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There has been a push in education theory lately, and amongst administrators familiar with the area, to make sure that educators act intentionally to be more “culturally responsive” in the way they design their courses, lessons, classrooms, and even pedagogical interactions. In this post, I’ll talk about a couple of things I’ve done via course design make my teaching more culturally responsive, i.e. to meet students where they’re at, to minimize evaluation based on irrelevant skill sets, and to remove barriers to learning that are often part of introductory college courses. While the discussion will use a philosophy intro class as a concrete case for illustrative purposes, the principles and strategies can be readily be applied to similar courses in the humanities, and, I hope, beyond.

Using alternative literacies and removing educational barriers

One way to remove educational barriers is simply to place most or all course materials online. Today’s student tends to be extremely adept at using complex technology and social media tools to navigate the world and their relationships, even — and perhaps especially — students from lower-income homes, who often have internet access, even if they live in school districts with limited or no access to libraries, print materials, etc. According to an article in Wired by Emily Dreyfuss, “The vast majority of Americans use the internet every day—88 percent according to the Pew Research Center. In 2016, three quarters of all Americans owned a smartphone, with lower-income people and people over the age of 50 accounting for much of the most recent growth.” In culturally responsive teaching terms, then, familiarity with and competence using the internet and its various social tools constitutes an “alternative literacy” which educators ought to seek to use in their pedagogy, rather than a form of illiteracy they ought to discourage. Placing course materials online both maximizes this use of alternative literacy and increases access for students with financial barriers.

In one class I recently taught, I replaced the paper syllabus with a class homepage which serves as an interactive syllabus. On the site, the course is broken down into pages corresponding with each day of class. Every assigned text, and every assignment is included on the website as a distinct link, so students can confidently navigate every aspect of the course on their own terms, whenever they’d like, and with full confidence that they’re not missing any readings or assignments.

Generating and using experience-affirming content

Another valuable way to reach all of your students while removing barriers to learning is to give students leadership in discussion settings in a way that draws out and emphasizes the value of their experiences. If you’re teaching a course that would traditionally have instructor-led discussion sections, which risk introducing or reinforcing unhelpful pedagogical stereotypes and mimicking unhelpful power dynamics, you might think about replacing these with more student-led discussions, and could even implement a formal program like “Sustained Dialogue.” Sustained Dialogue is a program that was developed to help groups of students engage in meaningful conversations about hot-button issues on college campuses. One of the things I like best about the Sustained Dialogue model, which is explicitly designed to last for one semester, is that it grounds conversations about big questions in the experiences and backgrounds of those in the group, and it proceeds on the assumption that deep dialogue needs to be rooted in mutual understanding and personal relationships. In this way, then, the students’ own experiences and background become relevant content for the course. This allows me as the instructor to reflect and emphasize the value of those experiences in course materials and assignments, and in a way that doesn’t depend on my own potentially biased or misinformed assumptions about where my students are coming from or what will or should be most important to them.

By drawing on alternative (and sometimes non-dominant and non-standard) literacies, and focusing on content that reflects and affirms the value of their backgrounds and personal experiences, these design elements aim to not only enhance the philosophy classroom experience, but also empower students to use philosophical tools, like informal reasoning and argumentation, to conceptualize and collectively respond to social problems in their communities.

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