By Crystal Bruxvoort, Davi Chang Ribeiro Lin, Olga Nakato Mugerwa, and David I. Smith
Early in his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer comments that “we belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”1 This short sentence undercuts a variety of common bases for the experience of community. We like to get together with people who are like us, people who affirm us, people who share our ethnicity, our politics, our taste in music, our level of wealth, our status, our prejudices. None of these, Bonhoeffer reminds us, are a valid basis for Christian community. We belong to one another through what Christ has done. If that means I find myself bound together with folk who would not be my first choice of companion, the problem is not whom God called into his kingdom, but whether I can love my neighbor in response to that call instead of in response to my own inclinations.
Classrooms are not the same thing as churches, but Bonhoeffer’s statement invites some parallel reflections. When we teach and learn, we are bound together by that task and calling, and my teaching decisions should not be based on my liking for particular students, their willingness to flatter me, or how well they serve my convenience. If I make teaching choices that make it easier for the students whom I like, or who are most like me, or who respond most favorably to my desires, or have the nicest clothes to succeed in their learning, I am shifting the basis for educational access away from its proper home. I move that basis away from the worth of students as made in God’s image, their need and calling to learn, and my calling as a teacher to serve all of my learners. If we want to approach a classroom through the lens of Christian community, this may have less to do with warm feelings of camaraderie and more to do with whether the least are served, whether the poor are blessed, whether we can take fallible steps toward being the servant of all (even in class, even in exams) in imitation of the God who does not show favoritism.
There will always be differences among students in classrooms, and some will always find learning more challenging than others. Favoritism sets in when we create or magnify those differences based on personal preference or convenience or by reinforcing social divisions in our environment. This can happen out of overt ill will, but it often happens because we have simply not thought through the consequences of the practices that seem most convenient to us. Some forms of favoritism cast an obvious shadow: if a teacher, for instance, bestows good grades on students to whom they are attracted, or shares insider jokes with the students who come from their own cultural group, or visibly favors the students who decide to major in his or her discipline. But there are also forms of favoritism that require more reflection and more specific planning if we want to avoid them. What kind of class attendance policy might disadvantage a student struggling with a chronic health concern, physical or mental? How might grades for oral participation in class affect students who are introverted, or who were shaped in cultures where speaking up in class is not encouraged, or are not native speakers of the class’s shared language? What do my deadlines assume about the flexibility of students’ time and how much of it they have? How might the lack of easy access that some students have to transportation or the need of some students to work evening shifts or take care of children and domestic chores while they study intersect with the way we design tasks, projects, deadlines? How might students experiencing poverty experience an activity or illustrative examples that assume shared affluence? How might my course design, the learning activities that I offer, or the physical layout of my room interact with specific abilities and disabilities?
The authors of this post teach in very different contexts in different parts of the world – Brazil, Uganda, and the United States. Crystal Bruxvoort started our conversation with a list of questions about how teaching choices might privilege some students over others based on criteria outside of students’ willingness or capacity to learn. The rest of us added to the list with our own students in mind. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but the discipline of asking such questions and thinking through their consequence can, if it becomes a regular practice, help us to spot the next important question, and then the one after, and to take the time to modify our teaching practices in response. We suggest taking some time to think through each question by asking what kinds of resources the instructor is assuming students have available, and which student might lack those resources, and then considering what other kinds of privilege and disadvantage might be present among your own students.
Here is our starting list of questions.
Which of my students might be privileged and which might be disadvantaged if I…
…require my students to turn in online homework or do online research outside school hours?
…create a course which relies heavily on one type of test item, such as essay only or multiple choice only?
…allow students to take an exam outside of regularly scheduled class time?
…assign collaborative activities but do not offer class time for the collaboration to take place?
…teach my class on the assumption that all students have the same baseline knowledge, visual acuity, or mobility?
…assign readings based on articles that resonate with me and scholars familiar to me?
…create an assignment that is due the next day?
…do not take into account the forms of non-academic support available or needed for each student?
…do not take time to think about my learners – Who are they? Where are they from? What are they struggling with or trying to cope with? Why are they here?
…adjust marking schemes or grades for results that reflect better on me as a teacher?
…do not adequately think through and communicate expectations for the course (resources, mode of access, expected behaviors, etc.)?
…make no space for self-directed learning with guided support, or for skills application through community engagement or project work?
…do not respond promptly to student requests relating to their ability to access course technologies?
…place relevant class content on the board or screen at a fast, “not-wasting time” pace?
…react to students’ answers by disregarding average or divergent ones and praising the perfectly expected answer?
…focus primarily on class activities that maximize talkative large group engagement?
…use examples that resonate with my own social/racial/economic context but disregard other contexts?
…require from students a stable internet connection for live class participation or teach online without planning time for reiteration and interruptions?
We can consider many of these questions simply from the standpoint of whether they are helpful approaches to teaching and learning, but here we are pointing to a more specific question: in each case, how might the backgrounds, experiences, and life constraints of particular students in our classes interact with these choices in such a way that we have created barriers for some more than for others? And how far are those differences grounded in our own convenience? It may often be a challenge to find solutions that help every student. Nevertheless, the discipline of asking ourselves whom we are favoring and why, and listening to the experiences of other members of our community, can help us lay bare where our teaching makes straight paths for some to learn but steep inclines for others and keeps ourselves at the center.