An inclusive learning environment is essential for ethical formation. Building an accessible and inclusive classroom environment, attending to diversity and justice in course content and approach, and advocating for a safe and equitable campus climate and community are important and ongoing parts of my work.
I am committed to a just learning environment and a safe climate in my classroom. I allow students to choose how they will be addressed every semester and enforce the priority of their choice in class. I prepare students in advance for content that may be distressing: for example, offering specific preparatory warnings and reading-response strategies when reading about sexual assault or dehumanizing violence that give students permission to take breaks or express anger and grief. (These responses are an important part of the reading process that should enter the classroom—an emotional-less classroom has lost a significant learning pathway and route to critical analysis.) Adopting universally accessible design in my Learning Management System sites, such as transcripts and subtitles on any video content, benefits many of my students who don’t seek accommodations and makes providing accommodations easier when students take up my invitation and support to seek formal accommodations (often mid-semester).
Perhaps most pervasively, inclusion shows up in my commitment to avoiding punitive and shame-based methods of assessment and feedback. Whenever a student has an interest in learning more, I want to give positive reinforcement to their interest and existing intellectual strengths. Some grading is a necessity in contemporary higher ed, but as much as possible I promote collaborative rather than competitive learning and achievement through cohort discussions, specification grading, and multiple layers of feedback on larger scaffolded assignments. A new area of development for me has been attending especially to how I can strategize to make my classes more inclusive of neuro-divergent students—for example, ongoing commitment to increasing transparency (offering brief but more explicit explanation in framing the purpose and structure of an assignment) which can aid student motivation for students on the Autism spectrum. In addition, I have been reflecting on the ways that trauma-informed pedagogy can shape my approach to helping students pursue success despite adverse childhood experiences (including how they may have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic) that present extra challenges to regular attendance, meeting deadlines, and sustaining focus. One example is the use of a reset with centering breathing at the beginning or middle of a class period, another is to resist initial “people-pleasing” fear-responses from advisees by digging deeper into why they hope a particular class or internship or paper topic might be a good choice.
I learn from and with my students. While I have both more academic experience and more power, my students are insightful and have diverse experiences to share. I seek to be aware of differences of power among participants (myself included) and to mitigate those differences of power in order to create a learning environment in which every participant (but not every opinion) commands respect and every student acknowledges responsibilities to show respect to others and to make contributions to the learning community. As a part of attending to power, I pursue ongoing antiracist and decolonial education for myself and regularly incorporate new feedback and reading on how to be a better advocate for and ally to students of color and indigenous students in class and on campus.
As an instructor in religion and Christian theology who is also a religious practitioner, it is particularly important to me that students of every religion or none are welcome in my classroom, are fairly treated, and can complete all required activities in good conscience. Attention to justice shapes not only how I teach but what content I teach. I not only diversify my syllabi, but seek to reveal to students the way that disciplinary norms have been shaped to occlude certain perspectives and amplify others in lecture, discussion, and through assigning active learning and reflection assignments. The same citational politics I use in my research are valuable in shaping the first (sometimes only) exposure my students have to religion and theology as “disciplines” and shared conversations to which not all parties have had or continue to have equal access.
At Simpson College, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale Divinity School, I have worked on violence and bias prevention for women, gender and sexual minorities, and people of color through bias and violence prevention training. Challenging violence and harassment is the minimum. I also advocate for and seek to provide inclusive co-curricular programming and affinity-based support/mentoring for students minoritized by gender, sexuality, racial identity, religious identity, and/or caregiving responsibilities. I am currently the faculty advisor to the Women and Gender Resource Center, a faculty participant in the Interfaith planning group, a contributor to faculty development on topics of inclusion, and an active supporter of student clubs and affinity groups that promote the well-being of marginalized and underrepresented students.
My pedagogy emphasizes quality of engagement over comprehensive survey. I believe active-learning assignments centered on deeper investigation of limited examples strengthen conceptual-retention and skills-practice for memorable learning in students’ lives. I structure the learning opportunities in three ways: I connect history and theory to contemporary events, I teach transferable skills, and I build a community of support among students as co-learners.
Connections to contemporary events overcome students’ natural resistance to acquiring knowledge that appears to them to be without purpose. Connections to history, on the other hand, give students pause before jumping in “passions first” to rehearse their pre-formed, but not always informed, opinions. Taking stock of the connection between historical and contemporary situations thus retains student attention while providing an initial “perspective-taking” which challenges students to step out of themselves to understand what motivates others. For example, found writing mock op-eds for the campus newspaper on an on-going hunger strike a compelling assignment. The requirement to offer their audience some accessible historical background for the practice of hunger strikes required students to frame their quick-takes using material we had covered in class and brought out their grasp of ethical and pragmatic challenges involved in protest as a lens of analysis.
My core curriculum, first year experience, and advanced classes share a common goal: for students to build a diverse set of skills that are transferable to other learning contexts and their life work. When students learn these skills they are able to navigate many sources which provide detailed information. Many class activities such as analyzing the quality, source and content of static primary sources (text, images, and video), interviewing practitioners, and writing autoethnography, incorporate transferable critical thinking skills (assessing expertise/domain, articulating questions, gathering evidence, and evaluating arguments). Students enjoy interviewing practitioners who volunteer as class guests, but key to training their skills is preparing them to be ready to ask the right sorts of questions of both people and our class texts. For example, after reading about medieval Franciscans, one class was startled when the Franciscan friar who came to class brought his new laptop; they wanted to know how he could be in possession of it without breaking his vow of poverty. His explanation of how he discerned needs with his community and obeyed his brothers was very memorable for students and offered them “evidence” that nuanced their interpretation of the logics of voluntary poverty.
Finally, I focus on community-building in the classroom. For example, peer-review exercises helps students to internalize standards of assessment and experiment with other’s writing processes, thereby improving self-assessment. Asking students to check whether their peers have a clear thesis statement and ample evidence for each major claim often prompts students to improve the organization and citation within their own writing. They may try out different outlining, drafting, or revision strategies based on noting the strengths or opportunities in a peer’s approach. Students come into my courses with different levels of preparation across skills and domains; peer review leverages these advantages for the whole class. Students who excel at the mechanics of writing are pushed by students who struggle with mechanics but question the adequacy of a piece of evidence or the cultural consciousness of an interpretation, and vice versa. Building community has a deeper purpose and lasting dividends when it extends beyond the classroom. Immersive experiences in local observation and relationship-building are vital to developing student’s ability to analyze social structures, identify bias and oppression, and imagine a more just and equitable society towards which they can work. The opportunity to learn about and from others is an opportunity to accrue cultural capital that could be used to dominate or oppress, but it is my hope that by modeling a philosophy of learning which is at first dialogical and relational–within the classroom and between the classroom and our larger communities–I will encourage students to question and destabilize the inequalities reified by many of our institutions.