Inclusive Pedagogy

The experience I am outlining below is less academic and more professional. However, since I work for Virginia Tech, the significance is relevant for both.

As you walk through many of the buildings across campus, you may see a wall of paintings or photos of people that contributed to the University, whether as department head, researcher, or specialist. These tributes tell a story of Virginia Tech’s history – where we came from. Unfortunately, most of those contributions have come from older white males that has unintentionally contributed to the “good ol’ boy” mentality across campus. Though I am not sure how often it is discussed at the student level, it is a constant amongst employees of color and those of the opposite gender. So much so, that many (if not all) of the colleges have been tasked to identify ways to drop the “good ol’ boy” stigma by trying to create an inclusive environment.

The problem is that no one thinks about the photos! Outside of my office, there was a wall of people that did great things on behalf of Virginia Tech across the state. They were award recipients, and unfortunately, all older white men. Actually, that is not true. Of the 40 some odd photos that were on this board, 39 were men, and 1 was a woman. But that breakdown didn’t stop people from referring to it as “the white boy” wall. The number of times I heard students AND employees saying something along the lines of “meet me at…” or “I’m at the white boy wall” was incredibly embarrassing.

On top of that, if you looked at this wall, you might have noticed the underlying message that was being communicated by those photos. You see, of those 40 photos, 37 of the males had photos that were the exact same size – 4” x 6”; two of the males that took center stage on the wall had photos that were 5” x 7”; and the one lone female had a photo that was 3” x 5” – the smallest of them all. Additionally, all 39 males had a gold plaque under their names and the year they won their awards, but the female had nothing. Why was the woman’s photo the smallest and unidentifiable? To further the issue, the wall had not been updated since 2014, when the unidentified woman was the last recipient of the award. Did they decide to do away with the award as soon as a woman was given it? Or did they do away with it because she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community?

Now in all honesty, I can tell you the answer to every one of my questions, but I had to do a lot of digging first because no one seemed to remember why the board hadn’t been updated. And every time a student stopped and stared at that wall, I couldn’t help but want to run out and explain why it was the way it was, because I didn’t want them to assume we weren’t an inclusive college. But I didn’t, because I had a job to do, and that doesn’t include explaining every hour (particularly at the beginning of the school year) why women are not treated equally and why people of color aren’t even considered.

But that didn’t stop me from putting up a fight. I joined the college’s Diversity Council and pushed for the topic to be on the agenda every month. I annoyed my colleagues endlessly about it and was even told to suck it up. I argued with men AND women about it and challenged them to think about it from the perspective of a student that walks passed the Dean’s suite and sees on one wall, a poster of the college’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and on the opposite, the “white boy” board. It took a year, and then I finally caught the Dean’s attention.

The Dean came out to stare at the wall. He looked at it not as the Dean or as a white male, but as a female employee, current and future, who might walk these halls and see they aren’t represented. He looked at it with the eyes of employees of color who existed but weren’t acknowledged on any walls. Most importantly, he looked at the wall as a student who heard speeches about Virginia Tech’s efforts to be more representative of the population, but the college wasn’t demonstrating that. He saw a failed communication between the university’s history and its hope for the future.

It took me 14 months to get that board off the wall, but it only took the Dean one day.

Has it changed everything? No. But what it did do is remove a subliminal message that told certain groups they weren’t welcome. It was a small change that had an impact.

5 Replies to “Inclusive Pedagogy”

  1. Wow, that seems small but it is a big deal!

    I think this is a great example of one thing this country and, I’m sure, a lot of universities also struggle with– how do we celebrate the good from a complicated and often painful past, while moving forward and becoming better. Maybe those men deserve to be celebrated- but how do we celebrate and include those that were left out. Last week I was reading some university mission statements from some historic schools and noted how strongly they tie their missions to their school histories, which made me wonder to what extent that pride is good and to what extent it holds them back from changing and becoming better.

    I’m really curious about your questions about why the woman’s picture was smaller and had no plaque and why she was the last one. In this case, because it was so known, maybe it was good to take it down, but maybe updating it to celebrate newer and more diverse folks could be good? Removing it may help reduce the negative feelings of not belonging/being represented, but how can we build on that and create a more inclusive environment where people feel like they do fit?

    1. Rebecca,
      Thank you for your comments and thoughts. I will say that my first recommendation was not to remove the board completely, but to updated it and revamp it to highlight the successes of our more recent and diverse group of professionals in their different fields. Unfortunately, the people responsible for the board didn’t want to have to updated it annually, so they decided it was better to remove it. I still think it would be a great space to highlight the achievements of the awesome faculty that we have!

  2. Thanks for sharing this story and your thoughts about the “white boy wall”. In my department, we don’t have a wall like that, but I also observed that the boards with the names of students who received awards have not been updated since 2014. I think I have mixed feelings about this “white boy wall” situation. Even though it can send a not so pretty message in terms of inclusion and diversity, it reflects the true story of this university. Maybe removing it can make people believe Virginia Tech have always fought for diversity and inclusion, which is not true. I think in that situation, I would have fought for updating the boards, not for removing them. The updated boards would tell a better story of how things are changing at VT.

  3. Love this post. Thanks for sharing. You make me want to go out and be an active activist. It does make my heart heavy that our school decided to remove the wall in lieu of updating. It feels like they’re saying we would rather save money then showcase inclusion and diversity. Adding some plaques and a picture every year, doesn’t sound that hard. Tech builds at least two new buildings a year, so this should be easy peasy. 🙂 On a side note, my office is in Burrus, and everyday I pass a very large scale timeline of VT’s presidents, who are all white. But, I am hopeful that one day there will be a photo of someone other than an old white guy. I am also hopeful that they will add to the timeline and not take it down competently (she says sarcastically).

  4. I love this! Yes, I think this sort of subliminal messaging is so much more important than people realize. When you walk past a wall of images of men day after day, even if you don’t ever really notice it is there, it gets in your head. And we know this is true, there are years and years and years of advertising data to support this, anyone in marketing knows this, and yet in academia we tend to turn a blind eye to this type of imagery and symbolism. I went to Washington and lee which is covered with sculptures and pictures of confederate “heroes” and even if one never consciously addresses the imagery it does its job of creating a set, a back drop, and that sets the scene whether we are aware of it or not.

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