Diversity Is More Than a Buzzword

Diversity

Having emerged as a central theme for society, business, and higher education, the word ‘diversity’ might invoke a picture of men and women with different skin color, showcasing various clothing styles, dialects, or religious affiliations.

At the 2015 WSCUC Academic Resource Conference (ARC), diversity was the central theme, in light of the changing demographics of the higher education student population. Ashford University’s student population is already classified “majority minority,” and in a way some parts of higher education are transitioning to serving students that have more in common with Ashford students than with the traditional college student. The Ashford faculty body and staff are also far from homogenous, but diversity must reach deeper than token acknowledgement -- a buzzword -- and including it in the classroom is not straightforward.

A Deeper Meaning

Diversity is often taken to imply being inclusive of people of other backgrounds. While this meaning is part of what diversity is, it further means taking the diverse background of our students seriously in terms of what is learned and how learning best takes place. It has been argued that in some cultures, collaborative learning is more effective, or that some groups rely more upon a personal relationship with the instructor than others. Other differences in learning between different cultural groups may involve attention to visual or oral information.

However, diversity should not be taken to assume that all individuals belonging to a specific group have the same learning style. There is a fine line between, on the one hand, acknowledging students’ backgrounds based on characteristics such as ethnicity, culture, religion, gender; and on the other hand, unfounded stereotyping. What is valid for a group is not necessarily valid for an individual. However, more options for learning and assessment that span visual, oral, and collaborative forms could allow more students to see their learning styles represented. Designing a classroom that allows for diversity also extends to the material assigned. Consider selecting content that is produced by and for a variety of perspectives across gender, ethnicity, and social class.

Asking Questions

Diversity is multi-dimensional and crosses lines such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. As an example, the experience of a female upper middle-class Hispanic will be quite different than that of a working class male Hispanic. Power structures work across gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, and we need to encourage students to recognize this reality in the material presented in class. This recognition implies encouraging students to question the representativeness of theories, assumptions, and voices heard. It means asking the questions, “Who devised this theory, and who does it benefit?” and “What ethnic group, gender, or socioeconomic class is speaking to this topic?” or “What groups were represented in the data collection for this study?”

Cultural Differences

When taking a diversity perspective, concepts both from academia and society in general can come to be used more accurately. When my class discusses gender and marriage across cultures and my students bring up a concept such as “traditional marriage,” and associated gender norms, I have to remind them that besides, for example, arranged marriages and polygamy being fairly common both historically and cross-culturally, the idea of “man-the-wage-earner” and “woman-the-homemaker” only happened for a very specific socio-economic group in a very specific culture for a very limited period of time; more precisely, some decades in the middle of the 20th century for middle-class Westerners.

Theories and concepts in academic disciplines have been developed from specific cultural outlooks; these outlooks can include what matters are seen as significant or what population data is gathered from. For instance, a majority of medical studies were previously conducted on white males, while some business models are specific to some cultures and benefit specific socio-economic groups. Recognizing that theories, concepts, and paradigms may be biased can lead to important discussions with students and to a recognition that we as teachers and our discipline speak from a specific standpoint, and that diversity includes going beyond that standpoint.

Thinking about diversity in the classroom is central to supporting our students, but its implementation is not simple and requires reflecting on the background of ourselves and our disciplines.

Written by Dr. Janni Pedersen
Dr. Pedersen is the Chair of the Cultural Anthropology program at Ashford University.

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