The other day I attended an interesting forum on “Teaching about diversity in Australian Universities” which included discussion of ways of responding to situations when students at Uni make homophobic, racist or other socially divisive comments in class.
I was asked to talk briefly about my experience teaching online. On reflection I realised that I haven’t really had many of these types of situation in my online teaching (which is about community engagement). In a way it’s surprising given how many inappropriate comments there are in blogs and facebook. There have been a couple of instances where people have got stuck into me publicly, but there haven’t been offensive comments.
My current teaching is quite different to when I was doing face-to-face teaching. As well as it being online, there is quite a difference between teaching students from the one discipline and teaching an elective open to students from a wide range of disciplines. In the past I have been teaching youth workers, social workers and community workers. In all these there is a commitment to social inclusion and social justice. In the current course (or subject) I’m teaching there are 104 students from 26 different degrees. There are some students from degrees where social inclusion/justice are a foundation of their discipline (e.g., social work, development studies). There are students from degrees where they mightn’t be a foundation but they are generally recognised as being important (e.g., teaching, nursing). There are also students from degrees where these concepts are probably not an important part of their discipline (e.g., science, construction management, business).
When I teach youth workers and community workers I can expect that their professional practice will be consistent with notions of social justice and inclusion. If students speak disparagingly about gays and lesbians or Aboriginal communities, I have no hesitation in saying this is unacceptable. Before I had children, I often used to hide whether or not I was gay. I would talk about my partner rather than wife and so on. Then if someone made a homophobic comment I could say something along the lines of, “How do you know if I am gay or straight? Does it really make any difference?” (Once I had kids, as soon as I said I had kids people assumed that I was straight and I was more likely to mention Cathy so it was much harder to be ambiguous).
Now that I’m teaching students from many different disciplines, I can’t have the same expectation. I still do expect them to be respectful and I certainly emphasise the importance of social inclusion, but I can’t rely on the profession being built on a commitment to it.
My practice of community engagement focuses mainly on community building, where social inclusion is important. In my teaching, I need to recognise that not all community engagement is about community building – e.g., the main reason a mining company wants to engage the community is not about community building (although some community engagement strategies by mining companies do involve effective community building).
So how do I approach social inclusion and social justice in the course?
First, I try to demonstrate good practice in inclusion and community engagement. When students make their introductory post we respond to every person individually. I try to answer questions quickly. When it was just me responding to questions I generally answered question within 12 hours (often quicker). I can’t expect tutors (who now answer many queries) to respond as quickly so we try to make sure we respond with 48 hours. I send out regular emails with reminders and useful information, and also check how they are getting on.
Second, the required readings includes material on social inclusion in community engagement. I probably could increase this content but there are readings which emphasise the importance of community engagement being inclusive.
Third, I provide extra material that focuses on social justice or social inclusion. For example: Twelve ingredients for inclusive community engagement; Literature on engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities and case studies of community engagement that encourages social inclusion.
Fourth, I provide this blog. I started the blog largely as a resource for students in the course. I’m not sure how much they use it, but it provide quite a few resources that could be useful to them. It also allows me to be more open about my commitment to the environment and social justice. In the course, I am careful about being too “political”. In the blog I can be more open. I realise there is some debate about how open lecturers should be about their ideology and I have decided that I will not hide my stance, but not expect students to share it. I hope that if students come to the blog they might be exposed to some new ideas or ways of seeing social issues.
Fifth, the course encourages interaction between students with different perspectives. Ten per cent of the final mark is based on contributing to a number of Discussion Board topics (online forums). Some literature of online teaching encourages using smaller tute groups for this type of task so that students have a greater sense of belonging. I’ve asked students, but generally they have liked the option of being able to see the posts by all the other students. Some have said they still want contact with a tutor, so we divide the students alphabetically between the three tutors. The tutor reads all their posts and provides a contact for the course. The students, however, are free to read which ever of the posts in the course they want.
Finally, students are encouraged to disagree with each other but are reminded to “make sure all postings are done in a respectful manner” and at the start of the course they are encouraged to read some material about netiquette.
If I was in a face-to-face situation, I think it would be easier to engage students in discussion about issues to do with social change and social inclusion. I would probably have exercises that encourage students to reflect on inclusion and exclusion, it would be easier to engage students more in discussion about their values and I would explore the ethics of community engagement in greater depth through tute activities.
I might have to think about how I can increase the content on social inclusion and encourage greater self-reflection as I think it is crucial to the wellbeing of our communities.