This story originally appears in American Government: Stories of a Nation by Scott F. Abernathy, CQ Press, 2017.
Students are entering today’s college classroom with a diverse range of backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and opinions. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, since 1980 the share of white undergraduate enrollment declined from 81 percent of total enrollment to 55 percent in 2014. Over that same time span, the undergraduate enrollment continued to rise steadily for black, Hispanic, and Asian students. And to get a glimpse of the future we need to look no further than children under the age of 18. By 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that half the nation’s school-aged children will be a part of a minority race or ethnic group.
Diversity on campus extends beyond race and ethnicity. Gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, physical ability, beliefs, and cultural heritage all contribute to the rich diversity on campuses today. That diversity enriches the educational and social experiences for most students. But there is also the potential for under-represented groups to feel excluded. One unexpected potential source of marginalization may be found in students’ course materials.
“Most of the material has nothing to do with African Americans, Hispanics, just mainly white people… the only way on campus that you can really learn about a different race, is, just, taking African-American studies and different classes just for that race.”
-Student participant in Voices of Diversity study, Caplan & Ford 2014
Course Materials Need to Keep Pace
In the recent Harvard Voices in Diversity Project, researchers interviewed students at four different campuses across the United States. The primary focus of the study was to examine the positive and negative experiences of women and students of color at predominately white campuses. In addition to on-campus microaggressions, many of the students interviewed also shared that they frequently found examples of racism and sexism in their course materials. In some examples the bias was a result of omission; simply not providing a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds in the assigned readings. But a few students believed that some of their course content was implicitly biased in its language and presentation.
Some students also reported that they felt that the perspectives of their race or ethnicity were not included or valued in lecture and class discussions. These feelings of exclusion can
have negative consequences for all students.
Marginalization Leads to Negative Consequences
Research has shown that students who feel that their views are not represented or valid in a course may become less motivated to actively participate in class. And according to a recent study published in The Journal of Higher Education, it may also impact cognitive development. The researchers in the study Engaging with Diversity: How Positive and Negative Diversity Interactions Influence Students’ Cognitive Outcomes, sampled 2,500 students at four-year institutions and found that negative diversity experiences on campus had negative consequences for critical thinking and cognitive skill development. Conversely, positive diversity interactions and discussions supported the ability to challenge established viewpoints and more thoughtfully reflect upon complex issues.
An inclusive classroom or lecture hall has the potential to be a medium for such positive discussions and interactions. But creating this environment is multifaceted and requires thoughtful preparation. But one effective and more immediate strategy may be as simple as integrating more diverse stories and narratives into lectures and course materials.
“Stories have the power to bring all voices into the conversation in ways that other approaches may not be able to do.”
-Scott Abernathy, Associate Professor University of Minnesota
Using Narratives and Storytelling as an Inclusion Strategy
Cognitive research and classroom evidence consistently support storytelling and the use of narrative as a valid teaching and learning strategy improving engagement, critical thinking and concept retention. Scott Abernathy, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota takes storytelling one step farther by including narratives that reflect his students’ diverse lived experiences. “Covering examples of the struggle of African Americans to achieve civil rights makes perfect sense,” he says for example. “But it doesn’t make sense that it’s the only place where we hear stories of other political actions taken by African Americans or other with similarly marginalized coverage.”
Weaving in more diverse examples is not only inclusive, it also helps students understand and explore issues from perspectives that may be different than their own. “In this approach, diversity is not a list of boxes to check off. It fills a much deeper role. The richness of experiences adds to a more robust understanding of the topics and concepts” according to Abernathy.
Encouraging meaningful discussion is not always as simple as it sounds, especially in larger classes. In his large sections classes, Dr. Abernathy will break students into small groups for in class discussion, prompting them with a few warm-up questions about narratives in the assigned readings. The goal he says is to eliminate some of the anxiety students may have about speaking up in a large classroom setting and encourage all students to share their ideas with one another. Using diverse stories and narratives not only sparks in-class discussion, it also encourages students who may typically hold back in class to speak out and participate. Or as Dr. Abernathy summarizes, “stories have the power to bring all voices into the conversation in ways that other approaches may not be able to do.”
About the author:
Scott Abernathy was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. While an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he volunteered for three months with Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.
Scott then received a Master of Curriculum and Instruction and taught fourth and seventh grades in Wisconsin public schools. Hoping to learn more about the underlying systems that drove the educational outcomes he was trying to change, Scott completed an M.P.A in domestic policy and then a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University.
Scott is now an associate professor of Political Science and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Minnesota. He is also the author of School Choice and the Future of American Democracy and No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools, both from University of Michigan Press.