Reflections from Dr. Beverly Tatum: Strategies and Support for Promoting Inclusivity in the Classroom

Bev Tatum and Heidi Elmendorf

How do we build living and learning communities on our campus to help students benefit from diversity? How do we create structures to support underrepresented groups on campus without undermining them? How do we engage with race both pedagogically, as educators, and personally, as human beings? These are just some of the challenging questions that shaped the conversation between Dr. Beverly Tatum, President Emerita of Spelman College, and Dr. Heidi Elmendorf (Biology), Senior Advisor to the President for Equity in Education, during the 2018 Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) keynote plenary held this past May.

Tatum is an authority, if not the authority, on the psychology of racism, the impact of race in the classroom, and strategies for creating inclusive campus environments. During the keynote, Tatum shared her reflections from “Race and Other Conversations” in celebration of her recently published 20th anniversary edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Her book argues that while Americans are reluctant to talk about race, we must begin to examine the psychological effects of racial identity development. 

Engaging Students with Difference
As Tatum remarks in her book, we live in astonishingly homogeneous and hypersegregated communities. Beginning their conversation, 
Elmendorf indicated that by extension, at the heart of the dilemma of predominantly White institutions like Georgetown is the fact that for students arriving on campus from all over the country, Georgetown will likely be the most diverse community of which they will ever be a member. This means not only that students arrive having limited practice engaging with others who are different than themselves, but also that Georgetown is likely the last best opportunity for students to engage across lines of difference.

This dilemma underscores the importance of creating opportunities on campus for students to learn the skills of intergroup dialogue. One opportunity to do so is through A Different Dialogue, an initiative supported by CNDLS and Student Affairs that brings together undergraduate students to discuss promoting, fostering, and sustaining diversity on campus through dialogue.   

Actualizing the “ABCs”
A campus community must be attuned to what Tatum calls the “ABCs.” As both a call to action and a conceptual framework, these “ABCs” necessitate campuses to
Affirm identity, as all students want to see themselves reflected in the institution, Build community, and Cultivate leadership.

What do the “ABCs” look like in practice? How does an instructor build community for all students in a heterogeneous classroom? This question is especially applicable when thinking pragmatically about collaboration and group work in the lab setting, Elmendorf remarked of her own experience. The two speakers began to walk through the question of how to create heterogeneous groups for in-class work. Tatum shared a metacognitive strategy: “Tell people what you’re doing and why.” We know that diverse groups work more effectively and create better work, but grouping students across racial lines can be challenging. Tatum explained that in a class of, for example, 30 students, if three students are students of color, then the best strategy would be to cluster those three students together. The alternative strategy, isolating each minority student, risks what Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter deems “tokenizing.” This example hit home for Elmendorf, who remarked, “when you have a class of 200 students every fall, and you have underrepresented groups—dramatically underrepresented groups—those challenges
are real.”

Later, the conversation shifted to unconscious bias. The challenge of group work resurfaced, this time in the context of what to do when women of color are subject to stereotyping, such as being perceived to be less competent. “Naming the problem,” Tatum shared, “makes it harder to engage with the activity because it becomes conscious. This is true for most forms of unconscious bias.” Ijeoma Njaka, a graduate student in the Master’s Program in Learning and Design and CNDLS Graduate Associate, asked how we move past perceived roles and into productive dialogue when White students are often deemed the “listeners” and Black students the “teachers.”  

“There is a teacher and learner in every seat,” Tatum acknowledged. “You do have to push past the reluctance that White students often have to speak…Creating a space in the classroom where people can take risks—emotional and intellectual risks—is important, but that’s the challenge.” There are many different pedagogical strategies for pushing past performance anxieties that groups feel because they are worried about fulfilling a stereotype. For White students, this often comes in the form of a fear to speak honestly because, “we say racist things,” Tatum explained, nodding to Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work on the concept of White Fragility. Teaching strategies such as pair sharing and free-writing are especially helpful in these scenarios, Tatum added.

Finding Support and Resources Through CNDLS
CNLDS is committed to supporting faculty who are tackling these difficult issues. We offer faculty many resources for implementing active learning strategies, including a set of online resources as part of our Teaching Commons, and in-person consultations with our staff. On
The Teaching Commons, instructors can find additional resources related to teaching, including tools for designing courses, examples of implementation by faculty, and suggestions for further reading.

As part of CNDLS’s larger initiative on Inclusive Pedagogy, a student-centered approach to teaching that pays attention to the varied background, learning styles, and abilities of all the learners in front of you, CNDLS offers an Inclusive Pedagogy Workshop Series and set of Inclusive Teaching Resources that help faculty scaffold difficult conversations around difference. We’re also always happy to meet with you in person during a one-on-one consultation. Reach out to us!