Starting University is a major step in life for all students. It involves a change in social networks, ways of working, and, often, the place that students call ‘home’. All students face a range of challenges with different magnitudes. For some, the change is not so large, and they have effective mechanisms to cope. But for others, the change may be greater than their ability to adapt. We are starting to recognise that some groups in society are more ‘privileged’ or have more advantages than other groups, and so, may be better able to manage these changes. In contrast, some groups face discrimination and violence around their sexual orientation, sex, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, disability, pregnancy and maternity, age, marriage and civil partnership – as legally recognised by the Equality Act, 2010. The additional work that these students must do in order to navigate both this, transition to University, and failure to acknowledge this, may well constitute a form of oppression that maintains the inequalities present in society. For example, Evans and Moore (2015) explore the ‘impossible burdens’ that people of colour face in educational institutions in America, where they are in the ‘contradictory position of having to negotiate racist structures and everyday practices, as well as the …assertions that these racist dynamics do not exist’.
In our broader consideration of inclusive teaching, we can think about the specific advantages and disadvantages that people may face in Higher Education by considering the idea of ‘additional work’. In order to achieve the same level of ‘success’ as more privileged counterparts, what additional work might the specific, and often intersectional, groups of students identified by the Equality Act, need to do? For example, this wonderful article describes the ‘additional labour of a disabled PhD student’ such as medical assessments, negotiating support workers, accessing financial work, and managing the health condition itself. She described it as ‘…attempting to do a PhD with an extra workload which is equivalent to having another part-time job.’
The question of additional work is was one of the questions posed to a 47-person strong workshop at the University of Leicester’s Discover Teaching Excellence Conference. We were a diverse range of interested individuals and experts in supporting different forms of inclusivity at our University, such as colleagues from Accessability, Widening Participation, and the English Language Teaching Unit. Here, I’ve tried to make my own personal sense of the discussions and comments – written on the obligatory flip-chart paper – by grouping them into several strands.
What additional work impacts our students?
Carer and family work: People can be parents, carers and have others that rely on them on a regular basis. Students may have to meet time-consuming expectations from family or community, which may compete with their studies.
Emotional work: Students must now do varying degrees of work to become independent, and for many this is a big task, requiring significant emotional work, such as stress around losing from one social network and establishing another, leaving the support of family, and feeling homesick. But, it might also involve responding to and coping with overt and hidden discrimination, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions connected to race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Micro-aggressions may appear to the enquirer simply curious, friendly questions, but to the recipient might be upsetting assumptions and fatiguing to deal with constantly:
‘Sasha is critical of the assumptions that non-Black students make about her. As Sasha puts it, she is often forced into the role of “cultural expert” and this creates awkward and uncomfortable situations that she has to deal with. As a Black woman, Sasha is expected to have knowledge about dance, hair and music and “give” non-Black students her culture.’ (Morales, 2014)
Solution and support seeking: Students with specific learning needs, mental or physical health needs may arrive at University without their prior support network. Students may well need to spend time developing a new support network, battling bureaucracy, and accessing support. To address limited financial support, some students may need to undertake paid part-time work.
Extra-study: Students may need to put in significantly more work to complete the same academic tasks as their peers. For example, dyslexic students or students with English as an additional language, may take longer to read an article – needing to translate both the language and conceptual model. Students with limited mobility may need additional time moving around campus.
Adapting to academic culture: For some students, it may take significant time recognising and adapting to academic traditions, rules and processes, whilst for others, the ways people and the the institution operate may be more similar to their prior experiences and so easier to understand and predict. Some students may find it harder to create their academic identity and voice, perhaps, in part, due to not seeing people like themselves represented within the academic community. Leading them to feel like they don’t belong and good ole ‘imposter syndrome’.
Ambassadorial work: Being a minority in a Higher Education setting, may mean a student is frequently called upon to spend additional time representing their ‘group’ and their experiences. This can occur particularly in interview panels and committees, as the the University actively seeks to hear from marginalised groups.
As time is finite, students that are spending time on these additional task, have less time and energy to spend on the ‘core’ work of being a student, and so may be disadvantaged in their studies. When these patterns are repeated amongst groups of students, we may start to see these patterns emerging in the form of gender imbalances in senior positions or BAME attainment gaps.
Can we share the burden of some of this work?
I’m not suggesting popping round to your student’s house and offering to babysit while they research their project. Although sometimes this happens.
Student came to class today with his child due to no babysitter or anybody to watch her while he was in class.
My professor NATHAN ALEXANDER said “I’ll hold her so you can take good notes!” #HBCU #morehouse #Respect pic.twitter.com/oogIqetseS
— TheOriginal™ (@Original_Vaughn) March 1, 2019
Instead, we can work with students to find solutions and develop support – by co-creating teaching and learning materials in a range of different formats, so students can use the ones that work for them. By co-developing accessable support, we can avoid making assumptions about what is or isn’t useful.
Secondly, we can think about the additional work some students may need to do around recognising and adapting to academic culture. There are two aspects. First, that we help make explicit, and help them to understand, our expectations around study, assessment and academic research.
‘It is healthy to remind ourselves how daunting and complex the conventions of academic writing look to first-year college students, even to most undergraduates, as they practice what seems, at first, a set of secret handshakes and esoteric codes, requiring arcane passwords and goofy stances… And it is salutary to remind ourselves about these complexities of college writing when we begin discussions about writing development.’ (Sommers, 2008)
We can discuss what we mean by ‘independent study’, ‘critical analysis’ and ‘good writing’, and illustrate these expectations with concrete, relevant examples. We can co-develop marking rubrics and assessment criteria to develop a shared understanding of assessment literacy.
And we can work with our students to reflect on the ways we pass on knowledge and skills, and how we assess student learning. Are some of our practices more challenging for certain students? Is this a threshold that they must reach in order to be a ‘graduate of the discipline’? If the practice is, then how can we help ALL our students to reach it, no matter what their starting point it? If the practice isn’t that important to the discipline, then perhaps an alternative form of assessment would be more inclusive.
The key to inclusivity, is working, honestly, and genuinely with our diverse students, to develop a new way forward, that negotiates the challenging power-dynamic between teacher-student and partners.
“Accordingly these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors… Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust. The convert who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer; and attempts to impose his “status”, remains nostalgic towards his origins.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Evans, L., & Moore, W. L. (2015). Impossible burdens: White institutions, emotional labor, and micro-resistance. Social Problems, 62(3), 439-454.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1968. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder.
Hannam-Swain, S. (2018). The additional labour of a disabled PhD student. Disability & Society, 33(1), 138-142.
Morales, E. (2014). Intersectional Impact: Black Students and Race, Gender and Class Microaggressions in Higher Education. Race, Gender & Class, 21(3/4), 48-66. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43496984
Sommers, N. (2008). The call of research: A longitudinal view of writing development. College Composition and Communication, 60(1), 152-164.