Encouraging Inclusivity Without Sacrificing Ourselves

Some tenets of inclusive teaching can undercut the career trajectories, classroom respect and mental health of instructors who are minoritized in our fields, writes Kerstin M. Perez.

November 11, 2022
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When I think of the first semester that I taught classes, I remember most the feeling of being pulled underwater by violent rapids. The first time leading a university classroom is overwhelming for all new faculty members, as we balance the relentless pace of the semester with establishing a research program and beginning department and university service. But for me, it was more personal. It was the panic of trying to help students survive the rough waters around me and the guilt that if I pulled myself out completely, I would leave others to drown.

How could I encourage a diverse new generation of students without sacrificing myself, one of the few Hispanic woman professors in my field?

I was leading an introductory course in physics, a field where approximately 5 percent of American bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women of color. I was determined that everyone feel more supported than I did in my own undergraduate classes, which had often left me feeling isolated and unworthy. Many students, particularly those who saw a portion of their own identities reflected in their professor for the first time, looked to me as an ally and mentor. My door was open to every one of them. I sent voluminous, reassuring after-hours emails and set up one-on-one advising sessions. I spent unrecognized hours and days triaging students’ academic and personal crises. At the end of the day, I was frequently too depleted to tackle my research, on which I knew my continued career in academe depended.

I looked to research on inclusive pedagogy, with the hope that weaving support for students into the fabric of my courses could reduce my personal strain. Inclusive pedagogy can be broadly defined as “designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally excluded in higher education.” Antiracist pedagogy builds on this framework, also emphasizing dismantling systems of power in the classroom and in course content.

However, I quickly realized that some tenets of inclusive and antiracist teaching advice can undercut the career trajectories, classroom respect and mental health of instructors who are minoritized in their fields—whether due to race, gender or some other nondominant cultural identity—if those tenets are not thoughtfully adapted to our distinct positions in the academy. How can we relinquish power when our authority in academic spaces is already tenuous? How can we show vulnerability and build personal connections without encouraging ever more care work, for which we are frequently unqualified and uncompensated? Moreover, the time necessary to adapt our classrooms toward inclusive principles like active learning is not only undervalued in our promotion and tenure decisions but can be interpreted as evidence that we are not adequately committed to our research.

I offer suggestions for all new faculty members, but especially those who are minoritized in their discipline, for balancing support for students with their own personal and professional success. They are based on my years of experience teaching and establishing research groups at both Haverford College, a small liberal arts college, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an elite research university. Of course, any advice should be adapted to your teaching style and context. The list below reflects what I wish someone had told me as I began my own college teaching career.

Get to know your campus mental health resources. In studies before the pandemic, 40 percent of college and university students in the United States reported significant mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and the situation has only grown more dire in recent years. As faculty, we must be prepared to face this while taking care to recognize that we are not trained counselors.

Normalizing mental health treatment is also key to equity issues. While the majority of all faculty members report having one-on-one conversations with students about mental health, the highest rates are for Black, Hispanic, women, transgender and nonbinary faculty. In addition, as Sarah Kelchen Lipson of the Healthy Minds Study notes, “Many of the students who aren’t receiving mental health support and services are the same students who, on average, are the least likely to persist in higher education: students of color and first-generation, low-income students.”

Most campuses have a student mental health or well-being center. Walk over to that office or ask a colleague for an introduction to a counselor or staff member. Your goal is to find someone who can guide you through the probably myriad resources that exist at your institution to help students. In my experience, staff members are thrilled to connect with a new faculty member and share the typical student experiences they encounter. When I can offer a warm handoff to a specific person or one trusted resource, it eases access for the student and removes my own sense of personal responsibility for problems I am not qualified to address.

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Clearly establish your academic expertise, then cede room for personal connection. Inclusive teaching encourages instructors to decenter our authority in order to foster a culture of communal learning, as well as to share our own stumbles and uncertainty in order to recast challenges as opportunities to learn. This path is strewn with perils for minoritized instructors. It presumes all professors are seen as infallible, a perception not always granted minoritized professors. For us, relatability can easily tip toward disrespect, and, particularly for women faculty, approachability can invite unwelcome care work.

To head off such issues, I clearly establish my academic expertise on the very first day of class. I introduce myself and my life beyond the classroom through my research. I talk briefly but with genuine passion about the guiding questions of my research program. I share photos of my lab and the many places I have lived and worked during my career. Throughout the semester, I point out how my research relates to course content, and if I miss a class session for a conference or professional meeting, I explain where I was when I return.

With my authority as an instructor reinforced, I then have the leeway to openly communicate my own feelings of impostorism in academic spaces. I can tell them how I, too, struggled with learning certain topics the first time I encountered them or share memories of a difficult exam that made me question my own abilities. If a student asks me a question that stumps me, I can reply with an enthusiastic “I don’t know, but let me find out and get back to you!” I can use my own experiences to normalize that struggle is normal and surmountable—not a reflection of intrinsic lack of aptitude.

Use the infrastructure of your class to help students help themselves. Structure is the bedrock of inclusive pedagogy. Scaffolding assignments and class sessions to make explicit the expectations of how students should engage with you, each other and the course content helps all students understand how to learn most effectively.

But building support for students into your course infrastructure especially benefits the instructor. Take anything that you would discuss one-on-one with students to help them succeed in the course and—before the semester starts—build that into the syllabus, lecture schedule and course policies. By actively communicating to students both how they can get help—not only from you, but from each other and from external resources—and that seeking help is a part of success, you can reduce the emotional labor of advising individual students as crises arise.

Use your syllabus to unhide the hidden curriculum of your discipline, such as how to use office hours or when to work with other students on assignments. Rather than a fixed syllabus, which is all too often forgotten by the second day of class, consider creating a dynamic liquid syllabus, which is responsive to students and their distinct needs throughout the semester. Encouraging the use of mental health and other wellness support resources in your syllabus is a particularly effective way to normalize help-seeking behavior.

Also consider offering opportunities for revision in high-stakes assessments and strategic flexibility on deadlines. You don’t know what is going on in students’ lives, and you don’t want to have to know. To avoid the guilt and stress of litigating individual requests, I offer two no-questions-asked one-week extensions on any assignment. Offering students credit for revising exams is another way to prevent you as the instructor from being inundated with requests for accommodations while also emphasizing the ultimate depth of understanding rather than the speed at which a skill is acquired.

Establishing structures can also encourage students to work through difficult material together and provide means for all students to connect, rather than advantaging those with more social capital or connections. Create a Google document or Slack channel where students can find study groups or ask questions. Consider using an exam wrapper to guide group discussion and reflection on effective study strategies. Reinforcing a culture of collaborative learning can stave off student anxiety and reduce the burden on you to solve all problems.

Establish clear boundaries. A disproportionate mentoring burden falls on women and minoritized professors, who are in short supply but high demand from students. While I am never willing to shut my door completely to those students, the time and emotional strain can become overwhelming.

This labor is not just the hours spent advising students but also the hours of recovery that follow. When a student confides in me a sensitive family issue, speaking through tears about how it is reverberating in their coursework, or seeks advice on navigating discriminatory or alienating situations that surface harsh memories of my own similar experiences, I cannot quickly regain energy and focus for research.

To safeguard space for my own priorities, I communicate that I am available for student conversation, but within boundaries. I prioritize filling limited, one-on-one meeting slots with struggling students whom I actively reach out to. I schedule those meetings at the end of my day, enforcing a buffer between this emotional work and any research tasks. I have an explicit email policy: I will respond within 24 hours during the week or by Monday morning if I receive an email after 5:00 p.m. on Friday. Supporting students is still an integral part of my job as an instructor, but not at the expense of my other duties.

Toward Truly Inclusive Classrooms

Of course, at times I have felt the currents of academe carry me out too far in the direction of self-preservation. Focusing on my research, on which tenure and promotion depend, ensures my continued presence in the classroom. Yet it leaves me with the guilt of knowing that diverting some small snippet of my attention to flailing students could have spared them from feeling alone.

As we prepare for the new semester, I encourage our institutions to consider how to relieve this tension by enacting the principles of inclusion for their faculty. The additional labor of building inclusive classrooms should be compensated with research resources and relief from other service duties, and achievements in teaching and mentoring should be adequately recognized in tenure, hiring and promotions. Building truly inclusive education requires that the instructors who carry the weight of representation and empathy have the resources and support to care for ourselves as well as our students.

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Kerstin Perez, a light-skinned woman wearing glasses and a striped blouse.Kerstin M. Perez is an associate professor of physics at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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