Diversity: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

By Peter Connor

In October, at a distance, the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains is in their panoramic vistas, the grand views; giant autumn canopies tying whole landscapes together. Up close, it's in the great diversity of trees and shrubs turning their individual reds and yellows, purples and oranges, all the colors out of which the canopy is made.

On Oct. 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student enrolled at an all-white university anywhere in the United States. That was 50 years ago. Today, attracting students from habitually underrepresented populations is part of the recruitment efforts of all post-secondary educational institutions; its successes measurable. With increased matriculation rates, however, come new challenges.

The current academic landscape includes an increased pedagogical responsibility: teaching in an ethnic, gender, and culturally diverse environment. If the push toward a more inclusive, democratic society is to be realized, classroom instructors need to be actively engaged in recognizing and addressing subtle behavior patterns that mask old, familiar, and deeply rooted individual biases.

In Tools for Teaching (1993), Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkley, addresses small ethnic, cultural and gender snubs and slights that occur in college classrooms every day (Chap. 5). They run the gamut from white students dominating class discussions—thus blocking a fuller participation by students of color—to instructors paying less attention and/or giving less credence to classroom contributions made by ESL students, to the dissuasion of women students from engaging in quantitative study projects.

This look right through me modus operandi—which, arguably, may be inadvertent—marginalizes those students to whom it is done and creates an atmosphere in which feelings of being unwelcome, under-appreciated, and undervalued rise quickly to the surface. Left unchecked, these behaviors can obscure the forest for the trees, propogating ignorance and undermining the potential for productive classroom interactions.

Referencing a wide swath of teaching practices across the country, as well as current sociological and educational research, Davis offers a broad spectrum of ideas for teachers to implement that will help elevate their awareness regarding insensitive classroom behavior and improve their effectiveness working with a diverse student audience. To learn more see Davis' Tools for Teaching, Chapter 5.

Sources:

Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/diverse.htm