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Diversity in the Classroom: Beyond race and gender

This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Christine K. Dungan

In this edition, three members of the Vanderbilt community engage some of the questions surrounding the issue of diversity in the classroom. Sara S. Ezell, assistant director, Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department (EAD), discusses diversity of physical ability. The EAD is Vanderbilt’s disability services office, monitoring accessibility and handling accommodations for the disabled community on campus. Commenting on religious diversity is Forrest E. Harris, president of American Baptist College, assistant professor of the practice of ministry, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black Church. Candace Rosovsky, director of the June Anderson Women’s Center at Middle Tennessee State University and senior lecturer in women’s studies at Vanderbilt, discusses diversity of sexual orientation.

CFT : How would you describe the climate here at Vanderbilt in terms of diversity?

EZELL : A college campus is a tough place to be if you’re different in any way. Many of our students have learning disabilities, so others may not know they have a disability. It’s harder for the kids with more obvious disabilities; anything that makes you different makes it a lot more difficult on a college campus, at least initially. I also am an alum of Vanderbilt, so I can see things from both sides. I think there is a place here for everybody, and you just have to find that niche.

HARRIS : Presently, religious diversity is very much at the center of our awareness in the Divinity School. Interreligious dialogue, and making people aware that the truth that emerges through multiple religious perspectives, is good for development of religious consciousness for the pluralistic society in which we live. We are working toward the inclusivity of religious worldviews on our faculty and in our teaching.

ROSOVSKY : I teach a course called Lesbian Studies: Identity, Desire and Representation, and I hear from my students that they seem to feel pretty comfortable with who they are. I have not heard of instances of gay-bashing, either psychological or physical, on this campus. My general sense is that for students, it’s fairly safe.

CFT : What can a professor or TA do to facilitate a sense of “safe space” for a diverse student population?

EZELL : I think the biggest thing is not assuming anything. I found, as a student here, that professors wondered how I got in, if I was intelligent enough to be where I was. I felt as though I needed to prove myself a lot more. We have some similar issues today with students, particularly those with learning disabilities; people thinking that if they have a learning disability, they’re not smart enough to be in this school, which is really not accurate. Some of our kids with LD have the highest IQs of anybody here, but the way that they manifest their work habits may not show in the performance in class. It is important to be open to different ways of learning. The biggest problem we have with professors is flexibility, and thinking a little bit differently. Our kids got into this school. There is nothing on their admissions application anywhere that talks about a disability, so they got into this school on their merits, and they deserve to be here, and they’re smart enough to be here. They may not be the run-of-the-mill student who studies and gets all As; they may have to have a little extra tutoring or a little extra time, but they are equally important to this community.

I think making the professors available one-on-one is really helpful, having that time to sit down with students individually and talk with them about any specific problems they’re having. Even referring them to the Learning Center or to us – at least, letting them have a personal contact is really helpful, so that they feel that someone is advocating for them in the classroom. It’s become so much better here. We really have found that professors are very receptive to the student coming to them.

It’s almost harder on kids with learning disabilities, because faculty can be a little bit doubtful, and I can’t reveal much because of confidentiality issues. It’s a lot easier for me to stick a kid in a wheelchair in the front row. I think that the biggest hurdle that we have is convincing professors that the LD is real, and that we require documentation when a student starts working with us.

It’s sort of unfortunate that we don’t have more kids with obvious disabilities here, so people could get more acclimated to it. Partially, this is because students with physical disabilities in high school are often not encouraged to go to college. It’s really still a mindset that they’re going to go on to a vocation. I’ve seen that over and over and over again, and it’s very unfortunate. And those who are encouraged are never encouraged to seek something like Vanderbilt, a private school. Usually it’s an expense issue; many times they don’t know if they’re qualified to be here. I think there could be a lot more if, in high school, they were encouraged to come. In my case, I felt like a token at first, but it’s all certainly been worth it. The best thing that I ever hear is that we have a new student in a wheelchair, and I don’t even know that they’re here. The less they come to see me, the better – that means they don’t need anything, they’ve taken care of themselves.

HARRIS : When one’s religious worldview has been narrowed to a perspective that does not allow for openness and dialogue with realities other than one’s own, there’s something inherently wrong with that religious perspective. And so what needs to begin to happen as we talk about our own religion, is what is it about it that makes it a basis for us to participate in the world, as human beings who are able to interact with other people around these very basic issues of life – love, justice and freedom? That approach helps us, I think, to get beyond the trappings of faith claims and/or religious differences that narrow our spectrum. A teacher can be very sensitive to pedagogical ways of representing topics or feelings or courses that allow for people to make inquiries beyond their frames of reference. We can expose people to literature that actually gets at those issues. And we can shape the classroom experience in a way that makes for active discussion.

In the classroom setting, you can make it clear that you’re approaching the topic for scholarship and in as objective a manner as possible, to learn about a social phenomenon that impacts the way that we live. However, subjectivity and emotional histories come with it, so what I’ve done is to have the students prepare a set of “talking papers.” These papers get at formative issues around the topics of racism and religion that impact them and their understanding and worldview.

Each class experience has its own distinctive chemistry and personality that require the teacher to make adjustments to facilitate the goals of the class. If tension arose, I would use it as a pedagogical moment for understanding that we must learn how to deal with our differences and try to find a way to create synergy around the issue rather than isolating it as a sore spot in the learning experience. Different angles of vision challenge people to ask why they think a certain way, or why they may need a change in their thinking. The difficulty is in keeping it from becoming personal – that’s the issue, especially around diversity, ethnicity, since the most frequent writing about those topics prejudice their scholarship about it. I think from the outset you have to make clear that the topic is being approached from a scholarly, academic perspective; it may challenge your interpersonal experience around the issue, but nonetheless, I’m asking you to interact with the class around the literature, the scholarship that has been done on this topic, and the objectivity that that scholarship represents. Otherwise we lose the whole thing within the emotions of the class. Yet, at the same time, we need to be sensitive to that emotional history – it’s a fine line sometimes.

ROSOVSKY : To me, you teach by modeling, so I try to be open and affirming of everyone in a classroom, and to listen respectfully to diverse opinions. I use a list of about eight things, which lays the foundation in the classroom for being respectful of race, class, religion, whatever. It’s a contract that says we’ll be respectful, we’ll listen, we won’t make jokes about, we won’t make fun of, and these are the ground rules for the class. I lay them out and I say, “I want to talk about these,” and I do this in the second breath of my syllabus: “Here’s the syllabus, here are my objectives for the class, here are my guidelines for the class, and now let’s talk about behavior in the class. Let’s talk about issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and my expectation of how we will interact with each other.” Anything that makes us an “other” in our culture has the potential to keep us silent. By bringing up issues of diversity verbally, you refuse to silence anyone’s voice.

CFT : If you had the ear of the entire Vanderbilt faculty, what three things would you want to say?

EZELL : People with disabilities belong here. They got here on their own merit, and whether they need extended time on a test or an interpreter in the classroom, they’ve earned the right to be here. The second thing would be not to assume. Don’t assume that someone who’s blind has a hearing impairment; don’t talk slower for someone who’s dyslexic. And third, just be available. When a student is really making an effort to establish one-on-one contact, being available to them is key, and being flexible. The Vanderbilt community is getting much more sensitive to these issues, and there is not such a stigma attached to disability anymore.

ROSOVSKY : The issue of sexual orientation is with us; it’s not going to go away. It’s part of who all of us are. I think we have an obligation to educate ourselves and, as faculty, to be a visible presence at events that are about issues or likely to be populated by groups who are not part of the primary groups with whom we identify, because it’s important for us to build connections. I also think we have to be willing to not be wanted. If you’re a member of the dominant culture, you have to be willing to recognize the anger that may exist. It may not be directed at you, but whoever has privilege must be willing to recognize that there are places that you may not be wanted, so don’t force yourself. It’s important not to colonize, to think that because you’re part of the dominant culture, you have the right to colonize any other group.

HARRIS : One is that diversity itself is a teaching image. Rather than us seeing diversity as something to interpret, diversity interprets us. We are drawn into a life of interpretive efforts to understand who we are, and diversity itself is a learning tool. Second, diversity challenges the community to always be fluid, and open to new ways on understanding itself. And lastly, sometimes we have to honor, in the midst of diversity, the strongest understandings of truth, whether it represents that diversity as a whole or not, as opposed to relativizing everything. I think the next few years will challenge places like Vanderbilt to be in dialogue with the most unorthodox partners, people who continue to reconfigure a vision of our world that is not going to be meaningful for all of us. We have to be able to find ways to interact with resistance, so that we can really form the basis of hope for change. You have to create the environment for dialogue. It’s a challenge, because our world becomes more and more violent. I don’t know, yet, how we do that, but I do know that if we don’t, it repeats itself. .

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