Teaching Well in the Diverse/Multicultural Classroom
From the January 2003 AAHEBulletin.com
Editor's Note: The following article is based on a chapter in the new AAHE Book Included in Sociology: Learning Climates That Cultivate Racial and Ethnic Diversity, edited by Jeffrey Chin, Catherine White Berheide, and Dennis Rome. See below for ordering and other information.
Most students come to our colleges and universities from racially and economically separated communities and secondary schools. For many, college is the first environment in which they study and live together on a sustained basis with people of different races, ethnicities, and economic classes — their peers and the faculty and staff. Most of us bring to these encounters in one way or another the racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic baggage that abounds in our culture.
When collegiate operations adopt a passive attitude toward patterns of racial and ethnic ideology and interaction, it permits these historical, cultural, and media-generated stereotypes and fears (or hostilities) about differences to persist. Moreover, patterns of separation, distance, and alienation, accompanied by awkwardness, fear, and occasional hostility, reinforce and reproduce invidious attitudes and discriminatory treatment in the collegiate environment. Then the successful performance, safety, and moral sensibilities of all students are threatened.
Dilemmas Facing Faculty Members
A lack of organizational imagination and commitment to racial justice and equity in many educational settings places an enormous burden on individual students — students of color and white students — to learn academic material and relate effectively with one another. It also places a great burden on faculty members to try to teach well and justly in this difficult environment. For faculty, like students, generally come from, live in, and work and play in racially separate environments. Most of us lack the life experiences and pedagogical skills that would enable us to do a better job in these settings.
There is not a lot of research available on how we who are white men deal with these classroom issues, as most scholarly work focuses on the “others” (students, students of color and women students, and occasionally women faculty and faculty of color). In the Fall 1996 The Diversity Factor [see www.eyca.com/diversityfactor/] journal article “Faculty Initiatives and Institutional Change” author Beth Glover Reed reports on a faculty-initiated and -designed series of workshops that attempted to help develop and improve the skills of faculty members for work in multicultural classrooms. As part of their reflection in these peer learning sessions, faculty participants expressed the following priorities for future learning:
Gerald Weinstein and Kathy Obear, in their chapter "Bias Issues in the Classroom: Encounters with the Teaching Self" in the book Promoting Diversity in College Classrooms, (Jossey-Bass, 1992) have identified some of the particular issues faculty experience when dealing with race, ethnicity, racism, and ethnic discrimination in the classroom:
I can add to this list some others from my own experience working with myself and colleagues:
All these issues may be universal in the teaching-learning situation, but in multicultural settings, they generally are more problematic. For here, we as faculty (as everyone else) are more vulnerable, both in our own identities and our location in the cauldron of intergroup struggle. Learning to teach in multicultural ways may not proceed smoothly, but probably involves twists and turns, advances and retreats, as we learn better how to do it.
What Might We Do?
The personal resources, group identities, and personal prejudices that we as faculty members bring to the classroom also demand our attention. We would do well to assess our own skills, knowledge, and resources and the degree to which we need to further develop these resources in preparation for effective and just teaching in the multicultural classroom.
Among the important steps we might take are:
A Final Thought
The effort to move toward just and effective teaching, to create a multicultural classroom, is hard work, requiring considerable time and energy. It is lifework: It will happen not in a day or a semester but over a lifetime of conscious effort to unlearn and learn.
It also is not something that can be done in isolation; we will have to engage peers and students in this endeavor. We can expect to have some failures as well as successes along the way and, in trying to grow and change, may well discover new paths for our own scholarly work beyond the classroom.
It also is not something that faculty can do without leadership and support from university administrators — department chairs and academic leaders as well as staff and student affairs’ officials. Effective teaching cannot be isolated from the rest of the structure and culture of the university; eventually it requires – as well as feeds — an organizational culture and structure that also seeks equality and justice.
The movement from monocultural to multicultural teaching is not likely to be one of linear progression; it is far more likely to be a start-and-stop process replete with occasional regression and failure as well as success. It calls for a long-term investment, an investment in our own growth and change as well as in our students and in the university and society of which they and we will continue to be a part.
Mark Chesler is a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and coauthor of the forthcoming book Challenging Racism and Promoting Multiculturalism in Higher Education. Contact him at email@example.com.
Included in Sociology: Learning Climates That Cultivate Racial and Ethnic Diversity, edited by Jeffrey Chin, Catherine White Berheide, and Dennis Rome, published by the American Association for Higher Education in cooperation with the American Sociological Association. It is one of three discipline-specific volumes (also Communication and English Studies) published with support from the Knight Foundation. Carolyn Vasques-Scalera, project editor.
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