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Taking on the Equity Imperative in Our Teaching

By Hannah Miller, Graduate student, Michigan State University, and 2015 K. Patricia Cross scholar

As a K. Patricia Cross Scholar, 2015 is my first year of participation in the AAC&U Annual Meeting. I was intrigued to see “Equity Imperative” on the cover of the program, and keen to know how this message would be conveyed at the meeting. In Thursday morning’s opening plenary, Eric Liu spoke directly to this issue, eloquently challenging us to examine key structural barriers to the achievement of the equity imperative. He posed three questions:

-Who is us”?

-What is liberal education for?

-Is democracy done?

In exploring these questions, Liu addressed visible social phenomena around the globe that give us pause in our quest for equity: increasing visibility of anti-immigration movements; the necessity of #BlackLivesMatter in the year 2015; a virulent strain of “identity fundamentalism”; a quest for national, religious, and racial “purity; an overconfidence in the logic of the market; a disengaged citizenry. Education, as Liu suggests, is for making citizens. In this reflection, I offer a few suggestions about how we as teachers and instructors can take on Liu’s challenge in the classroom.

First, if we want to prepare our students for citizenship in the messy and sometimes gridlocked social and political system that is democracy, we need to foster a similar messiness in our classrooms. We must reject the efficiency of instructional dictatorship, and instead embrace the challenge of bringing all students’ voices to the table. This is our challenge, even though we may feel unprepared to help our students navigate their way through an interrogation of their ideas, and a reflection on the consequences of those ideas in their communities and society.

Second, we must hold our students accountable for using the knowledge they co-construct in our classrooms to make the change they want to see in the world. Voting, while important, is an individualistic way of making our voices heard and participating in a democracy. It requires neither debate nor discussion. It is private. How do we encourage our students to look for opportunities for civic engagement that holds their ideas up to interrogation? This level of public participation can be scary for our students, but is surely integral to their introduction to navigating large, complex systems.

Finally, the equity imperative demands that we know our students. Liu ended his speech by saying that when we leave this meeting, we will return to our campuses, and it is there that we will make local impacts on the lives of our students and the streets of our communities. In order to know the contexts in which we are preparing our students to engage in citizenship, we must be there. We must know the structural barriers to change they face in their own spaces. To be there for our students—both physically and empathetically—is surely a first step in our own attempt to meet the equity imperative of AAC&U.