My conscious attention to inclusivity begins with me listening to my students and thoughtfully drawing from my own experiences as a first-generation university student, community-college graduate, immigrant, and woman of color. Cultivating an environment of belonging is — and has been for me — a gradual process, one that will never be finished or complete. It requires constant vigilance, effort, and political activism. I am committed to the emotional, political, and physical labor of this process because my life and my own happiness depend on it.
I begin every course with a student survey. Students are astute judges of their own constraints, the best tellers of their own stories. I conduct these three times during the semester: at the beginning especially to gauge my students’ expectations, skills, and other obligations such as off-campus jobs, parenting, elder care, or long commutes. Students’ responses are anonymized so they can be free to state negative and positive opinions. Based on this feedback I make changes to my syllabus which apply to the whole class, so no one feels singled out.
Students also reveal their needs and limitations via indirect ways and I make a special effort to pay attention to these hidden pleas. To show you how I do this concretely in the classroom I include here an excerpt from my journal, where I reflect on my teaching.
“One of my online students showed up to the [extra credit] field trip with her 6-7 yr old. My student appears to be around 22-25 yrs old (I didn’t ask). Th[is] student has struggled to meet deadlines for assignments. I notice her emails to me are often sent around 1-2am in the morning. After the final exam deadline she emailed me saying that she’d fallen asleep during the exam, and asked if she could retake it. Her submitted assignments were [im]perfect but I could see the effort she made in their depth, length, and thoughtfulness. Her effort was apparent in her emails to me asking for more time. I extended all the deadlines when she asked and offered her the opportunity to ask repeatedly. I reopened the exam just for her so she could retake it (I could only extend it until midnight before grades were due). Yesterday, 2 days past the EC deadline I noticed one of her extra credit assignments was incorrect: instead of uploading her assignment, she attached the instruction sheet. I sent her a feedback comment on that. I didn’t hear back from her and I had to get final grades in. I was up at 1:30am grading/submitting final reports this morning and I got an email from her with the corrected assignment. But I had just submitted final grades and I couldn’t change anything. Technically, she’d made the error. [But] I checked her points and the extra credit was the difference between a B and an A. I know it’s a hassle for admin staff to redo grades and I would need to file a new grade report. But she had earned an A. Full stop. She didn’t earn an A because of extended deadlines, because I gave her more time. She earned an A because of the work she did and submitted. She earned an A. Full stop. As educators we need to recognize the power structures we erect in our classrooms and the hypocrisy and irony of our doing so — deadlines, schedules, and arbitrary policies regarding late work, rules for citations, rules for format, rules, rules, rules that we create to create order. I could go all Foucauldian here, but I won’t. We reify power and the structures of oppression in our classrooms. And we need to recognize, acknowledge, and tear these down if we want our students of color, of different backgrounds, experiences, abilities, of different means, skills, and needs to succeed and change the constituency of American education and what it means to be educated in America. …I am also humbled by my student and recognize her bravery and strength. My teaching this semester hasn’t been perfect, it never is. I am still learning how to teach and how to learn, how to listen, how to be an ally, how to everything. Trying doesn’t exonerate me, but it’s the best I can do.”
I worked two jobs to get through community college. It took me seven years. I remember how hard it was, and I will not let myself forget because of students like this.
I also enact inclusivity by infusing my course content with texts created by and for colonized voices, and reframing history from non-eurocentric perspectives. For example, in my introductory courses I assigned Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and James Ngugi/Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “Detention in Neo Colonial Kenya.” Cultural and historical relativity is necessary, but I end my courses with a module on contemporary events, places, and peoples so students can see how the past has a direct influence on the present, how the present shapes ways we understand the past, and most importantly, how they as individuals are producers and products of history, the present, and the future.
I use textbooks discerningly; instead, I curate primary sources and use podcasts, film (both documentary and fictionalized), essays, literature, and artifacts. For example, in my World History Since 1500 course I focused on Colonialism and Decolonization as a global process. We watched videos about beauty standards that privilege fairer “white” skin and advertisements for skin whitening products and practices in India, Nigeria, Kenya, and Malaysia. Several students knew of these practices so the content was relatable, resulting in lively class discussions. I showed them decolonization is an incomplete cultural process, one in which they can choose to participate in or not.
In one of my online courses, U.S. History Since 1865, I focused on race and racism as a lens to understand this era of American history. I made the connection between the past and present evident by assigning essays by Zitkala Sa, a documentary about Native American boarding schools, and an article about Native Americans and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It worked. One student gave me an anonymous review of this module: “I found myself stopping in the middle of readings or documentaries to call my boyfriend or message my friends because I was just so stunned by certain things in history and found it to be so interesting. The documentary on eugenics really shocked me, that was a history I had no knowledge of before this class. And the American Indian boarding schools, I had NO idea that ever went on. Overall, LOVED this course!! Seriously changed my entire perspective on history and I learned many new things in this class.” I was concerned that the online format might filter out the message I was trying to convey, but instead the multimedia format enhanced it.
My mentors have shaped the way I cultivate an inclusive community. I am where I am because others have invested in me. From my personal experience, I know making education accessible to students of color, all sexual orientations and genders, and classes is primarily an emotional task and one which takes place outside of the classroom. I know it involves tears, tissues, and lots of coffee. I know how vital it is for me to be a mentor. I am a Southeast Asian-American woman and there are few of us in academia. A Thai assistant professor at NIU is up for tenure review this year. I cannot describe how important her tenure is to me. Seeing her succeed shows me I can to pursue my own ambitions. It is my duty to mentor others with the same passion and compassion I have received. I am prepared to commit my emotional and professional labor to my students. Mentoring with the goal of inclusivity in mind will slowly break down the racial, gendered, normative barriers which have prevented marginalized peoples from thriving.