It’s been really encouraging to see the renewed focus on inclusivity in recent weeks and months, and hopefully this will lead to real positive changes in the way we teach, assess and support learning. Here I want to outline, from a learning development perspective, what I think are important, but sometimes somewhat neglected, questions when it comes to nurturing a more inclusive learning environment.
Academic literacies and inclusivity
Understandably enough, when conversations turn towards inclusive curricula in HE, the focus is very often on questions of content, accessibility and representation. These are clearly important questions in need of regular revisiting and critical reflection – preferably in lively and open dialogue with our students (as has recently been witnessed so encouragingly at the University of Leicester).
However, there is also a danger that we will forget that what we’re actually seeking to include students in is not, and can never be, reducible to content, representation and access. Undertaking a course of study involves, after all, also being able to participate in a whole load of academic practices, rhetorical conventions, epistemological values etc. (e.g. reading, analysing, being ‘critical’, developing arguments, evidencing knowledge claims, formulating questions, writing, presenting). Strangely, these are the sorts of vital practices that often tend to be overlooked, or at best assigned the status of afterthought, in many conversations about ‘curriculum’. You might say that a learning developer’s initial response to the brilliantly provocative question, ‘why is my curriculum white?’ would be ‘well, first of all, are we actually talking about the “curriculum” or merely about the “syllabus”?’
The value of a more diverse module reading list, for example, is also contingent on students having developed the means to effectively:
- navigate that list (starting with an understanding what a reading list does and doesn’t signal);
- engage critically and productively with its contents;
- situate their own emergent knowledge in relation to the knowledge and knowers they encounter on the list.
A ‘curriculum’ that doesn’t account, explicitly, for the need to develop such practices is barely worth the name. It certainly has little hope of being ‘inclusive’. Importantly, this is not, first and foremost, a matter of learning the right technical ‘skills’. Indeed, the all-to-often objectifying, de-humanising discourse of ‘study skills’ is, I would argue, radically inappropriate to any conversation about inclusivity or diversity. Rather, it is a matter of developing certain social practices that enable students to experience and signal their own ‘inclusion’ within different disciplinary communities. As such, any move towards achieving greater inclusivity will ultimately fail, or at best only ever partially succeed, unless we: a) consider how our curricula support students’ development of discipline-relevant academic values and practices (values and practices which are themselves every bit as integral to the curriculum as the topics, theories, writers etc. taught on the syllabus); and b) reflect critically on just how inclusive these practices are and what assumptions they make about who gets to be ‘included’ and who experiences ‘exclusion’.
I’ve written about all of this before (I tend to go on about it a lot – precisely to what ends, apart from personal catharsis, I’m never entirely sure) but for now, I’d like to pose the following questions for us to consider:
- What do we expect students to be able to do in order to fully engage with (in other words, to be included in) their programmes of study?
- How does what we expect students to be able to do here, differ from what they will have been expected to be able to do before (e.g. at school or college)? What have been the ‘rules’ or ‘terms’ of inclusion in the past, and how do they differ from the ones that prevail here and now?
- How do our programmes (the way we teach, assess and support learning) enable students to learn to do all this stuff upon which inclusion ultimately hinges? (The LLI’s Transitions Toolkit aims to provide some ready-to-use answers to this one!)
- Just how inclusive are the rules and terms of inclusion we ask students to meet and comply with? If students have to perform particular kinds of identity, or talk and write with particular kinds of ‘academic voice’, where do these come from and who, historically, has tended to define and police these means by which others are included or excluded? How far does the performance of particular, approved, academic identities entail ‘them’ learning to act and sound more and more like ‘us’? Do our curricula provide space for us and our students to reflect on such questions?
These kinds of questions will be familiar to anyone who has engaged in, and/or has any knowledge of, the struggles the oppressed, marginalised and excluded have waged, and continue to wage, against various forms exclusion, misrecognition and symbolic violence. And we should surely never forget that it’s just these struggles that have made possible, and forced onto the agenda, higher education’s long overdue concern with ‘inclusivity’.
If you only have time to read one paper on all this, then I would definitely recommend this one by the reliably brilliant Penny-Jane Burke:
Burke, P.J. (2008) Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 15(2), 199-210.