wing (a show which exists solely in a false reality when compared to the modern political climate). Either way, I’d appreciate any counter-points you might have to offer!


My Authentic Teaching Self

As I read Finding My Teaching Voice by Sarah E. Deel, I was stuck by a couple of similarities between she and I within the first few paragraphs. First, her first teaching responsibility was for three sections of an introductory biology course – I am currently a TA for three sections that are about the same size. She then went on to explain her experiences with teaching. Coming from a small, liberal arts college where teaching was emphasized, she came to appreciate the craft of teaching that she experienced there. Like Sarah, I went to a small teaching focused school, and like her, I gained a high level of respect for the teachers and mentors that I experienced as an undergraduate.

However, as the author continued to write her post, I realized that our paths were far from the same. She explains, “In truth, who I am is rather earnest, intense, and detail-oriented, with just a faint hint of dry humor that goes unacknowledged by my students.” As she wrote about her lack of humor and the value she placed in details, I realized that she and I seem like very different people. Though I started reading her post with growing excitement thinking that we shared a common path, I gradually started to wonder whether Sarah and her post had any useful nuggets of insight at all. But just as that pessimism crept in, she explained that success in teaching comes from leaning in to your authentic self.

“I hadn’t considered that certain qualities described me (like my earnestness or attention to detail) could be a legitimate part of my teaching voice. Moreover, I could not construct my teaching voice from other people’s qualities, no matter how much I admired them.” What I realized is that while Sarah and I were not the same person at all, I could still admire her and her approach to teaching. Sure, the strategies that we will use to be successful will likely differ starkly – but when our approach is guided by caring about students and sharing our passions with our students, the opportunity for successful pedagogy will present itself.

And while Deel’s post made me feel good about my prospects of finding my true teaching self, it also gave me a moment of pause. I very much appreciated the ‘popular’ teachers throughout my education so far, and I would be kidding myself if I said I did not desire to be well-liked. But I’ll need to keep reminding myself that being effective needs to always come first, and that being respected will lay a better foundation that just entertaining my classes!

Telling My Story

I was assigned some readings on ‘connected learning’ for class the other day, and I am happy to report that they were not only worthwhile reads, but also short and to the point. This post is focused on one of these readings, a blog post by Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. He sums his stance up well when he writes that, “if there is a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, it lies in how we have our public debates, rather than in their content.”

He goes on to liken the use of Twitter and blogs by academics with those “embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations” that we have (or should I say *used to have* – thanks COVID) with our peers. Rather than detracting from our research output or the sphere of our academic influence, they highlight our passion for that which we devote so many of our waking hours.

Not only that, but by crafting public tweets and blogs (perhaps a different verb applies to the drunken chit-chats), we are also improving our ability to communicate with broader audiences. While not a prolific Twitter user, it is nevertheless obvious that my content has seen a dramatic improvement since I started in 2017. Check it out @silknets if you don’t believe me!

I am an ecologist, and I’m currently working on a PhD. I’m interested mostly in streams and the critters that live in them. I often struggle with how to present my work as meaningful, especially to folks outside of my discipline and those that serve the public, or to professionals that serve more obvious needs of our modern society. As an example, I once had a conversation with a close friend, telling him that I was studying movement patterns of the Eastern box turtle. His response was that he had the same job – in his backyard when he was six. Before I had the chance to explain why the study mattered, he had turned it into a joke. At least it was a good one.

I recognize that the work I do has value, but because it isn’t easy to convey that in a 30-second elevator pitch, I often just downplay what I do and try and change the conversation. But as I write this, thinking about Hitchcock’s ‘crisis’ of academics and our isolated debates, I realize that that I can do more to control my own narrative. This blog post is hopefully the first of many. My hope is to use my voice – to tell my story – from my perspective. I don’t want to change the content of my story, I think it’s a good one anyways. But to tell it to an audience outside the silo of the academy.