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Participation in classroom discussions: talking about differences

by Olga Panteleeva (Lecturer in Musicology) and Berteke Waaldijk (Professor in Language and Culture Studies)


The need for this article grew out of a conversation about the challenges that we, as teachers, face in our everyday effort to foster equity in classroom. We will start with an example of a real-life situation that shows how diversity, inclusiveness, and internationalization are intertwined in Utrecht University classrooms, and exemplifies pedagogical problems many of us encountered. Then we will offer several strategies and suggestions that could help stimulate diversity and inclusion, both indirectly and in a direct conversation with the students. In hope to start a dialogue, we invite our colleagues to share their experiences and advice in comments to this post.


In block 2 I (Olga Panteleeva) co-taught a course in music history for first year bachelor students. The student body in the course was balanced equally in terms of gender: for instance, one representative lecture attendance sheet listed names of 24 men and 23 women. Far from equal, however, was the balance between genders during class discussions. From the first class it was apparent that men spoke more frequently than women did. To be sure, I counted how many times male and female voices sounded in class. Per 10 comments or answers from men there came about 7 comments or answers from women (which, on that particular day, predominantly came from the same student). Review sessions, which I conducted in game format (Jeopardy!), gave further evidence of the problematic gender dynamics. I offered the game to different groups six times, and in all six cases it was men who scored the highest points. This game relies not solely on knowledge, but on how ambitious a student is in choosing questions – that is if they are not shy of picking a difficult 300-point question and trying to answer it publicly, they are more likely to score higher points.

A colleague recognized a similar situation: in his classroom, too, the quiet ones were usually women. He described a weird moment that happened in his course on the history of popular music, when a conversation about gender in popular music and singers such as Madonna and Beyonce, was dominated by men. This created a strange dynamics in the group, despite the fact that these students were saying intelligent and progressive things.

During the course I tried to bring class discussions more into balance, making sure that I do not overlook comments from women, and calling on individual students, but this did not solve the problem entirely. There is only so much you can do when there are more male than female students who volunteer to speak.

In one of the last classes we were having a lively exchange about inequality and oppression, prompted by an example of anti-Semitism in Bach’s Johannes-Passion. So, it felt natural to address gender inequity as well. In the end of the class I invited those students who have not yet participated to voice their opinions on a different topic we discussed during the seminar. Since all of them were women, I added that speaking publicly is a very important skill that we are learning to master in this course, and it is in particular important skill for women, because our upbringing and social conditioning rarely encourages us to be assertive in public space.

After class, two students approached me and said that I should not have singled out a specific group of people for special treatment; that I was creating a problem where there wasn’t one; that the reason for people being less active in class lay in individual differences of character, rather than systemic problems; that sexism in The Netherlands no longer existed; and – as our conversation progressed – that the reason why there are less women than men holding important governmental positions was that women don’t choose to go in politics for various personal reasons, not because they face any obstacles.

This conversation reminded me how hard it is to see inequality and systemic oppression in our everyday interactions, if one does not yet possess the proper conceptual framework to think about it. It is easy to forget that what seems self-evident to us as experienced researchers may not be so to the first-year BA students.


* * *

I (Berteke Waaldijk) recognized these experiences from my own seminars, and from conversations with colleagues. The last spoke about examples such as Olga describes. Many also indicated their unwillingness to address ‘visible’ or invisible differences between their students. As teachers they fear that addressing students in their differences may turn out a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The two of us concluded that talking about difference with students is a virtuosic balancing act nobody teaches us how to perform. Students might wonder what place such issues should have in e.g. a history, linguistics or media seminar, they can even dismiss them out of hand as non-issues. We came up with several strategies for speaking with students about complicated topics such as gender equity, racial and ethnic diversity and the (ir-)relevance of sex/gender distinctions in UU classrooms. We want to find ways for explaining necessity and objective of such conversations, as well as engaging with possible criticism.


  1. Explain the difference between “opinion” and “expertise.” Tell students that they are as free as you are in the choice of their opinions, but that training as academics requires being aware of different positions on a particular issue. In order to participate in public and private discussions they have to practice voicing their opinions in awareness of other viewpoints.


  1. Reclaim your position as an expert. Explain that academic study is not only about knowledge and insight, but also about being able to join debates about sensitive, complicated topics where knowledge from your field plays a role. Explain that you take your responsibility to train your students to conduct such conversations very seriously and that is why you want all students to participate in them. What value would an academic training have if history students fall silent when a comparison between contemporary politics and Nazism is being made, if veterinarians do not dare to voice their opinion about animal abuse in factory farming, or if students of musicology shy away from debates on anti-Semitism in beloved classical compositions?


  1. If such conversations are being perceived as political, ask the students to reflect on what politics is. The idea that “the personal is political” – that is the focus on understanding “private” matters through the lens of various theoretical frameworks – has been one of the cornerstones of humanistic research in recent decades.


  1. Point out that such conversations are not only beneficial for academic training, but they contribute to making the university classroom a comfortable space for everyone. They help students acquire the sensitivity and conceptual apparatus to recognize inequality in everyday life and counteract exclusion.


  1. Often, young, female, and foreign teachers, as well as teachers of color are particularly likely to find their authority and expertise being challenged when they address differences that students see as about the teacher, not about the teaching. Pedagogical interventions are being perceived as merely their opinions. The authority of these teachers cannot rely on the traditional image of a professor as white, male, Dutch, and older. Discuss such criticism with your colleagues, make it public. Talk to your male and female, Dutch and foreign colleagues – have they experienced this type of criticism from students in the same way? How did they deal with it?


  1. Ask your colleagues if they perceive the same gendered patterns in class discussions. Do they perceive it as a problem? How do they help female students to be ambitious and active in public debates without forcing stereotypes of masculinity on male students, and without discouraging the women who do speak up?


  1. Ask students’ opinion. What kind of environment they find comfortable for speaking in class? Do they have suggestions on what you can do to improve it?


  1. Separate the discussion of difference (gender, class, race, linguistic caps, sexuality) from addressing individual students. Make sure that you include axes of exclusion in your teaching, mention race, class, gender, sexual orientation several times in your teaching. However, when you invite students to speak up, do not address them as representatives of difference: you would risk reinforcing differences that you want to challenge. Do not invite women to speak as a woman, do not expect foreigners to speak as foreigners, do not make minority students responsible for explaining the ‘minority experience’ and do not require students who subvert gender differences to describe what it is to be transgender. It is the students’ prerogative to invoke such identities or to deny, subvert and redefine them. However, it is your responsibility to make clear that such invocations and subversions are possible and legitimate. In other words: address diversity, but do not outsource the responsibility for it.


Here are some teaching techniques that seek to foster a comfortable environment for speaking in class, and to actively engage those less inclined to speak publicly for whatever reason. (This list is partly based on students’ answers to a questionnaire about speaking in class):


  1. Asking students to work in pairs and small groups before discussion is indispensable. Talking informally to their peers gives students a chance to formulate their thoughts before stepping up in front of the whole class. The results of working in groups do not necessarily have to be voiced in front of everybody: they can be submitted in writing or in other forms (analytical schemes and charts, etc.)


  1. Allowing students to write down their thoughts first makes them more willing to contribute and to feel less “on the spot”. Also, this is a good opportunity to practice their writing skills, if you ask them to write a coherent paragraph.


  1. In the beginning of the course do a little icebreaker activity, in which everybody says something: students would learn each other’s’ names and discover mutual interests. It is easier to speak to a familiar audience and it is important to establish right away that everybody’s voice matters.


  1. Include open-ended discussions, in addition to factual questions. Some students are more comfortable in conversations, where there is no single correct answer. Think of discussion questions that allow students to associate the class topic with their own experiences and thus share their own perspectives with others.


  1. During group work, walk around the room and follow up, chat with the students, provide explanations and mini-lectures to groups that ask for them. More students will be comfortable to talk in one-on-one conversation with the teacher.


  1. Sometimes, when someone responds in front of the whole class, there are conversations going on in the background, which is distracting and unpleasant for the person, who is on the spot. Make sure that everybody is listening and respectful to the speaker.


Waaldijk, M.L. (Berteke)
8 februari 2016

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