Teaching Well in the Diverse/Multicultural Classroom
An excerpt from AAHE's new book Included In Sociology
By Mark Chesler

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:

  • Make my course content more multicultural.
  • Handle race- and gender-related incidents in class with confidence.
  • Avoid racist behavior as an instructor.
  • Adopt a teaching style that is effective with a wide variety of student cultural styles.
  • Incorporate critical thinking about race, gender, ethnicity, and class in courses.
  • Help students deal with these differences in class.
  • Surface and deal with covert race and gender conflicts effectively.
  • Avoid centering all authority on myself.

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:

  • Confronting my own social and identity conflicts — becoming and being aware of my own social identity and how it impacts on others.
  • Confronting (or being confronted with) my own biases — being aware of how others’ different social identities impact on me, my assumptions, my own racial and sexist baggage and reacting to others pointing them out to me.
  • Responding to bias and discrimination when it occurs — knowing what to do when members of dominant groups or nondominant groups unfairly target each other.
  • Handling doubts about my own competency — dealing with fears about my own ignorance, my struggles with these issues, and the possibility of my making mistakes or misjudgments.
  • Needing approval from students — dealing with concern about offending students or failing to be effective with them.
  • Handling intense emotions — knowing how to deal with my own and others’ strong emotions so that I can handle difficult situations without them or me blowing up.

I can add to this list some others from my own experience working with myself and colleagues:

  • Deciding which and how many perspectives to include in class materials — teaching the assigned, expected course content while including materials that touch a wide variety of students.
  • Handling differences in students’ styles of learning and participating in class — developing plural forms of presentation, intellectual work, assignments, papers, and tests.
  • Managing time and energy — working on these issues in realistic ways that do not eat up all my academic and personal time.
  • Managing my own feelings of the need for change in ways that do not alienate colleagues by thinking of or presenting myself as having superior racial/ethnic knowledge and pedagogical practice.
  • Dealing with colleagues’ reactions — responding to colleagues who feel I am being too soft with students of color (or any student), pandering to concerns of political correctness, or watering down serious intellectual content to deal with “interactional” or “process” issues.
  • Deciding how much time and energy to invest in student life and intergroup issues in campus and community nonacademic environs (residence halls, social and political clubs, activist movements for change) and balancing that with my primary teaching and research responsibilities.

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:

  • Evaluating our own teaching by reflecting on and getting feedback on our own strengths and weaknesses, on the kinds of students we enjoy and clearly have positive impact on and others we have been uncomfortable with or failed to reach, on the distribution of grades and attendance in our classes, and on the extent and nature of out-of-class contact with students. We can invite undergraduate students, graduate student mentees, or faculty colleagues to assist in this feedback endeavor, on an oral or written basis, personally or anonymously;
  • Assessing our own level of consciousness and awareness of individual and institutional racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia and deciding what more we need or want to learn about our own cultural heritage and that of other groups. It is as important to affirm honestly what we do know as it is to identify what we yet need to learn;
  • Making an inventory of faculty development resources that can help us meet our learning agendas and then engaging in some of these opportunities. Some of these resources may be available from disciplinary associations or colleagues, some from college or university centers established to assist faculty, and others from special conferences and programs focusing on specific knowledge and skills involved in teaching and learning in diverse and multicultural classrooms;
  • Identifying on-campus and off-campus opportunities to learn cognitively and experientially about the history and current situations or needs of young people who are members of different racial, economic, gender, sexual orientation, and religious groups;
  • Seeking out or creating a teaching support group, a group of faculty peers with whom we can share problems and new ideas, fears and hopes, and specific examples of classroom designs and activities. Some members of such a peer support group could be invited to observe us teach, and vice versa;
  • Mobilizing faculty, student, and administrative allies to create pressure for transformation of departmental and organizational cultures and structures (including mission, disciplinary foci and curricula, reward structures, support infrastructures) so that multicultural change processes are under way throughout the university system.

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 mchesler@umich.edu.

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.

Click here to read more about the book, including the Introduction and the Table of Contents. Click here to order online.

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