By Rebecca Bromwich, Instructor, Department of Law and Legal Studies
Having taught part time for 10 years, I have come to teach full time at Carleton this year by way of a variety of other experiences. I was a graduate student in legal studies, and before that in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, a practicing lawyer, and have worked in corporate contexts in industry. A theme that unites the scholarship on feminist pedagogy, law practice management and corporate management is the notion that including diversity is tremendously valuable. It is useful to the learning experience in the post-secondary classroom and it is useful in workplaces.
For example, this article in the New York Times reports on how diverse teams are smarter. This writing from feminist pedagogical scholarship stresses how teaching and learning take place inside and outside the classroom best when people’s agencies are engaged in inclusive ways that recognize and acknowledge their varied social locations. Further, what we teach cannot be neatly separated from how we teach. And since I want to teach about democratic engagement with criminal law, I have to foster inclusive engagement in my classrooms.
I thought I had a strategy for inclusion all figured out for about 20 minutes of my full time teaching career. On the first day of class in one of my large lectures, I used the events of 2010’s Arab Spring as an example of a time and place where the boundaries between criminal acts, political dissent and protest were troubled. The use of this example to problematize simplistic definitions of what constitutes crime led one student to disclose that he was there, in a Middle Eastern country, participated in the protests, and was imprisoned and tortured there (I won’t give details in order to preserve the student’s privacy).
What this disclosure brought home to me was a reminder that students are coming to our classrooms with a varied wealth of knowledge and experience. Addressed appropriately, this knowledge can electrify our class discussions. Addressed inappropriately, students’ disclosures of personal and professional experiences can result in trauma to them and others, in re-inscription of unequal processes of silencing, and derailing of attempts to unpack the course material.
And what my surprise at this disclosure revealed to me was an implicit bias I hadn’t realized I held. While I knew Carleton’s student population was diverse, I had anticipated a big part of my role would be to try to awaken critical engagement in the complacent minds of suburban teen students. I now realize I was implicitly assuming my audience, or my class, would consist largely of privileged, young, middle class Canadians. Of course, some of my students are indeed middle class teens, but it is very apparent from my conversations with students and discussions in class, that world is not just somewhere else – out there – to be brought into our classrooms with assigned readings and media reports. Further, even privileged young people may have experienced a wide range of adverse circumstances. There is permeability between world events in Canada and abroad and our conversations in class about them.
So, with vigour renewed by a deeper awareness of the diversity of Carleton’s student body, I am thinking through ways to ensure their full participation in the class is facilitated through my guidance of class discussions. I anticipate this will be an ongoing process of reflection and self-critique, as well as of seeking feedback from learners.
It is, after all, not just my potential as a teacher and learner that I am seeking to unlock, but theirs.