A Call to Interrogate Educational Development for Racism and Colonization

social justice image with fist and collage of portraits in the background

It is widely known that as an institution, higher education is laden with historical and structural racism. From the role of slave labor and the forcible taking of Indigenous land to finance colleges and universities, to the continually weakening legal system around affirmative action, to the problematic aspects of standardized testing—today, college experiences and access to a degree are inequitable among students. Globally, a Standardized, dominant form of the English language and Eurocentric ways of thinking are valued as superior in most educational spheres; these are a direct result of continuing legacies of colonization, and they sustain ongoing oppressive practices (Battiste, 1998; Bray, 1984). On an individual level, faculty of marginalized identities experience racism and oppression in their daily lives from colleagues and students (Rideau & Robbins, 2020; Pittman, 2010; Dickens et al., 2020); similarly, students of marginalized identities experience racism and oppression from faculty and from one another (e.g., Samuel & Burney, 2003).

Yet, while racism and colonization both exist and persist in higher education, most faculty do not receive formal training in the realm of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) as it pertains to the higher education classroom. Therefore, faculty draw upon resources such as university centers for teaching and learning, educational development programs, and various books, websites, and articles for pedagogical support. We suggest that educational developers and others in similar support roles must engage in critical reflection upon their own profession to avoid perpetuating racism, colonization, and oppression in the academy.

Educational developers have been identified as a resource for supporting faculty in gaining a stronger awareness of student diversity, inclusive and equitable teaching skills, cross-cultural understanding, and positionality (Dewsbury, 2017). In practice, this includes working with schools, departments, committees, and individuals to improve efforts around DEIJ—from workshops to sustained programs to the creation of online resources. Recently, while one of us was co-leading one of these programs, faculty participants were asked to consider how their discipline has been shaped by historical legacies of racism and colonization. It was a complex prompt, and participants came up with some thought-provoking and eye-opening responses. But how can we, as educational developers, help faculty engage with this prompt if we haven’t thoroughly examined our own field?

Within academic disciplines, it has been acknowledged that racism, colonization, and oppression is embedded in disciplinary norms and practices (Shanklin, 2000; Silius, 2020; Dickens et al., 2020; Trisos et al., 2021), including in disciplines sometimes perceived as “race-neutral” (Haynes & Patton, 2019). Like any academic discipline, educational development holds various values, norms, standard practices, and assumptions. Turning the mirror on ourselves is imperative because as educational developers, we impact the teaching practices instructors choose, the ways in which instructors feel supported, and ultimately, students’ learning experiences. Only when we have interrogated our own values and assumptions for legacies of racism and colonization can we begin to be aware of how we are perpetuating oppression in higher education. This awareness must be present before we take deliberate and meaningful steps to address these issues and support faculty to do the same.

This should not feel new. Fifteen years ago, Manathunga (2006, 2007) used concepts from postcolonialism to identify colonial underpinnings of educational development, particularly our role as “developers of Others” who value “scientific educational psychology canon” and “applying [empirical] evidence-based theory” while maintaining a “phobia” of local disciplinary knowledge and intuitive approaches to teaching (2006). Over 30 years ago, Berendt (1989) critiqued the pattern of professionals in “staff development” programs in developed countries being repeatedly called upon to create similar programs in developing countries, suggesting this is a form of neo-colonialism. Recently, Sotto-Santiago explored educational development from the lens of faculty who participated in these programs, finding a need for programs tailored to experiences of faculty of marginalized identities, as most programs are dominant group-centric (2020) and most educational developers do not offer such tailored programs (2019).

If we endeavor, as a profession, to examine our values and assumptions for legacies of racism and oppression, what might this look like? We offer one example: educational development’s reliance on empirical evidence as necessary “proof” that certain teaching strategies work. As the field of research on teaching and learning has progressed over time, education researchers have delved deeper into rigorous experimental design, learning analytics, and quantitative methods. Work on the “science of learning,” done in departments of cognitive psychology and neurology, complements this body of research (see McMurtrie 2022 for a review). Today, educational developers regularly refer to the importance of data-informed teaching, and our national organization lists “evidence” as one of its three values (POD Network). The concept of evidence is often assumed to be free of bias and assumptions, but this is a faulty assumption. Such empirical approaches center dominant ways of knowing; moreover, it is not always clear if all students are equitably represented in the evidence and data collected in educational studies. Though this has not been deeply investigated in the context of educational development, some have critiqued “evidence-based” approaches as neocolonial in regard to educational policy (Shahjahan, 2011) and disciplinary epistemologies (Koro-Ljungberg, 2009). Traditional methods of academic analysis—which often include steps toward verification and validity—can be limited, problematic, even violent, as they project (and center) the researcher’s goal and voice onto narratives and lived experiences of the research subjects (Hendry, 2007; Lewis, 2011).

One result of this dependence on empirical evidence is the discourse on active learning. There is prolific research on the effectiveness of active learning, particularly for marginalized students such as Black and first-generation college students (Freeman et al., 2014; Eddy & Hogan, 2014). Probably most, if not all, educational developers encourage instructors to incorporate active learning into their teaching. Educational developers discuss traveling to other countries to train faculty to use active learning approaches (Smith & Hudson, 2017) and to engage in “idea exchange” with academic developers in “emerging contexts” (Lee et al., 2013). But active learning’s effectiveness depends on its execution, and students who are unfamiliar with Western approaches to active learning experience discomfort and dissonance (Hallinger & Lu, 2012; Li & Jia, 2006). Is it possible to address or expand the Western values embedded in active learning to encompass other culturally informed ways of learning; is active learning always better; should we, as educational developers, even strive to “discover” a universal teaching strategy? What does this signal to our students who, for instance, have been educated in East Asian countries where pedagogical approaches may be practiced differently, and what unique barriers and challenges to their learning does this emphasis on active learning impose on them? How can we encourage instructors to cultivate culturally responsive learning environments alongside their use of active learning strategies—so that students’ varied cultural backgrounds can serve as strengths in their learning experiences (Gay, 2018; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Frambach et al., 2012; Huang et al., 2020)? This is one way that our dependence on empirical evidence might result in exclusionary teaching and perpetuate a colonial teaching approach.

There are many more avenues for exploration along these lines of thinking. This includes examining other commonly stated values in educational development. It also includes asking ourselves the following:

  • What are the foundational values and priorities of the field of educational development?
  • Who has been included in shaping these, who hasn’t, and why?
  • What is the context in which we’ve gathered the research that is foundational to our field?
  • What are the standard practices, norms, or assumptions in educational development that have been shaped by racism and colonization?
  • Whose teaching and learning has traditionally and historically benefited from our work? Who has traditionally and historically been excluded?

We invite educational developers and others who support college instructors in their teaching to interrogate our values and norms by turning the mirror on ourselves.

Heather Dwyer, assistant director at Tufts University’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, is engaged in investigating the ways that educational development reflects and perpetuates racist structures. Her article “A Mandatory Diversity Workshop for Faculty: Does it Work?” was published in 2020. She earned her doctorate in Ecology at the University of California, Davis, and has been supporting university instructors in their teaching since 2011.

Marisella Rodriguez is a senior consultant in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned her doctorate in Political Science at the University of California, Davis. She is a published author in International Studies Quarterly and To Improve the Academy (forthcoming, Fall 2022). 

Jamiella Brooks is an associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania. Her primary work at CTL focuses on programming and support for equitable and inclusive teaching practices. Her teaching and research interests include sociolinguistics, language and power, discourse analysis, and anticolonial pedagogies, and she has presented on codeswitching and linguistic equity.


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