Conversations on diversity and inclusion are not a naturally occurring phenomena in higher education classrooms. Unfortunately, the American obsession with political correctness and the Eurocentric, depoliticized K-12 American educational system has left many undergraduate and graduate students afraid or incapable of engaging in discussion about difference. Before engaging in dialogue about diversity and inclusion in the college classroom, one must create the appropriate space.
Much has been written lately about the coddling of American undergraduates and their expectations of safety in the college classroom. But there is a big difference between safety and comfort. All students deserve safety in higher education—that is, freedom from being physically or emotionally accosted. No one deserves to be attacked because of their identity or beliefs. Comfort should not be guaranteed though. As we know from various learning and identity development theories, growth comes from dissonance or times when your beliefs do not match lived experience. To ensure comfort in the classroom is to maintain the status quo. I tell my students that if over the course of the semester I do not evoke emotions, I have not helped them grow.
The idea of creating space for dialogue around difference cannot be so intimidating that it causes folks to retreat. From the outset of the class, you want to create an environment that welcomes discourse and provides some challenge to the students.
Deepening the conversation
My teaching style is heavily influenced by the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. Freire advocated for elimination of the traditional classroom where the teacher is the “banker” or possessor of knowledge and deposits funds of information into the empty minds of students. It is hard to break from “the banking method of education” in a lecture hall or when students are stuck in fixed rows. Though these setups may be convenient for viewing a blackboard, they privilege the professor—making the “banker” the sole focus and leading to the expectation that the professor will deposit knowledge. To invite dialogue, try to find a way to ditch the rows and move into a circle or a “U” where students can more easily engage each other.
Further, Freire advocated for dialogue and inspiring critical consciousness in students—particularly those from oppressed groups. To invite dialogue and inspire critical thought, you must resist lecturing—especially on the first day. Once you start students down the path of PowerPoint presentations, it will be tough to engage them in any meaningful discussion. I have found what many might believe to be an unlikely ally in helping to set the tone for difficult conversations around diversity and inclusion: punk rock.
On the first day of class, I will ask students to close their eyes—I might even dim the lights in the classroom. I ask them to relax and listen to the words of the song that will be the metaphor for our class. Then I play “Room Without a Window” by Operation Ivy, the late ’80s punk/ska band from Northern California. Usually, the students are shocked: the song is fast, the lyrics are yelled, and the music is loud. Further, they don’t expect that a Chicano professor would listen to punk.
I ask students for their impression of the song and typically get blank stares. I then lead the class through a line-by-line analysis of the song. You will need to ask questions to guide the conversation and ask follow-up questions for rationale for or implications of students’ interpretations. This sets the tone for the class, the expectation of dialogue, and the importance of critical thought. Students might want to critique entire sections of the song at a time, but it is important to resist this until the line-by-line analysis is complete.
The line-by-line analysis is like a conversation around diversity and inclusion. Too often people become uncomfortable in these types of conversations and look for the quick solution, not taking time to understand the complexity of thoughts and emotions being put forth. Without some discomfort, students will remain at a surface level in polite conversation, not uncovering the hidden systemic notions or the raw feelings, and not trying to detangle conflicting or seemingly unrelated notions. For dialogue around diversity and inclusion to be meaningful, students require extended time with these topics, insider perspectives into marginalization, understanding of systems of oppression, and time to process their feelings.
“Room Without a Window” is my disclaimer—that students will need to dig beneath the surface to practice critical thinking skills and that discussion is important for understanding diversity and inclusion. The song uses the metaphor of the mind as a “Room Without a Window,” closed to the opinions of others and entrenched in its own beliefs. Operation Ivy calls listeners to break out of their room without a view and to develop a more open and critical perspective. This last piece is particularly important to me, since only by being willing to listen and interact with others will students have successful dialogue on diversity and inclusion.
Numerous students have shared that they enjoyed this activity, that it made them excited about subsequent discussions and let them know that their voice would be valued in the class, and set a tone for deeper considerations of social systems of inequity. After this activity, I find that students are more willing to engage in the type of deep analysis that is required to understand systemic oppression and other important and difficult topics in our course. Additionally, students will begin to question me and each other—making for more rich and authentic dialogue. A student once shared that the song inspired her to examine her beliefs and find her “Room Without a Window” so that she could become a better ally to marginalized populations.
Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado is an associate professor in the counseling program at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. He is also the past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling & Development (2014-15).