Equity in the Classroom

Written by Rhonda Semple, this article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of The Beacon.

September is welcomed by most academics with a mixture of excitement about the promise of new courses and fresh minds, and the resignation that not all (or any) of our great new assignments will work as planned and that the grading will keep us way too busy to do as much writing as we’d like.

Alongside those mixed emotions arrive additional yearly events. While we had an Equity Advisor – a position that has been quietly vacant since last Spring – that person would suggest to Faculty that we include a statement of support in our syllabi for creating an equitable learning environment in our classrooms. In the past couple of years this practice of advocating for classroom equity is seemingly more formally supported by our institution as evidenced by the fact that the reminder is now sent out by administrators – at first by our respective Deans and latterly through the office of our A-VP and Provost. Certainly CAUT and our own union support policies of Equity and Inclusion.

Supporting Equity demands that we not reify any one point of view but it in no way proposes that we instead either uncritically ignore difference or accept all perspectives equally. It does acknowledge that when we sharpen the tools of our respective disciplines with diverse cultural and individual perspectives we develop richer understandings of the sort of complex and important questions that deserve to be asked. As a historian it is clear that the inclusion of race, gender and class analysis over the past 50 years has enhanced, not replaced the important arguments made by the political, military and religious historians that dominated past practice. A recent article in The Atlantic offers evidence drawn from several studies that female science students continue to have to out-perform their male peers to achieve recognition for their work, and that the fewer female instructors that teach them also face systematic biases in their evaluations.

And this matters in institutions of higher learning. Acknowledging the various perspectives our students bring to our classrooms is no threat to thinking; not only can we still dig in and ask tough questions, but in fact we benefit from the opportunity of hearing each other, and hearing difficult challenges to deeply held values. As Joanne Tompkins argued at our teaching workshop a few days ago, what a learning space constructed on equitable principles does is create a ‘safe space’ where ‘unsafe ideas’ can be explored – where students can respectfully recognize and acknowledge that privilege – of race, ability, gender – and the lack of privilege impacts all aspects of life and learning. It will be uncomfortable, but ideally we can move past ‘judging’ that reality and focus on understanding it and reshaping it. It will be uncomfortable, but model open enquiry and be prepared to be challenged and to meet the challenge. By that we teach, and through that we all learn.

What might this look like? One of most simple yet meaningful acts you can adopt is to have students tell you their names at the beginning of class rather than you reading out their names from the class list. Doing so this year evened the playing ground in terms of my pronunciation of names, and it avoided me ‘outing’ any student that may have or may be in the process of transitioning, or that might gender-identify in a manner I might not immediately recognize. Ask students to let you know which personal pronouns you should use for them. This might matter to only one student in ten years of teaching (I bet there’s more but you don’t know) but for that person your choice could be profound.[1]


1 As I wrote this I was influenced by the storm of reaction to the letter John Ellison, Dean of Students at University of Chicago, wrote to incoming students refuting the value of ‘safe spaces’.