Pedagogical Strategies to Promote Diversity Skills

blogpicAs we approach the beginning of another semester and I work on creating a new course, this moment presents itself as a great opportunity to think about how I deal with diversity in my courses. I have been tremendously privileged to be a part of institutions and groups that have helped me think about and promote diversity. Early in my academic career, as an undergraduate at Knox College, I participated in the first-year preceptorial class, which is designed to teach the skills necessary to effectively and productively engage with diverse people and viewpoints. As described on the Knox College website, “Preceptorial teaches students how to objectively analyze and discuss competing explanations and contradictory beliefs, how to question or affirm a viewpoint, when to be persuaded by a new idea, and how to interact in good faith with those whose opinions differ from their own. In short, Preceptorial encourages students to initiate and sustain an honest dialog with professors, fellow students — and themselves.” These core skills are the foundation for productive discussions on issues of diversity and I think a lot about how to integrate these types of learning and thinking into my courses. And so, at the beginning of a new semester and as I develop new courses, I’m taking a moment to pull together some strategies that I aim to use in my courses.

1. Integrate diverse perspectives and authors into course readings. When I assign readings, I make sure to include readings written by authors with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, both in terms of their experiences (of race, gender, class, etc.) and their perspectives (conservative vs. liberal ideologies; disciplines; evolutionary and social constructionist theories). I find that incorporating and giving full weight to diverse perspectives is one of the more challenging things to integrate into my courses, because of my own awareness of the public health and social justice implications of those perspectives. So, as I incorporate those ideas, I aim to be transparent in my own biases and invite conversations about the distinctions and similarities of those perspectives. For more on ideological diversity in academia, check out these recent blog posts: Checking Ourselves and Allowing Humbug in the Classroom.

2. Set aside specific time to talk about diversity, but also infuse these discussions into all of my curricula. As I selected a textbook for the undergraduate human sexuality course I taught in my last position, I struggled to find a textbook that I felt gave the appropriate coverage to issues of diversity. Some textbooks would, for example, deal with gay and lesbian issues in one chapter and then not discuss these issues in the other chapters. Other texts dealt with gay and lesbian issues in every chapter but did not include a chapter on sexual orientation. I wanted both specific intentional coverage of sexual orientation and its underlying theories and constructs, but I also wanted to see these issues addressed in discussions of other topics (i.e., pregnancy prevention, pregnancy and parenting, etc.). So this is a strategy I try to adopt in my courses–incorporate specific content addressing issues of diversity as they relate to the course topic, but also infuse all content with diverse perspectives.

3. Create and foster an inclusive learning environment and develop and refine the skills necessary to facilitate difficult conversations in learning environments. Some strategies that I use to improve my skills in these areas are establishing ground rules and good group processes to facilitate difficult conversations; modeling good conflict resolution behavior; utilize inclusive language and examples; anticipate responses to content and conversations and think through how I might handle those responses; be on the lookout for teachable moments within difficult conversations; be willing to confront my own biases and admit those publicly; make an effort to get to know my students early so that I have a better sense of issues, styles, backgrounds, etc.; and learn to recognize and interrupt microaggressions (in myself and in others). For more on handling difficult conversations, see these past blog posts: Handling Difficult Situations with Mindful Inquiry and Recent Research.

4. Finally, I am constantly aware of working to support those individuals who are new to the academy. As a first generation college student myself, I was acutely aware of my own gaps in knowledge (of traditions, of content, of professional demeanor and expectations) and I work hard to fill those gaps in a way that avoids shaming students. I aim to get to know my students–their backgrounds, career aspirations, insecurities, and strengths–so that I can better understand where there are gaps and how to fill them and what their strengths are that I can help them showcase those strengths.

What strategies do you use to integrate diversity into your courses and create inclusive learning environments? Do you have resources you’ve found helpful? How do you evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies you use? Students, what strategies would you suggest?


Brooke Wells, PhD