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Neo-Diversity In Appalachia?

The Appalachian College Association takes on neo-diversity in the classroom.

Since 2006, I have been lecturing and writing about how America is in the midst of a struggle with its neo-diversity. All across America, people are trying to understand and manage neo-diversity; this new interpersonal situation in which we all have to encounter and sometimes interact with people who do not look like, sound like, worship like, or love like, “us.”

There has been no better confirmation of that for me than my being invited and hired to be the lead instructor for the Appalachian College Association 2019 Summer Teaching and Leadership Institute, June 3-7.

When I got the first email, I had never heard of the Appalachian College Association. I found out that, “The Appalachian College Association is a non-profit consortium of thirty-five private four-year liberal arts institutions located in the central Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia” (1).

Why did the Association want me to lead the institute? In their first email to me, after describing the theme for the summer teaching and learning institute as “Diversity and Engaged Pedagogy,” they said:

“With your recent book Taking On Diversity, as well as Making Gumbo in the University, and basically the way [we] see your life’s work - teaching us through social psychology how to relate to one another more meaningfully, you are the perfect person for this role.”

“Diversity and Engaged Pedagogy”: pedagogy is of course, teaching. The Association’s full description of their 2019 Summer Teaching and Leadership Institute said:

“The changing landscape of higher education has many of us thinking and re-thinking about what it means to be an effective educator with an increasingly diverse student body."

Knowing about the content of my book “Taking on Diversity” (2) and learning of my reputation as a classroom professor (3), the organizers were especially interested in my work on neo-diversity in the classroom and on college campuses. Professors at those Appalachian schools were beginning to realize that their teaching was less effective when they did not take into account the neo-diversity mix in their classrooms. My job was to lay out strategies for their teaching in a neo-diverse classroom.

I spent a week at Emory & Henry College (Emory, VA) leading college professors through teaching workshops and workshops on facilitating difficult conversations. What questions did the college professors who teach in Appalachia come with? First evening, at the table where they had just eaten dinner, I had the participants write out their responses to this query, “What do you hope we will get to talk about at a conference with the theme, Diversity and Engaged Pedagogy?”

Later that week, I took the pieces of paper with those questions and I put those questions into thematic categories. Quoting their own words, here are the questions under each theme I (subjectively) identified.

Theme I: Defining diversity

Participants hoped to talk about:

a. Diversity extends beyond racial and ethnic differences; let’s talk about all.

b. Understanding the meaning of diversity; definition appears to vary in different contexts

Theme II: Setting up the classroom tone/environment to encourage dialogue.

Participants hoped to talk about:

a. How to ensure a safe but challenging classroom space open for discussion

b. How to start the conversation and also how to continue to talk about such important topics, with sensitivity and courage.

Theme III: Generating conversation

Participants hoped to talk about:

a. Managing resistance to inclusion among conservative students and including those students too in the discussion of inclusion

b. How to bring diverse situations and discussions into classrooms typically lacking diversity

Theme IV: Engaging specific populations of students

Participants hoped to talk about:

a. How to make our classrooms safe spaces for those with diverse mental health issues

b. Transgender in the classroom/Preferred gender pronouns in the classroom/how to work with neo-gender populations.

c. Teaching a class to [a mix of] both strongly prepared and 1st generation Appalachian students.

There were other questions and interests. Yet those four themes seemed to me to capture the major teaching concerns the participants came with to the Appalachian College Association Summer 2019 Teaching and Learning Institute. Without being able to give it the formal name, all these questions and concerns were about neo-diversity in the classroom of these Appalachian colleges.

As for me, as always, I went in hot. I did a lot of work during that week. I oriented my co-instructors to the concept of neo-diversity. I thought it important to change their language about “diversity” to “neo-diversity.” To do that, before everyone else arrived, I led a discussion/orientation of my co-instructors during which we talked through my Psychology-Today blog essay “Gays, Lesbians, Transgender… Oh my!” (4) Here the point was to move my co-instructors (5) away from thinking about diversity as categories of people to the interpersonal situation of interacting with people “…not like me.” Since each co-instructor would be conducting their own workshops, for continuity with my focus, I wanted their thinking and ways of talking to be centered on the interpersonal dynamics that neo-diversity can activate.

After that first dinner, the next morning, first thing after breakfast, I gave my keynote address on “Teaching College in the Age of Neo-Diversity.” After that, as planned, on three different afternoons, I did my workshop “You Want To Talk About What? Facilitating Sensitive Conversations.” Even with all the pre-planning, one session I did was completely unplanned. It was the result of my keynote address. In that plenary address, I talked about the fact that I created my “Interdependence and Race” course for which I developed the concept of neo-diversity. Interest in the content and construction of that course was high. Asked if I would be willing to do a session of “How to create a diversity course,” I did.

Participants’ responses to my teaching leadership for the teaching institute were positive and powerful. I know this because on the last morning, I led a discussion that students who have taken my social psychology classes would recognize. After the final breakfast, I said to the gathering,

“We have been on a road less traveled. Now there is a light ahead. Gaze upon it, think on it and then write down what you see in that light. After this week of discussion of neo-diversity in the college classroom, what do you see in that light? What one-new-thought are you taking with you about neo-diversity and engaged teaching in the college classroom? Take a moment and write down that new thought.”

After they did so, I asked for volunteers who would like to share. Here are some of the shared new thoughts:

“On a road less traveled, where we sometimes feel alone and we’ll have to labor through these issues alone, as a teacher and someone with agency, we are allies and we have allies.”

“Our school doesn’t have a diversity or inclusion statement. That’s a new goal for us.”

“Making my [disability services] office more accessible and inclusive, overtly - really posting diversity statements and inclusion statements.”

“Diversity is not often overt. It takes a while to emerge. The more we understand diversity, the more we get to know ourselves, because of how we respond to it.”

“The importance of getting students the tools to talk about neo-diversity topics. We need to set those tools up so they feel comfortable when the topics come up.”

“Language is important. The words we use have power and meaning. We have to be vigilant. I’m going to make mistakes. It’s going to be ok.”

“Diversity is not just about welcoming a group of ‘they’ into ‘us’ but also recognizing that our own uniqueness desperately wants to be welcomed.”

“Multiple oppressions can be manifesting in our students (and us) all at once. We’re all struggling with all the things. Family, financial, academic, mental health, etc.”

“Never treat an individual as a representative of a group. Look for people to surprise us.”

“Our students have a job to get. Students are going to need these (social interaction) skills.”

“I need to do self-work before entering into sensitive settings. I’m not giving enough attention to my own emotional preparation.”

“I came here with preconceptions of how people would respond to this Teaching and Learning Institute. The experience this week has given me more of a sense of cultural respect. Humility - how much we have to learn about the people of this region.”

As if planned, the last professor to speak had this to say as her one-new-thought. She said,

“I think I am the outlier here. I think that most of you are more liberal than me. But never did I feel disrespected or excluded this week as we talked about diversity issues. That let me know we can do this. For me, my one new thought is, Diversity is Christ-centered. Remember, it was women he appeared to first after his resurrection. I think I see how we can write a diversity statement that will be received well by Christian institutions. We start with, ‘Christ is our chief diversity officer.’”

I almost ran out of the room yelling "...yes!" Not because I am Christian, but because this woman’s experience reflected, why I developed and how I use the concept of neo-diversity. Not as a matter of group categories, not as a matter of calling people out, but as a matter of pointing out that today, our American neo-diversity situation means that no matter what, we are all here sharing the same social spaces, and to be productive we have to learn to interact with each other with respect in those spaces.

That last session, the one-new-thought session where participants revealed the impact of my time and work with them, really hit me. I came in thinking that this would be an "interesting" experience in Appalachia. Halfway through the week, and certainly by the end I was truly excited. I began to realize that with a group of college professors from fifteen or so different Appalachian colleges, these professors learning about and engagement with the neo-diversity idea would now be rippling out into the whole of the Appalachian College Association campuses.

References

1. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

2. Appalachian College Association (https://acaweb.org/)

3. UNC System Recognizes Professor’s Excellence in Teaching. North Carolina State University Humanities and Social Science News (https://news.chass.ncsu.edu/2013/04/17/unc-system-recognizes-professors…)

4. Nacoste, R. W. (2016, June 13), “Gays and Lesbians and Transgender… Oh my!,” Psychology-Today Blog (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/quiet-revolution/201606/gays-an…)

5. My thanks to the individuals who worked with me as co-instructors for the Appalachian College Association 2019 Summer Teaching and Learning Institute: Dr. Kelly Bremner, Associate Professor of Theatre and Department Chair, Emory & Henry College Senior (on-site) Institute Co-Director and Instructor; Dr. Heather McMahon, Associate Professor of TheatreMaryville College; Dr. Mark Finney, Associate Professor of Mass Communications, Emory & Henry College; Dr. Janelle Coleman, Faculty Consultant for Assessment for Teaching and Innovation, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Dr. Myra Jordan Assistant Professor of Counseling Lenoir-Rhyne University (Asheville Center).

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