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UIC TA Handbook - A Conversation: In So Many Voices, To So Many Voices

By Olivia Gude

Professor Emerita, School of Art and Design
UIC College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts

By Dawn Kelly

Former Teaching Assistant
MA, English UIC
BA African-American Studies UIC
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Graduate College


Olivia: We've been asked to talk about diversity in the classroom, which is a big topic to cover in a few pages. How can we give other teaching assistants a lifetime of experiences, in what will be for them, for us all, a lifetime of work?

Dawn: My focus throughout my graduate career in my own studies, as well as in the way I teach, is multicultural­ ism. It's been a difficult process, fine-tuning a syllabus and getting the class to flow and feel open about talking about issues of race, class, and gender. How does multiculturalism fit in with your work?

0: I'm an artist and my specialty is urban street murals, so my cultural sensibility has been formed by being part of a movement which was led by African American and Latin American artists. I'm the Coordinator of Art Education at UIC; I teach people to be art teachers. A lot of my work in education has been rethinking the practice of teaching. People's research or art is fresh and new, but often when they come to teaching they fall back on old models with­ out reconsidering their import or impact.

D: As an African American woman, one question I want to pose is, "In a predominantly White society how is multi­ cultural education and curriculum advantageous?" How do we show instructors its value to them and their students?

0: Yes, how do we foreground the ways in which diversity is a pleasure and not a problem to be solved?

D: Recently I was talking to one of my students who was complaining about the foreign language requirement.  "Why do I need to know another language? Everybody will just speak English." Many students are very apprehensive about a multicultural curriculum as far as language and culture are concerned.

0: It's difficult to force yourself to think outside of the cultural paradigm in which you were raised. As teachers we need to acknowledge to our students that it can be difficult and sometimes even painful to make changes. That may seem strange -- giving people sympathy for giving up xenophobic or even racist notions, but people need sup­ port as they go through the process of remaking their minds in a deep way.

Dawn, let's talk about some ways in which different cultural values manifest themselves in the classroom. I'm interested to note that when articulating what they value in a classroom, new teachers tend to think that their criteria for behavior and performance are dictated solely by the standards of their discipline. I believe what we value as teachers may vary depending on our cultural orientations. Knowing this can make communication in teaching a lot more effective.

D: Language acquisition is different for different groups of people. For example, many of our students are from African American and Latino communities which emphasize oral culture. These privilege speech and show and music. It's perhaps harder for these students to find a written voice, to fit into the language paradigm of the university. This is not only a racial thing; it's also a class issue. Many UIC students are the first generation in their families learning to intensively read, research, and write.

0: I try to help students connect the way they write to the way they talk. I try to show models of writing by people like bell hooks and Zora Neale Hurston, where there is a clear connection between the written and the oral. I encourage students to use culturally specific voices in their writing. I also try to be multi-voiced in my teaching, switching language codes, sometimes repeating the same idea in different language styles as a way to reach all the students and as a way to develop the complexity of the thought.

D: Students need to know the rules, but a lot of times when you know the rules you can break them. In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison describes being a "minority" in America as having to know the other, but the other doesn't have to know us. It becomes hard when professors don't feel that it is important to learn about people who are different from themselves. Sometimes those of us who have historically been on the margins feel as though we have everything crammed down our throats.

0: The margins are considered to be very exciting places these days. Margins are borders. Being on the edge, cultural hybridity, and exchange are important areas in con­ temporary scholarship.

D: Yes, there are all kinds of new spaces; we need to read in between the lines now.

0: Teachers from the dominant culture don't always think carefully about themselves. They may tend to think of themselves as generic, as normal, and to think of their values as uniquely appropriate to the standards of university life. They don't think of these as culturally specific.

How can you begin to re-think your own paradigm? A number of times I've recommended, seriously and jokingly, that a person take a year and read only books by non­White people or perhaps only read books by women. This suggestion sometimes makes people very nervous or angry. I've actually done this myself. I think it causes one to explore the depth and diversity of work by scholars whom we may not previously have read.

As a White professor, this has caused me to formulate a rule for myself--! need to be familiar with the resources that a professional of the same ethnicity as my students would be. For example, I've taught many African American students so I feel it's important to be well versed in the criticism and art of prominent African American artists and scholars. This means that when I construct courses, I include diverse writers and artists from the beginning, and I will easily use such work as examples and comparisons in my teaching.

D: Another issue we should mention is instructors stereo­ typing their students. This can manifest itself in a number of ways. When I began my teaching career, I worried that I would have problems with white, male privileged students. In fact, for me they have been active and respectful students. Also, it's important to avoid tokenism. Don't talk about welfare and turn to a Black student for information or discuss gangs and ask for information from the Latino young men.

0: We can also mention strategies for understanding students whose background or culture we may not know much about. I was teaching a seminar in which there were two Chinese women; they were very quiet in class. I thought maybe they just didn't find the seminar particularly useful or interesting. I made an effort to have coffee with each of these women, and discovered that each had very different stories.

One woman was terrified of being called on in class and of having to speak publicly in English. I would not have guessed this as her English was quite good. We talked about her fear and my belief that to make a living as a visual artist she needed to have strong language skills to communicate with clients or to contextualize her work critically. I felt that I had to call on her. She still hated speaking in class. Even though we couldn't reach a simple solution, we reached an understanding of how each of us thought about the situation.

I can't recommend this enough to new teachers. Try to think from your student's point of view. Sometimes we need to overcome our own fear of being judged harshly in order to sit down together and find out what is on the other person's mind.

D: It's important to understand how another's mind works. Though, in my teaching, I found that in many Asian cultures, the thesis of a paper always comes at the end. This is true in business writing and in academic writing. When teaching courses that require a lot of writing, it is pretty surprising to a teacher when you are reading a paper where the student has jumped right in and you don't even know what you are reading about until that information comes at the end.

It helps to know where the students are coming from in order to help them get where they need to go. For many Asian students it is culturally disrespectful to make direct eye contact. The quiet nature sometimes is out of respect for the teacher and the material; yet we might think the students are bored or unprepared.

0: Years ago when I was first teaching, I had a Thai student. I was frustrated because I couldn't make eye contact with him -- I wanted to establish direct, open communication, to get to know him. All the while this young man was desperately trying to be respectful and avoid eye contact. Later we laughed about this, but at the time it was confusing and upsetting for both of us.

When we teachers become more diverse in our cultural knowledge, we can understand the signals our students are sending us and then can act and teach more accurately. There is no substitute for experience over time, but much can be learned from the immediate direct experience of talking things over with our students.

D: The important thing is to keep your mind open as an instructor so when these new experiences come you won't be surprised.

When I come into a room in a predominantly White institution with predominantly White teachers and I open the door and stand in front of the class and the students are all shocked, it might be the first time that any of them have had a Black teacher, let alone a young Black teacher, let alone a young Black female teacher. It's obvious that they are uncomfortable. It's obvious that I am uncomfortable so I like to immediately address the issue. I let them know a little about me and my background and interests so they can know something about who I am, and can ask me questions.

I like to open things up so students know they are allowed to disagree with me and with their classmates. We discuss heated issues, but we are able to do so in an intelligent fashion, supporting our ideas with academic research. I lay the ground rules out. Students are not allowed to interrupt each other or use slurs, but they are encouraged to research and discuss issues that pertain to them or are interesting to them. We've been given a lot of freedom as teachers for research and learning and I give that freedom to my students. Also, I find audio and visual information really help to interest students. When they see films and faces, the subject is alive for them.

O: Dawn, that's a good point to emphasize. An important kind of diversity in education is diversity of learning styles. Teachers need to bring a whole range of visual and auditory resources into the classroom. This style of teaching which includes various learning modalities allows students with different strengths to understand, learn, and prosper.

D: One exercise I like to do is to have students tape themselves reading their papers because I am convinced that the ear doesn't fool you as the eye will fool you. If students actually hear how they sound, they can sometimes pick up on some really creative things or on grammatical errors.

I also require that everyone participate in doing a presentation. If students don't feel comfortable presenting alone, they can do it as part of a group. I also like to turn some of the class time over to my students for them to teach. One of my Korean students did the best presentation of the semester. She was so frightened, but afterwards the class was sincerely telling her that she did a great job. This builds realistic self-esteem.

I ask my students to read in front of a mirror. I like them to see themselves, to see their mouths, to see how they look, and not to be so frightened. I want students to over­ come that fear because they are going to have to speak out to succeed in the world.

A ground rule I set in my classroom is that students are not allowed to make fun of other students. I don't like to hear about this happening in or out of the classroom. I like to set up a community; we are kind of like a little family. We respect each other.

O: For diverse students to feel comfortable, the teacher has to set a very strong standard for what it means to be in a community of learners. That, in itself, is a very definite cultural choice. This is one of the changes in educational thought which was spurred by feminist pedagogical theory. I also see it as an idea which is very strong in the African American community.

It is possible to create a style of teaching which is about cooperation and not about competition. Learning is a kind of collaboration. When I think about the best classes I have taught, ones in which exceptional students were doing exceptional work, there was an ecology of learning. Students were actively and creatively enhancing each others' learning through dialogue. The conversations that students were having before and after class were about the subject of the class.

I think we as teachers can foster that kind of learning by encouraging group presentations and structuring time within class for small group discussions. Look for techniques of cooperative learning which enhance the notion that students learn together, that they don't succeed by virtue of putting each other down in order to show them­ selves off.

D: In the African American community, we like to eat. We love to eat. Food brings everybody together. It's a time when we go around the table and tell stories. Usually a couple of times during the semester, we have a potluck in class, fruit or doughnuts or whatever. In the rush to get our research done and our work done, maybe we are not taking the time to get to know each other.

0: It seems that much of what we are talking about as multicultural teaching involves choosing to introduce other styles and values into the classroom, about creating a cli­ mate of closeness and sharing. I can hear someone asking, "What's that got to do with teaching? I'm not here to be a counselor or a friend; I'm here to disseminate information and these students ought to be here to learn." But contextualizing learning and teaching in a relationship is an important, age-old alternative model of teaching. It isn't misunderstanding our role as a person who has serious knowledge and, one would hope, life wisdom to share with students, but rather it fosters learning within a context which is more interactive, rooted in dialogue.

I think it is a good idea for new teachers not to provide a fully detailed syllabus for the whole semester from the beginning. I think it's best to plan the first few weeks care­ fully and then to issue a revised syllabus that incorporates the students' needs and interests. I like to use combination "test surveys" to plan my final weeks of class. A sur­ vey test could include questions such as "What three ideas from the class stand out for you as important to understanding the subject? What has been the most unfamiliar or jarring idea or concept you have encountered in this class? What has been difficult for you? Can you suggest changes in the structure of the class (for this year or for the future) which would facilitate learning?"

D: I'd like to talk about the importance of mentoring. In their article, Hal, Sandler, and Blackwell have written about how the lack of mentoring for Black graduate students makes their university experience difficult. We should go out and look for students who are different from us to mentor. You might learn most from the student who is least like you, and they might learn the most from you.

It felt really good when some of my White professors took the time out to help me and encourage me when I came back to school as a young mother. When they said, "I know your work; I know what you are dealing with; and I know you can do it." That created a space for me to exist as a whole person within the university.

0: We've talked a lot about how we teach. Maybe we could spend some more time talking about what we choose to teach.

There are highly publicized culture wars happening in this society. Big names in academia argue about what should be in the canon, but in many university courses the teacher has a fair amount of latitude in choosing what is to be taught. We make the canon. It's the people who we choose to include in the syllabus, the extra photocopied article, the comparisons and criticisms that we introduce into the curriculum that form what students will learn, what they will go into life considering to be important. So it's crucial that even though teaching assistants have the pressure of their own work and research, they also must make a serious effort to introduce diversity into their curriculum.

This can be done in many different ways. In the humanities and social sciences it is clear that we can include a wide range of sources and points of view. Yet all teachers tell stories and those stories can include a range of examples from many cultures about the people who contributed to the body of knowledge being taught. In the sciences, this may mean making the effort to know about scientists from diverse backgrounds, to know the history of the development of one's discipline.

In Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum, Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr suggest that a contemporary curriculum which is postmodern in nature will make use of the concept of "double coding" in curriculum design. Double coding in postmodern discourse is the recognition that many contemporary works are deliberate hybrids of various cultural traditions. Rather than attempting to "smooth our different systems of representation and interpretation into a harmonious whole, double coded works create meaning out of the dialectic generated by juxtaposition and the resulting cognitive tension.

This is a good way to think about designing classes -­ using a double, triple, multiply coded curriculum. In such a class, students see not one monolithic body of knowledge or type of interpretation, but many. Students learn that all knowledge is created within communities of discourse. When we consciously use this principle of double coding a curriculum, learning becomes very rich. Students see that there are many ways to construct and reconstruct meaning, rather than a singular, 'correct' interpretation or understanding.

D: We talked earlier about Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. Because of this book we now have a new model by which we can read 19th century literature. There is new work coming out every day, all kinds of new things such as psycholanalytic readings of slave narratives. We can delve in and read Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs differently than we've read them before. The research is coming and coming and it's our job to be aware of this because then we inform our students and we inform our colleagues.

0: It is painful for young teachers to recognize the limits of their cultural understanding. I always say "Forgive your­ self. You are the product of the education you were given. It may be your education which has shaped you to this point, but your job now is to become a new teacher who is much more culturally diverse." When I look back to when I started teaching, I was really ignorant. I learned by introducing things into my classes and studying with my students. It felt like playing catch up football. You may not have a lot of depth in an area, but you bring it in and the process of teaching is also the process of learning. Over the years you gradually develop a more complex cultural view.

D: Yes, I think people have to recognize that work is done in collaboration with your students and your peers. I come back to my early question, "Why do all this?"

When you open up in this way, you find that your students respect you and they want to learn from you because they admire you: you know so much and are open to so many things. I find that I have students who are excited about what we are learning. Sometimes even if I don't bring in a multicultural aspect, I think it is kind of an aura that I exude -- "I'm here to teach and I'm here to learn."

There is a way we can reach people from so many back­ grounds -- class, culture, race -- by taking the theory and applying it to our lives. We can break bread together, or have a cup of coffee together, take part in a dialogue. We can foster the idea of a learning community. UIC is such a diverse campus with people from so many different backgrounds, we have to speak in so many voices, and listen to so many voices. We have to continue to develop ways to do that.


Delpit, L. (1995). Other People's Children. New York: The New Press. Elland, A., Freedman, K., Stuhr, P., (1996). Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum, Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

hooks, b. (1994).  Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paley, V. G. (1979). White Teacher. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trend, D. (1992). Cultural Pedagogy: Art / Education / Politics. New York; Bergin & Garvey.

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