Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, Dr. Amer F. Ahmed joins us to explore inclusive pedagogy and to encourage us to consider our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.
Amer is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education.
Rebecca: Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, we explore inclusive pedagogy by considering our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today our guest is Dr. Amer F. Ahmed. He is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education. Welcome.
Amer: Thank you.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
John: Are you drinking any tea?
Amer: Not at the moment, but I like jasmine tea and green tea.
John: I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.
Rebecca: Oh, that sounds yummy.
John: It is.
Rebecca: I am drinking my good old English afternoon tea.
John: …for a change.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your work on creating inclusive learning environments. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing and what you recommend?
Amer: Yeah, well, in recent months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with various campuses, working with faculty, working with teaching excellence of faculty development units, and diversity officers, on building capacity around inclusive teaching and inclusive pedagogy at various institutions around the country. It’s a big area of emphasis and focus these days for a number of institutions. It’s a tremendous challenge that many institutions are facing in terms of the classroom environment for students in higher education. My work has been on diversity, equity, and inclusion in a number of different arenas within higher education. But more recently, beyond just the broader strategic and institutional strategies and efforts that I work on, there’s been a lot of focus on the classroom and working with faculty on building capacity around that.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by inclusive pedagogy. I think that that’s a term that’s being used a lot, but not defined often.
Amer: Yeah, I think that one thing I learned by working in a faculty development unit was that many faculty have not spent a lot of time in their training and development around teaching in general. Quite honestly, as scholars, we’re trained to be researchers. And then as a result, as a default, we often teach the way that we were taught. And the reality is that there’s historical systems of inequity that are built around who’s privileged in terms of what cultural norm feeds our privilege in the way in which teaching and learning has been traditionally occurring. And Paulo Freire talked about banking and depositing… just the faculty member and the teacher as an expert, just dumping information into students as passive recipients and regurgitators of that information and knowledge. And I think that teaching, really… many people say it’s an art and the idea of pedagogy as a process, right? …that we engage with our students. An inclusive pedagogy, I think, really emphasizes who we are as teachers and learners, and that we all are teachers and learners, but that who we are and our identities and our backgrounds and experiences are all resources for learning. And then the question becomes, what is the process for us to harness the benefits of all those unique backgrounds and experiences and identities that we each bring as related to the content of the course, or of what we’re focusing on in the learning environment? And so I just think that a lot of times, we’re really focused on the content, and of course we should be focused on the content, but less focused on who is in the room, engaging the process of learning.
John: How can we tap into students’ identities? How can we find out information that’s relevant for the course?
Amer: Yeah, well, I think where I try to start is recognizing that we can’t know everything about everybody, right? And again, that’s where we have to think of ourselves as educators as learners as well. We don’t know it all (about anything, certainly), let alone the idea of who our students are. And as a result, can we develop some core competencies and skills around understanding who we are in relationship to who we encounter and have some intercultural skills that position us to be able to learn who our students are, and to draw from who the students are. So then it gets even back to the course design of: have we designed our course to leverage who are students are… to bring that forward. And then to be aware of our biases, when we’re aware of we are in relationship to others, we might realize that, oh, maybe I have some pre-existent stereotypes or perception of what it means to be X, Y, and Z. And instead, can I build a process where students are really articulating who they are, how they understand what we’re engaging in the content of the course in relationship to their backgrounds and experiences. And so I think that, for faculty, I think a lot of the fear is, “I’m going to mess up, I’m going to say the wrong thing.” So can we create a learning environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, but we’re going to do the best we can to understand as much as we can about one another and position ourselves to be able to draw from that to learn?
Rebecca: You said something about designing your course to leverage identity and leverage who’s in the room and who the learners are. Can you give an example from a specific course of what that kind of courses I might look like that does take advantage of that?
Amer: So I taught a global implications of hip hop, race, and spirituality course last fall at UMass Amherst. And one of the projects that I had the students work on was, after we learned some kind of key principles and issues as related to hip hop, and learned some examples of hip hop in different places in the world. I asked them to bring in an example and share an example in the course of hip hop somewhere in the world, that met some of these principles and concepts and ideas that we were talking about. And for me, it was just so fascinating to learn about all these examples. I mean, I’m familiar with a lot of examples of hip hop in different places in the world. And there was plenty that I was not familiar with… examples from Russia, examples from Iran. And it was really interesting to see how students were drawing from their backgrounds and experiences as oftentimes, not always, as a rationale for why they picked that example. So for one student, his roommate was Iranian and he learned a lot about Iran from his roommate. And that’s how he learned about hip hop in Iran and so he wanted to share that with the class. We have other examples of the Dominican-American students wanting to share examples from the Dominican Republic. So not every example was drawn directly from their own personal identity, some of it was just from their experience, but they felt connected to it in a different way, because they had the room and permission to connect who they were. And then we did other things in the course, to really try to harness that. But they understood that their background, experiences, their trajectories, were valued. And then part of how that was also articulated in the course was in their reading responses. I made it very clear to the students that I don’t want just a summary of what the reading was, I’ve read it, you know, I know what’s in it. What I’m curious about is, how do you understand yourself in relationship to what you’re reading? How does it connect to your background and experience? And I think that creates way different responses from students, and for me to affirm when they’re connecting the content to their experience, when I’m validating that that’s what I want… that’s what I like to see. Because whether we like it or not, they’re going to elevate us as faculty members. So they need to know that it’s okay, that that’s what we want. And the incentive is in that. I think for us as faculty, the course becomes less rote. How many times have you heard a faculty member saying, “I taught the same course, again, last semester, I’m teaching it again, this next semester.” You know, no two courses should ever be the same, because you never have the same people in your class. So the question is, what have you done in the class to be able to harness who’s in the room… to make it a new experience every time for you, as well as, of course, a new experience with the students.
Rebecca: It sounds to me like you do a lot to set up a very safe space for learning and discussion. Are there some things that you do at the beginning of the course or in your syllabus to actually set that stage to have those conversations and make students feel comfortable about sharing those experiences?
Amer: Yeah, and “safe space” has become a little bit of a loaded phrase these days. Can you truly make a learning environment truly safe given some of the trauma and backgrounds and experiences that people are bringing into the classroom? And so obviously, many people have been talking about brave spaces these days. Can we find ways to be courageous? But part of how we do that is to try to create mechanisms of safety, to whatever degree we can, for students to want to be courageous and brave and sharing who they are in the classroom. And so for me as a person who started my career in student affairs, just norms… working through creating a set of norms and agreements with your students at the beginning of a course. And this is something that’s widely done in co-curricular learning spaces, as you bring folks together for dialogue. But what I’ve learned is that a lot of faculty don’t do that. And many faculty feel like that’s a waste of time, I’m trying to get to the content. And it’s just one more thing to do. But I think it’s important for students to feel like they’re able to articulate what it is that they feel like they need to be able to be their full, whole authentic selves… participating and engaging the classroom. And sometimes that means students being able to articulate their comfort level with verbal communication, whatever it is, confidentiality, different kinds of expectations that they put out. And as a faculty member, you’re not telling them necessarily, they might say exactly what you were thinking, but the sense of ownership of what’s happening in the classroom… and that I had some kind of say over how we’re going to engage, so that I can feel comfortable bringing myself forward. And so what I do is I create a Google doc. So whatever they come up with, I put that into a Google doc and I make that available to everybody throughout the course, if anybody has concerns about the list that was created by them, they can always let me know and revisit it if they feel like there’s something that’s not working or that I’m not ensuring that those agreements are being held to. But again, it means that I’m not telling them how I expect them to engage. They’re articulating that… again, different ownership over what’s happening in the classroom. And so that means that we’re decentering ourselves in the process, and more of a facilitator role of the learning that’s happening, I think, for a lot of faculty, that seems ludicrous. Like, I’m the expert, I’m the one that went and did all this work to be able to share. But I think the question is, what is the learning that we wanted to see occur? Is it about us downloading this information, and students may or may not grasp all of it, or feel connected to it and be disinterested and disengage in it? Or is there a way for them to connect to it, where they actively engage the learning where they’re more centered, and the idea of student-centered learning where who they is centered more. The faculty member may be decentered more, but that opens up the space to be able to bring more of who everybody is into the learning process.
John: It sounds like one of the important components then is devising learning activities that bring this out, that gives students the opportunity to express themselves and their identity through the activities or through the assignments. Is that correct?
Amer: Yeah. And that’s the reason why faculty need each other as resources. And they need faculty development and teaching excellence offices and units as resources, because every faculty member cannot be expected to come up with all these different kinds of activities. Faculty need support, they need support to be able to do this. But there also needs to be incentive, there needs to be some kind of value in the institution for it to be worth their time. Because it’s like, why am I going to take all this time, energy and effort to be a better teacher, if my entire path to tenure and full professor doesn’t value that in any way, shape, or form, right? So that’s where my system lens comes in around that. So it’s a combination of faculty wanting to teach, and for our academic affairs areas to provide the resources and support a faculty to actually want to develop these skills,
Rebecca: You mentioned the role of teaching center. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that you see teaching centers in helping faculty move forward? What kinds of services or tutorials or what have you?
Amer: Yeah, this is a really evolving space in higher education from my purview. I mean, I’m fortunate that I get to see a lot of different institutional environments, situations in working across so many contexts. Again, we have so many different kinds of institutions, some institutions have really robust resources, and some have one person. And some of those one-person offices are understandable on a really small, private liberal arts institution, but maybe without a lot of resources. But I think what I see universally is that the resources that are made available to faculty are usually voluntary. And then the tendency is that we see junior faculty more likely to tap those resources and I think that it may create goodwill amongst faculty, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into reaching a broad swath of faculty. And so that’s really, I think the big question is, are we going to have resources that actually reach a number of faculty, and are there going to be some incentives and or expectation of faculty utilizing those resources. Increasingly I’m learning more about trying to make more resources available online, and not just links to articles, not just some basic resources, but literally full blown professional development… learning opportunities around effective teaching. But the next piece is the inclusion piece. So there’s a varying degree to which inclusion is focused on in these Teaching Excellence offices. And so what I found as a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional coming into that area, and finding myself to be one of the few people of color around in the field, I mean, obviously, around the country, you’ll find a decent amount. But generally, there’s not a lot, I didn’t come across a lot… So, I haven’t so far. There are some out there. Not to say that you have to be a person of color to advocate for inclusion. But it might be in a lot of context: “Oh, and by the way, we want to try our identities matter and we want to try to be inclusive in some kind of way,” as opposed to a real emphasis and real commitment to embedding it into every aspect of how we engage teaching excellence. And I think that that is something that is very much in process and a lot of places. I see there to be a lot of bifurcation between how we talk about teaching in general, like a lot of people don’t talk about student-centered teaching as a practice of inclusion. A lot of people don’t talk about backwards design of courses as a process towards making a more inclusive classroom, but it is… and so how do we connect in a more clear and articulate way how those mainline, mainstream, faculty development teaching excellence practices connect to broader efforts and work of inclusion? That bifurcation, I think, perpetuates faculties perception that the inclusion piece is not relevant, especially if they’re in a field that they think the content of their work is not relevant to those conversations.
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting that in a series of episodes that we’ve had on inclusion, this kind of theme bubbles up frequently… that evidence-based practices are a good way to start to be inclusive. And focusing on teaching and being student centered is a good way to be inclusive. So it’s interesting that that kind of bubbles up once again in this conversation. I think it’s also interesting to hear you talk about because I feel like I’ve experienced this a bit, that there’s teaching center stuff and that’s like one silo. And then diversity/inclusion is another silo. And accessibility and disability is another silo. But they’re all interconnected and we don’t often interact necessarily or work on things collaboratively in a way that could be useful. I think your background in student affairs also is another area where that’s its own silo. And those folks don’t necessarily interact with the academic folks as often as perhaps they could, because there’s a lot of different expertise in both of those silos, essentially, that benefit from one another.
Amer: Yeah, the student affairs piece was exactly where I was going to go. It was just shocking to me to move across from student affairs to academic affairs, and find out that norms and agreements were just not something that most faculty did and was not even like on the radar. I just was shocked by that when I first encountered it. I’ll never forget my first staff meeting… and coming from a student affairs background, you’re student centered, you’re thinking about students all the time. And I just remember, it was just in a staff meeting, saying, “You know, why don’t we get a student perspective on what they think faculty need?” And I was just looked at, like, I was an alien. I mean they were just like, “What are you talking about?” “Why would we ever ask a student?”… you know, and it’s like, because they’re the recipients of what faculty do… you know what I mean? So they have another perspective that could be valuable in getting us to think about what faculty need, not just hearing from faculty about what they need, but hearing from students too. So there’s all these different ways in which se silos end up creating challenges and I feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve worked across them. And it gives me a lens and perspective, but I increasingly find that that’s not typical as I work across the country.
Rebecca: Do you have some examples of really successful ways that folks have worked across areas or have been a little more integrated in the way that they think about inclusion and evidence based-practices and student and academic affairs that are worth maybe sharing as a model?
Amer: Well, I would say that anywhere that that’s happening, there’s a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatus, structural work that’s working collaboratively across the institution. Because those areas, if they’re going to be effective, they have to be collaborative with Academic and Student Affairs. A senior Diversity Officer at a cabinet level, needs to have a good relationship with the Provost, and needs to have a good relationship with the VP of Student Affairs. So most of the examples that I know, there was a robust infrastructure around that, and where that more synergistic work is housed varies. Sometimes that can be within a Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where they’re doing some academic support resources, they may be working with a teaching excellence office collaboratively. I can think of Wake Forest as a place that I knew some of those things were happening. But I still think that, in a lot of places, too much of this is dependent on personnel-dependent relationships, and not structurally positioned to really create the expectation that these areas and some dotted lines in the org chart to really say that we think that these things are directly relevant and important and need to be connected. But yeah, too often teaching excellence and faculty development units are not at all connected to the diversity apparatus. I think it’s starting to happen because the Chief Diversity Officers are increasingly focused on the academic affairs area, and the need to engage that tough slog and the fact that students are protesting all over the country about their experiences in the classroom, but a lot of it usually depends on your Provost. And do they see the connection? Are they committed? Do they want to have a strong relationship with their senior Diversity Officer at a Cabinet level? Some institutions, their senior diversity officer is a Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion under the Provost and those are the places that I think you tend to see more of a natural connection because they’re within the same division of the institution. But oftentimes, in my experience, that silo between Academic and Student Affairs is a chasm, which is true in most institutions. But I think in a lot of those institutions, and they might have a separate focus on diversity within Student Affairs that is really operating almost autonomously from what’s going on the classroom stuff.
John: Let’s bring this back a little bit more to inclusion in the classroom. You mentioned a couple things that faculty can do. One is having students create rules for engagement in discussion and creating more activities that naturally bring students more in. Are there any other suggestions you have on what faculty who would like to start making their classroom more inclusive could do to make some progress in this direction?
Amer: Yeah, there’s obviously work that you can do in the content in terms of who are the authors, what perspectives they’re bringing of the content. Because if every single person that you’re citing for the content of your workshop is a white man, then at this point, most fields have a broader selection of people to draw from, or at the very least, highlighting key contributors to a field who are from backgrounds that have been historically marginalized, and noting their contributions. And so that’s a long way of saying there’s a curricular way to get it as well, that’s important. I’ll never forget my first English class in college, and it was a requirement, I went to Miami University in Ohio, and, you know, white male teacher, but he decided that all our reading was going to be World Literature translated into English from around the world. And I was writing my assignments, I thought, “Okay, whatever, I’m just going to do my homework and respond to these readings.” And again, it’s also about does the faculty member value the perspective that you’re bringing, and he made a point to make clear to me, like “You’re articulating perspectives, that are really different from anything I’ve ever heard, and from anybody else in the class.” And for me… and I think this is particularly true for younger students… is that I had never heard anybody say that to me before. Like, I didn’t think there was a value of being South-Asian and Muslim. I just thought it would made me different and weird from the majority, I didn’t think that was an asset. I didn’t think that there was something valuable to that. I didn’t know that what I saw and my perspective, that that was a resource for what was happening in the classroom, but he did. He valued that and he wanted to leverage that and he wanted to help me understand why it was valuable, so that I would be more willing to share my perspective, if I wanted to, towards what was happening in the classroom. And that’s why you have to set up the agreement about how we’re going to engage, so that I’m going to want to share that. Because I think, oftentimes, faculty in the desire for that student who might be a different background from everybody else to share, they may end up tokenizing, unintentionally, that student. And so that’s why it’s better to build it into the process, where you’re drawing it out from students, and they’re really making the connection on their own.
John: Because if you’re going to ask students to be representative of some group, you run the risk of stereotype threat and so forth, and making them feel more marginalized. Right?
Amer: Right. That’s part of those core intercultural skills and competencies we have to learn is that our identities are complicated. For students to be able to self articulate how they understand what they’re engaged in, in the learning, as related to their experience, it’s all about creating an environment where they’re going to want to do that.
Rebecca: I think kind of highlighting the idea of a personal note on an assignment. that is thoughtful… could be brief, but demonstrates that you’ve read, you understand, and that you’re interested,… that can go a long way in setting up the environment when everybody’s around so that private encounter can be really important to more public interactions. And I think that we don’t always think as faculty like the power in doing something, frankly, that’s fairly simple like that.
Amer: Yeah. So I had their weekly readings… and again, I made it really clear that I want to know about what you think, how do you connect your background experience to what we just read? How does this resonate for you? Don’t regurgitate it, because I read it. And the thing is that now they’ve spent some time connecting it to their experience before they’ve gone into class. And so for some students, they’re not comfortable just improvising in the moment in class. And so what I’m saying is that, when we engage in the conversation in class, you can draw from what you wrote, you don’t have to come up with it on the spot. Some students, they’re more comfortable with that; other students they’re going to want to look at what they wrote to really be their prompt. And here’s the other thing, as a faculty member, I know that they wrote it. And so if they don’t feel comfortable speaking or engaging, I’m not going to penalize them for that, because I know that they read it and I know they connected to their experience already. And obviously, you’re going to try to do what you can small group work, dyad work, other kinds of ways of getting them to engage, because some students are just not going to be comfortable engaging in a large group setting.
Rebecca: You mentioned a few minutes ago about intercultural competencies that faculty need to obtain. Can you outline what some of those are, so that faculty that are newer to this area, or really interested in inclusion but really haven’t thought about the competencies that they need to obtain… the little checklist of things to think about?
Amer: Yeah, and I will say that it’s really important to note that it’s a lifelong process, right? For all of us. We’re all learning, we’re all encountering, we all have assumptions and I think that sometimes I think it’s important to highlight that we all are in that process, because sometimes it feels like we’re saying, some of you have to learn and the rest of us, we already got it. Maybe because I was South Asian and Muslim, I had to adapt and adjust to more types that I’m more aware of more types of things automatically through my experience. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a whole lot to learn still. Let me just give you a quick example. I was at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity a couple weeks ago, and I’m sitting in the car with three Pacific Islanders and we’re going back to our hotel from a social gathering and I find out that three of us are Muslim in the conversation. Now, I have to admit, I did not think that I was going to be in a car with two other Muslim people, given that three of them were Pacific Islanders; that was just my assumption that I made that clearly turned out to be incorrect. Now, I didn’t articulate that until later… I mean, I told them, because I was like, yeah, I have to be honest. But there was enough trust in those encounters and relationships. But my point is that we all are capable, we all have that learning to do, we all are going to make our assumptions and so forth. Some of the core competencies around intercultural development are self awareness… for me, the foundation is self awareness, we have to be able to spend some time reflecting on who we are, how do we understand ourselves and our experiences, our biases, our styles, our identities, including social identities in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class. For folks from other countries, maybe race might not be something that they’re used to thinking about and that’s fine. So for somebody coming from India as a professor, okay, well, if it’s not race, then I know that there’s caste and there’s religion, and there’s other historically based systems of inequity. How does that shape your understanding? How are you positioned in relationship to those things? How does that shape your understanding of the world in their experience? I always find it to be interesting that we are asked to be self reflective as researchers, but not as teachers. I think that’s really an interesting thing. So absolute foundation… because to me, if you don’t have that foundational level of self awareness, you don’t have the reference point that you need to be able to empathize, which is the next key competency, and that when I say empathy, it’s validating someone else’s experience as true for them. We don’t have to agree and this is another area in which academics struggle, right? A lot of times we think that well, because I’m entitled to my point of view, no matter what, then I don’t have to be empathetic, because I don’t agree with you. And that’s not necessarily the case. So if a woman is saying to me, a woman identified individual, shares with me that she feels uncomfortable every time somebody is around, and I say that I’m sure they mean no harm, it doesn’t make me a bad person, it just means I’m not being empathetic. I’ve just dismissed how she feels and what her experience is and so it creates unnecessary barriers between us. If I did something like that, what’s the likelihood of that person’s gonna want to come to me the next time something’s going wrong for them? So when we work on it, it makes us more approachable. It makes us more trusted in these things. Another competency or skill is tolerance for ambiguity and I think this is a big one. Being okay with the fact that you don’t know all the details all the time and that’s okay. I did not know I was going to be sitting in a car with two other Muslims out of the three other Pacific Islanders in the car. But quite honestly, when they disclosed it, I wasn’t like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I didn’t do that because I’m like, okay, I didn’t know. I sat with the ambiguity, right? …rather than trying to make them feel strange for the fact that they’re Pacific Islander and Muslim. So for me, I get people asking, “What are you?”
And I’m a little bit racially ambiguous. And I’m like, “Well, I’m a person…” …you know.
“Well, where are you from?”
I’m like, “Well, I’m from Ohio, originally, and…”
”No, where are you originally from?”
And that can happen the first time you meet somebody. We don’t have a relationship… we haven’t established one… and I don’t necessarily feel like sharing my entire ancestral lineage with someone the first time I meet them. And some people are okay with that. Some people like being asked that. To me, I get asked that so often I’m like, “You know, I’m good.” I feel essentialized and tokenized in those situations and that creates a barrier… Again, unnecessary. So can we sit with that ambiguity? And that’s tied to things like patience, but it is good to be curious, a lot of people are like, “Well, isn’t it good to be curious and want to know”and I’m like “Yeah, that’s great.” Now with that curiosity, be patient and sit with the ambiguity as long as you can. But it’s important to be curious, because if you’re not curious, you don’t even want to know. So it’s important to be curious. These are some of the core competencies and skills that it’s helpful for everybody to work on, to position ourselves to be more likely to be successful. And then it’s like, knowing that we’re all going to make mistakes, and can we create an environment with enough trust to where we understand that mistakes will be made? And I think that’s important as well.
Rebecca: And the key there, right, is that there’s mistakes with both faculty and with students, right? Anybody can have mistakes.
Amer: Anybody is capable, so then it becomes how we navigate that and I think that’s part of those difficult conversations… concerns that a lot of faculty have these days.
John: How would you suggest faculty address that if they or a student makes an insensitive comment that offends other people, what would be a good approach?
Amer: Well, there’s a whole set of things tied to our whole conversation about how you create the environment. So there’s a prep in terms of how you create the environment for navigating moments like that. But then there’s like, what are you going to actually do in the moment? …and one of the things that some of my colleagues and I have talked about is that you’re allowed to pause… you know what I mean? …like to take a moment and really try to reflect. I think, also, it’s really helpful to ask clarifying questions. Can you help me understand what you mean by what you’re saying? Or where are you coming from? Can you help clarify? Because I think sometimes when we react, it’s not always necessarily operating from the clearest place and so asking the person who’s sharing to be a little bit clear about where they’re coming from, and the basis of their rationale for why they’re saying what they’re saying. That preps work and working on your intercultural skills, those are the things that are going to help you to be more likely to recognize that something is occurring. I think one of the number one things that students get upset by is it something that they view as problematic has come up and been said or asked and the faculty member didn’t notice it, didn’t recognize it, didn’t note it, didn’t say anything about it, didn’t address it, just kept on going. So there’s two things here. One is that if that happens, you’re allowed to go back the next class, if you reflect or a student contacts you and say, “Hey, you know, there was something that happened in the last class that I just want to address.” I know, folks are like, “I gotta get to my content,…” but you have to remember that you may have just lost a bunch of students in your class… they’re not going to trust you and they’re not going to go with you the rest of the course, if you just keep going. So you still have an opportunity to come back at the beginning of the next class, and to say, “Hey, I was reflecting” and to address it then, so that the rest of the students know that you are aware, and that it does matter to you, and that you’re going to try to do whatever you can to address it. And you may have to say we’re not going to resolve this here, but I do want to acknowledge that there were some concerns or x, y, and z. I think it’s important that we know that there were different sentiments or feelings or whatever. So those are some of the initial things that I really try to get folks to think about.
Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you say without directly saying it, I think, is that sometimes our gut reaction might be judgmental.
Rebecca: And it comes out that way, rather than from a place of wanting everybody to learn.
Amer: Yeah, I think this is an important thing for a number of people, of a number of trajectories and backgrounds. And what I’ve been talking about a lot is the difference between reacting and responding. Responding requires critical reflection, reacting is like that you have a stimulus, and then you do exactly whatever your response is to that stimulus. This is important for everybody. But I think if you’re from a marginalized identity, I think this is a big one, because students can say things that are triggering for you that you may have been traumatized or marginalized as a faculty member, I think that’s part of the reason why it’s important to do a lot of self work and reflection. And I think part of what we need to talk about is faculty getting the time to be able to be reflective, and that that being a value, that that is actually valuable for faculty to have the time to be reflective about who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Because the thing is that when we react, that’s when we’re more likely to draw from our implicit biases, that’s when we’re more likely to commit a micro aggression against a student, that’s when we’re more likely to do those things. And so we need the opportunity to reflect, to take the time to really understand who we are in relationship to other colleagues, with our students, so that we’re more likely to bring our best self into the classroom. That also involves faculty getting the opportunity to engage one another around these conversations. The number one thing I’ve noticed around the faculty development spaces around teaching is that they love the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’re experiencing, and what’s working for them and where their challenges are, and so forth. And they need the opportunity and space to do that. And I know that’s hard. Sometimes it involves faculty unions, and contracts and stuff, but I think we just got to make it part of what we do and ee got to create space for faculty to engage each other on these things.
Rebecca: Are there things that we think we should also address that we haven’t addressed yet?
Amer: I do want to note that I know that we’re in a very intense political and social climate in multiple trajectories and I don’t want to sound like I’m creating any false equivalencies. There’s hate, and there’s people being targeted for their identities and that’s a factor for what’s going on and that’s horrible. But there’s also, what I refer to as the culture of campus social justice elitism, in which I think we’ve created a new hierarchy around the language and discourse of social justice. Actually, there’s a reason why I talk the way I do around this stuff, and not constantly using an elitist form of discourse of social justice. And part of that, for me, is rooted in the fact that I was an activist before I came into the work… and more connected to grassroots activism. What I would say to my students sometimes is, let’s take all your big words, because they’re replicating what the academy is doing. It’s teaching them these words and languages and it’s like a way of showing that they know, which is where all the incentives are in the academy. None of the incentives are around not knowing, they’re all around knowing. So even around social justice stuff, I’m going to be performative around how much I know. One of the things I used to say to my students when I was at the University of Michigan, and I was like “let’s go to Detroit, where some people are organizing in the community. Let’s take all those words. And let’s just see how that’s going to go. These are the communities that you say that you advocate for and… you know what I’m saying?” …and I think they know. I think part of what we have to recognize is that it’s not just what students are doing, they’re being positioned to do certain things, whether it’s the impact of technology, whether it’s the way the Academy is structured, whether it’s where they are developmentally if they’re young adults, we have to continue to account for that. And so part of why we have to do our work is so that we don’t take it so personal. And yes, it’s hard. It is frustrating when students come at us in some of the ways that have been happening these days. And quite honestly, I think part of the reason why faculty are engaging these resources these days more is because they’re scared to death that they’re going to get blasted on social media, because they’ve heard it happen to a colleague or someone they went to graduate school, and they really don’t want that to happen to them. I wish that wasn’t the motivating factor for some faculty, but increasingly it is. So I’m not going to say that I have a magic wand. And I get, on a general level, the challenges of our time and the moment. But I don’t think that that’s a reason to not engage these processes and not to be committed to it. And we have to do that with authenticity, and recognizing that we also don’t have all the answers. So all we can do is just do the best we can. And if we’re committed to it, we can go down a path towards creating a more inclusive learning environment for all.
John: And whatever brings faculty to this if they create a more inclusive learning environment, it’s all to the good.
Amer: Yes, exactly. Absolutely. One of the reasons why I made sure that I prefaced what I said with “I don’t want to minimize the fact that there are people being attacked for their identities these days.” First of all, I’m part of one of those groups that gets attacked incessantly and demonized so I fully understand that. But secondarily, I think part of it is that we’re in this binary dualism of like, if you say one thing, that means you’re the opposite. Or if you say one thing that that means that you’re planting your flag in the ground. And this dualism means you’re either on one side or the other. And I think the academy shouldn’t be about dualism, I think it should be about exploration of knowledge, which is much more nuanced than dualistic camps on things. So I really do think that we need to actually start valuing and emphasizing not knowing, and I think that would actually make our teaching better.
Rebecca: I love that idea. Not knowing and being curious. That is really what the Academy is actually about. That’s what learning is about. It’s actually the not knowing.
Amer: That’s what it’s supposed to be about.
Amer: But I do think that the systems of the academy position us to replicate the idea that the only thing that matters is knowing; that critical thinking, even just epistemologically, we say that critical thinking is… in many cultural contexts, intellectual critical thinking knowledge is only one paradigm of knowledge, and that there’s other forms of knowledge that we can draw from. And that’s part of what we have to be open about. And that’s part of what our students are bringing from their various trajectories that they’re coming from… many different types of ways of knowing and being in the world.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?
Amer: Well, the most immediate next thing is that I’m, in terms of professionally, is that I’m giving a keynote at a Jesuit institution diversity conference, I’m really excited about that. I’m very interested in the idea of connecting more intentionally religion and spirituality to broader intersections of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that oftentimes gets separated out. And I think for a person like me, who is part of a community that’s targeted, partially because of racism, but partially also because of faith, that I think is something that we need to spend more time being willing to engage. And I think too often in the academy we’re dismissive of religion and spirituality as something that is intellectually weak.. You know, weak minded or something. So it’s something that I’m particularly interested in, and I’m actually going to be co editing a volume focusing on that, which I’m really excited about as well.
Rebecca: That sounds really interesting and definitely fills a space that’s very empty.
Amer: Yeah. And particularly on a practical level, like how do we actually support and work with students and various constituencies on our campus around that?
John: Well, thank you for joining us. This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope it helps lots of people in moving towards a more inclusive environment.
Amer: Thanks so much.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for your insights, This was really, a really productive conversation.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.