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Becoming Increasingly Aware of our own Identities and Fears as We Teach about Diversity Issues

As college teachers, who we are as persons is less important when we are teaching about quantum mechanics than when we teach about subjects that deal with difference and social inequality. Our own identities and our positions in society become important, whether we want them to or not. Additionally, many of us went to graduate school during times when issues of diversity, multiculturalism, race, and inequality were not major items of study, and we do not feel adequately prepared to teach about/facilitate learning in areas where the subject matter is broad and emotionally charged for students.

Our identities, students’ perceptions of our identities, and their effect on our teaching
All of us have multiple identities—professional and/or disciplinary identities, our roles in families, membership in social organizations and/or faith communities that are important to us. Some aspects of a teacher’s identity are readily apparent to students: age, gender, and (perhaps) race and ethnicity. The meanings and importance of these identities to one’s self and to students become significant as many believe that “where you stand on issues depends on where you sit,” and that one’s standing in a society determines or at least influences one’s perceptions and beliefs.

Whether we are members of privileged or targeted groups with respect to particular issues influences how we react to material under discussion. Like many of our students, we may have unexamined biases that can emerge in class discussions. Also like many of our students, we may not be comfortable talking about some issues or with high-intensity discussions. We may also be fearful about giving up a degree of control in the class.

Our comfort level with certain issues
The writer and teacher Parker Palmer says that teaching always occurs at the intersection of public and private life: “As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, ridicule1.”

Given each of our backgrounds, personal experiences, and knowledge of subject material, there are issues with which we feel more comfort and others that we tend to avoid, fear, and possibly distort. Some of these may be important ones for the course and students. Rather than leaving them out, it may be essential to determine effective approaches for students to learn from these issues.

Fear of emotional intensity
Much of our learning about being college teachers comes from our own experience as students; many of us received little or no modeling of managing emotionally intense classroom situations when we were students. We also learn about the place of emotions in discourse through growing up in a family. In many families, emotions were either suppressed or expressed in unhealthy was.

Emotional outbursts in the classroom may leave us overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do. Professor Gerald Weinstein2 suggests these emergency procedures for surviving those moments in which we feel upset and paralyzed:

  • Give students a brief time out;
  • Ask students to record their immediate reactions in their notebooks;
  • Ask each student to share their reactions with one other student.

This changes the focus from public to private, gives students an opportunity to reflect on the experience, and then move back to open discussion. This can be an experience in the life of the course that can be referred back to at later times.

The fear of emotional intensity may not be generic, but higher for specific subjects. As such, it ties into the next topic, the extent of our need for control.

Extent of our need for control
When faculty members move away from solely lecturing to more interactive formats, they give up varying degrees of control over what happens in the class. There are several factors that impact our willingness to give up control, including:

  • the extent of our experience with the non-lecture format (discussion or exercises, for example);
  • our comfort level with the class;
  • our comfort level with the particular material.

Need for learner approval
In some situations, effective teaching leading to student learning is generally appreciated by most of the students in a class. In teaching about difficult subjects, some students do not like having to read about these issues and at that point in time do not like the instructor who is forcing them to think about issues that they would prefer to leave unexamined. The tension between wanting approval and wanting to promote learning is well-stated by several college teachers who teach about diversity and social justice:

“we intentionally create tension to disrupt complacent and unexamined attitudes about social life. These very conditions can cause students to dislike or feel hostile toward us at various points in the course. Confronting oppression invariably involves a range of feelings from anxiety, confusion, anger and sadness, to exhilaration and joy. We need to remind ourselves that as much as we crave approval from our students, a sense of well-being and long-term learning are not necessarily synonymous3.”

Faculty can take a brief self-assessment on awareness of our own identities and our comfort levels. If your self-assessment yielded lower scores than you would like, you could:

  • Keep a teaching journal, to explore your own process and growth;
  • Use resources from this website and the LEARN Center library;
  • Talk with other college teachers (on this campus, colleagues at other institutions) about your challenges;
  • Explore grant opportunities from the Institute for Intercultural Research to increase your own subject material knowledge.

Instructors may also pay attention to their reactions to students’ comments or writing. When a student states something that upsets us, we need to not only think about what could lead a student to have that belief or idea, but also examine why the remark bothered us.

  1. Palmer, Parker (1998) The courage to teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Bell, Lee Ann, Washington, Sharon, Weinstein, Gerald, and Love, Barbara. (1997).Knowing ourselves as instructors. In Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook, Adams, Maurianne, Bell, Lee Ann, and Griffin, Pat, ed. New York: Routledge, pp. 299-310.
  3. Canetto, Silvia Sara and Canetto, Silvia Sara (2003). Alien perspectives in alien voices; Classroom Dynamics when international female instructors teach diversity content. In Timpson, William P., Canetto, Silvia Sara, Canetto, Silvia Sara, and Yang, Raymond, Teaching diversity: Challenges and complexities, identities and integrity. Madison: Atwood Publishing, pp. 189-206.