Equity and Inclusive Teaching

Depending on where you work in higher education, you have likely noticed the word “equity” being used more and more regularly. Seeing equity become a central focus is to be celebrated; however, all of us have a commitment to ensure that our audiences understand what equity is so it doesn’t become another buzzword.

Equity-related efforts today are generally focused on eliminating the achievement gaps that exists between white/Asian students and students from disproportionately impacted groups. Equity-minded discussions recognize the increasing diversity among students in higher education and highlight the need to look at our own practices and improve what we are doing to meet the increasingly diverse needs of our students. As enrollments have decreased in recent years, most institutions are making a concerted effort to recruit more students — which means the demographics of the students your college or university serves is changing. And, as such, your institutional priorities and practices will need to adapt to ensure your students are successful.

This is work that access-oriented institutions have done for a very long time. When equity is a value, educators do not point fingers at our students. We do not accept the mindset that certain students aren’t prepared or aren’t capable of learning in a particular modality. Equity-minded educators recognize that students are prepared differently and see diversity as an asset to higher education, our workforce, and the future of our country. We recognize that students who enroll in college are here to reach their academic goals and it is our job to support them.

I am writing this post because as an effort to critically reflect on my own practices, join the public conversation about equity in higher ed, and encourage more people to do so. I am learning — we all are learning. Let’s do this together. I am doing difficult self-reflective work to recognize the pitfalls I have made in my own teaching and recognize how my privilege contributes to them. One thing I have recognized is that equity is not the same as equality. The goal of equality is to ensure all students are treated the same. Our existing culture of equality in higher education can actually undermines our efforts to achieve equity. When I started teaching, I had policies that I applied to all students. I remember saying to students, “I’m sorry. I cannot extend that due date for you, because it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the students in our class.” What I did not recognize at the time is that each student has different needs and equitable learning environments ensure each student has what they need to succeed. If I had been teaching then as an equity-minded educator, I would have listened carefully to the reasons behind a student’s request and recognize that learning is what matters, not meeting a due date. When we keep our eyes on treating all students the same, it means we expect all students to be the same. They are not and, as a result, we see students as through a deficit-based lens.

It is our job, as educators, to design environments that are inclusive. This means our students’ experiences are structured and clear, yet flexible and provide options (view this helpful Inclusive Teaching Guide by Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan for more context). Teaching has never been a priority in higher education. Professors with PhDs or Masters degrees are hired and then venture into the classroom usually with no instructional preparation whatsoever. Even in community colleges where faculty are hired to teach and have no research requirements, teaching can often fall to the wayside as committee work takes a front seat. But with equity as a central focus, teaching must be recognized as the key ingredient in improving student success.

Last year Kevin Gannon wrote a compelling article, The Case for Inclusive Teaching, in which he states:

Chances are, no matter your institutional setting, efforts are already underway to minimize the disparities that affect graduation rates of some minority-student groups. There is no shortage of proposed solutions: partnerships with local secondary schools, summer bridge programs, First-Year Experience programs, new student seminars built around a college success curriculum, expansion of developmental coursework, a stronger focus on diversity in student services and campus life — the list is an impressive one.

Yet when I survey the range of initiatives, I’m struck by what I don’t see: Where is the institutional emphasis on inclusive teaching? I’m not opposed to any of the measures I’ve listed above. I’ve participated in varieties of all of them and found them useful, rewarding, and occasionally quite powerful. But when it comes to closing the shameful gaps in college student success, we need to place pedagogy at the center of our efforts.

I am hopeful that equity-focused initiatives will result in more institutions supporting professional development for inclusive teaching — for face-to-face, blended, and online courses. I look forward to continuing the dialogue about the role of inclusive teaching in equity here on my blog, moving forward. I would love to connect with others who are researching the impact of inclusive teaching practices on equity gaps, as I begin a related research effort this fall (more to follow).

The Equality vs. Equity image is adapted from the work of Craig Frohle.

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