By Kawther Ramadan, Teaching Assistant, Feminist Institute of Social Transformation
Imagine a classroom where every student feels seen, heard, and valued – a place where diversity is not just respected but celebrated. Representation and diversity in classrooms form the cornerstone of creating an inclusive and welcoming educational environment. Participatory teaching, along with the nurturing of relationships with students, forms the bedrock of an enlightened learning culture. This culture is steadfastly committed to dismantling the systemic barriers of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism, with the aim of creating a truly equitable academic space. In this context, teaching is not just an exercise in information transfer; it’s a powerful act of resistance against invisibility, serving as a means to understand and challenge the societal forces that shape our everyday lives. All learning is political, as teachers and students undergo a paradigm shift and recognize their biases in the power structure (hooks, 1994). Furthermore, dialogue between the teacher/student and student/teachers is crucial to create a pedagogy with the oppressed (Freire, 2005).
Being a TA at Carleton University has been a transformative experience for me in terms of realizing the connection between learning and marginalization. As a woman of colour who wears a hijab, speaks with an accent, and uses English as a second language, I have faced myriad challenges and complexities that intertwine with my personal experiences. I immigrated from Egypt to Canada in 2017, bringing with me extensive experience in journalism and working with non-profit organizations. I discovered, however, that resuming my education was my primary means to surmount numerous obstacles, address vulnerabilities, and ensure that my voice is acknowledged and valued. Choosing to undertake graduate studies at the Feminist Institute for Social Transformation at Carleton was an appropriate decision for me. It provided a platform to delve into topics like critical race studies, power dynamics, migration, and diaspora, all within a transnational and intersectional framework.
The Importance of Representation
Representation in the classroom is crucial because when students see individuals similar to them integrated into course content, they can visualize themselves as belonging to the discipline they are studying. It is important to have diverse TAs in the classroom because this connects cultures, includes different voices, and reduces indirect bias. Students are much more motivated to learn in classrooms that recognize them, draw connections to their experiences, and respond to their concerns and struggles.
On my first day as a TA in (CRST2001A) Introduction to Critical Race Studies, I was worried that my accent would be an obstacle to connecting with students. Fortunately, some students of colour approached me and asked if my social background was like their own since they found my accent familiar to the ones they used to hear in their households. “Obviously, this is the race class,” another student commented to me as I stood in the teacher’s place while they were looking for her class on the first day. This was an effective ice-breaker for a discussion group talking about race studies. It led me to reflect on the phrase that communication theorist Marshall McLuhan (1964) once said: “The medium is the message.”
Teaching is also a means of overcoming essentialism, which is stereotyping, reducing a person’s identity to an “essential” characteristic, such as their race or gender, and suggesting that members of such a group have distinct characteristics that are fixed at birth (hooks, 1994). Many people might assume that all hijabi women are oppressed. Standing in class as a TA is a way to say I am visibly Muslim, I am a feminist, and I am not oppressed.
As a TA, it is effective to use various strategies, such as providing examples from different contexts that reflect other practices, including the impact of colonialism on the Global South. In addition, collaborative teaching is an effective way to include students in the learning process, and I learn from them as they learn from me. Building relationships with students is an essential role for a TA, and it is important to give every student a chance to speak, regardless of the class size.
My aim is to encourage students to get to know a diverse body of material that represents them as diverse genders, races, ethnicities, and linguistic groups. This approach helps reduce feelings of being underrepresented, isolated, and mistreated. In addition, it is vital to learn more about students’ backgrounds and bring information to them. Safety in the classroom can only happen when all students feel their voices are valued (hooks, 1994). Teachers of colour also need to feel safe and avoid being subjected to bullying. They need to ensure that the curriculum, learning environments, and work environments are inclusive and respectful of all racial and ethnic groups.My TA experience involves transitional or geopolitical teaching, which focuses on decentering Western civilization and learning from and contributing to the countries that have hosted us (Dittmar & Maher, 2015).
Participatory teaching is an effective way to include students in the learning process. “To become a feminist is to stay a student” (Ahmed, 2017). I learn from them as they learn from me. For example, I ask them to teach me how to pronounce some definitions in a “Canadian way.” Additionally, the information they share is invaluable when we analyze intersectionality and identify dominant groups in the Canadian context, such as socioeconomic class. By sharing my vulnerability as an Egyptian, Muslim, Arab, and low middle-class person, I help students of colour to show compassion and recognize their identities with a different perspective.
Building relationships with students is an essential role for a TA. I know I am on the right track when students interact with what I address in class, either positively or negatively. Hooks (1994) explains strategies she has used to give every student a chance to speak, such as having them write responses they share with the class, regardless of the class size. She also recognizes that some students cling to their old ways of learning and are resistant to learning in different ways. Hooks has had to deal with student complaints, but she realized that she had to let go of her need to be liked in the classroom.
One fundamental lesson from my inaugural year as a Teaching Assistant (TA) is that both learning and teaching are pathways to linking our personal experiences of marginalization with the broader struggle against oppression. Representation and diversity in classrooms can serve as a form of resistance to the forces of oppression that exist in our society. As a TA, it’s important to create an inclusive classroom and a welcoming educational environment by learning about students’ backgrounds. Also, providing multimedia materials that represent people from the Global South and reflect the diversity in the class, identifying unrepresented groups in the readings and examples provided, and inviting students to contribute and help provide useful resources that reflect their perspectives and diversity for use in class (CMIC, 2022). These methods aim to create a learning environment that is empowering, engaging, and transformative for all students.