I believe that people are able to learn and grow best when they feel like they belong. Feeling comfortable allows students who otherwise might feel out of place to know that their contributions are worthy. Feeling like they belong allows them the confidence to make mistakes and to learn from them rather than cower from them.
Early in my college career, I began to consider the paramount role that faculty members play in promoting inclusiveness. A few weeks into the fall semester of my freshman year, my Latin professor found me sitting on the floor outside of our classroom, waiting for another class to adjourn. At that point in the semester, I felt utterly out of place at my small school hundreds of miles away from home. I was a first-generation college student from a rural area seemingly surrounded by people who liked opera and fencing. To my surprise, instead of chatting with a colleague or walking away, my professor sat on the floor with me. That simple act of meeting me where I was made me feel at ease – made me feel at home. By treating me as a neighbor and colleague rather than simply as a student, he helped me to feel like I belonged and that my presence in the community was valuable.
As an instructor, now I try to do the same for all my students who may feel out of place so that they might benefit fully from their academic opportunities. In addition to sitting on the floor when the occasion arises, I build comfort into my classrooms in a few different ways, namely through incorporating multiple learning styles into my instruction, building interdisciplinary connections, focusing on mistakes, and articulating clear expectations.
Incorporating multiple learning styles into my instruction builds multiple entryways into the conversation of each class, relieving the pressure that many students otherwise feel for their contributions to be “perfect” and instead encouraging collaboration with their peers and with myself. In addition to using traditional techniques such as lecturing and small group work, for example, I often encourage my students to carry their conversations beyond the classroom by requiring them to blog on class websites about their readings and current events. After students exchange ideas outside of the four walls of the classroom, they feel more comfortable speaking up inside them. Furthermore, I have published on the value of kinesthetic learning in college classrooms, and I regularly build these sorts of activities into my lesson plans. A simple but effective one is “Snowball,” in which I ask students to write their answers to a discussion question on slips of paper. After the students have finished, I ask them to crumple up their papers and throw them at each other or into the air. I love the brief moment of hesitation before the cascade of “snowballs” begins. Throwing the balls of paper around for a few seconds mixes up the responses so that they are anonymous, and it also quickly injects a bit of energy into the room. When I call time, each student must unfurl and read an answer from someone else. We then discuss the original question, but the students must answer according to their chosen slips of paper instead of their own opinions. The anonymity encourages shy students to speak up, and it promotes empathy in everyone, as the students must respectfully explain why others might think differently than they do.
In addition to using multiple pedagogical techniques, I layer multiple perspectives into my instruction. This allows students to connect the abstract concepts of international relations to familiar ideas, building ease into what otherwise could be esoteric conversations. Oftentimes this is accomplished simply through using quotidian examples, such as discussing theories of decision-making in terms of making dinner plans. I also value the use of popular culture to discuss political processes; examples include discussing anarchy by pairing a reading from Hobbes with an episode of The Twilight Zone and using a sketch from the comedy series Key & Peele to explain identity in constructivism. More traditional interdisciplinary viewpoints also have strong standing in my classes, whether from psychiatrists discussing fear and trauma in the Cold War, or philosophers examining the use of drones. This diversity of perspectives, like the use of multiple pedagogical styles, gives students multiple entryways into the conversation.
Helping students to feel comfortable in the classroom is largely important because it frees students to ask more questions and to take more academic risks, fueling both creativity and understanding. In short, the inclusion that I engender in the classroom lessens students’ fears of making mistakes. Another of the ways in which I promote this space is through discussing policy mistakes in all of my courses. I believe that an integral part of entering full citizenship is grappling with the imperfection of political actors; contextualizing decision makers as people, flawed like everyone else, allows students to move beyond the easy rhetoric of good/bad and right/wrong and into the gray reality of incentives, perceptions, and cognition. This progression also prods them to contextualize their own mistakes. For example, at the end of my U.S. National Security course, I ask students to identify national security mistakes from the past in essays that force them to justify their choices, explain why the mistakes were made, and assess whether alternative policies were viable. This assignment pushes students to consider constraints on policymakers and to assess whether “perfect” policy options ever really exist. Additionally, I often create in-class simulations in which students make mistakes so that we can discuss the incentive structures that can lead to failure. When discussing the effects of domestic politics on foreign policy, for example, I assign students to different bureaucratic organizations in the American government and give them different scraps of intelligence about a fictional impending crisis. Inevitably, the groups guard their organizational information and positions fiercely, competing with the other students even though they ostensibly all answer to the same “president.” Afterwards, when I prompt them to discuss their behavior, they understand how bureaucratic politics can lead to policy mistakes. Understanding why even highly accomplished people in positions of power can have missteps promotes a more mature understanding of politics and a more realistic context for personal failings; these more accurate perspectives on mistakes then encourage a sense of equality and belonging for students.
Finally, I have learned in my teaching career thus far that one of the most straightforward ways to relieve students’ anxieties is to set and uphold clear, albeit high, expectations. In all my courses, I provide grading rubrics for assignments and detail the format and requirements for exams, for example. The fact that many instructors practice these steps does not make their impact any less significant. Though simple, providing as much transparency as possible around grading helps students who feel unsure of their position in the community to identify clear and attainable steps toward success in the classroom.
Creating that sense of inclusiveness and belonging within the classroom is the principle around which I structure my teaching. My personal and professional experiences inform both its importance and the role that educators play in creating it.