On February 29th the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning hosted a special workshop featuring Michele DiPietro from Kennesaw State University on how to build more inclusive classrooms for LGTBQ students. Dr. DiPietro is a leader in classroom learning and teacher training and has an expertise in quantitative methods in evaluating teaching effectiveness. His workshop was built around the major points in his book “How Learning Works”
The rationale for this workshop is that research* has shown that LGTBQ students were less likely to agree that their department curriculum repstned the contributions of LGTBQ students and that this lack of recognition represented a tacit statement that LGTBQ scholars were being marginalized. By extension this means that LGTBQ students were also being marginalized. Moreover, LGTBQ students were less more likely to consider leaving their institution and feared for their physical safety.
The workshop focused on how within the confines of the classroom we could create a more equitable environment, but also spoke towards how the broader campus climate could put LGTBQ students at risk both personally and academically. For example if LGTBQ were more liklety than straight students to avioid certain parts of campus, like areas with Fraternity houses. If this translated into students taking a suboptimal rout to classes LGTBQ students may have to choose between their personal safety or showing up on time. Aside from potentially losing points for lateness, and missing contact, this could also lead to further ostracism if groups for classwork had already been picked. Think high school lunch room flashbacks all over again….
Within the class we have the potential to create a more equitable classroom. Again this is important because LGTBQ students, when provided a safe haven tend to perform better in class. For example, we strive to have our students think about metacognition – being strategic about ones on thinking, processing information and adapting learning to the environment. However if a LGTBQ student does not have a safe learning environment then they must simultaneously perform the metacognitive activities we require of them and navigate their own internal discourse about sexual identity. This multi-tasking burns up a lot of bandwidth yet this taxation is the burden we place on students when we do not generate just and equitable classrooms.
So what can we do? One of the key points that kept coming up today was this
Unless it is explicitly stated in your classroom, LGTBQ students will most often assume a classroom is at best silencing and at worst outright hostile to them. Therefore just ignoring it is an actual choice – a powerful and negative choice.
Here are five things you can consider adding to make your classroom more inclusive to LGTBQ students:
1) Make statements about generating a positive climate. These can be simple things like including non-discrimination language in your syllabus; to more obvious things like highlighting the role LGTBQ scholars have had in your field. For example, last year during my Ichthyology class I had a “Ichthyologist of the week” feature. I used this as an opportunity to show the diversity of people undertaking fish based research including two lesbian women. Role models are powerful signals to students, and if they can see someone like them pursuing a job that they’re interested in, then it’s easier to keep them motivated. Similarly, when students see no one like them doing that job, that silence is powerful and pernicious
2) Ask for preferred name and/or pronoun BEFORE class. This is a very simple step to take to reduce first day anxiety for LGTBQ students. For genderqeer or trans students having to bring up this issue, particularly if its couched as “your real name” can be a wounding experience and we as teachers risk shutting the student down even before class has started.
3) Use They/Them as your preferred pronoun. This one took me as surprise because I had never really thought about it. And that’s exactly the point. Dr. DiPietro prefers to use they/them in class as a means to normalize non-gendered pronouns. I can imagine this being easier in STEM classrooms than say, Spanish or French classes where the gender-neutral pronoun is not available.
4) Create your ground rules early. Coming together as a class to generate ground rules for discussion can create buy in from the class, as well as provide an opportunity to discuss why people feel the way the do. Asking the students to think about times that discussions have gone off the rails and what could have been done to avoid that derailment is one way to have them move beyond generalizations like “be positive”
4a) Provide a place for students to feel safe asking unsophisticated questions. We come to school to learn, and learning by experiencing mistakes is an important skill. If we shut down students from asking questions because they feel they’ll face ridicule is a way to alienate students across the diversity spectrum. On the other hand providing a classroom environment where students can ask honest questions, even if those questions come out awkwardly, is important because that fear can be silencing and that ultimately detracts from ones ability to learn.
5) Find ways to include LGTBQ material in the syllabus. This one is easy for me as many fish are sequential hermaphrodites, e.g they change sex throughout their year. Yes I know that sex and gender are not the same things, but I do use this as an opportunity to show that a strict binary view of nature is neither productive nor born out by the facts. Several of the language teachers attending noted that while the textbooks provided a heavily heternormaitve view of words that other words existed and that they asked students to think about how LGTBQ communities are integrated in different cultures. Lastly, if you are a LGTBQ professor (as many of the attendees were) being out to your students was a powerful statement about the abilities and achievements of the community. By incorporating LGTBQ scholars and scholarship into our syllabi we can help negate the stereotype threat facing LGTBQ students and ultimately make the learning environment more inclusive and productive for all students. UPDATE: I’ve been thinking more about this and I want to add that I certainly don’t judge anyone for not taking any of these steps. How you teach is your own business. With special respect to #5 coming out is a very personal choice and decision and if you feel that doing so would compromise your safety or endanger your career I most certainly support your decision to handle your personal business as you see best
* The majority of this research came from
Rankin, Sue, et al. “State of higher education for LGBT people.” Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride (2010).
Gonyea, Robert M., and John V. Moore. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and their engagement in educationally purposeful activities in college.” Retrieved July 25 (2007): 2009.
Although for a STEM perspective I’d like to also add:
Yoder, Jeremy B., and Allison Mattheis. “Queer in STEM: Workplace experiences reported in a national survey of LGBTQA individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.” Journal of homosexuality 63.1 (2016): 1-27.
and for self promotional purposes