Inclusive Pedagogy

I was quite interested in the idea introduced by Arao and Clemens that instructors should move from “safe spaces” to “brave spaces.” Of course, this type of terminology has a specific usage that points to student affairs programming contexts. However, I do believe that the conversation around safety and controversy is relevant to the types of politically engaged courses that I teach at the university.

I have to say that as a relatively new instructor, I am hesitant to jump into topics of outright political controversy that I believe will divide students along familiar culture war lines. Rather than try to replicate the types of conversations which are happening on social media and in the public sphere, I try to give students the opportunity to take a step back and think about familiar issues from a new perspective.

I don’t believe that it is my job as an instructor to change a student’s beliefs, even beliefs that I strongly believe are wrong (unless, of course, the belief is outside the realm of acceptable discourse, such as bigotry). On the one hand, I don’t think that the promotion of heavy handed ideology in the classroom is a particularly effective tool of persuasion, and it is certainly a tactic that can backfire. On the other hand, while I do have strong opinions about many political topics, I also believe in moral pluralism and the idea that there is more than one way to see the world or approach the truth.

Of course, it is hard to maintain the attitude of completely dispassionate thinking when it comes to issues which I feel the most strongly about, such as the importance of protecting the environment. I am sure that students can tell from the organization of my syllabus and the way that I present topics what my political beliefs are in a general way, but I try to emphasize the fact that I am also open-minded and that I want to help students to reflect thoughtfully on their own beliefs.

My view is that thoughtful reflections can help students to have a better understanding of both themselves and others. Creating space for reflection may not be enough to completely thaw the walls of distrust between students from different backgrounds or political factions, but I hope that this at least creates some room for hearing something that they didn’t necessarily expect to hear.

I have not labeled any of the topics that I teach with a trigger warning, or labeled my classroom a safe space. I do want students to feel safe, but I also believe that students are adult citizens who are capable of thinking about the world around them in sophisticated ways. I don’t want to fill the syllabus with apolitical ideas because I believe that students do have political views that they are bringing to the table, and I trust them to engage with this more complex layer of reasoning.

In a sense, even including controversial topics such as feminism or postcolonial theory is part of making my classroom a brave space. Introducing the topic doesn’t mean that students will listen or agree with me that the theory is important, but it does mean that at least I have been able to put a way of thinking on the table so that students have the opportunity to hear a perspective they may not have heard before. Some students may not have heard anything other than a very reduced, straw man version of views that they disagree with. Even if I don’t convince students to agree with my views, which isn’t even my goal in the first place, at least I have hopefully allowed students to listen and hopefully learn something from the experience.

Arao and Clemens write that the expectation of complete emotional safety in the educational environment can make it harder to learn from the discomfort of struggling with a difficult idea or trying to understand a classmate’s different point of view. If one surrounds oneself with people one agrees with, it may feel more comfortable, but there is less to learn. I don’t think this means that classrooms should be full of extremely personal forms of sharing or very heavy emotions, but I think that it is helpful to think of moderate discomfort as part of a productive learning experience.

2 thoughts on “Inclusive Pedagogy

  1. I could not agree more. As an instructor, I also think it is important to jump out of the safe zone to train ourselves. It will improve instructors’ horizons so that students will also benefit from it when instructors explain something.

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  2. I definitely agree that heavy handedness with political views isn’t a good way to introduce those views to students. At best, they may immediately dismiss it as “other”; at worse, they may become offended or feel attacked. At the same time, I think incorporating inclusive resources and thoughts into the curriculum is a good idea, as long as it’s not presented as a way that will cause people to feel defensive. I think you are right in that many people may not have had opposing viewpoints explicitly presented to them before classes with those subjects, and any one of our classes may be the first of many steps into becoming a more open person for that student.

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