The Words We Use: How Higher Ed is Responding to Calls for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

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Increasingly, faculty leaders are responding seriously to the call for more “culturally relevant pedagogy,” referring to more inclusive classrooms and pedagogical styles. This article draws on findings from a recent inquiry into how institutions are thinking about equity within pedagogy.

In late 2019 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), I conducted 28 phone interviews with both administrators and academics in higher education, from distinct universities. I spoke with leaders of Centers for Teaching and Learning, leaders in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and faculty in leadership positions. My research also included a review of timely literature on this topic. In this article, I share a quick snapshot of how institutions are responding to the call for culturally relevant pedagogy.

by Ashvina Patel, Ph.D., Research Analyst, Academic Impressions

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The Words We Use

What do we call the effort?

“Decolonizing curriculum,” “decolonizing the classroom,” “culturally relevant curriculum,” “culturally responsive materials,” “inclusive pedagogy,” “inclusive teaching content,” “diversity in curriculum,” “hidden curriculum,” and “uncovering implicit bias” are just some of the words higher education institutions are using to describe a change that is both historic and new. In its most informed iteration, this effort essentially approaches classroom instruction (syllabi, reading, assignments, lectures, mentoring) with a mindset that recognizes how systems of oppression and structures of inequality have framed the history of knowledge production, creating a canon of androcentric, Eurocentric, heterocentric work that is reified at institutions of higher education. My own research was focused on:

  • What types of efforts are underway within higher education to revise pedagogy
  • Where such efforts can be found within a campus
  • The connection between the words we use to describe these efforts and the institution’s history and culture.

When I provided a verbal list to interviewees about terms their colleagues are using to define this process—and it is a continual process— there were many expressions of displeasure. For example, some have found the word diversity to be a meaningless usage that serves to make higher education administrators feel better about themselves for attempting equity, but with little substance. (For example, see “Diversity Fatigue is Real.”) Another interviewee preferred the term inclusive teaching. “I would like for us to move away from a deficit model, where some students lack something, to one where every student benefits from teaching practices that are structured and promote engagement. There is no deficit, no privilege, just inclusivity” said Milagros Rivera, Director of Faculty Diversity, Inclusion and Well-being at George Mason University

Whatever we call this shift, there is a renewed movement based, in part, on the nation’s political climate. The political climate since 9-11 has been asking us to reflect, define, and challenge what it means to be American. This sentiment is mirrored to some extent on college campuses that are calling for specific attention to be paid to equity in the content being taught to students. Where does knowledge production lie? Who produces our understanding of the world? Need it begin and end with an androcentric, Eurocentric, heterocentric foci?

Institutions of higher education have responded well to the call for inclusive classrooms that requires an openness to disability and difference; and a pedagogical style that is accessible to all types of learners. But what students are demanding, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leaders are aiming towards, is something more targeted: a pedagogy that is inclusive of perspectives outside of what Audra Lorde calls the “mythical norm,” or that which is “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure.” In some cases, pedagogy grounded in the mythical norm is dangerously inaccurate, and in others it silences the perspectives of the underrepresented.

The Catalyst: Why Institutions are Responding Now

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Image Credit: Photo by Peyman Farmani on Unsplash.


Additional Resources

There are many scholars producing highly relevant, thoughtful work in the area of culturally relevant pedagogy. These are just three examples who have informed my thought process here:

  • Harrison, Faye V. Decolonizing anthropology: Moving further toward an anthropology for liberation. American Anthropological Association, 2011.
  • Lorde, A. Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2012.
  • Love, Bettina L. We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press, 2019.

You can also dig more deeply into this topic in the time of COVID-19 by attending our virtual training Inclusive Pedagogy in Higher Education: A Mindset and Continual Practice. We know that in the wake of COVID-19, the rapid transition of moving courses online has left many students feeling isolated and insecure, and it has put the most vulnerable students at even greater risk. By using components of inclusive pedagogy in online courses, instructors have the unique opportunity to build community in a new way and create spaces for all students to come together and learn on equal footing.

Inclusive teaching is more than simply completing a checklist of best practices. This approach requires instructors to pair critical self-reflection with actions in the classroom. Join us for this highly interactive virtual training and dialogue to learn how to transform your teaching practices to better engage, support, and prepare your students without sacrificing rigor. In this virtual training, Dr. China Jenkins from Texas Southern University will guide our discussion and share strategies for cultivating a pedagogy of inclusion.