In our Spring 2015 blog post, we discussed anti-oppressive classrooms(learning environments where all forms of oppression are actively and intentionally challenged) and the importance of considering instructor identity (specifically that how you employ your identity can empower and/or oppress students). We use the word anti-oppression because it specifically targets unjust treatment in learning environments. We may often think of an example of oppression in the classroom as a blatant act, such as a student using overtly racist language. However, when you think of oppression in the classroom we want you to include subtle forms of oppression in your definition – such as students interrupting one another. We introduced a 4-step process of self-reflection on your identity, which we put forth as necessary to create and maintain anti-oppressive learning environments. For this blog, we want to continue the journey on inclusive, anti-oppressive learning environments, but with a focus on student identities.
Continuing to Teach Inclusively
Let’s begin with a brief thought experiment. Take a second to view the two photos above. Starting with the photo on the left, ask yourself how you view the students in this class? Do you view them as a homogenous group? A diverse group? As a note, we are intentionally not defining these two terms here to enable you to work through this thought experiment using your own conceptualizations of homogenous and diverse. Next, think about how you would teach this class. Would your approach (curriculum, chosen pedagogy, assessment methods, other) to teaching the class on the left differ from your approach to teaching the class pictured on the right?
In this blog, we will think about the reciprocal nature of student identities and classroom learning environments. ? In doing so, we will promote the idea that we must be mindful of all student identities (both that which is visible and that which is not) in order to create and maintain learning environments that are anti-oppressive. For instance, if you view students as homogenous, you may repeatedly use certain teaching methods or make certain assumptions which reinforce systems of power in your classroom (thus creating an oppressive learning environment). But in seeing students as a diverse group, teachers can begin to diversify their assumptions about learning and develop a repertoire of anti-oppressive teaching methods that can optimize the learning of all students.
Why Student Identity is Important: A Conversation with the Data
Does identity in the classroom matter to students? In our conversation with a second year undergraduate female in the sciences at MSU, the answer was overwhelmingly, “yes.” She was able to provide us with a useful perspective, as identity is very rarely an object of study or discussion in the typical science class. As someone who conceptualizes identity as,“Who you see yourself as[…], how you feel about yourself, and where you think you fit in the world,” she told us that identity was rarely overtly talked about in her classes. When asked whether she thought identity mattered in the typical science classroom at MSU, she said, “…no. You’re much more of a number or a student ID to them than you are a person.” However, when asked whether she wished identity was overtly addressed, she replied, “Yes, definitely…I wish that you were able to build relationships and express who you were[…] I feel like when you’re just being talked at, the professor doesn’t understand who you are as a person and they don’t understand where you’re coming from, like what you’re good at, what you’re not good at.” She also reported that she thought identity “most definitely” matters for a life as a scientist and future scholar. As the conversation came to a close, she added that when identity is directly addressed in the classroom, you get to know fellow classmates and the instructor better, and that with increased awareness and understanding of the identities present in the classroom, different viewpoints and experiences were respected, leading to decreased prejudice.
It became clear as we spoke to the student that intentionally addressing identity in the classroom isn’t just an epistemological position that we hold as instructors – students also really want identity to be explicitly addressed and recognized and not be something that is rendered invisible in the classroom.
We learned that purposefully and directly addressing identity in the classroom can:
- increase student engagement and improve student performance
- build community
- accommodate student learning preferences
- actively engage all social identity statuses (such as gender, ethnicity, disability, etc.)
- and help members of the learning environment overcome prejudice
We found the insight of the student’s perspective on identity to be a pleasant surprise, but we were also astonished by the depth of her insight into how intentionally addressing identity can impact a learning environment, particularly given that she is not asked to think about identity in the classes she describes as typical of her major.
This student’s viewpoint, though one in a student body of over 50,000, also echoes the literature on student identity in the classroom. It has been reported, for instance, that students who had a firm understanding of their identities had higher self-esteem and lower levels of depression (A. Elion, K. Wang, R. Slaney, and B. French, 2012); stronger academic performances, such as higher GPA’s (T. Chavous, D. Hilkene Bernat, K.Schmeelk-Cone, C. Caldwell, L. Kohn-Wood and M. Zimmerman, 2003); and a reduction in negative social attitudes, such as sexism (K. Case, 2007). While these studies showed the benefits of actively engaging student identity in the classroom, they focused on one aspect of identity, such as race. If we commit to developing an anti-oppressive classroom and address all student identities, then imagine how great the potential outcomes could be.
Let’s return to our thought experiment and to the words homogenous and diverse. When we look at the picture on the left, we may think that group of students is homogenous because we view that group as having one identity, such as race (i.e. “All my students are white, therefore they constitute a homogenous group”). Comparatively, if we look at the picture on the right, we may view that group as diverse because we see that group as having different types of one identity, such as race (i.e. “Not all of my students are white, therefore they constitute a diverse group”). However, if we move beyond thinking of identity as representing one aspect of self, but rather all, we will come to realize that all groups of students in every learning environment are necessarily diverse due to the fact that they are made up of infinitely complex individuals, each of whom will differ on at least one individual difference/aspect. Thus, in order to develop anti-oppressive learning environments, we must define concepts like homogeneity and diversity as related to all identities and not one.
Reflecting on Student Identity
Now that we’ve thought about why students’ identities are important in the classroom, we can begin the process of reflecting on students’ identities. To help you start the journey, we provide four questions to engage you in intentional thought towards becoming mindful of your students’ identities. After each question, take time to think about what strategies you could use in your classroom, lab, etc. We offer a couple of potential strategies that could be utilized in developing an anti-oppressive learning environment.
Four Questions to Begin the Journey
(1) Are you aware of all student identity statuses: sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, national status, language, etc.?
Answering this question is the first step toward a non-oppressive classroom in that you become aware of the student identity statuses so that you can begin to understand their meaning and how they intersect.
- Administer a survey before the start of the term (where you could, for instance, allow students the opportunity to share about their cultural background, make you aware of preferred nicknames or pronouns, etc.)
- Have students record how they pronounce their names for a pre-semester D2L assignment
(2) Have you acknowledged/do you understand what student identities mean to students? Answering this question allows you to understand who students are, so that you can begin to address the privileges (or lack thereof) associated with student identity statuses.
- Establish discussion guidelines with communication norms and expectations
- Facilitate discussions and assignments that allow students to relate course material to their experiences.
(3) Have you accepted the privileges (or lack thereof) that comes with student identities? Have you internalized why this matters? Answering this question allows you to deal with reactions you may have while accepting student identity statuses (such as defensiveness, guilt, powerlessness, responsibility, ownership), so that students can embody their identities in a true and authentic way.
- Recognize unfair treatment when it surfaces
- Have open and honest dialogue with the students regarding privilege and oppression
(4) Do you actively engage student identities within your teaching? How do you situate or position yourself in the classroom? Now that you have become aware of, acknowledged and accepted all student identity statuses, you must critically consider what actions you can take to address privilege (or lack thereof) in the classroom.
- Provide a variety of course material, references, and examples that reflects all of the student identities.
- Use Identity-specific or targeted activities, like the Class Race.
For more strategies, see our workshop slides on the Inside Teaching website (coming soon!).
We are all works in progress
Teaching to who and where your students are is an essential part to anti-oppressive learning environments. Committing to this endeavor, however, takes constant reflection and revision. We hope this blog will help you begin the process.
Barber, S. A., Ricker-Wilson, C. Kumashiro, K. K., Wong, P. L., and Richardson, E. (2004). Preparing teachers for anti-oppressive education: International movements. Teacher Education 15(3), 257-275.
Case, K. (2007). Raising Male Privilege Awareness and Reducing Sexism: An Evaluation of Diversity Courses. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 31:426
Chavous,T. Hilkene Bernat, D., Schmeelk-Cone, K., Caldwell, C., Kohn-Wood, L., and Zimmerman, M. (2003) Racial Identity and Academic Attainment among African American Adolescents. Child Development. Vol. 74, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2003), pp. 1076-1090
Elion, A., Wang,K., Slaney, R., and French, H. (2012). “Perfectionism in African American Students: Relationship to Racial Identity, GPA, Self-Esteem, and Depression.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology18(2):118-127.
Kumashiro, K. K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), 25-53. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/docview/214114515?accountid=12598
Okun, B. F., Fried, J., and Okun, M. L. (1999). Understanding diversity: a learning-as-practice primer. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Spradlin, L. K., & Parsons, R. D. (2008). Diversity matters: Understanding diversity in schools. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Teaching Inclusively. (2005). Mathew L. Ouellett (Ed.). New Forums Press: Stillwater, OK.
We’d like to know: Where are you on this identity journey? What have you done to engage student identities in the classroom? Share your experiences (both successes and challenges) with us in the comments section below or engage with the discussion on Twitter by tweeting @InsideTeaching with the hashtag #iteachmsu.
Next Week: Building Community Engagement into Your Course. Join us!
S. Mo, M.A. is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Michigan State University and an Inside Teaching Fellow. S. has taught and TA’d for the Sociology Department at MSU and is committed to addressing identities, inequalities and social injustices, in an accessible and digestible way, promoting non-oppressive teaching and learning environments.
Madeline (Maddie) Shellgren, M.A. is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at Michigan State University and an Inside Teaching Fellow at MSU. She has taught for the Linguistics Department at MSU, as well as in English and Communications at Davenport University, and is committed to addressing identities, inequalities and social injustices, in an accessible and digestible way, promoting non-oppressive teaching and learning environments.