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The Equity Imperative in Our Classrooms Part II: Safety and Discomfort in Transformation

PhD Candidate, Michigan State University, and 2015 K. Patricia  Cross Scholar

A powerful theme that emerged on the final day of AAC&U’s Annual Meeting is the need to make our academic spaces “safe and uncomfortable.” This striking coupling of ideas prompts my reflection on three clear calls I heard over the course of the conference for safety and discomfort in the liberal education experience, both for the teacher and the learner.

In the breakfast session “The Road to Change: Reflections on Transformative Leadership,” Mildred Garcia, president of California State University–Fullerton, challenged us to embrace our intersectionalities—those elements of difference within ourselves— and use these unique identities as a frame through which to speak up and work for the change we want to see in our institutions. Because change inevitably means rejection of the status quo, this requires determination in the face of conflict. One result? Discomfort. Another result? Transformation. The first, it seems, is a prerequisite of all of the benefits and energizing renovations of the second.

Putting these transformative attitudes into real classroom practice was the challenge given by Pat Lowrie (Michigan State University) and Gertrude Fraser (University of Virginia) in a standing-room-only session titled “Culturally Responsive, Inclusive Pedagogies for the Future.”  Here, we were invited to share strategies for creating educational spaces that are responsive to our students. For example, when spontaneous issues emerge that take our students’ attention— cases of campus sexual harassment, shootings, racial injustice—how does a chemistry or history professor make space in her classroom for students to manage these immediate concerns? And when that space is made, how do we facilitate the discussions to ensure our students’ safety and growth? During the session, participant Alison Williams (Oberlin College) pointed out that one reason such moments can be difficult is that bullies emerge; indeed, in the absence of thoughtful facilitation by the instructor, the same power structures that these conversations aim to expose and deconstruct can be reproduced. Our challenge? Be bold enough to abandon the day’s schedule and meet the students where they are, and make sure everyone has a voice. Transform the classroom.

The facilitators of “Pedagogy and the Big Questions” invited participants to share “war stories” of confrontations between their students’ deeply held values and the content of our courses. Ravi Gupta (Utah State University) asked us to consider our role as professors when our students (for example) refuse to read a play because the content requires a questioning of faith or an exposure to a different faith, or when they deny climate change, reject conversations about race by declaring a post-racial society, or claim their privilege is earned through merit. When students opt out because of a deeply held value, we have only one choice: we embrace them. We listen. We invite them to share their ideas. Hearing a future science teacher call climate change a hoax in my classroom makes me cringe, but if that student hadn’t felt comfortable sharing this perspective, how could I be begin to help him explore these ideas further? Safety will ensure we hear the story in the first place, and discomfort—for both teacher and learner—will ensure the story doesn’t end there.

The unifying call of these sessions is for a liberal education that encourages transformation and challenge, one that produces the intellectual disquiet that results in change and renewal. And the weight of responsibility to create this space is itself, of course, a profoundly uncomfortable one. Making students secure while challenging them to struggle with genuine tensions is no small task, but it is certainly our charge as educators. Because after all, as the meeting’s opening night panel made so eloquently clear, though a liberal undergraduate education should be accessible and safe, it should certainly not be comfortable.