Importance of diversity in college classes

by Julie Dodd

Recognizing and incorporating diversity in your courses and your teaching strategies is important for 21st Century educators.

Nicole Dan presenting at UF's Asian American Student Union Unity Conference

Nicole Dan makes a presentation at the Asian American Student Union Unity Conference at the University of Florida. The conference provides the opportunity for all of the AASU sub organizations’ boards to gather to get to know each other and discuss the upcoming semester.

Diversity is more than racial, ethnic, gender and age differences. The National Education Association provides this definition:

Diversity can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. The dimensions of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status.… While diversity itself is not a value-laden term, the way that people react to diversity is driven by values, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Full acceptance of diversity is a major principle of social justice. 

Nicole Dan and I talked about diversity in course design when she assisted me with creating materials for the online version of Multimedia Writing (JOU3109). She had been a top student in the face-to-face version of that course and had taken several online courses herself. I wanted to have her input as I repurposed my classroom version of the course into making an online course. She would provide a helpful student perspective and also her own views on how diversity is recognized in a learning situation.

Nicole is in her last semester as a Political Science and Journalism major at the University of Florida and has been active in Asian American activities on campus. She and I talked about how faculty can effectively acknowledge diversity in college classes.

Julie Dodd: From your perspective as a student, why is it important for college instructors to consider “diversity” as they design their courses?

Nicole Dan: Seeing yourself represented helps you picture yourself going into that field. It also helps students see themselves as belonging within the classroom. This can affect students after they graduate even. In journalism, specifically, women dominate the major in college but newsrooms are still overwhelmingly male.

Julie Dodd: What are two or three ways that you’ve seen college teachers effectively incorporate diversity in their courses — this could be course content, class activities, etc.

Nicole Dan: First, have discussions about race. Even though I understand that race is a controversial issue that professors may not want to tackle, I’ve always respected professors who do acknowledge and discuss it in class.

Highlight the achievements of under-represented people. In journalism it’s easy to focus on Woodward and Bernstein and the classic nightly news anchors, but professors can make a memorable impact by showing how women and minority journalists have made an impact on the profession. Ida B. Wells, Lisa Ling and April Ryan are some examples that come to mind.

Julie Dodd: What are two or three ways that you’ve created your own opportunities to promote diversity as a college student?

Sparks Magazine

Sparks Magazine focuses on Asian-American issues. Of UF’s more than 34,000 undergraduates, more than 8 percent are Asian American. Nicole Dan is the online editor of the magazine.

Nicole Dan: I’m currently the online editor for Sparks Magazine, an Asian American publication on campus. We’re a smaller publication, but I enjoy it because we get to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told focusing on the impact for Asian Americans. If I pitched similar stories at other publications, I might get asked “So what?”

I once wrote an article about Asian Americans with disabilities for Sparks. I also turned it in as an assignment for a class, but the instructor had a few questions because the topic seemed random. I think it’s important to have a space where I don’t have to justify my story ideas as much.

This past semester I also served as creative director for Asian Kaleidoscope Month, which has been held at UF since 1992. I think Asian Kaleidoscope Month is an important part of UF because it not only celebrates Asian American achievements and culture but also makes the entire campus aware of the Asian American community at UF. One of our most popular events is our Food Festival, where we highlight food from Asian cultures. This year, our headliners were YouTube musicians David Choi and Will Jay.

Julie Dodd: What is your advice to college instructors for incorporating diversity in an effective way?

Nicole Dan: Include diversity in terms of course materials – who writes and produces them. Acknowledge the lack of diversity in the field if you’re unable to find diverse authors. You can even make this a class activity and ask students to find supplemental materials for the class to incorporate.

Julie Dodd: I like your suggestion of the class activity of having students find materials that expand the diversity of the course. Students with a racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation/political/religious perspective often are aware of individuals who represent those perspectives that the professor may not be aware of. The wealth of content and voices on the internet lets professors include content that isn’t included in textbooks.

Nicole Dan: Also, professors need to think carefully about which issues should have an in-class discussion and don’t be afraid to intervene. Class discussion can become very heated, so sometimes it may be better to simply present the different sides of the issue rather than allow the class to get into a discussion.

Julie Dodd: One important factor for professors to have productive – even if heated – discussions in class is planning for those discussions. In many cases, a professor can anticipate that a certain reading or topic will provoke different points of view. So you can design your approach.

  • You can help students prepare for productive discussion by having them read relevant materials, watch a movie or YouTube video, attend a campus event.
  • You can assign students to prepare for a debate on a topic, assigning them to represent different points of view. Students can develop a new awareness about an issue when they have to take a different point of view from the one they hold personally.
  • You can have students role play a situation, with different approaches to the situation. Sometimes conflict over different perspectives happen when those involved haven’t thought about how they could respond to a situation other than their initial response.
  • You can have students list pros and cons of a diversity situation. As the instructor, you can guide the discussion about those pros and cons.

Even when you have planned for discussion on a controversial topic, that doesn’t mean that the discussion won’t present you with some surprises – but that can be a good learning opportunity for you as the teacher.

A different challenge is when a topic gets raised in class that you haven’t prepared for. Perhaps an issue happens in the day’s news that is relevant to your course, and a student raises it. You may decide to pursue the discussion, using the guidelines you’ve developed and practiced. Or you may decide that you want the class to prepare for the discussion – and give you time to prepare – so that you’ll take on that discussion in the next class.

Nicole Dan: Is it difficult for a professor to intervene in class discussion? How can professors steer the discussion back on course if they feel that students are becoming uncomfortable?

Julie Dodd: Professors need to establish ground rules for class discussion and build class rapport and respect right from the beginning. Professors should include the guidelines in the syllabus and refer to those guidelines to begin discussions. Don’t wait until a controversial topic is the first time you encourage the class to discuss.

Those guidelines can include being respectful of others’ views, letting each class member have the opportunity to speak before one student speaks a second time, and emphasizing the importance of fact-based discussion. In some cases, you may need to establish that the discussion will be for a limited amount of time, noting that the discussion is to lay out the various issues related to the topic and not to have the class come to consensus on the topic.

As the class has discussions, you, as the professor, serve as the moderator – perhaps asking a student to rephrase a statement, helping the discussion include many students and not be monopolized by just a few, posing your own question, or asking the class to respond to a point made in a reading assignment.

An important part of a productive discussion of a controversial issue – whether about diversity or other topics – can be what the instructor says to wrap-up the discussion. The instructor can help the class recap main points or talk about why such a discussion was helpful. The instructor may need to remind the class why it’s important to have some of those tough conversations, as they prepare for internships, jobs and life.

One of the debriefing activities can be to have students write their reaction to the discussion. That can help you see the students’ reactions, which could be different from what you thought. I’d advise avoiding letting discussions become so contentious that some students lose their interest in the course or quit participating.

Nicole Dan: How have you, as a professor, seen things regarding diversity change throughout your career?

Julie Dodd: My first teaching experience was as a high school English and journalism teacher. English courses (now often referred to as language arts courses) typically are designed to introduce students to a wide range of authors and topics. For example, novels like Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” encourage discussion about race and prejudice. Those two books (and others that promote critical thinking on diversity topics) continue to be on the list of banned books in schools because of the discomfort those topics can cause in class discussions – and the reaction of some parents to having those discussions in class.

Over the years, the curricula at the college and high school levels include a broader range of voices. And if your textbook doesn’t address relevant diversity issues or include as many diverse perspectives as reflect the population, instructors typically can find those missing voices on the internet and include them in the course. But as both high school and college courses are guided by established Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and often an approved curriculum/syllabus, faculty may need to work with their administrators to make the case for including materials outside the established curriculum.

I continue to see some faculty thinking that “diversity issues” should be addressed in separate “diversity” courses. Those gender- or race-specific courses are helpful, but often those courses are taken by just those who are represented in the course title. Some discussion of diversity is relevant in almost every course. The key is selecting topics/situations that are relevant to the course and remembering that other courses in the curriculum also address diversity, so your course doesn’t have to do it all.

I’d like to see more meaningful and effective “diversity” training for college faculty – and that includes teaching assistants and adjuncts, who do a lot of teaching in higher education. I also find that conversations with students, like this one with you, Nicole, are very helpful for me to understand the student perspective.

Nicole Dan is on Twitter @NicoleKDan and her website is

For more information about diversity and college teaching, read these blog posts by graduate students from Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930):

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