Students are often not comfortable talking about diversity-related issues. This partly comes from the experience of many non-minority students who enter the university with little awareness of how culturally different students or faculty view the world 1 . Students also know that there has been oppression of minority groups in the past. Recognition by students that injustice continues to the present day can occasion guilt and challenge established beliefs about how equal the opportunities are and how much fairness there is in the U.S.
One diversity and social justice educator writes: ". . .the issues of power and powerlessness, advantage and disadvantage, addressed in these classes are charged concepts. They encourage viewing the world as inhabited by winners and losers, locating oneself on this social map, and, consequently, taking sides 2 ."
A reluctance to explore the idea that social oppression really exists and a lack of willingness to examine strongly held beliefs are not necessarily obstacles to learning.
The prospect of changing one's beliefs on issues is threatening to many people. Anger and conflict can be seen as normal and expected reactions to concepts and material that challenge one's worldview and convictions.
One can make a distinction between students who actively oppose diversity-related concepts but are open to experiences/course material that might change their minds and those students who are unwilling to entertain any concepts that do not fit with previously held beliefs. The former students, whose views are often divergent not only from the instructor but also many other students, are often a boon to the class, as they openly participate in class discussion.
Teachers encounter students unwilling to change their minds across the ideological spectrum. Consider the situation of the student whose position on Milton Bennett's Intercultural Sensitivity Continuum 3: would be in the "Acceptance of Difference" category (see below) and who does not see any reason to consider altering any of her beliefs or ideas. Students across the conservative/liberal spectrum may demonstrate intellectual rigidity, in that they are comfortable with the position that they have adopted and see no reason to think more about their own beliefs and actions. Students may also be willing to consider some diversity-related issues but not others. For example, they may be willing to examine discrimination but not their own privilege.
|Denial of Difference||Defense against Difference||Minimization of Difference||Acceptance of Difference||Adaptation to Difference||Integration of Difference|
Students' Responses to Ideas/Material That Threatens Their Beliefs
Students who are reluctant or unwilling to examine material or concepts that threaten their beliefs do so overtly, covertly, or by their absence.
Overt resistance can be shown by:
Covert resistance to the materials and ideas is manifested by outwardly agreeing with what is being taught, minimal participation in writing assignments and small group discussions, and silence in large class discussions. Students covertly resistance often maintain "poker faces" in classes, not showing any emotional reaction to what is being said or done.
Student absence may be another way to show unwillingness or reluctance to engage with ideas or concepts that threaten established worldviews. Students may come to class only often enough to minimally pass the course.
Responses to Reluctance and Unwillingness to Examine Ideas
Structuring both the requirements of the course and interactions within the course are both essential in engaging students who appear determined not to learn. It should be clear that "politically correctness" and agreeing with the instructor are not required. Short papers and journal entries that no one but the instructor reads may be used by students to voice opinions or reactions that would not otherwise be voiced (see Clarity on Course Approach, Student Learning, and Grading). Norms for class discussion need to be clear and always adhered to , so that students feel comfortable discussing topics and no one dominates a discussion. Exercises and simulations have been shown to be effective in helping people understand, for example, what it is like to be stigmatized.
There are other approaches for helping students understand why they need to acquire knowledge and develop skills for working and living in an increasingly multicultural country. If the course is one for majors in professional programs, the teacher can stress how knowledge and skills gained in the course are relevant and integral to their professional roles; examples are as future educators or future human resource professionals.
Instructors need to strongly intervene when the safety of class members is threatened. In other situations, student unwillingness to participate can be challenged, not confronted. Confrontation leads to defensive reactions. When instructors address the issue rather than the student as a person, they can challenge not the beliefs per se, but extend an invitation to examine ways of thinking and actions that seem to be self-defeating, harmful to others, or both—and to change 5 .
Depending on the situation, the challenging may occur in class, in comments on written work, or in a private conference outside of the class. The instructor might challenge:
Providing feedback to student written work is often an excellent opportunity to both challenge students' reluctance to examine their beliefs/apply course content and to affirm students who are struggling with new material and ways of thinking.
Dealing with Conflict in the Classrooms
The best-laid plans at times go astray. Angry outbursts, verbal attacks on instructors, and verbal fights between students can erupt.
Paying close attention to the process during class may alert teachers to warning signs. Instructors should continually monitor who is speaking and who is silent and the level of discomfort with the material or topic. Early monitoring, reminding students of class norms, and perhaps the rephrasing of student comments may avert full-blown conflict.
When conflict does emerge (usually taking the class and instructor by surprise), depending on the situation, the instructor: