Engaging Diversity

How can we incorporate issues of diversity into our teaching? Here’s a practical guide Sue Grace and Phil Gravestock, Inclusion and Diversity: Meeting the Needs of All Students (Routledge, 2008).

As a graduate student nearing the end of my doctoral studies, I am increasingly reflecting on an array of questions regarding the next stage in my professional development. What do I hope to achieve with my doctorate? Do I have enough publications? Should I be applying for junior faculty or post-doctoral position? Where do I go from here?

Discussing these issues with student and faculty peers, it becomes readily apparent that one line of questioning is continually absent from these conversations: how do I become a better teacher? Viewed from the inside of a research-intensive university in a mature national higher-education system, however, the divide between teaching and research is overwhelmingly apparent and, unfortunately, not unexpected. While the “publish or perish” mantra has appropriately signified the pressures of academic life for some time, a growing critical and reflective literature provides testimony to the hyper-intensification and distortion of traditional academic processes and jurisdictions. Over the last two decades, the triple helix of teaching, research, and service has been pushed in a decidedly one-sided direction, with core professional responsibilities sacrificed to the discourses of accountability, competition, and productivity. The resulting audit culture, ushered in by neo-liberal public policies and the new managerialism, has called into question the fundamental nature of academic labour in higher education institutions. While mature scholars and lecturers have borne these developments and have adapted, the next generation of academics are being enculturated into this new system but have no basis for comparison, so have limited alternatives to look to in order to model professional behaviour and practices.

In the Key Guides for Effective Teaching in Higher Education series, an array of scholars from the field of teaching and learning offer pragmatic guidance to new (and experienced) lecturers as they negotiate the oft-forgotten classroom. In Inclusion and Diversity, the eleventh title in the series, Sue Grace and Phil Gravestock describe the plight of many lecturers who take up sole-responsibility teaching positions for the first time, with minimal professional training or institutional support. Moreover, the authors do this through the increasingly salient lens of diversity, a topic that speaks to the challenges of rapidly changing post-secondary campuses. Located in the UK experience, though easily relatable to other national or institutional experiences, Grace and Gravestock contend that while traditional barriers to accessing university are slowly eroding and student bodies are increasingly diverse, more sophisticated and nuanced barriers are being erected. They are often unintentional, but they are no less potent. The new barriers, at times specifically related to the governance of public institutions, often reflect broader societal attitudes that have become embedded in academia’s front lines; namely, in the classrooms and lecture halls, where exclusionary practices and discourses hinder student success along a number of qualitative and quantitative metrics.

By focusing on the role that faculty, specifically lecturers, play in either reinforcing or breaking down socially constructed “disabilities”, the authors push readers to re-conceptualize their understanding and approach to matters of inclusion and diversity. If instructors follow a social model of disability that “considers disability as an issue related to the attitudes and actions of society as a whole” and not merely “an illness or disability that is the subject of medical scrutiny in terms of looking for a cure,”  the teacher-student relationship becomes one of communal reflection and transformative learning that ties the limitations of individual learners to broader social systems and structures. This social model contends that rather than possessing internal disabilities, people are being disabled by societies that neglect or ignore physical, mental, or socio-cultural impairments. Through this framework, Grace and Gravestock conceive of the teacher as more than a mere communicator of discipline-specific information but as a facilitator of broader introspective processes that challenge how students see themselves, both as learners in a post-secondary institution and as members of intersecting and/or conflicting communities. For the authors, university classrooms are a core medium for broader social structures that are capable of debilitating individuals along social, economic, or cultural lines. By addressing the role of the classroom, and teachers specifically, the guide manages to take up a number of grand, politically charged issues relating to the purpose and nature of post-secondary education and applies them in extremely accessible and pragmatic ways that speak to the lived experience of new and old lecturers alike.

Though the book’s primary narrative raises some critical issues about the current state of teaching and learning in post-secondary education, what Grace and Gravestock provide in their guide is, first and foremost, a comprehensive resource directed at new teachers in search of practical guidance. But their book is also of use to mature lecturers who have questions about how best to engage with a changing student population. At times, the authors analyze recent shifts in post-secondary policy and mission, primarily in the UK. However, the guide’s main purpose is to be a reference tool, not a critique or analysis of national or global higher education sectors. The true value of the authors’ efforts is the clear and concise engagement with complex and multi-faceted real-world situations, not through prescriptive “solutions”, but through introspective exercises and practical suggestions. Examples include: asking the reader to reflect on their own “‘baggage”, and naming it as such, in order to recognize that every individual comes with certain preconceptions about their  identity and their relation to others; using the traditional syllabus as a teaching tool in and of itself, in order to raise awareness of how the presentation of authoritative knowledge can be exclusionary; asking the reader to consider various conflict scenarios, particularly those that deal with  ideological differences between students or between the teacher and a student. These are all issues that new lecturers may not consider as they rush to prepare and teach a first, second or fifth course, but they are central issues regarding the role of the teacher as a facilitator and, at times, a gatekeeper, of knowledge.

According to  Grace and Gravestock, lecturers must work through their own pre-conceptions about inclusion and diversity in higher education as a pre-requisite to meaningful improvement of their pedagogical practices. This belief in introspective analysis is the context for the different teaching and learning scenarios, both inside and outside the classroom, found in the guide. Since the most sophisticated barriers are often raised unintentionally, not through willful negligence but from a lack of basic professional training that fails to  prepare teachers for encountering a range of disabilities and impairments, the guide attempts to encourage teachers to work through critical ideas and concepts as an alternative to making prescriptive suggestions.

In this way, Grace and Gravestock’s guide builds on the uncontroversial argument that if teachers can be made aware of the unintended consequences of their practices, they can “minimize the risk of any student being disadvantaged for reasons beyond his or her control.” Practical remedies and suggestions are proposed through a compartmentalized dissection of various scenarios and pedagogical practices, such as: preparing to meet your students, teaching in small and large groups, inclusive e-learning, and engaging with student’s personal and academic lives outside the classroom, and assessment. In each chapter, the authors offer insights, practices, and reflective activities intended to expand the reader’s conceptions of fairness and equity within the classroom and their sensitivity to the different ways these ideas can manifest amongst different groups of students. This is a challenging and potentially contentious endeavour. To their credit, the authors recognize the ease with which such prescriptions can be interpreted as the “right way” to do something, and their suggestions are always tempered as open-ended, self-assessment exercises as much as practical recommendations. On the other hand, the authors are explicit in their conviction that despite the threat of oversimplifying complex problems that uniquely manifest in specific cultural and political milieus, the simple suggestive lists and reflective practices offer a useful lens from which to “stimulate enquiry and further study and critique.” 

This balanced approach, oscillating between the open-ended and the specific, the practical and the principled, is appreciated. While on a theoretical level reducing context-specific situations to tick-box lists and formulaic practices can undermine the authenticity and specificity of the lived experience, for a new lecturer encountering innumerable situations for the first time and feeling over-whelmed by professional, administrative, and mentorship responsibilities, such lists and practices are extremely useful mechanisms and points of reference for working through the teaching process. To their credit, Grace and Gravestock’s constant use of reflective challenges encourages the reader to avoid applying the book’s suggestions as pre-packaged solutions. The “Pause for Thought” exercises, interspersed with content-rich activities, help to set  the more prescriptive elements of the text within the readers’ personal experiences. The reader encounters the text not merely as a teacher attempting to connect with students from distinct backgrounds but also as a person living and working in an increasingly complex society and social institution. Within this broader context, post-secondary institutions are only one of many arenas where cultural, religious, political, and physical interactions play out.

Along this vein, the guide contends that truly inclusive learning is a process that requires moving beyond classroom boundaries and that individual faculty members are capable of playing an active, central role in the integration of students into program and institutional communities. Grace and Gravestock continuously emphasize that integration must not be a homogenizing process that eliminates or neuters difference. They ground the argument for inclusion on the extensive research tying the level of a student’s integration and positive identification within an institution to retention rates in post-secondary education. Drawing on the work of Vincent Tinto, the authors contend that lecturers are the institutional representatives best positioned to identify at-risk students, primarily through their ability to recognize when the fit between a student’s goals and expectations is not aligned or is in conflict with the institution’s structure and social groups. While systemic processes may act as a barrier to a student’s participation and success, in-class dynamics are a key indicator of a student’s overall engagement with the educational process. As such, lecturers have the opportunity to take on a dual-role of discipline-based instructor and institutional liaison, a fact that some may find to be more burden than opportunity.

The direct approach to engaging the increasingly diverse student body offered by the authors perhaps speaks to their recognition that owing to a variety of factors, not least of which being the increased research and administrative burden experienced by scholars, many lecturers are either unable or unwilling to devote the necessary time and energy to examining and reconstructing their pedagogical practices. If new lecturers are capable of integrating inclusive and equitable practices at the outset of their teaching careers, making them a core part of the educational experience for their students, perhaps the temporal, emotional, and professional burden of a more hands-on teaching process can in some ways be minimized and incorporated into a more balanced professional experience. As Grace and Gravestock argue in the preface to their guide, if new lecturers are made aware of what impact their teaching practices and discourses have on  students with different backgrounds, orientations, and/or impairments at the outset, they may be better positioned to overcome or minimize potential barriers

Grace and Gravestock intend their book to be understood as a practical resource first and foremost, but there are a few significant limitations to this approach that bear mentioning. The most significant critique I would make is that the authors spend too little time examining both theory and research in some key sections of the guide. At points, comprehensiveness has been sacrificed for either brevity or for making only cursory engagements with inherently political issues. For example, broader issues regarding the commodification of knowledge and post-secondary education, increased public accountability processes, and the changing nature of academic labour are core themes that underlie the authors focus on the professional life of new academics. However, these issues are only given tangential or passing reference throughout the guide.

A second example would be that in some instances, chapters have been overly dissected. Some chapters have sub-headings and sub-sub-headings on every page. This can disrupt an argument’s flow and logic, muddle the key points being expressed and, at worst, offer an inadequate summary of an issue. Is it justifiable for a book on inclusive education practices to deal with issues of gender, sexual or race discrimination through broadly conceived do’s and don’t’s or by way of single-page summaries? While the advice forwarded may be appropriate and well founded, a broader understanding and conceptualization of problems and, more important, the roots of problems, are at times noticeably absent. Inserting a single page in such subject areas as Gender and Discussion, Diversifying the Curriculum, Tutoring Minority Groups, or Ensuring Fairness, Equity and Rigour in Assessment, cannot do justice to the breadth and scope of these topics and would, seemingly, misinform the reader about the gravity and scale of these issues. At the end of each chapter, the authors offer a bibliography for readers interested in the theoretical and research-based aspects of the issues, sub-topics, and the authors’ recommendations, but a more extensive analysis of the literature would have greatly increased the effectiveness of the authors’ recommendations and better integrated the robust intellectual traditions from which these recommendations arose.

The seriousness of these shortcomings depend on the backgrounds, expectations, and needs of the individual reader and don’t undermine Grace and Gravestock’s intent of providing a practical guide for post-secondary lecturers. However, because of the brevity with which many topics are dealt with, the book is more of a guide for teaching practices in general, with specific sections on inclusion and diversity, than a comprehensive analysis and understanding of these issues. This  does not diminish the usefulness or significance of the guide, however. The guide represents a substantial resource for new and veteran teachers alike, particularly those in need of pragmatic advice and suggestions to improve their teaching practices and deal with certain  challenging situations. Grace and Gravestock push the readers to question their role in the learning process, specifically in relation to the privileged, frontline position they hold in public institutions that are deeply embedded in potentially disabling social structures and societal groups. The end result is an extremely accessible, yet challenging, tool that forces new and experienced teachers to rethink how they view themselves as individuals and social practitioners.

Julian Weinrib is a doctoral candidate in the Theory and Policy Studies department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on the internationalization and globalization of higher education systems and institutions, with particular focus on the changing role of research and its relation to issues of academic culture and autonomy.