“Metaphors are important. They help us understand new ideas by referencing things we already know. At the same time, they shape our experience, opening us up to some ideas while closing us off to others. The mental shorthand we use to understand “equity” will affect how we go about fighting for it.” –Paul Kuttner
How we talk about diversity and inclusivity matters. Do you see inclusivity as a hurdle to overcome? An invitation to a table? What about as a baseball game?
This August, the Faculty Innovation Center was fortunate to have this conversation during a workshop with a group of Fulbright Scholars visiting from Iraq.
As we shared ideas about how we talk about inclusivity and what an inclusive classroom might look like, I heard an increasingly common challenge in higher education: How do we teach classes in which students have varying levels of experience, familiarity, and knowledge with course concepts and material? For example, some students have internship experience or several years out in the field while for others this is their first time even thinking about interacting with clients; some have written numerous papers while others are uncertain about constructing a thesis.
But, as the Fulbright Scholars pointed out, students ought to represent so much more to us than their familiarity and knowledge with content. In other words, students are more than simply intellectual beings, they are also social and emotional beings, and all of these elements work together to impact the learning process. Some students come in with the knowledge of what it’s like to be in college. Some are first generation students. Some students have experienced significant stress and trauma. Some students have psychological disabilities that may or may not be registered with the disability office. The Fulbright Scholars wanted to know: With this diversity of learners, how can I actively work to provide an inclusive environment? How can I be sure I meet all of their needs?
Theories and models of instructional design have raised and addressed questions of diversity and inclusivity by emphasizing student-centered approaches to both course design and teacher-student interactions (see Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design model). But in our workshop, we chose to focus on what has become a popular meme on the internet and at conferences to help us first think about how we might visualize an inclusive environment, and second, how we might translate that vision to implement inclusive teaching strategies.
This meme (originally created by University of Cincinnati business professor Craig Froehle) illustrates how we might think about equality, equity, and beyond. The complexity of diversity (the intersecting identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, experiences, skills, etc.) is represented by the physiological height differences of the people in the cartoon.
In the first frame, the individuals are treated equally. And yet, our third individual still cannot see over the fence. Giving everyone the exact same support only works if everyone is starting from the exact same position in life. This kind of thinking cannot meet the diverse needs of our student body.
The second frame demonstrates equity. To be fair, accommodations are made for some in order to foster equality. And yet, some argue that like the first frame, the second frame is also troubling because it is presenting the “problem” as with the individuals: some individuals have a deficit that require assistance or accommodation.
In the final frame, we see another perspective on creating opportunities for student success—changing systemic barriers that create inequalities. Re-envisioning the problem means we see that the problem is not the person, but the structure of the fence. What if we do the same for our courses? If we intentionally change their structures (e.g., caption all of our videos, allow students to engage in collaborative notetaking, create a diversity of assignments so students can demonstrate they know the material in at least one way that works best for them), we acknowledge the diversity of our learners as assets to be celebrated, not challenges to overcome.
When I showed these frames to the Fulbright Scholars, their comments showed me how this controversial and valuable image can spark our thinking about how we visualize—and then talk about—issues of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
But why is there a fence at all?
But we still may need accommodations for some people!
Why are we comparing diversity to baseball??
Their thinking and questioning about this meme led me to wonder, is there more—perhaps a fourth frame?
Kuttner wondered the same thing. He traces the cartoon’s evolution in community dialogues, as people took up the metaphor, adapted it, altered it, and eventually broke it down to create something new: the 4th Box Project. His image encourages us to think about how we visualize inclusivity, the metaphors we use to talk about it, and the ways those perceptions impact our implementation of inclusive practices in our own work. So, how do you talk about inclusivity? What would you draw in the 4th box? How might this help you think about how you design your course and interact with your students?
Froehle, C. (2016). The evolution of an accidental meme [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@CRA1G/the-evolution-of-an-accidental-meme-ddc4e139e0e4
Kuttner, P. (2015) The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://culturalorganizing.org/the-problem-with-that-equity-vs-equality-graphic/