An acclaimed educator named Bryan Dewsbury drew wide attention last year thanks to a Chronicle of Higher Education article that explored the ways in which the University of Rhode Island assistant professor of biology sought to awaken the very souls of his students.
Bio professors don’t typically talk this way about undergraduates, but Dewsbury’s ideas resonated with Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). Director Robin Paige invited Dewsbury to speak at the CTE’s annual symposium on teaching and learning, where he delivered an insightful lecture and a workshop on “inclusive teaching.”
Inclusive teaching, Dewsbury told the Rice educators who packed into a Brockman Hall classroom Jan. 10, can be broadly defined as simply acknowledging that students come into each new course with diverse backgrounds and social experiences — and that these differences can be hindrances or strengths depending on how they’re allowed to impact the classroom experience.
Likewise, he said, it’s important for educators to acknowledge their own backgrounds and potential biases as they interact with students. And pitting professors against students or vice versa — the classic “kids these days” criticisms, for instance — is conclusively unhelpful.
“I'm standing here with the assumption that a student who's paying $40,000 in tuition doesn’t get up in the morning and say, ‘How quickly can I get an F in this class? I'm trying to lose this deposit,’” Dewsbury said. “I am also going to assume that no faculty member is getting out of bed in the morning and saying, ‘I am aiming for a 3% pass rate.’”
Instead, he said, a more useful exercise is to ask ourselves and each other: “How can we design a system to allow both of these actors to be their best selves?”
One of the techniques Dewsbury has put into practice in pursuit of that better system is spending more classroom time on discussions rather than lectures. He also uses randomization software to assign students to work in highly diverse groups, which encourages them to consider the needs, values and perspectives of people they may not have otherwise chosen to work with.
When students feel seen, heard and connected in class, Dewsbury said, the data shows they also learn better. Getting there, however, requires an educator to swallow a somewhat bitter pill: more of this type of interaction with students means focusing less on course content.
Dewsbury, in fact, reported that he’d reduced the amount of content taught during his own biology courses by 40%. Students are expected to learn that content outside of the classroom through readings and other assignments. But when they’re learning more effectively overall, his data showed, that’s not really a problem.
Producing highly engaged students who become better at learning and thinking is just one reason inclusion matters in the classroom, he said. In the grand scheme of things, students who are involved, active and educated go on to do and create great things.
Dewsbury pointed to the historic examples of powerful civil rights organizations and movements that sprang from empowered students at North Carolina A&T State University and Shaw University, which began with student sit-in protests at segregated restaurant counters across the South.
“One of the reasons why I love my job is because I see what a class could be,” Dewsbury said. “When you teach people the liberating power of education, it’s exciting to see what they will try and do with that — how they can use that to shift their reality in a way that's just for them.”