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From the Editor

This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Derek Bruff

In this issue, we examine teaching environments in which the teacher is different in one or more significant ways from the majority of his or her students. For the purpose of this newsletter, we call this “teaching from the outside in.” The student-teacher differences might be characterized by race, gender, cultural or economic background, country of origin, religious or political beliefs, or sexual orientation or in some other way. Some of these differences are clearly visible when the teacher walks in a classroom; others are subject to the teacher’s disclosure. All of them have the potential to impact the teaching and learning that occur in a given classroom, and the articles in this issue explore the pedagogical opportunities and challenges that arise from these differences.

As I began my research for this newsletter, I was not sure if I was up to the task of reporting on such a complex and potentially controversial topic. I taught calculus here at Vanderbilt for three years, and diversity issues never came up explicitly in the content of those courses, as they might in certain humanities and social science classes. Given my personal characteristics, I have rarely felt that I was on the “outside” of a class of students here at Vanderbilt. However, as I worked on the newsletter, I found that I was more familiar with this topic than I thought. I discovered that I did not lack a perspective on student-teacher differences. For example, past conversations with international graduate students in my department had made me aware of cultural differences in teaching-learning styles. These and other conversations and experiences had informed my personal perspective on student-teacher differences.

I found that each of the members of the Vanderbilt community I interviewed for the newsletter also seemed to have his or her own personal perspective on the topic. For example, some faculty members said they freely share their personal history and opinions in order to help students engage with course content. Other faculty members said they are very intentional about keeping their personal lives separate from classroom discussions in order to help students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions. How a faculty member manages student-teacher differences seemed to depend on the faculty member’s discipline, teaching philosophy, teaching experience, rank, and a whole host of other variables. Isolating those variables did not seem possible or proper, nor did drawing some conclusion that might apply to every situation.

Picture the topic of “teaching from the outside in” as a mosaic made of thousands of tiny stones. My perspective on this topic is one of those stones. I have tried to present in this newsletter a handful of other perspectives – a few more stones in the mosaic, so to speak. Bear in mind that a few quotes from a teacher or student will not give a full picture of a particular course or teaching-learning event. However, everyone interviewed had a story to tell, and I hope this collection of stories will help readers think more critically about the impact of student-teacher differences on the teaching and learning that happen in the classroom.

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter