Representation Matters

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Why is representation important?

Representation refers to the basic idea that if students see people like them reflected in course materials, they are more likely to identify with and be able to imagine themselves as belonging in the field. Research has shown that the reverse is true—when students do not see people like themselves in the authors and images of the field, they have a more difficult time identifying with the field and they may feel like they don’t belong, thus reducing their chances to thrive. Students are much more motivated to learn in classrooms that recognize them, draw connections to their lives (and experiences), and respond to their distinct concerns. The world is complexly diverse and we need to represent this in the materials that we use in our teaching.

Diversity of representation also matters in our classrooms because we have the responsibility to ensure that our students are prepared to work in a diverse environment and be able to collaborate with others who may bring diverging perspectives. Offering new ways of looking at a discipline can help students

You might argue: “my course has nothing to do with diversity”. But given the growing diversity of our classrooms, we are responsible for creating a learning culture that is welcoming to that diversity. The best way to achieve this is including different voices, especially those of traditionally excluded groups.

How can you ensure representation in readings and course materials?

In your classes, students (are supposed to) read a lot, or at the very least absorb a lot of content. You may not have the power to assign the required readings, but many times, you do have power to bring in supplemental readings and multimedia resources into your tutorials and labs. As you are doing so, think about whose voices and perspectives you are centering in the process.

We know from a vast body of research, that for students, seeing people who come from social locations like their own can make a world of difference in helping them to identify with a field and engage meaningfully with a text. This means that it is important to invite students into a diverse body of material that represents people of all genders, races, and ethnicities (while avoiding a simply tokenizing).

Learn background information about your students and identify and use relevant examples they can relate to. When looking for additional resources, they do not only have to be readings. Try to think outside the box. Look for useful YouTube videos or online guides, look for visual art and music that can tie into the broad themes of your course, and think about ways to draw on the lived experiences of students in your classes. You can also find relevant tweets, snaps, and news articles that represent racially, ethnically, linguistically, and/or gender diverse spaces.

What strategies can help you include representation in your teaching?

  • Our disciplines (and departments) have powerful social and intellectual cultures. Try to identify ways in which this specific culture may shape the experiences of your diverse student group. Examine your old disciplinary world through brand new eyes. This may help you identify ways in which assigned course readings (which may seem neutral) are not quite as disinterested and unbiased (and content-focused) as you once thought. Moreover, it will reveal gaps in diverse representations that you may want to include.
  • Learn about your students’ backgrounds and trail your approach accordingly. Creating an inclusive classroom climate will create a welcoming atmosphere for diverse perspectives. For example, ensure that images in PowerPoint or case studies represent diverse types of peoples and perspectives. This may help students imagine themselves within various learning scenarios.
  • When planning your tutorial, ask yourself: Whose voices, perspective, and scholarship are being represented? Whose perspectives has the course not included so far? What resources could I bring in to highlight the perspectives of under-represented groups? In your field that may mean bringing in work by women, non-binary, or trans authors. It could mean highlighting work by Indigenous, Black, and people of colour authors. It could mean finding work by disabled authors. Think about what students are not being invited to engage with and seek those perspectives out.
  • If you cannot find resources, expand your parameters. Perhaps under-represented people are doing work in your area, but not within the academy. Or perhaps they are using a different framework. This is a great opportunity to bring students into contact with different sources and processes of knowledge production and to help them think about why certain sources have been assigned and others have not.
  • If you really can’t find anything, talk about that with your students. This will help them and you to critique your field and identify some of the ways that power and privilege may be shaping the dominant perspectives in your discipline. This can help them build skills as critical readers and thinkers who can situate academic practices within the broader historical context. Your students may be able to introduce you to useful resources too! You can use an activity such as Power Flower in order to get students to reflect on their social identities. This strategy can help them identify who they are (and who they aren’t) as individuals and as a group in relation to those who wield power in society, highlighting discrimination as a process for maintaining dominant identities.

Further resources

Armstrong, M.A. (2011). Small world: Crafting an inclusive classroom (no matter what you teach). Thought and Action, Fall, 51-61.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass.

Gurin, p., Dey, e., Hurtado, s. and Gurin, G. (2002.) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-367.

Maxwell, K., Nagda, B., & Thompson, M. (2011). Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues: Bridging Differences, Catalyzing Change. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Nagda, B., & Gurin, P. (2007). Intergroup dialogue: A critical-dialogic approach to learning about differences, inequality and social justice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 111, 35-45.