Attending to the content of your course means analyzing your design choices regarding assignments, materials you share, and topics and authors you cover. It is important to make these pedagogical choices visible to students so they see why they’re doing the things they’re doing and how this content matters. In the domain of inclusive pedagogy, this means explicitly and intentionally bringing a range of activities, materials, perspectives, and identities into the learning space. What we know from research is that a sense of belonging, and a motivation to commit to the course are both supported by wide-ranging representation in the course materials and opportunities for students to connect to that material from a variety of positions. All of this allows for deeper engagement in one's intellectual development.
The sources students encounter in many courses often prioritize the scholarly voices that reflect historical inequities in academic disciplines. Increasing the range of perspectives in our courses works toward correcting that injustice and makes up for the limitations inherent in any one perspective. And when our students observe the broad diversity of identities involved in scholarship, good things happen; this includes increases in student sense of belonging and retention rates as well as reductions of negative stereotypes about historically marginalized identities (Leslie et al, 2015, Marx and Roman, 2002, Purdie-Vaughns et al, 2008).
Encountering a range of perspectives in the classroom helps students understand their own views as well as opening them to other points of view (Clancy and Bauer, 2018). Although students can learn to express diverse perspectives, there are social pressures—the desire to get along with their peers, the fear of offending or being wrong—that make it harder for them to take this on at first (Clancy and Bauer, 2018); the professor’s authority in the classroom can make this kind of expression less risky. In addition, the student group at hand may not include people who endorse all the possible views—the group may not even be familiar with some views—which calls on the professor to fill in the gaps (Thomas and Brower, 2017).
You’ve put a lot of thought into your course, and there are reasons behind the choices you’ve made. But those reasons may not be evident to anyone but you (McNair, 2016). For students new to the material, a course can seem quite opaque—particularly if that student comes to the class without a built-in familiarity with pedagogy in higher education. That opacity is a potential barrier to learning. Meanwhile, students who are given more transparent assignments (in terms of purpose, the nature of the task, and what will be considered a success) show increased levels of confidence and feelings of belonging, as well as better work in the class—and these effects are particularly strong for traditionally underrepresented groups of students (Ambrose et al, 2010; Winkelmes et al., 2016).
Educating students about how your discipline/ field generates (and has generated) knowledge serves as a reminder that humans generate this knowledge; humans choose what to include and what to omit as scholarship accumulates over time. Some of these figures in the field themselves have messy, complex stories that have influenced the discipline in both positive and negative ways. Investigating our discipline entails complexity, incompleteness, and lines of enquiry within disciplinary assumptions about what counts as knowledge and what is produced (Donald, 2002; Chamany et al., 2008). Another way to think through your discipline’s epistemology is to consider what are the threshold concepts: What are the concepts in your discipline that define how experts in your field think, write, and work? What are the concepts that are essential to understand and without which one cannot progress? Reflecting on these concepts and on which of our students do and don’t have the privilege to arrive with background knowledge of the discipline and of academia more generally—can help us reconsider embedded biases in the concepts central to our disciplines and fields.