During a keynote address at the 2022 Teaching Professor Conference, I spoke about challenges that exist in higher education, specifically students and instructors who do not have the freedom to bring their authentic selves to their learning or teaching environments. In such scenarios, students might not engage in educational experiences that help them realize their full potential, and instructors might not have the freedom to facilitate impactful instruction. I discussed how we can address these issues in part through inclusive teaching, which can be a pathway toward liberation in higher education. This piece further expounds upon these ideas.
In general, having a sense of belonging and experiencing a just environment are basic human needs. Our students require these as well. They want their instructors and classmates to accept them for who they are and what they bring to their learning environments. Knowing that they are valuable, contributing members of the course learning community and that they matter to their instructors and peers can be liberating for students and give them the freedom to learn in spaces that are intentionally designed for them. But for a variety of reasons, our learners might not feel valued in these spaces. Perhaps they’ve had negative experiences in classroom settings that threatened their identities or self-efficacy through social cues or other adverse interactions. Trust might have been breached, or the learning environment might not have included material that resonated with them. There are many reasons why the classroom space, either physical or virtual, might not feel like a place meant for them.
I’ll use an analogy. Imagine attending an event where the guest list is hidden, but upon arrival everyone is welcoming and interested in knowing more about you, taking care to ensure that you have an optimal experience. Applied to college learning spaces, a similar practice is creating courses where students are welcomed and the instructional experience is designed to facilitate learning for those present in the room. Such environments continue to challenge students in their learning, and they reduce the structural barriers faced by students afforded less privilege.
In practice, liberation starts with getting to know your learners. My colleagues and I have conducted a fair amount of work on the Who’s in Class? Form, a tool for instructors to learn more about the students in their courses to help them design equitable and inclusive learning experiences (Addy et al., 2021). Using these types of information-gathering sources as well as facilitating informal discussions during student hours (office hours) can set a positive tone and help build student-instructor trust. Additionally, learning more about the backgrounds and experiences of learners can help colleagues design more equitable courses. To enact real-time change, I emphasize the importance of getting to know learners early in a course. Doing so not only can set the tone for equity and inclusion and demonstrate instructor care but also gives the instructor the opportunity to gather feedback on their efforts during the course so that changes, if needed, can be made. As many an instructor can attest, each class is different as our students are unique. When an instructor engages in such intentional actions, they grant students the gift of freedom to bring their authentic selves to their courses.
Some might claim that the work of liberation in higher education does not prepare students for what is conceived to be the real world. I counter that such work is not about forcing students to be tough but about sowing seeds into their futures to set them up for what success looks like for them. Liberatory design is about access: it is about intentional design and action that assists students in their journeys so that they can be free to learn. Structural barriers are in need of dismantling.
Liberatory teaching also centers instruction as a giving profession, and I’ve had conversations with many instructors expressing difficulty in applying these principles in larger classes, which typically have different dynamics than those of smaller size. Instructors teaching such courses can find out who is in their class and design environments that are responsive to such diversity. They can demonstrate care for their learners while teaching in a large lecture hall. They can make themselves available (within reasonable limits) to get to know learners. They can challenge their learners to reach their full potential. They can leverage student–student small group interactions and share their values and practices with teaching assistants, if present in such courses, to set a tone for inclusion. The microenvironment of the course matters, and equity and inclusion need not only be fostered and enacted by the instructor. Liberation is about release within a course environment, not added pressure and constraints. Instructors can do their best work when they themselves experience such liberation.
There is still much more work to do with liberatory design in higher education. Beyond courses, there are structural challenges embedded within academic culture that hold students and instructors in bondage. But as I partner with instructors who engage in liberatory practices and hear about the positive impacts from students who take such courses, I remain hopeful. Change is possible in each course. In aggregate, small steps can transform departments, institutions, and systems. Such interventions can give students the freedom to learn and instructors the freedom to teach and inspire.
We must reflect on our own values around liberatory practices, those that give students the freedom to learn and reduce structural barriers. We must challenge ourselves to infuse them into our teaching within an appropriate context however big or small. Additionally, we should consider whether there are circles within our campuses or beyond that allow us to connect with others sharing such values for advocacy and support. This is work that benefits from not being siloed. This is liberatory design and practice.
Addy, T. M., Dube, D., & Mitchell, K. A. (2021). A tool to advance inclusive teaching efforts: The “Who’s in Class?” form. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22(3). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.00183-21
Tracie Marcella Addy, PhD, is the associate dean of teaching and learning at Lafayette College, where she is responsible for working with instructors across all divisions and ranks to develop and administer programming related to the teacher-scholar model, from classroom teaching to the scholarship of teaching.