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Every so often an article comes around that challenges your own assumptions in a way that cracks open the discussion, making space to reconsider what you thought you knew.

That happened to me when reading Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin’s “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.”

The article complicates a core tenet of “inclusive teaching,” specifically the precept that teaching inclusively requires instructors to “intentionally give up or share some of their power or authority in the classroom, so that students can experience a greater sense of ownership over their own learning.”

Pittman and Tobin ask an important and challenging question about this precept: “What if you have neither the institutional authority (a full-time or tenure-track job) nor the dominant-culture identity (by virtue of your race, gender, and/or ability) that usually go hand in hand with being treated as a respected, powerful presence in the college classroom?”

In the article, they illustrate how this precept can play differently depending on how you are viewed by students in the broader culture, as well as the conditions under which you’re teaching, with Tobin, the white male with gray hair teaching one course on top of his full-time administrative duties, and Pittman, a Black woman teaching a full load of three courses, receiving very different responses from students when utilizing identical pedagogical approaches around flexible deadlines and ungrading.

I cannot recommend enough reading the piece in full, including their specific recommendations around acknowledging and responding to these differences.

One of the things it makes clear is that we cannot separate a pedagogical practice from the context and culture in which it is employed. Ignoring this is to court disaster, whatever choices are made.

Because, like Tobin and Pittman, I am a big believer in inclusive teaching, it’s important to wrestle with these complications, so let me drop another one into the discussion.

I don’t think inclusive teaching needs to be framed around ceding “power and authority” in the classroom. This frame suggests that for students to thrive, faculty must give something up, and in Pittman’s case, that resulted in navigating outright hostility and unacceptable abuse.

But what if, rather than making choices rooted in the desire to cede power and authority we instead, at the core, consider the inclusive teaching through the twin lenses of “atmosphere and responsibility.”

I say this because my own journey toward what we call inclusive teaching did not start with me thinking about the needs of students. I did not consider how I could concede my authority as an act of liberation that empowered student learning.

No, I was just trying to survive in my job. My actions were almost completely oriented around self-preservation.

You see, I’d spent the entirety of my career “teaching in thin air,” as Susan Schorn describes what it is like to labor in a writing-intensive class with student loads double or triple the recommended maximum. As a contingent faculty member, I was doing this for low pay and without assurances that my job would be secure long term.

I was gasping for breath, worn down by the volume of work and decision fatigue that attaches to being responsible for overseeing too many students.

I needed to figure out how to lessen my own workload.

I started relatively small, by dropping my punitive attendance policy, not on quite on principle, but because I got irritated and upset every time I had a student bump up against or past the limit and I was going to have to enforce my rule. More than once I found myself preaching to the choir of those present in class about the importance of attendance and my absolute willingness to dock a grade … I mean it now … don’t test me.

I hated it, and it felt wrong … for me.

When changing the policy, it didn’t feel like I was ceding authority. I was offloading responsibility. If students could pass my course without attending, more power to them.[1]

The next semester, where I was juggling over 150 students across four classes with three different preps, I made the executive decision to drop the lowest essay score (out of four total) in the two gen ed contemporary literature sections I was teaching. My fervent hope was that the 90 or so students in those sections would simply choose to skip one of the essays, saving me from the grading.[2]

About 90 percent of students chose to skip one of the essays, with over half of them deciding to skip the final essay, but here’s the interesting thing that happened. Even though they weren’t going to have to write about the novel under discussion (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), the vast majority read the book and came to class anyway. By that time they’d become invested enough in the discussions and material to want to participate, even knowing it had no bearing on their grade.

Learning was happening, even though it was entirely irrelevant to the semester grade. Two students even wrote essays about The Road, even though they could’ve skipped it with no ill effects on, or benefits to, their grade.

This was a bit of an epiphany for me. Unwittingly, I’d established an atmosphere that invited student engagement. It wasn’t that I’d ceded my power over their grade so much as I placed the responsibility for the experience they wanted out of the class onto the student.

I began paying more attention to atmosphere and responsibility. My course policies document, structured as a series of frequently asked questions now included questions like (from the students’ point of view), Why do you like to teach this class?

Here I would share my enthusiasm for the subject, its origins and how it had evolved over time.

What is it you hope we learn?

Here I would discuss the kinds of experiences and the outcomes we were in pursuit of.

What happens if we take advantage of your attendance policy and never show up but still turn in the assignments?

Here I would talk about my belief that freedom and agency are important aspects of living a good life and that school was as good a choice to practice those things as anywhere, but that of course, all choices have consequences.

What should we expect from ourselves in this class?

My answer to that last question was that I expected them to put in the effort commensurate with their own desires, whatever they may be. This approach seemed to help establish initial atmospheric conditions conducive to life (and learning), while placing the responsibility for that squarely on the students’ shoulders.

Please understand, this was not a deeply considered approach rooted in pedagogical theory. I’d read exactly one book about pedagogy at the start of this journey.[3] I was fumbling around, intuitively seeking to survive and enjoy my own work.

I couldn’t change the fact that I was working at high altitude. I had to find a way to give myself access to more oxygen.

These fumblings led to radically altering my writing pedagogy, resulting in the writer’s practice, in which I put the responsibility of improving as writers where it belongs—on the writers themselves—hopefully by creating interesting and inviting writing challenges in which they could become invested.

This ultimately led to an embrace of ungrading as the best way to foster the atmosphere that allows students to most effectively pursue their writing practices. I cannot claim every moment was turbulence-free. I’ve written here in the past about the various struggles, but as guideposts for making pedagogical choices, they’ve worked well for me.

They are also adaptable to variable circumstances. Different disciplines, different courses, different instructors may require a different calculus to determine the best approaches for a conducive atmosphere and the appropriate level of student responsibility. For example, flexible deadlines may be a luxury only possible when instructors have sufficient slack to adjust the flow of their work around student needs. If that’s not possible, hard deadlines may be a sounder choice.

A harried, overstressed instructor is not a recipe for a good learning atmosphere. Been there, done that.

If we consider these issues through the lenses of responsibility and atmosphere, rather than power, perhaps our viewpoint is shifted in a way that allows for fresh avenues of conversation.

One important factor that Pittman and Tobin make clear in their piece is the necessity of institutional support for the work of innovating pedagogy, and that means much more than allowing faculty autonomy over their own classes.

The structures by which some faculty are punished because of their status or identity—as with student evaluations of teaching biased against women and faculty of color—must be addressed, because they are poison to the atmosphere.

As Pittman and Tobin argue, a culture that acknowledges the complexity of the issues and allows for sharing across differences is a necessity. Why? It improves the atmosphere.

The variables that can impact the learning atmosphere are nearly infinite. The pandemic has obviously had a pervasive effect and will continue to linger for the foreseeable future.

There are no guarantees. There is only process, trying one’s best, learning from experience, trying again.

[1] In college I passed many classes where I attended half or fewer of the class sessions. Mostly large lectures rather than smaller writing courses, but not exclusively.

[2] In another course on narrative nonfiction writing, I inadvertently hit upon a quasi-ungrading structure where students presented an end-of-semester portfolio reflecting how much progress they made toward crafting the kind of long-form researched/reported feature you might read in The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. The idea was that they’d learn this form and then write a polished piece in the genre.

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