A new wave of students is entering the university and this group is significantly more diverse than previous generations. Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia, at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, provide some very useful guidelines for instructors, breaking the issue down into the following five dimensions:
The classic texts in philosophy are almost entirely written by "dead white European males." TΦ101 believes that we cheat our students if we don’t give them a healthy exposure to this material in an introductory philosophy course. At the same time, including diverse voices and perspectives in our courses can make both good pedagogic sense and also help multicultural students understand and value the dialogue. This can be done in two ways:
- Include some discussion of areas where those classical philosophers talk about subjects related to diversity. For example, when reading John Locke’s Second Treatise¸ it may be interesting to talk about his theory of slavery (and his involvement in the slave trade).
- Include texts and non-traditional materials from underrepresented groups, and treat these perspectives as serious voices in the contemporary dialogue.
It is also useful to test our own assumptions. Saunders and Kardia give a number of examples of common but frequently misleading assumptions:
- Students will seek help when they are struggling with a class. Be aware that some groups are less comfortable seeking help and you may need to be more proactive in reaching out to all students.
- Students from some groups are poor writers. Be aware that there are cultural differences in writing. A short writing sample can alert you to different writing styles.
- Poor writing suggests limited intellectual ability. Be aware that some students may not be comfortable or familiar with the techniques that enable them to articulate their ideas according to what they perceive as the accepted university convention.
- Students who are from non-English speaking cultural groups are not native English speakers or are bilingual.
- Students from a specific cultural group are (and are happy to be called on as) experts about the views of that group.
- Some groups do better academic work (e.g. Asians) than others (e.g. Hispanics or African Americans). We must remember to work with the strengths and weaknesses of each student as an individual.
Saunders and Kardia also gives some useful tips on planning:
- Be sensitive to various religious holidays observed by different groups.
- Be sensitive to differences in cultural references. Instructors may assume that all students understand references to Christianity, American media, sports, etc. Sometimes these references need fuller explanation for a more diverse classroom.
- Students from diverse cultures (for example women who wear traditional dress) are more noticeable, and teachers tend to notice when they are absent. It is better to take regular attendance of all students.
- The more diverse the student body, the more it is important to be clear about criteria for grading and expectations. For example, international students are sometimes less familiar with American expectations regarding academic integrity.
Getting to know your students
- If possible, find an opportunity to solicit more appropriate background on your students. In some courses, for example, it is appropriate to assign students to write a brief autobiography.
- Try to understand some of the common concerns expressed by multicultural students, some of which are included in this list of comments from multicultural students (Cornell).
Conduct of the class
- As always, a more diverse portfolio of teaching styles and assignments is more likely to be effective when the students come to class with different cultural backgrounds and different culturally related learning styles.
- If you are doing your job as an intro philosophy instructor, you will probably be covering at least some issues that touch on sensitive issues such as sexuality, class, politics, or race. You may want to encourage free flowing discussion in your classes, and, at times, perhaps use outrageous examples to provoke discussion. At the same time you need to model for your students an appropriate way to discuss these issues and also maintain appropriate language in your classroom. To chose only one example, you should provide a safe environment for students who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered or in the process of questioning their own sexuality. Students who would never make a racist remark in class, sometimes assume that everyone else in the class is straight and that it is acceptable to make homophobic remarks.
For a detailed background see Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia, “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms.” University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. 11 January 2008 <http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/P3_1.html>.
One of the most helpful things we have seen is a page of quotations from multicultural students at Cornell, Handbook for Teaching Assistants at Cornell, August 2007, 19. 1 February 2008 <http://www.clt.cornell.edu/campus/teach/grad/TA_Handbook.pdf>.
Author: John Immerwahr
Update: March 12, 2008