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Teaching a Diverse Student Body

Characteristics of Personal Identity

Photo by John Baughman

Multiple variables influence an individual student’s behaviors and attitudes. These overlapping categories of identity include, but are not limited to, characteristics such as gender, race, ethnic group, social class, region of origin, religion, and level of ability. We need to be careful, of course, that generalizations about our students’ behavior do not substitute one set of assumptions for another. Although groups who have characteristics in common often share norms of behavior, attitudes, or speaking styles, not every person endorses these views. It is important to remember that some “[m]inority groups draw great strength and character from racial, religious, or national solidarity” (Brookfield and Preskill 131), but that not all members of these groups identify with them. Some people of color, for example, do not experience strong cultural affiliations, and many biracial students prefer not to identify with a particular race. Furthermore, even those who do identify with a particular group will not share the same thoughts or actions. Assuming all members of a group think alike robs people of their individuality.

In short, though the following sections focus on issues particular to certain groups, we do not mean to suggest that homogeneity exists within any of these groups. The complexity of ethnic groups in the US challenges concepts such as ethnic learning styles or the ability to identify racial or ethnic group membership by physical characteristics or behavior (Banks 155). Rather than assuming that our students learn in only one style or another, we need to learn to recognize the differing ways in which students learn. By structuring our classes to include a variety of modes of learning, all the students in the course will be able to learn effectively. Being aware of some of the issues facing members of particular groups helps make us sensitive to the pressures faced by many students while treating each student as a whole person rather than as a stereotype.

Race or Ethnicity
The biracial and multiracial student population is increasing significantly, as are all groups of color. In fact, if current trends continue, the US Census projects that groups of color will make up about 47% of the nation’s population by 2050 (Banks xxi). The categories of race and ethnicity apply to more than just students of color, however. All students enter the classroom with an ethnic and racial identity, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even though “race” is a contested term biologically, it is still used in daily interactions as a way to “categorize people according to certain visual or accented language traits to ‘mark’ them as racially/ethnically distinct” (Tatum 4). Given the social history of the United States, we cannot quickly discount “race” as a special factor in some of our students’ development. All of our students bring their histories into our classrooms. Some of these histories can be problematic, because for many people of color “racism and cultural bigotry remain pervasive” (Brookfield and Preskill 129).
Life is often stressful for students of color on predominantly white campuses. Many times the power and presence of racism in this setting is underestimated (Tatum 77). People of color often feel overlooked, made representative for their race or ethnic group, or attacked personally or by association, while whiteness remains an invisible or normative category. Research even indicates that many instructors “communicate negative feelings to students of color and have a disproportionate number of negative verbal and nonverbal interactions with them” (Haberman; Irvine; Zeichner & Hoeft). These negative interactions include ignoring students of color, challenging them less often during discussion or problem-solving sessions, counseling them to take less-advanced courses in mathematics or science, and even accusing those who do well of cheating (a phenomenon also known as “spotlighting”). Such lack of attention and lower expectations from a succession of teachers can cause students of color to feel alienated from their academic environment and to have diminished confidence in their abilities.
One way to combat these feelings of alienation, isolation or tokenism is to establish positive facultystudent relations with all of your students. Studies indicate that “relationships with faculty are one of the most effective predictors of student outcomes” for black students on largely white campuses (Watson 79). Positive relationships lead to lower levels of alienation and higher retention and graduation rates. Another way to create a supportive environment is to acknowledge and address differences in the classroom and provide course material or examples that draw from a wide variety of cultures and experiences. Color-blindness is not the goal of a multicultural education, but awareness and appreciation of unique individuals is. As mentioned earlier, it is also important to realize that vast differences exist between the various cultures lumped together under such words as “ethnic,” “minority,” or “students of color.” All African-American students, for example, do not know each other, nor do they all speak alike, think alike, or have similar life experiences. Similarly, Asian-American students may exhibit very different reactions and backgrounds than African-American students. Student behaviors or attitudes may also differ widely according to gender, social class, their specific cultural group, and even how long ago their families immigrated to the US.
To a learner whose home culture differs from the one dominant in many university classrooms, unspoken expectations of classroom interaction and communication-how one gets the floor, shows deference, concurs or disagrees, etc.-may seem confusing, alienating, or unfair. If we remain unaware of such possible cultural influences, they can cause misunderstandings in the classroom. For example, in many cultures (including Asian and Latino/a), silence before one’s superiors, indirection in expressing one’s thoughts, and avoiding direct eye contact all signal respect for authority. Students from such cultures may hesitate to speak out in class, to address the teacher’s ideas directly, or to state strongly their ideas in writing. Thus, a professor might consider a Latino student who avoids eye contact during discussion as “apathetic” or “indifferent,” while the student might simply be conforming to culturally delineated patterns of respect (Collett 178). On the other hand, the teacher’s continued eye contact, meant to elicit comments or signal interest in the student’s ideas, may make the student uncomfortable since a direct gaze could indicate either a direct confrontation (if directed to the same sex), or an attempt at seduction (if directed between the sexes). On neither side would the assumptions be correct. In general, increasing your knowledge about and sensitivity to ethnic, racial, and cultural groups other than your own will help you become a better teacher.

Because much research has been conducted on gender dynamics in education, we have included this information in a separate section. See chapter II for more on this topic.

Social Class 
In the United States, social class remains an unspoken, largely invisible social characteristic (Brookfield and Preskill 143). The American myth of a classless society, where the issue of class is forgotten or is subsumed under issues of race, often holds sway at universities as well. At U.Va., in-state students who transfer from Piedmont Virginia Community College and other local two-year community colleges and who come from working-class backgrounds comprise an easily overlooked underrepresented group. Such students, who may be slightly older than their counterparts, often perceive a difference between their class origins and identities and those of many of their instructors and peers. As a result, many working-class students suffer from anxiety over whether their performance in this new environment is adequate, from feelings of condescension from other students, and from feelings of social and academic isolation. By contrast, students with middle-class upbringings are often the least aware of class status, have a better sense of how to negotiate the university system, and tend to assume that if they work hard they will succeed (Warren 1998, 1).
Because the educational quality of American high schools varies widely according to geographical location, which is itself tied to class, some rural or inner-city students may enter our classrooms less educationally experienced and with less confidence in their abilities than other students. To respond effectively to such students, we must understand their lack of experience as an effect of class and school quality and as the reflection of a lack of educational experience, not of inherent ability. Because most instructors, even those who also come from a working-class background, hold an “idea of appropriate forms of classroom discourse…much closer to middle-class than working-class norms” (Brookfield and Preskill 145), they may rely on academic conventions or forms of speech that are disorienting and even intimidating to working-class students. One way to relieve student anxiety is to acknowledge and encourage a wide range of speaking forms, while being explicit about codes of discourse you or other students find offensive or too informal (e.g., excessive cursing, unfamiliar slang, etc.). Most importantly, don’t mock, even affectionately, a student’s preferred mode of talking. Other ways to address class-based differences include the following (Warren):

  • Help students learn “how to play the game.” Be very explicit about rules of operation and norms for your class and for the university.
  • Let students know how their work ranks, why it is adequate or not (or why some of the work is adequate and some is not), and what you think they can do in the future.
  • Acknowledge and discuss class differences. Point out value-laden language or class-based differences in discussion.

Sexual Orientation/Gender Identification
It is easy to ignore the presence of what Laurie Crumpacker calls the “invisible minority” of gay and lesbian students in our classrooms (qtd. in Chism 26), since such students must choose whether to make their orientation known to us and their classmates. This very choice is both the product and the source of special difficulties. Lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and questioning students face overt hostility and rejection and the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes. To complicate matters further, this hostile climate exists while students may be struggling to come to terms with their sexual identities. No matter when such students may have discovered their sexual identity, they face the particular difficulty of “coming out” in a potentially hostile college environment, a social environment that still condones prejudiced remarks about sexual orientation that it no longer condones about race or gender. Techniques such as these can help you create a supportive environment for students:

  • Don’t assume that all students are heterosexual.
  • Don’t give assignments that force lesbian and gay students either to lie or to “come out” to the class. For example, in courses that use personal essays or discuss personal experience, be cautious about giving assignments or calling on students in a way that forces them to describe their social life (such as “Describe your ideal date” or asking a female student to “tell me about your boyfriend” or a male student to “tell me about your girlfriend”). If you do give such an assignment, give an alternative topic as well.
  • Don’t ignore homophobic remarks made in your classroom. In class, students may make remarks concerning sexual orientation that they would never make concerning race or gender. Such a reaction seems to be particularly common in firstyear students and can occur more often in certain disciplines (such as psychology, English composition, and foreign language) where students’ personal reactions to controversial subjects are often discussed. A less explicit uneasiness about issues of sexual orientation may also occur. Students may balk, for instance, at discussing texts that contain the term “lesbian” or that discuss gay issues. Ignoring such comments only perpetuates the problem. Instead, explain in clear terms why you find such comments objectionable or engage the class in a brief discussion about the negative effects such comments may have. For more tips on how to deal with a discussion that becomes heated or out of hand, see chapter IV, “Dealing with Conflicts.”

The increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our society brings with it an increasing religious diversity. Many religious students go through their college years feeling at odds with the basic structure of their institutions. For example, while universities tend to be closed on important Christian holidays, such as Christmas, almost all universities hold classes on the important religious holidays of non-Christian students, such as the Eid ul Fitr at the end of Ramadan or Yom Kippur. It is usually up to faculty and TAs to make individual arrangements in order not to place students who wish to attend services on these days at an inherent disadvantage. To relieve this problem, make it clear that you will honor important religious holidays without lowering your attendance standards. You can consult the Interfaith Calendar website ( for schedules of religious holidays to locate ones that occur during instructional time. You might also announce in your syllabus that students who ask to miss classes because of important religious holidays will not be penalized, but that they must notify you well ahead of time and make up the work.
Religious differences, as well as the general differences between non-religious and religious students, reflect one of the deepest divisions in contemporary American society and one of the most problematic for the college classroom. Such splits occur throughout the university but are particularly apparent in disciplines such as philosophy and religious studies. Since religious beliefs (along with many fundamental beliefs that people hold dear) cannot be proven by the strict bounds of logic, how do we talk about them in our classrooms? What do we do, for instance, when a student’s faith collides with the material presented? Such difficult questions may never be easily addressed. Yet if we acknowledge such differing viewpoints, we can become more effective teachers. We can lead our students through one of the most difficult, but most important, issues in the diverse classroom-how to acknowledge and respectfully examine vastly different beliefs. As you prepare to do so, consider the following suggestions:

  • Don’t criticize any religion or religious belief if such criticism is not important to the course material. When it is, use a tone and choice of words that show respect for those who hold those beliefs or practice that religion.
  • When possible, allow your students alternate but equivalent assignments on topics that might offend them. For instance, examples of contemporary student behavior that assume all students are sexually active may offend those celibate for cultural or religious reasons. Similarly, the type of assignment discussed in the section on sexual orientation, such as “describe your ideal date,” can also produce anxiety or resistance in religious students from cultures where dating is uncommon (such as traditional Islamic cultures).
  • Make a clear distinction for your students between faith and proof. Acknowledge students’ beliefs in subjects they feel strongly about, but challenge unwarranted or illogical assumptions.
  • Emphasize dialogue and collaborative thinking. Try using the word “suppose” (or words to that effect) to introduce ideas that might seem challenging to some students’ belief systems and to keep the conversation open.