Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Making the Classroom Safe for Difference

More tales from my recent workshop on Internationalizing Teaching and Learning:

One of the other faculty participants pointed out that anthropology challenges students' world-views. To which I answered, "Of course!", while rubbing my hands together and cackling gleefully. My colleague then pointed out to me that such challenges are disconcerting and make students feel unsafe and defensive.

Here's the problem: just as most academics have a hard time learning how to be good teachers because we were always good students (we wouldn't be here, if we weren't), anthropologists have a hard time recognizing how threatening it is to have your cultural perspective challenged (or even pointed out to you). After all, our reaction to our first anthropology class was "cool!" (we wouldn't be here, if it wasn't). For most of us, challenging a student's world-view is a feature, not a bug. We're trying to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

(Like I said, anthropology is chaotic good!)

I'm grateful to my colleague for pointing out that I need to take into consideration my students' feelings of safety, if I want them to learn and not just run away screaming.

As a result, I've developed a new classroom activity that will introduce the process of group work to my students, but also (I hope!) make the classroom a safer place to explore their own perspectives and have their worldviews challenged. 

I break students into groups of four, and have them choose their roles, based on birthdate. (The roles are leader, note-taker, time-keeper, and presenter). Then I have them discuss three questions:

1) What rules for discussion would make you feel safe to voice your opinion, no matter how unpopular or unique?

2) What rules for discussion would make you feel that your voice was being heard?

3) What do you think are the most important traits for a "good class participator" (however you define that).

After their small group time, we discuss the first two questions, and create a list of class discussion rules that will be enforced for the rest of the semester. I plan to put these on the webpage, and refer to them before each major discussion period.

Finally, we discuss the traits that make someone a good participator. The point of this is to make students aware that a) everyone has something to contribute; if you think your perspective is "strange" that just adds to the richness of the class; and b) the most successful participators are those who open their mouths and do it.

Hopefully, this will help with the "anthropology is scary" problem.


  1. Interesting. The first thing that pops into my mind is that the classroom is never safe for difference. Students with privilege feel safe, but many students never do - especially many students of color. Many students have never had their worldview welcome in the classroom, but are very practiced at recognizing the "rules" they have to play by. Obvs, the classroom is part of our larger culture, so there's no getting entirely (even mostly?) around that. I wonder if maybe in introducing the topic, that might be part of the discussion?

    What a thought-provoking post! I agree with you and your colleague, those are important things to think about and address.

  2. That's absolutely the case. I like the idea of explicitly framing the exercise as a way of promoting diversity. One of the points of this exercise is to try and create an environment where students of all backgrounds feel they know how to contribute and that they will be valued if they do. It's obvious to us professors that classroom discussions are much richer if people from a variety of ages and ethnic/cultural/socioeconomic backgrounds speak up, but I don't think that's always obvious to the students who feel they are "different" somehow from the "normal". I hope making the the rules explicit will help students who aren't certain when they are supposed to contribute and how (I'm thinking specifically of international students, but many students can benefit). I think it's also important to direct that final discussion about "good participators" so that students realize that unique perspectives are very welcome in the classroom, but that nobody expects a student of color to speak for their whole race, or an international student to speak for their whole country.

    But you're right, the classroom isn't safe. And it can be very hard for a student to speak up if they feel threatened or targeted.