What Does ‘Inclusion’ Include?: Making Space for Students

Erin Katherine Krafft

Figure 1. Portrait of WEB Du Bois by Carl Van Vechten

One of the courses that I teach most frequently is a social theory course for students in their second year of college. I teach no first-year courses, so the students are new to me, and I am new to them. On the first day, facing these twenty-five strangers (or fifty – I often teach two sections), my first and most important task, my most urgent objective, is to move beyond strangers, to become familiar.

So on that first day, I tell them – and it’ll be a few weeks until I know if they’ve taken me at my word – that despite everything they’ve been taught about writing academic papers in the past, in this course, they should rely heavily on I-statements. This means that the students will tell me if and why Karl Marx’s theories have resonated with them, or how they see the theories of W.E.B. Du Bois reaching forward to the twenty-first century and threading through their lives. This means that when they write about the concept of the double consciousness developed by Du Bois, they reflect not only on what he described, but on how they understand or experience this double consciousness in their daily lives as they navigate both their own perceptions and others’ perceptions of them. They come away from this understanding both Du Bois and their own days more deeply.

Yes, when we talk about inclusion in education, we do often think in terms of the curriculum. And yes, in classrooms full of first-generation college students, students of colour, and students whose families come from formerly or presently colonised nations, it is certainly important that Du Bois and Paulo Freire [1] and Aimé Césaire [2] figure prominently in the syllabus. These writers and our discussions around them bring the students and their histories more fully into the classroom.

The writings that matter the most, however, are those crafted by the students themselves. I hesitate to say that these are the writings that lead to the most ‘inclusion’, because the implication there is that they most effectively fold the students into a pre-existing space of my design. Instead, their writings and their thoughts create the space. They invite Marx in, and not vice versa.

And I want to add to this: they invite me in, and not vice versa. I want to say that in sharing their thoughts on Du Bois and Césaire, and in sharing the snapshots of their lives that the writings of Du Bois and Césaire allow them to illustrate more fully, the students are inviting me in, and not vice versa. It is not so simple an inversion, though: I issue an invitation, too. I open the door, turn on the lights, set Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in front of them, and ask them if they can make use of it. (NB: they always can).

Figure 2. Vladimir Mayakovsky

So whose space is it, if we are all simultaneously welcoming each other into our own worlds and thoughts, all constructing the curriculum together? The syllabus may be complete before the students walk in the door, but as I tell them in the first weeks of the semester: I can know and discuss these writers and their theories, but only to a certain extent. I can know their origins, I can guide a close reading, but I cannot know where they go from here. We are reading these texts, after all, because they still matter, and it is there, in the mattering, in where they go from here, that the students are the most central figures in the course. In their ‘I’, there is more of Du Bois, posthumously and vicariously living on. I cannot add this to the syllabus; I must rely on the students to co-create the curriculum. To frame this dynamic as ‘inclusion’ hardly makes sense, as they are as necessary in the space as I am.

For this reason, I would argue that an entire course on the philosophies and practices of the Black Panther Party could be more oppressive in the hands of one instructor than a course on the philosophies and practices of early Russian Bolshevism could be in another’s; even to a roomful of students with personal interest in Black Power movements, a dry lecture on the former may be ultimately less inclusive than open, reflective, and interactive engagement with the latter. This is not to say that we needn’t worry about highlighting histories, movements, art, literature, and theory that have been pushed to the margins or, often, ignored altogether; it is only to say that we cannot make the mistake of believing that changing the curriculum alone is enough, and must instead put Freire’s collaborative problem-posing model of education into practice, leaving the ‘banking’ model (in which facts and knowledge are simply deposited into the brains of students) behind us.

This has another implication for instructors beyond the shift in curriculum and open discussion: it requires a comfort with (or an acceptance of) chaos, with unpredictability, and with the potential vulnerability that comes from foregoing the hierarchical banking model in favour of the greater challenge of facilitating learning through every unpredictable moment. In this sense, ‘inclusion’ is not simply about demographic considerations, but about recognising that if we understand ‘inclusion’ as a practice of making education accessible for students with diverse experiences, we also need to recognise that those diverse experiences manifest in ways beyond the structural and historical, and as a result, they cannot be addressed with simple structural changes.

As Parker Palmer writes: ‘In this culture, objective facts are regarded as pure while subjective feelings are suspect and sullied. In this culture, the self is not a source to be tapped but a danger to be suppressed, not a potential to be fulfilled but an obstacle to be overcome. In this culture, the pathology of speech disconnected from self is regarded, and rewarded, as a virtue.

Relegating inclusion to structural changes risks simply replicating the structures that exclude in the first place. Resisting those structures by welcoming what Palmer positions as the three parts of the self – the intellect, the emotion, and the spirit – is what allows students to co-create the space, and to be not just included, but integral. Inclusion, then, is not just about including the histories that we imagine produced and can speak to students, but is also about including the whole selves of students, and thus the selves of instructors as well.

As bell hooks writes of witnessing oppressive and exclusive pedagogical approaches: ‘The self was presumably emptied out the moment the thresh­old was crossed, leaving in place only an objective mind—free of experiences and biases. There was fear that the conditions of that self would interfere with the teaching process.’[3]

Figure 3. Graffiti in Santurtzi (Biscay)

Inclusion, in short, means not asking our students to check themselves at the door. When we can all bring in our I’s and be fully present, seemingly disparate histories draw nearer to each other, and content ceases to be exclusive. In practice, this means that, though my students may have no initial knowledge of or prior interest in the writings of Aleksandra Kollontai,[4] and though her historical circumstances were very different to their own, they are able to use her writings on sexual politics to understand more not only about Bolshevik critiques of bourgeois morality, but about contemporary formulations of gender norms and the domestic space, and about how they as individuals navigate these norms. In practice, it means that, though my students are initially confused about why we are reading a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, they end up understanding more not only about agit-prop and Stalinism, but about why outsider and underground art – sometimes their own – may be both a threat to mainstream norms and a radical and necessary life-saving endeavour.

This form of engagement and this approach to integrating the lives of our students – the lives that they are currently living – creates new entrances into history and theory. These surprising new paths to familiar locales can deepen our scholarship and our ability to integrate – and not simply include – ourselves and our students in a continually-evolving practice of teaching and learning.

Dr. Erin Katherine Krafft is an Assistant Professor of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her book Gender and Justice: Learning Through Cases (co-written with Susan Krumholz and Jo-Ann Della Giustina), as well as two book chapters on gender and feminism in contemporary Russia, are forthcoming in 2020. In addition to her work on gender, feminism, and theory, she is engaged in collaborative and community-engaged research on nonviolent abolitionary education.

[1] Freire, Paolo. (1968) 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

[2] Césaire, Aimé. (1955) 2001. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[3] hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge. 16-17.

[4] Kollontai, Alexandra. 1980. Selected Writings. Translated by Alix Holt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Figure 1. is from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress, where it is believed to be in the public domain.

Figure 2. is in the public domain.

Figure 3. (also cropped for use as the banner image) is licensed under the Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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