3 Strategies for Inclusive Pedagogy

Jamie Landau has found that a communication and racial justice perspective has enabled her students -- and her -- to rediscover their voices.

June 30, 2021
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Last month marked a year since the murder of George Floyd, reminding me of students of color in my class this past spring semester whose humanity is at stake with inclusive pedagogy.

“Inclusive pedagogy” hit the headlines during the pandemic and whenever racial conflict occurred across the country. It’s not a new approach, however, as documented by previous Inside Higher Ed advice; pre-existing faculty development in diversity, equity and inclusion; and decades of research in many disciplines, such as in gender, race and disability studies. In 2018, I even collaborated with teaching center directors in the University System of Georgia to design and deliver a workshop on inclusive pedagogy for the statewide Chancellor’s Learning Scholars program.

But the past year brought far more heightened feelings of racial injustice into the classroom, demanding much greater accountability from me as a white woman teaching students of color and their mutual accountability to me. Other faculty members probably had similar experiences and are taking time this summer to reflect on inclusive teaching, the outcomes for students and themselves, and any lessons learned.

Listed below are three overarching inclusive pedagogical strategies I found effective when teaching an undergraduate communication course during the spring 2021 semester. I also mention some challenges that arose and remain.

These strategies were inspired by my expertise as a professor of communication, feminist rhetorical scholar and director of a teaching center at a Southern regional state university. Crucially, they also came from the students as we co-created the course. Another influence was a local antiracist activist who was a guest speaker in a class and coordinates the Mary Turner Project, a restorative racial justice organization in Georgia. Some of these ideas overlap with previous advice columns and scholarship on inclusive pedagogy, as well, revealing how this is ongoing, evolving work for everyone involved in teaching and learning.

Ultimately, I offer a communication perspective to inclusive pedagogy that enabled my students and me to rediscover our voices. To clarify, we had our voices all along, but the dominant culture had stifled those voices -- and continues to try to do so. But, with inclusive pedagogy, our voices re-emerged and could be heard.

Co-creating course design and constitutive communication. Some student-centered teaching approaches encourage instructors to co-create the syllabus with students, such as by drafting a course learning objective with them for which they then design and complete an assignment. That gives students control over their learning. Tellingly, faculty participating in open pedagogy promote it as a best practice for democracy and diversity in education.

When white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol the week before my first class in January 2021, I felt accountable to the enrolled students of color who made up more than half the roster. I hesitated to give up control of the syllabus and co-create it -- until I realized that’s exactly what I needed to do for inclusion.

Co-creating the syllabus is an inclusive pedagogical strategy because it challenges the racist structure of course design and traditional power dynamics in classrooms, such as when (white) professors “profess” to know more than (Black) students and when syllabi silence marginalized voices. Specifically, I added a student discussion leader assignment for which students selected readings and facilitated active learning for an entire class period by teaching their peers and me new knowledge related to the course and integrating guest speakers. I left blank several days on the syllabus for students and me to decide together what exactly we would do. And the students ended up spearheading nearly half of the content and teaching throughout the semester.

Another way to think about this is course design as “constitutive communication.” Researchers in my field of communication and rhetorical studies have long argued that discourse (in this case, words on a syllabus or discussions between faculty members and students) is constitutive communication because it constructs social reality and people’s identities. Co-creating the syllabus reconstituted racial identities in class to be more inclusive.

White teachers and students must take care not to re-inscribe racial injustice with their communication, even inadvertently, which happened when we established conversation guidelines the first day. Thus, on the second day, we had to revisit, reflect on and revise the conversation guidelines with insight from Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo. For example, the class changed the guideline “Respect everyone’s opinions” to “Recognize your positionality informs your limited worldview.”

Dialogic and peer-learning pedagogy. Many critical race theorists and social activists criticize cross-racial dialogue for reproducing racist hierarchies rather than reducing racial divides. While I agree with their concerns and have witnessed that phenomenon occur, my discipline of rhetoric and the application of dialogic pedagogy in the classroom this spring semester demonstrated the possibility of alternative inclusive models for dialogue.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Paulo Freire and Gloria Anzaldúa have guided rhetoricians and educators to implement less oppressive multivoiced dialogues. Sometimes called “cooperative” or “peer-learning strategies,” the bullet points below include five favorites that we did over and over again throughout the course, along with a note about at least one characteristic of their inclusivity. No. 6 on the list is a podcast, which students completed for their final dialogic assignment. I recommend that students and faculty practice, repeat and redo activities and assignments like these to help them communicate in ways that are inclusionary rather than exclusionary.

  1. Conver-stations. Two students rotate stations while others remain, bringing diverse voices to the conversation and additional ideas from the new group.
  2. Speed dialoguing. Students sit in close proximity to dialogue face-to-face in pairs as if on a speed date, communicating interpersonally with people with whom they usually do not talk, such as someone from a different race.
  3. Tape recorder. One student listens while the other talks and must paraphrase what they heard that other person say, ensuring traditionally dominant speakers do not take up as much airtime and marginalized voices are heard.
  4. Fresh person standing summary. Students find someone in class whom they have not yet gotten to know and share what they learned from this fresh person, learning to value voices beyond their own and communicate interpersonally with people with whom they usually do not talk, such as someone from a different race.
  5. Conversation roles. Students are assigned roles such as questioner or even a democratic champion whose responsibility is to invite students to speak, allowing additional ideas to be considered in the conversation and ensuring traditionally dominant speakers do not take up as much airtime and marginalized voices are heard.
  6. Podcast. Students are given a mediated public speaking platform to interview other people, learning to value voices beyond their own and ensuring traditionally dominant speakers do not take up as much airtime and marginalized voices are heard.

Rhetoric of (racial) feelings and rehumanization. My last suggested strategy for inclusive pedagogy is affective. Conventional teaching privileges facts over feelings, often repressing emotions or removing them from content and the classroom. Yet none of us can deny that there is a frisson of feelings in class. So let’s harness emotion for counteracting the exclusion and dehumanization of students of color.

Dehumanization is at the root of racial injustice. Dehumanization occurs when a person or group of people deny humanity to other people, often by likening them to nonhumans -- for example, animals or nonliving objects. Dehumanization also increases with mechanization, such as the standardization of procedures and reliance on technology. I wonder if dehumanization in higher education, even if it’s not explicitly named as such, is the impetus for the bulk of research and pedagogies that advocate for “personalizing” the classroom and “humanizing” the instructor? If so, then personalization and humanization could be considered inclusive pedagogical strategies.

Another quality of “humanness” that dehumanization usually denies, especially to Black people, is the capacity for feeling pain and the expression of emotions in general. In contrast, our class embraced the rhetoric of racial feelings, thereby rehumanizing students of color by returning a human quality that was stripped from them.

As one Black female student wrote about the course, “I got to learn more about myself as a business woman and a Black woman in America. It was amazing to go into detail on very uncomfortable topics as a class and still feel comfortable when sharing our feelings and emotions. When I started this course, I believed that we would be learning how to change people’s minds and views on certain topics -- oh boy, how I was wrong and shallow for thinking such a thing. This course has taught me to feel people’s emotions.”

Let me qualify my earlier claim: emotional labor as an instructor is difficult without reasserting racism and the lesson staying stuck at the interpersonal. Sometimes I rushed to comfort white women when I should have allowed them to sit in discomfort. When I did that, I problematically foregrounded their needs as the dominant racial group as well as short-circuited dialogue about solutions at the societal level. This example also reveals the complications of intersectionality as instructors -- the dominant patriarchal culture indoctrinated me that white women like me need protection.

At the same time, my expertise and intersectional identity as a feminist rhetorical scholar has enabled me to hold Black men in the course accountable whenever their feelings and voices have overpowered women students, especially those of color. White and/or female acquiescence is not the answer to social injustice. Inclusive teachers cannot stay silent even though they will struggle to speak.

In sum, inclusive pedagogy remains a work in progress. Here, I’ve added a focus on communication to the growing number of best pedagogical practices for inclusion in hopes that all college students and faculty find their voices and speak vociferously.

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Jamie Landau is professor of communication arts and director of the Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching at Valdosta State University in Georgia.


Jamie Landau

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