Diversity Driven Student Learning in the Classroom

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A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana

What are you? This is a question many of us, including the author, have been asked or have even asked of ourselves. Sometimes the answer is not so clear-cut as evidenced by the popularity of consumer-direct genetic testing companies such “23andMe.” While diversity in humans has always been beautifully complex and multidimensional, our definitions and attitudes about it have not reflected that reality.

Our awareness, acceptance, attitude, and valuation of diversity are important determinants of our willingness and ability to incorporate it into our classrooms. While cultural, racial, and other characteristics of diversity have always existed, our awareness, acceptance, attitude, and valuation of diversity in the classroom continues to evolve. How has the concept of diversity changed over the past 40-50 years? Perhaps, like the author, you grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, as part of what is sometimes referred to as the Baby Boomer generation. How have the experiences of those times influenced your understanding about diversity?

Diversity was defined for me by the famous words of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King in his famous 1963 speech:

…When all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

This “old school” concept sees diversity as consisting of race, gender, and religion. Today’s concept of diversity is more difficult and complex. Diversity encompasses multiple dimensions including identities that arise due to differences of:

  • Race/Multiracial
  • Gender
  • Class
  • Ethnicity
  • Culture
  • Nationality
  • Region
  • Family background (Sen, 2005)
  • Education
  • Sexual preferences
  • Physical disability
  • Cognitive style
  • Worldviews
  • Religion
  • Age

What factors form our attitudes about diversity? One important factor is the age or generational category of faculty. While one’s personal generational category remains constant, as educators we interact with changing generations of students over the course of our careers.

Other overlapping factors that form and influence our attitudes about diversity are family, gender, life experiences, race/ethnicity, social class, and our socio-cultural consciousness (Villegas, 2002). We as educators need to examine how these elements shape our thoughts, personal biases, and interactions with and perceptions of our students.

Most likely, as human beings, we have conscious and subconscious biases about subjects such as diversity. I pose the following three questions for personal reflection and consideration.

  1. Can we recognize, acknowledge and work through our own biases about diversity?
  2. How do we gain an understanding about how our students perceive and accept diversity?
  3. How do we influence students’ perceptions about diversity in a positive manner?

With respect to our personal biases, the session at the FRN symposium in New Orleans looked at the areas of gender identity (using EJ Johnson Explores Gender Identity, a YouTube video) and cultural differences (using the New York Times article “What’s That You’re Wearing? A Guide to Muslim Veils”).

So what does diversity in higher education mean from a pedagogical perspective? Moreover, what is its purpose? From a pedagogical perspective, diversity means “the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with differences in a purposeful manner so as to increase one’s diversity-related competencies. Diversity refers not to the presence of difference in student demographics or course content, but to the act and process of engaging those differences in an intentional, purposeful manner” (Lee et al., 2012). The purpose is to “provide an inclusive education that demands students be knowledgeable about differences in race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, and sexual orientation and also possess skills to interrupt and challenge oppressive behavior and practices” (Sapon-Shevin, 2012).

How do we gain knowledge/sensitivity (a level of empathy, understanding, and acceptance) for:

  • Cultural and religious practices other than our familiar Christian-Judeo tradition, such as Islam, Hinduism, etc.
  • Geopolitical factors impacting students, including:
    • Immigration
    • Wars/conflicts
    • “Repressive” environments
  • Gender identity, including gender fluid/bisexual/non-binary/trans/queer (“A growing number of young people are moving beyond the idea that we live in a world where sexuality and gender come only in two forms” [Steinmetz, 2017]).
  • Incarceration

With respect to incarceration and the push for changes to our system of criminal justice and punishment, we will see an increased number of students, formerly incarcerated, in our classroom working to improve their lives. My institution has established the Kalief Browder Memorial Fund Scholarship, which honors the late Bronx Community College student Kalief Browder, whose three-year Rikers Island imprisonment without trial at age 16—two of them in solitary confinement—raised a national clamor for criminal justice reform. The mental torment attributed to his incarceration caused him to commit suicide (Browder & Hill, 2013).


Browder, K., & Hill, M.L. [Interviewer] (2013, December 2). Kalief Browder, NYC teen jailed for years with no conviction, says Rikers guards ‘starved’ him [Video interview]. Huff Post Live.

E! Entertainment. (2016, June 28). EJ Johnson Explores Gender Identity [YouTube video].

Goldman, R. (2016, May 04). What’s that you’re wearing? A guide to Muslim veils. The New York Times.

Lee, A., Williams, R., & Kilaberia, R. (2012). Engaging diversity in first-year college classrooms. Innovative Higher Education, 37(3), 199-213.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (2012). Inclusive education. In Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Sen, S. (2005). Diversity and North American planning curricula: The need for reform. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Summer, 14, 121-144.

Steinmetz, K. (2017, March). Infinite identities. Time, 189(11), 48-54.

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom