This summer I have had the pleasure of teaching a cohort of incoming first-year students at Bowling Green State University who are participating in the Sidney A. Ribeau President’s Leadership Academy (PLA). These twenty-five students are merit scholars, mostly from Ohio and Michigan (Detroit, in particular). This racially diverse group (mostly either Black or White) spends their very first summer at BGSU getting an introduction to college, taking classes in writing and communication, leadership, service-learning, and information technology and library skills. For the past four years, the summer session has also had a workshop series on diversity. This year, the diversity component is a class, four sessions of 90 minutes each, and is being graded along with the other classes they are taking.
This is my first year teaching in the summer program and I’m their instructor for the diversity course. My objectives are simple (or so I thought): to expose them to issues of difference and diversity beyond race; to help them see each other’s diversity and the ways that systematic privilege has differentiated their lives; and to set them on the path toward allyship and acting as leaders amongst their peers for promoting pluralism and social justice. We’ve completed two of four sessions and the twenty-five students in my class have taught me a great deal about how much they don’t know and haven’t been taught.
For instance, the terms privilege and oppression were themselves foreign concepts to many of them. They seemed surprised to consider that biracial and multiracial people don’t have to choose one race or the other and that race itself isn’t a biologically determined fact but a social construction – like gender. And then they didn’t know the difference between sex and gender – although this is hardly surprising since most adults don’t know that and the terms are consistently conflated in the public discourse, including survey items (see my forthcoming article in TRUTH magazine for a more extended discussion of this). We spent nearly forty-five minutes in Q&A expanding their dichotomous assumptions to include intersex and transgender people and ideas like androgyny so that they thought of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as continuums instead of binaries. Explanations begat more questions, which begat further explanations and further questions. Finally I had to just stop the discussion because I had to explain an assignment that’s due on Tuesday. And then that prompted more confusion.
Students weren’t confused because I was trying to force them into believing some kind of liberal ideology that didn’t reflect their realities. Each of them could name the social groups they were members of and, for the most part with the exception of social class, they knew whether those social groups were privileged or marginalized. There was no rejection of the concepts, no refusal even to recognize that groups they weren’t members of were marginalized. (Whether they believed that marginalization was unjust is a different issue that I didn’t have time to dig into – yet.) Most of them just had never had anybody talk with them about any of this before, in a class, before this summer. They aren’t just confronting these kinds of issues in my class either; the leadership class instructors are also delving into these issues as they introduce them to Astin’s Social Change Model of Leadership (here’s a book by Susan Komives based on the model) that PLA is based on.
All this got me thinking about when is the right time to start these conversations. I hesitate to make the argument that multicultural competence is one more thing that K-12 isn’t doing right and should be doing. Sorry, you won’t catch me beating up on K-12 educators. Yes, exposing young children to diversity and teaching them that they don’t have to be afraid of difference and they can stand up to bullying and unfair treatment can be taught in elementary, middle, and high schools. AND there are lots of good teachers out there who are doing just that in classrooms across the country (check out this great example of a school in Oakland, CA that introduces the concept of gender diversity, though not without controversy).
However, that’s not the end of the line and higher education has a duty and responsibility to continue students on that journey. Research has indicated that understanding diversity beyond superficial, dichotomous, value judgments requires both psychosocial maturity and cognitive complexity that is simply not present prior to college for most young adults (Baxter Magolda & King, 2005; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; King & Shuford, 1996). Moreover, groups like the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) assert the need to include knowledge and appreciation of diversity and skill with relating across lines of difference in their essential learning outcomes and a plethora of research demonstrates the positive growth and development associated with exposure to diversity-related experiences in college (Bowman, 2010; Denson, 2009; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).
Yet, all too often whether to include any focused discussion on diversity, multicultural competence, and social justice is subject to debate and academics from different disciplines struggle to agree upon what constitutes appropriate language, pedagogy, and outcomes. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague at another institution during which she explained that multicultural competence wasn’t a required part of the curriculum that was taught in the honors program there although it was included as a learning outcome. It seems that for some administrators and faculty in colleges and universities, diversity and multicultural competence are not seen as learning outcomes, but rather as recruitment goals and retention tools.
If we don’t deliberately equip college students – of all ages – with the multicultural awareness, multicultural knowledge, and multicultural skills needed to effectively live and work in an increasingly diverse global society, then we cannot say that we are preparing good leaders, or leaders at all. That equipping must begin early in their college experiences, yes, even their first semester on campus. Therefore, battling through the frustration, confusion, and blown lesson plans is worth it to help get at least this cohort of students a little further in the journey toward realizing a just society. Hopefully, some of this will stick and as they continue through their time at BGSU, they’ll build on the foundation we’ve laid this summer. Hopefully.
Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2005). A developmental model for intercultural maturity. Journal of College Student Development, 46(6), 571-592.
Bowman, N. A. (2010). College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80, 4-33.
Chickering, A., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Denson, N. (2009). Do curricular and co-curricular diversity activities influence racial bias? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 79, 805-838.
King, P.M., & Shuford, B. C. (1996). A multicultural review is a more cognitively complex view: Cognitive development and multicultural education. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), 153-164.
Pettigrew, T. G., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783.