[Much to my annoyance, I couldn’t find a image about diversity that didn’t use skirts to denote women]
Back when I asked people what they found hardest about teaching, I confessed that my own struggle has been figuring out how to pitch things at the right level. This is something I’ve wrangled with in every course I’ve ever taught, and something which continues to dog me now. So when some friends asked me to write a post about how to cope with the dizzying diversity of backgrounds, knowledge, and personalities that one encounters in the classroom – particularly when teaching first-year surveys – I laughed heartily and shook my head. Thus, I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m flying as blind as everyone else in many ways when it comes to this issue.
Trying to guess what my students might know or not know, and what approach will best resonate with the myriad ideological backgrounds in the room, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Especially since, on top of figuring out what is known and the modes of knowledge used to acquire those facts, one needs to take race, gender, and class into account. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these factors can interact in unpredictable ways to create the minds and personalities sitting in front of me. Every time I think I’ve figured out what will work, the universe deals me a cold, hard, slap in the face.
While I therefore clearly don’t possess all the answers, I have found one approach generally useful: assuming that my students individually know nothing, but collectively, know almost everything. What do I mean by this? Well, when faced with the diversity one encounters when teaching a survey – or, in many cases, upper-level seminars too – one cannot expect every student to possess a common knowledge-base. The age of pre-requisites is gone, and high school curriculums are hardly as standardized as we are led to believe. Not to mention, some high school teachers (like some professors) are better than others, so it’s impossible to count on every student knowing fact x. The one possible exception to this rule is if fact x is related to Game of Thrones or Jersey Shore. Even then, however, international students and mature students tend to have different cultural referents and will look at you like you have two heads if you use the word “Snooki.”
[What is a “Snooki” you ask? Behold!]
The strength of every class, then, lies in its ability to act as a group. If you can get them to work together, I have found that – collectively – they know the answer to almost any question. There are sports guys who unwittingly possess a lot of information about the construction of an ideal modern masculinity. There are gossip girls who can make connections between even very obscure history and modern pop-culture phenomena. There are burgeoning intellectuals, who have read about post-colonialism and students who push back against theoretical readings using lived experience that they have acquired growing up in former colonies. There are queer students, and members of the Christian right, and there are old and young. And this is why, when I lecture, I often pause and ask if anyone knows about subject x. Almost invariably, someone does. If they are willing, I ask them to share what they know with their peers.
The trick, then, is getting them to work together – creating an environment in which they feel safe exposing a piece of themselves and potentially inviting critique. This is why I have written so extensively in the past about the need for respect in the classroom. If students don’t feel that others will engage their insights in a respectful way, they will shut down. Boundaries will be drawn, and the class will never function as a healthy unit. It will become the stereotypical pedantic experience and you, as the teacher, will be forced to impart your knowledge to students who passively consume it. In this scenario, the complicated subject matter that you are trying to teach can easily start to seem more like a simple, coherent narrative, and “Truth” can become objective, unchallengeable, and attainable instead of something that we seek, but which we know we will never actually find.
In my experience, the most successful classes are those where the instructor serves as both teacher and moderator. Yes, at times, it will be necessary simply to explain a text or phenomenon (so that all of your students are on the same page). But at other times, even in lecture courses, it is beneficial to let the students learn from one another. This reminds them that they do, indeed, live amongst diversity and it turns what began as a problem into an asset. Forcing students to recognize that others see the world differently and live their lives according to different “truths” is one of the most powerful lessons we can teach our students as humanists. This is because acknowledging diversity acknowledges that civilization is a construct that was, is, and will continue to be made in a particular way for context-specific reasons. It cannot objectively be defined as any one thing. The recognition of diversity, then, is an act that opens people’s minds to social critiques and, hopefully, inspires them to become more actively engaged in their communities as they share their own perspective and learn about that of others.
Moreover, when we facilitate this type of peer-to-peer education, we are also teaching skills. If we can get students from diverse backgrounds talking, we are also teaching them how to engage with ideas and cultures that are foreign to them – and this is a skill that they will need for the rest of their lives. It’s something they need to master if they hope to resolve quarrels as petty as workplace disagreements or as important as the relative weight given to individual and collective rights in a polity. Sadly, it is also a skill that many people lack.
I’m not sure if any of this is as useful as people hoped it would be. At the very least, however, it might make you feel a little bit better about the struggle itself. It’s never going to be easy to get everyone onto the same page, but perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps the point is the dialogue itself. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a reply below!