Dealing with Microaggressions in Your Classroom

Green chalkboard with Today's Lesson: Microaggressions written on it.Our last post, Lunch and Learn: Teaching Discussion-based Classes, summarized two faculty presentations at a recent event. One issue that came up during the discussion was how to handle a situation where one student has polarizing views and makes comments that become disruptive to class discussion. If such situations are not handled appropriately, the classroom climate can be negatively affected. A related circumstance that can have an impact on how students feel about a class is how the instructor handles microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” [Sue, D.W., Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010]

“Microaggressions come in many forms in the classroom: instructor to student, student to instructor, or student to student. All have a negative effect on classroom climate.” [IUPUI Microaggressions in the Classroom]

Because microaggressions are subtle, and sometimes unintended, it can be easy to overlook the harm that is caused. Instructors must be on guard against perpetuating microaggressions, as well as microinequities towards students (such as calling on male students more frequently than female), and be prepared to address students who exhibit these behaviors.

Here are a few resources to assist you:

The article by Derald Wing Sue cited above, Microaggressions: More than Just Race, is an excellent place to start. Originally the term was coined to describe biases against racial minorities; Sue presents the case that microaggressions are also directed at women, LBGTQ persons, those with disabilities, in fact, towards any marginalized group.

In Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom: Taking ACTION (Faculty Focus, April 20, 2018), Tasha Souza, Ph.D. describes a strategy she calls ACTION for dealing with microaggressions. The acronym describes a “communication framework” and steps to take when a situation arises: Ask clarifying questions. Come from curiosity not judgment. Tell what you observed as problematic in a factual manner. Impact exploration by asking for, and/or stating, the potential impact of such a statement or action on others. Own your own thoughts and feelings around the impact. Take the Next steps by requesting appropriate action be taken. The ACTION framework gives instructors a tool to address microaggressions without escalating the situation.

The above referenced document from IUPUI (Indiana University-Perdue University Indianapolis), Microaggressions in the Classroom, provides a succinct summary of ways to create “a space where students can address difference and diversity in productive ways.” Instructors should inquire about the reasoning behind a student’s statement, use paraphrasing to reflect on the feelings and content of the speaker, use “I statements” to clarify your own feelings and remind students to be respectful of others, and redirect and reframe inappropriate comments. There are examples that will be helpful for you in your instructional practice.

A number of examples are presented in a detailed document from the Center for Multicultural Excellence at the University of Denver, also titled Microaggressions in the Classroom. The primary focus of this report is on faculty microaggressions and the goal is to help faculty create more inclusive classrooms. Seeing the examples may help you identify biases and correct them. There are concrete suggestions for addressing microaggressions.

Finally, Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom from the Intercultural Center at Saint Mary’s College of California, presents some of the same content as the previous document in a shorter version. Definitions of microaggressions, examples, and suggestions for addressing the behavior in the classroom are covered in just over two pages.

Whether you are dealing with a student who is making polarizing statements, or with the subtler challenge of microaggressions, these resources will help you maintain civil discussions in a positive classroom environment.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Modified image from Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing and Karen Fleming, Professor, Biophysics, presented on Fostering an Inclusive Classroom.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky led off by describing the Expository Writing program. [See presentation slides.] Students learn in small class settings (10-15 students) how to write and academic argument using evidence. The academic argument is framed as an ongoing conversation—they say (identifies the problem or viewpoint), I say (recognizes a flaw in the argument and establishes a thesis to correct the flaw), so what? (what’s at stake or what’s next?)—to which the student is contributing. The vast majority of her students are in the STEM fields. This is the background for Brodsky’s introduction of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

Students bring their complex identities and a sense of whether or not they feel they belong on campus to the classroom. Brodsky seeks to make sure that her curriculum includes reading diverse authors. Students are given a number of choices for each major writing assignment so that they can find something that interests and speaks to them. Additionally, students do informal writing on topics fincluding What is College For? Learning (science of learning, recent research, advice), School (campus life, student realities, ideas for redesign), Stories—why they matter, Words (language change, texting, big data). For each topic area Brodsky identifies a number of articles that students can choose from to read and write a response.  She tries to make topics current and relevant, and to be flexible, for example, after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, “I offered my students supplemental reading. I hoped to show how the JHU community engaged in local, ‘real-life’ struggles with rigorous, historically responsible, and creative thinking.” She encourages interdisciplinary conversations so that students don’t shut themselves off from possibilities.

Brodsky works with students who are afraid of writing and finds that different approaches work for different students. She is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In the classroom she practices eight ways of teaching.

  1. Giving students permission to fail successfully. The writing process is all about Slide from Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky's presentation listing 8 ways of learning.drafts and revisions; students learn that their first efforts may not work well, but they can learn from mistakes and rewrite.
  2. Using color highlighting while reading, by Brodsky and the students, to understand how an academic argument works.
  3. Sorting through key words used in an academic argument to understand how language works. For example, when identifying a flaw in an argument, key words are repudiate, contest, reject. Next, Brodsky has students perform textual analysis, by looking at a text and deciding whether it is either a conversation over coffee or actual textual analysis. For example, the text being analyzed is a comment on this quote (taken from a John Oliver segment): “A former British prime minister once described refugees as a “swarm of migrants.” Answer A is: “That made me crazy.” [conversation] Answer B is: “The word ‘swarm’ suggests invasion, threat, as well as equating humans to insects.” [textual analysis]
  4. Using Lego building blocks with statement taped to the sides, students “build their argument.”
  5. Learning to analyze and interpret by practicing describing things in different ways.
  6. Employing different ways of talking and discussing in the classroom. Students prepare elevator talks, engage in think/pair/share activities, anonymously share worries and wishes on index cards, and write questions to establish knowledge.
  7. Crafting a succinct “elevator pitch” to streamline their own academic argument.
  8. “What I mean here is to help and expect students to engage fully in their work on campus—not just their science brains for science, or even just their intellectual skills for their courses. Rather, they come here with richness of experience far beyond the academic classroom.”

In engaging students, Brodsky helps them to see frustration as unrealized potential and uncertainty as curiosity. She drew on a 2013 interview with British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips: “A student who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. ‘You’re really just increasing my allowance,’ she said.”

By engaging in inclusive teaching practices, Brodsky has given her students the freedom to learn.

Karen Fleming started off by stating her goals for an inclusive classroom: To create a learning environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas and questions, where discussion brings multiple diverse questions and all opinions are considered, and where student experiences of marginalization are minimized. Two of the many challenges that instructors face are unconscious bias and student stereotype threat. [See presentation slides.]

Fleming noted that 99% of our cognitive processing uses unconscious reasoning. Unconscious bias stems from our experiential expectations; bias being an error in decision making. Expectation bias is grounded in stereotypes such as women are not as good at math or spatial learning; Hispanics and African Americans are lower achieving than Whites; Hispanics, African Americans, poor, and obese people are lazy; male athlete are jocks (muscular but not smart); Asians have higher math abilities; and blondes are less intelligent than brunettes. Stereotypes are cultural and both faculty and students have biases.

Fleming described a research study on science faculty and unconscious bias [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male studentsPNAS 109: 16474-79.] The study was headed by Jo Handlesman, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, Yale University. Fleming walked through the study details, noting that the institutions selected—research intensive universities—were geographically diverse, the demographics on faculty participants agree with national averages, and it was a randomized double-blind study (n = 127). Science faculty in biology, physics, and chemistry were asked to rate the application of a student for a lab manager position in terms of competency and hireability. Faculty participants were randomly assigned an application with a male or female name—the applications were otherwise identical and designed to reflect high but not outstanding qualifications.

Both male and female faculty participants showed gender bias by rating the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They were willing to offer a significantly higher starting salary (and more career mentoring) to the male applicant. And, perhaps surprisingly to women in the audience, both female and male faculty were equally likely to show gender bias favoring male applicants and to offer the female candidates a lower salary. One possible explanation? Male stereotypes meet the expectation for the lab manager position.

Slide from Karen Fleming presentation showing male and female stereotypes.Expectation bias occurs when we hold different groups accountable to different standards. When a man performs well in a traditional male-type task, this performance is expected. When a woman performs well in a traditional male-type task, this conflicts with stereotypic expectations. As a result, her performance is closely scrutinized, and she is required to repeatedly prove her competence.

We can check our biases using tests set up by Project Implicit. “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Look for tests on bias concerning gender, race, religion, disability, age, sexuality, weight, skin tone, and more  in the Social Attitudes section.

Fleming then discussed the issue of stereotype threat. For students, performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. And, culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group. She referenced a study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 [CM Steele and J Aronson (1995) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.] At Stanford, 114 undergraduate students volunteered for the study. They were given a test composed of Verbal GRE questions. First they took a test that was presented as diagnostic, a measure of intrinsic ability, and then a test presented as non-diagnostic, a laboratory tool for studying problem solving. The results showed that invoking stereotype threat (diagnostic test) affects performance of students who identified as African-Americans in an evaluation setting. Further, having to identify their race before taking the test, “race-priming,” increases the results of stereotype effect on performance in an evaluation setting.

How can instructors be more inclusive? Fleming offers these suggestions.

  • Establish a Growth Mindset
  • Set clear, equal and high but achievable expectations for all students
  • Include material created by people of different backgrounds
  • Pay attention to group dynamics (especially compositions of small groups).

As both Fleming and Brodsky reminded the audience, instructors can change the way they teach to be more inclusive, identify their biases, and work to establish a positive classroom climate.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo (© CER), slides from Brodsky and Fleming presentations

 

Fair Play—Gaming to Identify and Understand Racial Bias

A colleague recently attended an academic conference during which he had an opportunity to attend a workshop demonstrating Fair Play. Fair Play, a video game developed at the University of Wisconsin with awards from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Millennium Foundation and supported by the University of Wisconsin System Administration’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant program, allows players the opportunity to simulate the complex experience of a graduate student. Specifically, according to the website, “Fair Play provides players with the opportunity to take the perspective of Jamal Davis, a Black graduate student on his way to becoming a renowned professor. In this game, players experience racial bias during interactions with other characters, as well as in the virtual environment.”

Screen shot taken from the Fair Play website showing the four main characters and a link to the Fair Play Game Trailer.Players move through five chapters experiencing typical graduate school challenges (identifying an advisor, managing funding, making friends, publishing, and attending conferences); these are magnified through the lens of being an African American confronting biases. The goal is to identify and name biases.

While workshops, such as the one my colleague attended, are available, it is easy to download and play the game on your own. You can view a trailer to get an idea of the content. Even novice gamers will pick up the navigation quickly as the interface is straightforward and explanations are provided along the way. The exercise is enlightening. Although the game centers around graduate student activities, the lessons to be learned are universal, and would benefit faculty and graduate student future faculty alike.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Fair Play Screenshot: http://fairplaygame.org/