Working Toward Inclusiveness

by Robin Parent on January 21, 2014

As most of the Cal Poly community is aware, during November there was an off-campus party with an inappropriate theme that denigrated women and was racially derogatory.  In the weeks following the party, the campus community was filled with students, faculty, staff, and administrators grappling with how to discuss, educate, investigate, and rectify the problems brought up through the party. While attending the first open forum on November 22, I heard students ask for more direct discussion of diversity and inclusivity in their courses, and I heard from faculty the question of “how do we do that?”

The CTLT hosted a short survey to help determine the needs of the faculty concerning how to include diversity into their courses. We received many detailed responses on how faculty currently include diversity and inclusivity in their courses and even more on where others would like help making their courses more diverse and inclusive. Based upon the results, faculty are interested in incorporating topics of diversity into activities, readings, discussions, and projects, as well as making their classrooms more welcoming and inclusive to all students. This is great news! It means faculty are being critically reflexive within their teaching practices. In practical terms, this means faculty are examining critically the assumptions and underlying actions in their classrooms, campus, and community, as well as the impact of those actions (Cunliffe, 2004).

All of the areas faculty requested help in are important, but together they may appear daunting when considering the scope of restructuring an entire course. Keeping that in mind, we can start with the classroom environment. Using the figure below from Griffith University, here are some tips and ideas to incorporate into the new term to help you create a more inclusive classroom environment: 

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Learning and Teaching Environments – Classroom Strategies

Positively Interact with Students

  • Take the time to get to know your students through introductions and facilitating class time for them to get to know each other, thus fostering a welcoming space where importance is placed on community. Sean Coffron (2001) has found through his teaching experiences that “developing a classroom community of respect and trust is paramount to a learning environment. By focusing on the classroom as a community, the teacher can direct the class and govern the norms of the classroom in such a way that the students feel they are an integral part.” In my own classes my first assignment is an “Entrance Music Introduction.” I ask students to find a song that resonates with them in one way or another. It doesn’t have to be their favorite, or something that is current; it can be a childhood song, a culturally significant piece of music, or a personal creation. I do ask that the music not be derogatory or offensive. During the next class period students share their song along with information about where they heard it, why they identify with it, and why they felt it was a good piece to share. Music is a broad and diverse topic. Most people listen and enjoy several genres. Through using music I can open discussions about diversity and difference as well as how being open and respectful to others’ music choice can translate to other areas of difference. At the next class meeting I will have compiled the musical introductions into a “playlist” for our class.
  • Consider providing students with some information about you, your teaching style, and teaching methods. Include details about your cultural background and your positionality. According to Banks (1996), instructors’ positionalities, which are made up of the goals, knowledge, beliefs, strategies, and other normative frames of reference of the instructors, are significant factors in the learning experiences and engagement of students. I like to provide my students with my own introduction. I feel it is important to my students to know who I am now, and who I was as an undergrad, a grad, and some of my personality outside of class. I share where I went to school and maybe an anecdote or two about my learning styles and how those have changed. I also talk about my expectations for myself as their instructor in the course and why I have chosen the materials and designed the class in the way that I did and my expectations of them as students. Through doing this I can share that I too am a person, and I have thought deeply about the class and how its potential affect all of us, and that I care about their engagement with me, each other, and the content.

Actively Discourage Classroom Incivilities

  • Establish ground rules for interaction within small groups, one-on-one, and through group projects. Providing a scaffolding of ways to support open engagement in the similarities and differences all students bring to a space gives a shared framework from which to operate during difficult and challenging moments. All of the courses I teach, both online and traditional, include group work, group projects, small group discussion, and full class discussions. In my syllabi I talk about respectful engagement with others and working to create safe spaces that promote critical thinking. I reinforce this section of the syllabus on the first day of class by discussing my feelings about discussing topics and making sure everyone has opportunities to engage and share and are respectfully supported in the process. In my online courses I ask students to share in a discussion forum rules for posting and responding, together we create a process for discussion. These same principles of creating a shared set of rules work for the traditional classroom as well.
  • Respond promptly to behavior (verbal or non-verbal) that could be considered offensive (prejudiced, biased or discriminatory). Make it clear in the syllabus, and reiterate if necessary that you do not tolerate racist, sexist, and culturally insensitive comments (including stereotypes and assumptions). Responding to behavior that is inappropriate in your class is much easier if you have designated rules as discussed in the point above. Not only does it provide you with a framework to work from, but it also provides students in class power to speak up against a behavior that might otherwise be silencing. In a writing course I taught a few years ago we were discussing immigration and a student made a comment about all immigrants coming to the U.S. to have “anchor babies” in order to be able to stay. Another student spoke up and reminded the speaker that we had a set of rules that included “not making sweeping generalizations” as well as “not allowing stereotypes to speak as evidence.” In a moment that could have escalated, and where I was prepared to step in, a peer was able to handle the situation, which then moved into an even deeper discussion in a manner that pushed boundaries of thinking and ways of knowing, as well as kept spaces open.   

Encourage Open, Honest and Respectful Class Discussion

  • Be open in your teaching practices, model ways of engaging in constructive open dialog, and share the reasons why you believe it is important. Consider asking students how they learn best and then reflect together on the ways your teaching style can be adapted to their learning, or how you might choose to adapt your teaching to fit the needs of students. Teaching is a dynamic process. Personal reflection as a tool is useful in looking back on how a lecture, activity, module went over in a class. Asking students to reflect on the experience is also helpful. Students can use reflection to debrief after a learning moment and think about what they learned, how they learned it, and what might have been more useful in the process. Collecting, reading, and responding to these student reflections enables you to engage with their understanding of the learning process as well as provide you with valuable information on the efficacy of the lesson. Taking the time to then discuss with students some of the questions, responses and your plans for meeting the learning needs of students for the next assignment or term actively engages students in the education process as a whole.
  • Avoid singling out students when discussing topics, especially personally- or culturally-sensitive subjects, where you may ask them to speak on behalf of people from their country or culture. Instead, prompt students with open-ended questions asking for participation in dialog, and provide turn-taking opportunities when discussing controversial or sensitive issues.

Use Inclusive Language and Appropriate Modes of Address

  • Take the time to get to know your students, ask them what name or form of address students prefer, and tell them how you would like to be addressed. Some faculty prefer Dr., some prefer Professor, and still others prefer first names; make it explicit so that students feel comfortable approaching you.
  • Use inclusive language. Ethnocentric tones in language can further marginalize or make students feel unwelcome. Examples of inclusive language are using “given” name instead of “Christian” name. Try not to use generalizations that assume similar experiences. Keeping in mind that your students are different from each other and from you, and that you may share some similar experiences, but not all, is important.

These four areas, outlined above, are just a few of the ways we can begin providing more inclusive learning spaces for our students and ourselves. Inclusive spaces that recognize and value diversity are not without controversy. Often the safest and best learning spaces engage in difficult discussions, but do so respectfully and thoroughly. The Eberly Center at CMU has a great resource on helping to manage and facilitate “hot moments” that can arise through discussions on controversial subjects.

If you are interested in finding additional ways of making your classroom a more inclusive space, please contact me through the CTLT, as well as watch for future blog posts on diversity and inclusive excellence in the classroom.



Banks, J. A. (1996). The canon debate, knowledge construction, and multicultural
education. In J. A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action: Historical and contemporary perspectives (pp. 3-29). New York: Columbia University.

Coffron, S. (2001). Building Community in the Classroom.

Cunliffe, A. (2004). On becoming a critically reflexive practioner. Journal of Management Education. 28:407.




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