"What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us." -Edward Kennedy-
Keeping Diversity and Inclusivity in Mind
The University of Memphis provides numerous opportunities for inclusivity. Currently, just half of the student population is composed of students who primarily identify as Caucasian. Additionally, it is estimated that about half of our student population is first-generation students. With such a high level of diversity, I believe this university is a melting pot of various cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities. As a white man not from the south, I consistently engage the challenges of diversity at this university.
A way I attempt to be acquainted with my students is on the first day of every semester I engage in an exercise in which I request that students share five points of information about themselves with me which includes but is not limited to: their proper name they would like to be identified as, their current year in school, their major/field of interest, and their favorite prepared meal/dish. Each student stands and one-by-one provides their answers to myself and to the class. What I then attempt to do is choose something about each student and attempt to have them provide further background of themselves. For example, some students have unique names and I will inquire of the origins or background to their name. This allows students to provide background information and encourages greater social awareness and interaction with one another during this activity. Additionally, I make it a point to memorize names as we move throughout this activity, repeating each student’s name in an attempt to retain his or her name to my memory. This enables me to foster a more inclusive relationship with my students as this activity conveys my attempt at recognizing each student as a unique individual within my course. However, this does not mean that the challenges of diversity have been completely overcome as diversity is not always seen or readily heard let alone provided. Sometimes aspects of diversity are hidden.
Traditionally, faculty have provided what are largely considered “standardized” materials that include but are not limited to textbooks, handouts, website links and audio/visual materials. What these traditional materials fail to recognize is that not all students are privileged with the same abilities to comprehend or access these materials due to potential disabilities. As a result of this some students desire course materials to be readily available but wish to not inquire or request out of fear or shame of their disability. In an attempt to acknowledge these students and provide a more inclusive learning environment, the course materials I created are designed purposefully to be more accessible to all students. This includes the use of specific file types such as Microsoft Word or HTML to create documents, the use of sans serif fonts as HTML is sans serif by default, the avoidance of assumptions (such as providing URL links without directing students to click on the link) and audio/visual materials wherein transcripts and closed captioning is readily available. My preparation of these materials provides students with options and enables them to feel they are acknowledged and included.
One aspect of inclusivity I especially attempt to address is encouraging an open environment for classroom discussion. I structure my class by emphasizing the importance of respect when it comes to the sharing of opinions and ideas. Not everyone will agree with one another, but to have an environment that enables students to be open and inclusive allows for true discourse to occur. Only in such an inclusive environment can problems be approached and solutions be created.
My experiences during my doctoral career have made me cognizant of the ever pressing issues of diversity and inclusivity. As a result, I have seen my position as an educator and researcher evolve to acknowledge and address these issues in an effort to foster a more inclusive educational environment.