As an instructor, I am working diligently toward incorporating more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in my classroom. I often wonder if I am truly promoting these ideals in my syllabi. I ponder: Is my curriculum as diverse as my student population? Am I crafting assignments that allow students to be “seen”? Do they reflect sensitivity to all marginalized populations? Is my classroom a safe space for students to be culturally curious? If not, it is time for me to redefine and refine my approach to teaching the standard content.
As instructors, it’s easy to lull ourselves into a comfortable rhythm. Over the years, as the fundamentals of the discipline are unchanged, we need to ask ourselves: Are we seeing through the lens of our learners? Are we taking into consideration that every iteration of our course consists of students who have evolved into present times and present circumstances? What are we doing as instructors to reenergize the content for today’s generation of students?
I’ve found the following tips extremely helpful for promoting diversity and inclusion in the classroom:
Bridge the Gap
Students are very clear about their favorite music and artists and are often deeply connected to them. Unfortunately, the majority are not usually connected to classical music and its related concepts, so we, as instructors, must bridge the gap between our content and the learner. This requires us to get to know our students to find ways to reflect who they are, which affirms that they belong. To meet the new challenges impacting our students, we must examine our own biases and adapt. We have to go beyond our lens to find ways to serve the variety of needs from our diverse student population. This requires more education as an instructor to find out what our students are truly passionate about. As Kristen Renn, Professor of Higher Education and Associate Dean at Michigan State University, suggests, “Higher Education can become a space of micro-affirmations. We need to capitalize on the opportunity to really be a connection for students and provide a lifeline” (University Innovation Alliance, 2021).
Change Your Cadence
We all have an area of expertise that we prefer or are most comfortable with, but over time, this becomes repetitive. Do include your favorites, but also look for fresh areas to explore, or dive deeper into existing content. For example, it was speculated that Beethoven was one-sixteenth Black (Gordimer, 2007). Was Beethoven Black? If he were thought to be Black during his lifetime, would his music have been considered iconic? When have we found Black or African composers documented?
Consider Frederic the Great. He was a feared German military general, but he was also certainly gay (Hone, 2017). So were Tchaikovsky and many others. Our classrooms are defunct without taking the opportunities to be socially inclusive and allowing students to explore other perspectives of truth. This requires us to reexamine and enlarge our pedagogies to not only be more representative of our LGTBQ+ students, but also be more inclusive of our diverse population of students. Inclusion and diversity extend beyond race, creed, and language—they should also be part of your material and your approaches to teaching.
Cultivate a Safe Space
Our classrooms and pedagogies need to expose students to content that represents their experiences and interests. These gestures create a feeling of welcomeness for the students and illustrate your concerted effort to move beyond the confines of inclusion to representation. Don’t be afraid of sensitive topics; encourage humanity and compassion. Even if you do not agree, attempt to press beyond your biases. Promote student discourse among peers and with you, and listen to your students. Use their feedback to grasp what inspires them. Search for commonalities among interests to create a place where everyone feels safe.
Celebrate the unique. Take time to observe the demographics of the students in your course, and look for opportunities to make connections. Geography plays a huge role in cultural similarities, so search for local, regional, or state monuments and historical artifacts to have students discuss, and celebrate their diverse perspectives. Tapping into the power of diversity asks students to ponder their individual contributions to the class and metacognitively examine the ways in which their experiences inform their worldviews.
When faced with an extensive cross-section of cultures, races, creeds, and orientations, it is no longer acceptable to expect students to conform to our expectations. In the spirit of academic intercourse, we must find ways to celebrate diversity by adapting our strategies and style to fit the needs of our students.
T. Kinard Douthit is an Assistant Professor of Music and Assistant Director of Bands at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he has taught for 18 years. He received the B. M. In Music Education from Appalachian State University, the M. M. In Flute Performance from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and the D. M. A. in Flute Performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Dr. Douthit teaches courses in the music business and general education courses in music, such as Intro to Music and Afro-American Music. His research is based on African-American composers and flute pedagogy.