Inclusivity in the Learning Environment: Reflective Practices to Consider

picture of child holding an apple with an equal symbol carved into it.

"We must teach the children of the world equality, peace, and love (CC)" by Purple Sherbet Photography. (https://flic.kr/p/hjK35T)

Library instructional spaces are often difficult to characterize, given the unique challenges that are inherent to the work. You usually have one shot, one chance to simultaneously orient learners to the library system, successfully root them within the context of the lesson, and (by way of delivering a great session) convince them to come back to the space another time. This is a lot to ask of librarians and library instructors; in most cases, it’s difficult to accomplish the above feats given other environmental challenges. Whether you’re suffering from limited amounts of workshop preparation time, less than stellar facilities, or malfunctioning technology right before that workshop begins, there are a myriad of concerns instructors have to think about when delivering sessions.

With all of the challenges one has to navigate, it’s no surprise that things like inclusivity fall through the cracks when prepping for and delivering sessions. Or perhaps for some, it’s thought about in a peripheral sense; important, but maybe not as central to the workshop as they’d like it to be. However, those same communities we’re instructing? It’s essential to them. In fact, I’d say it’s very much an essential part of the way that many of them navigate their world. For example, March 31st marked the sixth annual celebration of the International Transgender Day of Awareness; transgender individuals across the world took to social media, posting images and stories that chronicled diverse journeys of self-discovery and personal empowerment. The movement sought to make a largely invisible group visible; to create community and spread awareness of what trans identity means in a world fraught with danger for trans-identified persons. One month prior to this, the #BlackOutDay (or #Blackout, for short) movement spread through Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media sites with the goal of showcasing powerful narratives surrounding blackness and identity within today’s society. These and other empowering movements serve to remind us that personal identity and representation matter in every space; seeing oneself reflected shouldn’t be limited to one day, but woven throughout the personal and professional landscapes that we traverse.  

Most of us want to be inclusive, and we want every learner to feel accommodated in our sessions. As a profession, we champion “diversity” – diverse librarians and library professionals, targeting diverse audiences, challenging normative status quos in favor of progressive change; it’s threaded throughout everything that we do. Still, how exactly do you begin to incorporate such practices into the library’s educational spaces? Or, what’s more, how do we fold those values into our personal and professional praxis? How might we embody the change we speak of, emboldened with the desire to allow learners at the margins to really see themselves reflected in the instructional space?

There are some things that are already being done here at Michigan that reaffirm those ideals. I once observed a workshop where the instructor began their lesson by introducing themselves in this way: “Hi! My name is X, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers.” This instructor did not identify as trans, but felt that usage of pronouns made the classroom space more inclusive for those who might; this small gesture helped normalize the notion of gender identification and pronoun usage, removing it from the realm of something only ‘x’ group has the burden of doing. While it may not be universally perceived as beneficial, this certainly creates opportunities to embody those professional values in one’s personal practices. Further, studies confirm that collaborative teaching and awareness of intersectionality also help establish inclusive learning environments. This is largely due to the fact that “the process of working with a collaborator—communicating, reflecting, and analyzing—in a team teaching situation should deepen each individual’s awareness of how social identities impact educational spaces” (Pliner et. al. 45). Collaborative teaching is a widely used practice throughout MLibrary, which bodes well for ensuring that learners are exposed to a variety of different perspectives during the workshop. Still, “it is critical that each collaborator recognize when socially constructed ideas (e.g., stereotypes, privilege) are infiltrating collaborative thought processes and actions and creating barriers”; this is something that may be harder to do as we work within the space, but I hope collaborative instructors challenge themselves to self-evaluate and be cognizant of inherent privileges within the space (Pliner et. al. 46).

Perhaps the most important thing about fostering inclusive learning environments is mindfulness; I find Cornell University’s “Inclusive Teaching Strategies” list incredibly useful. The checklist touches upon all kinds of considerations one should think through when planning instruction, such as:

“How might your own cultural-bound assumptions influence your interactions with students?

How might the backgrounds and experiences of your students influence their motivation, engagement, and learning in your classroom?

How can you modify course materials, activities, assignments, and/or exams to be more accessible to all students in your class?”

            While some of the suggestions are more suited to traditional academic classrooms, much of it can and should be adopted for consideration in library workshops. Because we’ve only got one shot to connect with and engage our learners, intersectional awareness should be central to the work we undertake as educators.

            What kinds of intersectional, inclusive educational tactics do you use when teaching? I welcome questions, ideas, or other feedback in the comments section!

 

References

Pliner, Susan M., Jonathan Iuzzini, and Cerri A. Banks. 2011. Using an intersectional approach to deepen collaborative teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2011 (125): 43-51.