I was in my thirties when I went back to school, taking classes during lunch breaks and in the evenings after work. One of the things that surprised me most about returning to the classroom was how easy it was to speak up. Part of this came from experience; a decade of coaching in collegiate athletics had made me more confident, and more ready to voice my opinion, than I had been as a twenty-year-old. But I came to realize that a substantial part of the ease was unearned: that as a middle-aged white man I have privileges to speak and act in academic spaces that others do not; that my experiences are not universal; and that my easy opportunities sometimes came at others’ expense. Throughout my time in graduate school, as I have developed as a teacher and a researcher, I have held onto the memory of that realization to help guide me. I strongly believe that the best learning environments are the ones where we hear the most voices; where the barriers to participation are lowered so that all students have the space and support to contribute their experiences, thoughts, and questions. I want all of my students to be able to speak and act as freely as I can.
Acknowledging and respecting the diversity in each classroom is an important step. Students come to a course with an array of backgrounds and experiences, bringing perspectives that can enrich class discussion and challenge traditional paradigms of thought. Early in graduate school I had a professor tell me that the best way to engage students in discussions was for them to believe that you care what they have to say, and that the best way to get them to believe that was for it to be true. This means listening respectfully to my students’ ideas, and letting their questions and insights drive discussion and learning objectives. Meeting students where they are – getting to know them as people and welcoming their perspectives – helps to validate their right to contribute. And the more I know about my students, the better I can tailor the course’s goals or materials to create an inclusive environment where they all can have an equity of opportunity.
There are a range of factors that can stifle a culture of diversity in a classroom. Sometimes it is a question of content; materials that speak to only narrow bands of interest can shut students out. This is a pronounced problem in Medieval History. Students’ preconceptions of the field are often heavily influenced by popular culture, where the Middle Ages is portrayed as primarily white, male, cis-gendered, militaristic, and Euro-centric. Students of color, women, and learners from traditionally underrepresented minorities often struggle to see a connection between their own interests and identities and the medieval past that they see in movies and video games. Setting course content that reinforces those perceptions serves to limit diversity from the outset. Engaging the widest range of students requires expanding the curriculum. Highlighting research and primary literature that speaks to medieval Europe’s racial and sexual diversity, to the space of women in politics, art, trade, and religious life, and to the connected history of a Global Middle Ages can spark interest in more learners. It can show them that medieval history can be their history: that they can claim ownership over this part of the past, and have a part in affecting our reactions to it.
Other barriers to inclusion are less related to content and more about experience. As both a collegiate coach and a graduate instructor I have worked with first-generation and nontraditional students for whom success in higher education is not merely a question of mastering the materials. First-generation students have to navigate the systems of unwritten rules and expectations that undergird universities, often without even knowing what questions they need to ask. In my first-year courses I frequently set assignments that require students to connect with campus institutions at multiple levels, to help give them a sense of what social and academic resources are available to them. I know from personal experience that nontraditional students often have additional responsibilities to balance against their schoolwork. I have found it easier to gain buy-in from nontraditional students if I actively demonstrate that I understand the value of their time. It is important, for example, that time spent in class be productive and stimulating; classes must provide something that the students would not get simply by reading the materials on their own.
It is also vital to recognize the struggles that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face in college environments. As the 2018 Goldrick-Rab study out of Temple demonstrated, roughly a third of college students face problems of food and housing security. Efforts on my part to mitigate costs can make it easier for these – and all – students to participate meaningfully in my classes. Towards this end, I chose course materials with an eye towards cost; I set older editions of books where possible, provide as many readings as possible in electronic format on Canvas or online, and make sure that copies of my course texts are always available on reserve in the library.
In all things, the goal is to allow students the freedom to bring their life experiences to bear on their studies. Giving students the support to succeed, recognizing the intersectional identities that they bring to the classroom, and valuing their efforts to learn and grow all help to build a more inclusive learning process. And this enriches the classroom experience for everyone. But my interest in encouraging cultures of diversity extends beyond the classroom. I have worked with female co-authors on several writing projects because I recognize the value of collaborating with, and pushing forward, diverse voices. The Teaching Gradually book project for which I am editor has issues of diversity and inclusion at its core. Contributing authors have been asked to use those as lenses for their chapters, and the authors themselves were chosen to reflect multiple diversities of race, gender, sexual orientation, academic field, and institutional affiliation. For the past three years I have been a Graduate Fellow with Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, doing training sessions on diversity and leading workshops that center inclusion in discussions of pedagogical topics. In 2018 I was part of the pilot group that took and assessed Cornell’s new Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom course, and I took the course again in 2019 after it had been retooled. As these efforts show, my commitment to professional diversity is ongoing; I still have the freedom of easy contribution, and I remain invested in helping to build systems of learning that make that freedom widely available.