Students' identities affect classroom dynamics

by Hannah Petrone | 2/5/15 9:55pm

Addressing the issue of how student identity affects classroom dynamics is messy and potentially controversial, yet, the conversation is one that both students and faculty at Dartmouth seem ready to have. And yes, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

Lisa Baldez, government professor and the new director of Dartmouth’s Center for Advancement of Learning, is adamant about the need for increased communication regarding questions of how gender, race, class, sexuality and other facets of identity affect students’ classroom experiences.

“These things are very real, and they have a real impact on the classroom, and they need to be addressed as such,” Baldez said. “I think that we could do better in terms of talking about this as a faculty.”

Still, it is often unclear when students are struggling or feeling uneasy in the classroom as a result of their identity, and addressing such sensitive matters is a daunting task for professors to take on in their classes. In attempting to mitigate these tensions, there is a fine line between sensitivity and overcompensation.

Baldez said that she sees it more as a struggle between an academic ideal and a classroom reality.

“Ideally a professor would say, ‘I don’t care what your sexual orientation is. I don’t care what your race is. You are all my students, and I am going to deal with you on intellectual grounds where that is not relevant,’” she said. “Realistically, though, those differences do matter.”

They certainly matter to Emmanuel Arteaga ’17, a Mexican-American from a low-income neighborhood in San Diego, California. Arteaga was never forced to think about his race until he came to Dartmouth where, he said, he and a number of other students had multiple disconcerting moments in the classroom.

“At Dartmouth, the classrooms are predominantly white, and initially it was intimidating for me. My freshman year I encountered several incidents where people looked down on me,” he said. “I have numerous friends who are minorities that have so much to say but refuse to share because of the atmosphere in some classes.”

Arteaga’s story echoes the concerns of many students and faculty members on campus, who worry about the degree to which this discomfiture affects classroom participation and student engagement. Taking responsibility for the problem of participation in the classroom — whether it is the professor’s job to foster an environment conducive to equal involvement across all identities or whether it is up to students to set aside their discomfort and engage in the classroom —is perhaps the biggest quandary.

The answer, of course, is not clear, but a common thread running through much of the conversation on-campus is that of shared responsibility.

Aimee Bahng, English and women and gender studies professor, said that she feels students are not only largely responsible for their own classroom experiences but also the experiences of others.

“The professor can help establish rules and guidelines and help massage the dynamics of a discussion, but there really is a tremendous amount of responsibility put on the students to practice the kind of prudent and egalitarian approaches to discussion,” Bahng said.

Still, underlying any question of identity are myriad variables, many of which are independent of the atmosphere in a classroom. One of these variables is course content.

Robert Del Mauro ’18 identifies as bisexual and said that his foreign language classes often resulted in feelings of isolation for him.

He explained that he was forced to be actively aware of his sexuality in these classes in a way that he was not in his other courses.

“Foreign language classes are taught in a very heteronormative way,” he said. “There is a focus on the typical family structure. We aren’t taught vocabulary for the ‘nontraditional.’”

To what extent content plays a role in the classroom is another aspect of this issue that is hard to gauge, however Del Mauro’s experiences suggest room for improvement.

Gender dynamics further illustrate the intricacy of classroom environments and expose the ways in which self-perception plays a role in class.

Nicole Hedley ’15, a computer science major, said she is, more often than not, aware of the small number of other women in her upper-level computer science classes, as well as the reticence many of them feel when faced with participating in class and engaging with their male counterparts in group work. While she acknowledges the struggle that women face as the minority in a traditionally male-dominated field, she does not believe that the hesitancy stems solely from classroom environment. As a teacher’s assistant in the computer science department, Hedley is deeply troubled by the tremendous level of diffidence she sees in some of the younger women she works with.

“It’s all about how you perceive your own ability,” Hedley said. “The difference I see is that men, more often than not, think they can do it and women are the opposite. They are more likely to think they can’t, and if you truly believe that you cannot do it, then you cannot do it.”

Still, Hedley notes that classroom dynamics can be affected by professors as well. She recalled a class in which one of her professors, trying to be sensitive to the small number of women in the class, formed groups of four in such a way that no woman was without another woman, even though — as Hedley pointed out — there were a few groups where a man was alone. This seemed to be a blatant underestimation of the women’s capabilities, Hedley said, which — although perhaps stemming from good intentions — undermined their already low confidence level.

Baldez reaffirmed the notion of shared responsibility in addressing active classroom engagement.

“There’s some responsibility on the part of the students. It can be intimidating to speak in class, but if you don’t engage you are really missing out on an opportunity to learn the material,” she said. “Whether students feel safe in the classroom, that is something that the professor can provide, if that’s a goal, and it should be a goal.”

Government professor Jennifer Lind is one of the pioneers of “Dartmouth’s Public Voices,” a program that trains and mentors faculty to share their research with broader audiences. Lind sympathizes with students who often feel uncomfortable contributing to the class discussion. She says she was the same way when she was in college, but she found the process of overcoming that discomfort liberating. If a student cannot transcend his or her fear of speaking up in class, much is sacrificed in the learning experience.

“You’re not going to have as good of a classroom experience, you’re not going to get to know faculty and you’re going to get less out of the class,” she said. “You need to find a way to engage.”

Many students expressed that their willingness to engage in certain classes is affected by whether or not they feel their identity is represented within the department.

“The best thing that the computer science department does is to put women in a [teacher’s assistant] positions,” said Hedley. “It’s empowering for other women to see a woman TA.”

Veronique Davis ’15, who identifies as black, expressed similar sentiments. She noted that, although she is usually unaware of her race and gender in class, selecting a major was fraught with conflict for her.

“It’s harder to pick a major and choose classes when there isn’t anybody in the department that looks like you,” Veronique Davis said.

She hoped to major in a department where she had a black woman to look up to but ended up majoring in film, a department with no black faculty. She says she looks up to the women in the department but finds much of her inspiration from women of color in the industry, such as Shonda Rhimes ’91 and Mindy Kaling ’01.

Greater diversity among Dartmouth’s faculty is crucial, but it is not the only solution to the problem of student participation in the classroom.

Perhaps more than any other group on campus, first-generation college students face a unique set of obstacles when it comes to feeling comfortable and confident in the classroom. First-generation college students make up approximately 10 percent of the Dartmouth population, and a majority are from low-income households, director of the First-Year Student Enrichment Program Jay Davis said.

“Speaking broadly I think that first-generation students have one significant piece that is unique to them, which is that nobody else in their family has gone [to college] before,” he said. “That particular cultural capital of knowing how college works is something that they are figuring out more on their own”.

Like women and minorities, the biggest obstacle for most first-generation college students is their confidence level in the classroom, Jay Davis said, adding many struggle with the feeling that they may not possess the necessary qualifications to make it at Dartmouth. In general, first-generation college students are less likely than their peers to see faculty as a resource for them outside of class when they are struggling, he said.

“First-generation students are less likely to have what I consider the ‘right’ kind of entitlement, meaning specifically the entitlement to get the help you need so that you can succeed,” Jay Davis said.

He acknowledged the need for first-generation college students to develop an especially rigorous work ethic, but also feels that because of the added pressures on first-generation college students, there is some degree to which faculty should shoulder the responsibility for helping these students become acclimated to the academic environment.

“It is the institution’s responsibility and the faculty’s responsibility to make sure that students have the opportunity to learn,” he said. “And all students learn differently in the classroom and how can we be sensitive to that?”

Jonathan Griffith ’15, a first-generation college student who was also a member of First-Year Student Enrichment Program, said he was often uncomfortable in the classroom as a freshman.

“My first few terms were spent adapting and trying to accept the fact that I am smart enough to be here,” Griffith said.

Jay Davis added that because a majority of first-generation college students are from low-income households, it is important to consider the added effect that the financial burden has on their academic efficacy.

“[There are] a range of things that these students are thinking about that are going on at home that often involves a sort of dramatic reliance on them that pulls attention away,” Jay Davis said.

“For low-income, first-generation students there can often be a real feeling of bifurcated attention,” Jay Davis said, referring to these students’ struggles between focusing on their academic life at Dartmouth while also burdened with their families’ economic difficulties at home.

Some professors have already taken steps to address identity tensions in the classroom. Baldez says that she attempts to design her class in a way that acknowledges and mitigates feelings of inadequacy and inequality in the classroom. One of the methods she suggests is a recent hot-button topic here at Dartmouth: the use of clickers.

“The dynamics of classroom discussion vary according to who feels most comfortable and confident speaking up and who professors tend to call on, Baldez said. “Clickers can mitigate these issues and counteract implicit bias where it exists by providing a low-impact way for all students to express their views, eliminating the patterns that professors can fall into in terms of calling on people, and aggregating those views for everyone to see. “

Bahng said that she feels there is a very simple way to begin mitigating these tensions, and it begins with basic awareness.

“A good professor, as part of their pedagogical training, needs to understand how to read a room and needs to understand that what’s best for the students is that they feel they have a stake in class,” she said.

As Dartmouth begins to address the ways in which questions of identity affect classroom dynamics it will be essential to keep both the conversation alive and acknowledge that there is room for improvement.

“I have to say, I think tension can be quite productive, as long as it is brokered through respectful channels and with some degree of self-reflection,” Bahng said.