• Nick Miller

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion via Experiential Learning

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

For the annual Governor’s Teaching Fellows program this year, I have been designing a course titled "Valdosta and the Legacies of Jim Crow." This course is unlike anything I have taught before, and it matters to me a great deal to me in terms of content and approach. You see, I have been eager to design a class that explicitly interrogates the legacy of racism in this country, but one that does so through an experiential learning framework. For years I have argued that education is not just about knowledge production, but also about affect production. Yet my courses—as well-constructed or well-executed as they may be—have invariably taught about race and racism through conventional content delivery techniques. Recently, I have worried that my classroom approach has been limited in the same ways that being "aware" of racism is not the same thing as being actively anti-racist. So the questions that haunt me are these: How can I effectively design a course or a program that makes my efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) more experiential? And what considerations need to be made before attempting an experiential approach to my DEI efforts?

These questions dovetail nicely with other concerns that appear in my teaching philosophy. Indeed, as I have been working on objectives for this specific course, I have found myself reading and reflecting on the importance of emotional literacy to social justice. I would go so far as to argue that emotional literacy is as essential (if not more essential) to anti-racist work as other forms of information literacy. In other words, an effective course that engages with DEI efforts and experiential learning would foreground the need to develop emotional literacy and—as education scholars Cheryl Matias and Janiece Mackey contend—"learn to take ownership of [our] own emotional responses to learning about race, racism, white supremacy, and whiteness." In grappling with these issues, students must also consider the emotional responses of others, which may be similar to or different from their own. In terms of the course that I am designing, I imagine making these kinds of emotional responses possible by treating the community itself as an extension of the classroom and our campus; we would travel to various sites in Valdosta and find ourselves connecting to others who have walked, breathed, and made their lives in these places. These experiences may challenge students to ask themselves difficult questions about where they belong and to reflect on their purpose in the world. Those experiences likely will be very different based on their personal and family histories, identity categories, etc. Some of the experiences will make members of the class feel seen in ways they often are not, some may bring up painful experiences of intergenerational trauma, and some may make members of the class feel uncomfortable as we confront the long legacy of racism and segregation all around us.

My hope is that this course will provide students with an opportunity to better understand two things: that racism exists, and that it exists here. In other words, racism is not something that just happened in the past, nor is it a problem that simply exists somewhere else. Now these may seem like pretty obvious statements, but my goal is not simply for students to know this, but to feel it as well. Again, this course takes as its premise the idea that learning is both embodied (i.e. it is experienced physically and spatially) and affective (i.e. it is experienced emotionally). With that in mind, we would not only tackle questions about racial justice through academic writings, but also videos, interviews, social media, visual art, public spaces, monuments, and other modes of meaning-making that provide us with alternative ways of understanding how race is constructed and made manifest in Valdosta and similar communities. And, if the course is successful, I hope that it might model practices for developing DEI approaches to our curricula that are similarly experiential in nature.

I will note, of course, that such ideas are not new. In some ways, I suppose I am reiterating what John Dewey argued many years ago in terms of his philosophy of "learning by doing." Dewey argued that learning by doing works because it teaches implicitly rather than explicitly. Accordingly, things that are learned implicitly need only be experienced in the proper way at the proper time. Yet in order to foster such learning-by-doing, we need to facilitate experiences in which students occupy spaces germane to these interests.

To put a point on this, I want to draw on the writings of Matias and Mackey again. You see, like them I believe that "racial justice education requires much more than simply correcting misinformation or developing and applying a racial justice analysis. Racial justice content is highly affective; indeed, part of the problematic nature of racial categories is the ways they have been constructed to evoke feeling states and emotions (e.g. safety, fear, distrust)." Yet even as I make this claim, I recognize that this is not a particularly simple exercise. Indeed, my biggest question as I ponder this is: How do I facilitate the potential trauma of these learning experiences for Black students without projecting that trauma onto them? Similarly, how might I design courses like this in ways that foreground the multiplicity and richness of Black experiences, rather than reproducing Black suffering as spectacle? I do not have good answers to those questions, and may need to enlist students as co-collaborators as I work through those concerns. Such collaboration has long been part of course design for me.

Ultimately, I suppose I want to think more carefully about DEI efforts and experiential learning because I am still grappling with the advice that James Baldwin gave teachers back in 1963: "I would try to make him [the Negro child] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful, and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him." Baldwin was writing specifically on behalf of Black children, but I believe that his advice is salient to the education of all children—and particularly those who have been ignored, pushed to the margins, or tokenized in our schools. It is my hope that by taking expanding our DEI curricula into the communities where we live, we might come to the same realization: that the world is larger than we knew.

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