In this episode, Peter and Charlie are joined by OAR Intern Vanessa Morales ’19 to discuss ways to make academic spaces inclusive to students from historically marginalized backgrounds.
CB: Hey friends, welcome to the Compass. I’m Charlie Bruce.
PG: And I’m Peter Granville. Today, we have a very special episode of the Compass.
CB: Like, after school type special?
PG: Not quite. Today, we’re talking about how students can help foster inclusive academic spaces at Haverford.
CB: A really big topic.
PG: Absolutely. Not only because there’s a lot of talk about, but also because this conversation is really important.
CB: And this topic ties into our podcast because a big part of developing as a learning is cultivating an environment where other students can engage just as much.
PG: As much as we would all like this not to be the case, institutions of higher ed have historically excluded people from marginalized identities, whether it be along identities of race, class, gender, or ability. If we want to create a community of learners we need to recognize this history but also the obstacles to a healthy learning environment. `
CB: And there are two ways we can look at this: identify what excluding identity looks like, and what an inclusive environment is like.
PG: We also want to put some disclaimers on this episode. Charlie, this may be a good time to point out that we are both white.
CB: It’s true.
PG: And while we have become more literate in these issues through our education and careers, we are by no means experts.
CB: Peter and I wrote these episodes with the help and guidance of our OAR interns, Sebastian Dilones, Lilly Alonzo, and Vanessa Morales.
PG: Writing these episodes has been a learning process, and we wanted to take a minute to explain our process in creating these episodes before we dive in. Originally, Vanessa had expressed interest in drafting an episode about diversity and inclusion in the college classroom. We had intended the audience of this to be students who want to engage in conversations about what exclusion looks like and how to create more welcoming educational spaces – or, as we explain later, culturally-responsive classrooms.
CB: And then, in the process of talking with Sebastian and Lilly, it diverged. We were talking about what professors could do to create culturally responsive classrooms, and not students as much. And, Peter and I started thinking, “Oh no! Are we going to get in trouble for telling faculty what to do?”
PG: But I think this is a learning moment, not only for students but for faculty to ask “How specifically can I work to ensure that each student’s voice is valued with necessary weight?” Charlie and I started this conversation thinking it was a question of what students could do, but really it is every person – whether student, faculty, or staff – asking, “What is my role in this community? And how am I building and sustaining that community?”
CB: And you know what the beauty of this question is? It totally ties back to our first episode of the season: interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Understanding your actions and what they mean for you, and also understanding how your actions affect other people. If we can to make a classroom – and an institution of higher education – more just, everyone needs to engage with supporting and uplifting folks from underrepresented backgrounds.
PG: So that’s the big picture message that we hope folks will take away from this. Vanessa will share her research about microaggressions and other impediments to student learning in the classroom.Then, she will share some ideas and research about how we can create inclusive academic spaces.
CB: Alright, so, we have a lot to cover. So without further ado, let’s begin.
PG: Hi Vanessa.
VM: Hi Peter.
PG: Can you talk to us about the research you’ve been doing?
VM: Yeah. I’ve been researching the language of how to talk about diversity and inclusion. There are a lot of different categories we could cover, but I’m going to focus on three definitions: microaggressions, imposter syndrome, and stereotype threat.
CB: So let’s dive into those definitions. What’s a microaggression?
VM: The term microaggression was coined by Columbia professor Derald Sue to characterize what we saw in his environment: small, seemingly insignificant phrases that create a hostile environment for people of color. There are four predominant categories of microaggression: intelligence, cultural/racial, gendered, and intersectional.
PG: And what are some examples of those?
VM: A cultural/racial microaggression would be “Oh, you’re Mexican? I never would have been able to tell.”
CB: And that makes a hostile learning environment because …?
VM: Because it’s implying that there should exist identifiable markers to be Mexican, such as being brown. And it makes a person of color self-conscious because they’re being stereotyped and pigeonholed into an identity. That also makes the person wonder, “Were they giving me a compliment? Or were they implying that people from Mexico, from my culture, are less than?”
PG: How did you experience this at Haverford?
VM: In my first year, I received a question that a lot of students of color hear: “Where are you really from?” It made me wonder, are they really curious about where I live? Or were they insinuating that I don’t belong here, that I’m not American, whatever “American” means? Another example can be an intersectional microaggression, which includes multiple categories like intelligence, cultural/racial, and gendered. That one would be like the time that I was visiting Haverford as a prospective student and was asked by a student, “You took AP Calculus?”
CB: I’m kind of lost on that example.
VM: So the emphasis on “you” in that sentence made me feel like the person doubted my intelligence. And it’s intersectional because intelligence is often aligned with biases towards race, culture, and gender.
CB: Oh, that’s terrible.
VM: And these microaggressions feed into other categories of ideas that make people of color feel like they’re in an unwelcoming environment.
PG: Such as imposter syndrome and stereotype threat, right?
VM: Yes. When a person of color is in an environment where white people are doubting their intelligence, either explicitly or implicitly, it creates imposter syndrome, which is when a person can’t grasp or believe in their successes, even when they’re high-achieving, which leads them to feel like frauds. It was first identified in the 1970s in the United States, when women who were joining the workforce felt a lot of resistance from their male coworkers. We can see this in women still, and other minorities who enter into institutional spaces not built for them.
PG: Imposter syndrome certainly sounds like it would impede a student’s performance.
VM: Which leads into the last term I want to introduce: stereotype threat. This is a term that describes how I often feel like I can’t speak out loud my messy, unprocessed thoughts, because of the worries that I’ll feel judged.
CB: Oh, well, can you tell us more about that?
VM: Claude Steele is a psychologist who coined the term “stereotype threat” and made it well-known. He describes it as “the anxiety and resultant behavioral response that ensues when a student of a socially stigmatized group encounters stereotypes that those outside the group hold about them.”
CB: So, that’s the definition. But what does it feel like?
VM: From my own experience, being the only Chicana student in a predominantly white classroom has often had be rehearsing what I want to say. Kind of like how you’re rehearsing your food order before you place it, except with higher stakes because I’m aware that my peers are likely to attribute my statement to all Chicanas.
CB: Which is something that a white students would not likely have to think about.
VM: Exactly. So what I say has to come out perfectly and eloquently. The impact of this pressure instead distracts me and prevents me from fully participating and engaging in the class. Meanwhile, my white classmates are, more often than not, able to say whatever they want and benefit more fully from their engagement in class discussions.
PG: So, Vanessa, you’ve just given us some great ways to identify moments of exclusion and hostility in academic spaces. Now, let’s step back and talk a bit about why this hostility exists and what each of us can do to reduce it.
CB: We’re going to talk about the ways that members of academic communities such as Haverford can become better familiar with issues of diversity, identity, and inclusion. So, Vanessa, where do we start?
VM: Oh, good question. Let’s start by talking about the premise of this episode, which is the premise that we need to become better familiar with issues of identity. But you hear a lot of arguments that dispute that. For instance, some people propose that issues of identity like race and gender are irrelevant in education.
CB: Like saying the classroom is colorblind? Or saying that it should be colorblind?
VM: Yeah, exactly. They argue that discussions about, say, race, actually make things worse by unnecessarily dividing people and creating racial tension. Or they might say that, because men are now a slight minority in higher education, gender is irrelevant.
PG: What’s your counterargument to that?
VM: My counterargument is that talking about issues like race and gender may disrupt the comfort that some people were feeling, but it’s a necessary step to alleviate the harm others feel after they’re insulted, stereotyped, or denied a voice in the conversation.
PG: Totally. What do you say to someone who claims not to see race or gender?
VM: Frankly, I would call BS.
CB: Say more about that!
VM: This leads to an important term, “implicit bias,” which is bias in favor of certain groups over others.
PG: And the “implicit” part means that it’s subtle, and it’s often unfelt by the person who holds it.
VM: Yes, but implicit bias is all around us and within us. It’s a product of the cultural messages we receive throughout our whole lives, and we internalize it as we grow up.
CB: So, to someone who says that they don’t see race, you would say that they do in fact have implicit bias?
VM: I would say back that WE ALL have implicit biases. You can take a quiz online for it. Look up “Harvard Project Implicit” and there are a number of tests you can take in just a few minutes. You can learn your biases along lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, body type, etc.
CB: So, a lot of things.
PG: I’ve taken these tests, and the results can be eye-opening.
VM: Yeah, they may surprise you. Again, it varies by individual, but Project Implicit has found that most Americans have a bias in favor of white people over black people.
CB: Right. This is not to say that people with any sort of bias are bad or evil. In fact, this study shows that it’s incredibly common in our society to have biases.
VM: Mmhm. What is bad is when our actions or our words advantage and privilege one group over another.
PG: In my own journey with these issues, I’ve personally found it instructive to think less about people being racist or not racist, and instead think more about actions and beliefs being racist or not racist.
CB: What do you mean by that?
PG: So, it is definitely true that some people perform more racist actions than others and hold more racist beliefs than others. It’s accurate to call the KKK racist, for sure. But for most conversations we have, especially in education, the goal should not be to shout at someone and say “You’re racist” or “You’re sexist” but instead to talk about their beliefs and actions that were damaging or unfair.
VM: Someone’s beliefs can be corrected, and they can change actions. But calling someone bigoted gives them no path forward to make things better.
CB: Yeah, and I don’t know many people who would say “Yes, I am a racist,” but you could imagine someone saying “Yes, I see how I hurt you” or “I see the flaws in my logic there.”
PG: So Vanessa, that’s a great start: bias exists. It is common and pervasive and can harm students’ experiences. We need to talk about these things. But it’s hard, especially in the middle of a class discussion.
VM: Oh for sure.
PG: So, for a professor who has never talked about race in their class before, imagine addressing a racial microaggression – maybe one that they themselves committed – in the middle of their class. It’s really hard to start that conversation in a high-stakes environment like a classroom.
CB: “High-stakes” in the sense that the students can report to the college how their professor mishandled an issue of race, and that can influence tenure and promotions.
PG: So there are these incentives to shy away from topics that are perceived as risky. Vanessa, how can we overcome that?
VM: You’re totally right, it’s scary. But this avoidance of an issue brushes it under the rug rather than addressing it head-on. By doing nothing, you let the problem perpetuate and you fail to address the harm caused by the action.
CB: So you’re saying that this avoidance is not neutral, it’s actually really harmful.
VM: Exactly. We need to have these challenging conversations if we’re going to have culturally responsive classrooms.
CB: Hang on – what do you mean by a culturally responsive classroom?
VM: Culturally responsive classrooms are what we’re aiming for in this work. Students should be able to bring their full selves into their academic work and be fully accepted. This means that the classroom discussion should embrace the backgrounds, identities, and experiences that the students bring with them into the classroom.
CB: And I imagine that, in order to have a culturally responsive classroom, an instructor needs to recognize how their own culture and identity is embedded in their teaching.
VM: Right – in order to respond to the students’ cultures and identities, you’ve got to know when you are imposing your own culture or identity on the classroom.
PG: And this is another reason why knowing your own biases is really important.
CB: So, Vanessa, we want professors and students to be comfortable talking about issues of identity. How do they start?
VM: My first recommendation would be just to start reading about these issues. Most of my background reading for these episodes has been around race, but it’s not hard to find great writing online about the educational experiences of transgender students, religious minorities, differently-abled students, and so forth. For race, you can start with the article “8 Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms” by Shaun Harper and Charles Davis, which is written for faculty.
PG: Shaun was one of my professors in grad school, and I can’t recommend his writing enough.
CB: I would also recommend the article “Embracing Positive Disruptions” by Jody Cohen, Alison Cook-Sather, and Tiffany Shumate through the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr. This article talks about the experiences of students and faculty working together to make their classrooms culturally responsive. Alison teaches a really cool course called “Advocating for Diversity in Higher Education,” and loves to talk to students about this if you want to follow up on this conversation.
VM: Yeah, in general, if you’re feeling nervous, read up on what the current conversation is like in higher education. When these conversations need to be had in your classroom, you can then jump into them.
CB: Are there other ways in jumping into this?
VM: I recommend faculty and students talk about these issues with peers in a low-stakes
environment. Invite a friend out for coffee, and ask them about their experiences in academia. Don’t ask this person to represent their whole identity group, be it people of color or women or LGBTQ+ people. They can only speak from their own experiences and attest to the experiences of their peers.
PG: …which is why you need to talk to many different people. One isn’t enough.
VM: Exactly. Don’t think of this as checking boxes, but instead, see this as part of a continual process to understand the experiences of others better and change your actions to facilitate their success.
CB: And for faculty specifically, they want to keep reflecting on this.
VM: Yes, professors should continually ask themselves questions and question their own assumptions if they want to build these kinds of culturally responsive classrooms. It takes a lot of courage for a student to try to change a professor’s actions, curriculum, or teaching style, and it helps when they’re working with responsive faculty.
PG: So a professor who also performs the work of questioning their approach to teaching can save students lots of anguish.
VM: Mmhm. And most of all for faculty, evaluate the role of identity in decisions that you make that have large impacts on others, particularly in the distribution of resources.
CB: What do you mean by that?
VM: So, some questions for faculty include, how often do you hire students of color to work in your labs or serve as research assistants? Do you mentor all your students? When minority students come to you, do you actively display confidence that they can be successful in your class? And lastly, how has your department performed in hiring and recruiting minority faculty?
PG: Those are important questions.
CB: Wow. Thank you for all of your research this and initiating the conversation with us, Vanessa.
VM: You’re welcome!
PG: So, that’s it for this episode, and this season of the Compass! I think we’ve covered a lot of ground this semester.
CB: Peter, I’m going to miss working on this with you, but hopefully I’ll get to start another podcast in the fall!
PG: For folks who don’t know, Charlie is leaving the OAR to join Penn’s Graduate School of Education.
CB: But Peter is already planning the next season, and from the looks of his idea map, it already sounds great!
PG: That being said, we are looking for topics and themes for next semester, so please email email@example.com with your suggestions of what you would like to hear covered on this podcast.
CB: In closing this season, we want to give a HUGE thanks and shout outs to all the support we’ve received from the following folks: Hiroyo Saito, Charles Woodard, Brian Cuzzolina, Raquel Esteves-Joyce, Kelly Wilcox, Sebastian Dilones, Mercedes Davis, Lilly Alonzo, Bess Cohen, Talia Scott, and our other OAR interns. Thanks also to John Muse, Nat Ballenberg, Cory Walts, Fran Blase, and our colleagues in the Dean’s office.