A Note on Cultural Competence

As a first post, I wanted to take a moment to explain why I chose “Cultural Competence in the College Biology Classroom” by Kimberly Tanner and Deborah Allen as the article that would go along with my video comments on inclusive pedagogy. As a colleague at CCNY, Sally Hoskins, once offered, when it comes to pedagogy, “anything by Tanner is worth reading”. But beyond this, this article dramatically changed my perspective on inclusive pedagogy, or “cultural competence”, as it’s referred to here. Quoting from the article,

“Put most simply, it (cultural competence) is the ability to successfully teach students who come from different cultures other than your own. It entails mastering certain personal and interpersonal awarenesses and sensitivities, learning specific bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching.”

Space exists between cultures, and our job, as professors, is to cross that space. The article provide examples of how the existence of this cross-cultural space affects students, especially when professors are ignorant of the existence of the space. I was ignorant in this way myself, for some time being completely unaware of the complexity and magnitude of the gap between me and some of my students. I’d further offer that this ignorance is common among faculty.

Already I’ve touched on two critical concepts for inclusive pedagogy, via cultural competence:

1. Understand and acknowledge the space that exists between ourselves and some of our students

2. Take responsibility for reaching (and teaching) across that space

Once I became comfortable with these ideas, then I saw how much work lay ahead. To some people it may be a shock that these ideas were new to me, but I’m a white man from a middle class background and frankly, most of my students have been like me, at least in superficial ways. This made it easy for me to to not even notice the existence of cultural space between me and some of my students. As a result, I could easily, and frankly, thoughtlessly, focus on the majority of students with whom I had a minimal gap. As professors, most of us have fallen into the trap of teaching to the most easily taught, and who is more easily taught than students most like ourselves? This point also helps illustrate the fact that faculty of color, in general, have always been doing working to bridge this gap and to engage in cultural competence, simply to do their jobs in the most basic way: When they are minorities at their institutions, faculty of color have to reach across cultural space for most of their students. This is but one form of the invisible labor that minority faculty do every day in service of their jobs at majority-white institutions. For the rest of us, we need to make sure we accept the first two concepts, above, and start doing some of this labor ourselves.

In my experience, these first two steps are some of the most difficult to overcome. They require acknowledging that we’ve been ignorant about something (nether fun nor easy) and then taking responsibility for a challenge that we’ve only just begun to understand. Yikes. But this is where the Tanner & Allen article really helped me out by lightening the load and taking off some of the pressure. To wit, two more key concepts:

3. Many of the best methods for culturally competent teaching overlap with evidence-based pedagogy

Discovering this was a huge relief. If you use pedagogical methods that are grounded in evidence, such as active learning, student-centered pedagogy, and the development of learning communities, then you are already using teaching methods that help lead to a culturally inclusive classroom. It’s nice to know you’ve been doing some of the work without even knowing it, isn’t it?

Image result for active learning

Active learning is an effective pedagogical method that centers the student in their own learning, minimizing the effects of cultural gaps in the classroom. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/queensucanada/12437667135 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And finally,

4. No one can achieve perfect, universal cultural competence

This isn’t necessarily shocking, but it’s helpful to be reminded that we don’t have to be perfect. We’re not going to be perfectly inclusive, we’re not going to be able to cross every cultural space, but we can (and should!) always be working toward those goals. Our students will always be younger than us, having gone to school in different times and under shifting demographics, and as faculty we’ll may always be playing catch-up with these demographics. But this dynamism and diversity is what makes working in higher ed such a privilege. And making sure we stay up to speed with the students we teach, mentor, and work with is an important responsibility, and privilege, itself.

Welcome to the “Creating Inclusive Classrooms” Website

The Center for Teaching and Learning at Davidson is happy to invite you to our new website entitled Creating Inclusive Classrooms. The CTL has sponsored a number of programs that focus on inclusive pedagogy over the last four years. Our SACSCOC Quality Enhancement Plan is focusing on inclusive practices to improve learning outcomes in courses that are highly quantitative in nature and are primarily taken by first year students. This website serves as a place for faculty to share strategies they find successful in creating an inclusive environment in their classrooms.

We welcome any and all faculty to share successful inclusive techniques you have implemented, synopses of literature in the field, or information you gained from other sources, such as workshops. You can share by writing blog posts or videos that will be posted to this site. The initial videos on this website were contributed by faculty who participated in the QEP Learning Communities over the last several years, but we welcome everyone to consider video blogging, in addition to written blogs. We hope this site will serve as a rich resource where faculty can quickly and easily glean useful information.

Please let Ann Fletcher know if you would like to contribute a written blog or a short video. The CTL will arrange for video-taping and closed-captioning at a time that is convenient for you. If you are interested in contributing written blogs, you will receive contributor rights to the website.

With thanks, Verna Case