Teaching, Inclusivity, and Power

Jonathan Gyurko, PhD
3 min readFeb 11, 2022

It was heartbreaking to read Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin’s examples of the disrespect experienced by professors, particularly women and people of color, in class. Their article — a preview of Dr. Pittman’s upcoming book by WVU Press — appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Their point is spot-on: some teaching practices, billed as “inclusive,” can counter-productively exacerbate inequities experienced by educators. An approach should not be vaunted as a pedagogical “innovation” if it “come at the expense of the safety and well-being of other faculty members.”

The examples they shared — “flexible deadlines,” “ungrading,” and a technique to address “classroom incivility” — reveal that effective, inclusive teaching is not instrumental. Meaning, it’s not merely a recipe of doing ‘this,’ followed by “that,’ in order to get X, Y, and Z from students. Rather, and as my friends Aaron Pallas and Anna Neumann persuasively show in their book Convergent Teaching, equitable teaching requires sensitivity to the context — both students’ and an instructor’s. Faculty must command a body of practical approaches from which to chose and employ, depending on this context and in their professional judgement. Transparency is key too, as Mary-Ann Winkelmes has shown, to answer students’ all important (and motivating) “why” questions — Why are we learning this? And why in this particular way?

Alongside the known ‘science’ of teaching — the evidence-backed practices gaining more and more acceptance nationwide — here’s where the ‘art’ matters. Sophisticated pedagogical and inter-personal choices must be made, in the flash of seconds, to keep learning intentional and the environment productive. Pittman and Tobin remind us just how high the stakes are, in these moments of consequence, for some of our colleagues.

But their article stuck with me all week for another reason: the power paradigm on which it rests. Pittman and Tobin write: “…inclusive teaching asks faculty members to intentionally give up or share some of their power and authority in the classroom, so that students can experience a greater sense of ownership and choice over their own learning.” They then rightly expose “that [not] every instructor [has] plenty of authority, power, and status to share.” It’s true. But must the class- or Zoom-room operate on such power principles? Might a different paradigm be possible?

I well remember my awkward early days of teaching and feeling wholly disempowered. As a 22-year-old in South Africa, teaching English as a second language, I had a novice’s toolbox of pedagogies and regularly felt as if I had lost control of my lesson. Or as a graduate student, covering a class for my on-sabbatical advisor, knowing little more (and sometimes less) than peers enrolled in my class. As Tobin writes, both situations still likely went better than they might have, being a White man.

Yet I can’t shake the fact that learning requires consent. I can’t force you to learn what you are unwilling to hear or consider from me. Much — I’d say too much — teaching still rests on the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ power paradigm in which students consent to what we teach because we are on that stage, because of the power it connotes, a power inequitably distributed across the professoriate by race, ethnicity, and class.

Instead, might we achieve a deeper, more authentic, authority as educators if we privledge process over position? By including our students through instructional practices shown to surface and honor prior knowledge and beliefs? In ways that create more intrinsic motivation? As an expression of power less dependent on position and perhaps more equitably facilitated by any faculty member?

We certainly hold the power that flows from being authorities in our fields. But given the power students hold to lean-in or tune-out, inclusive teaching and learning seems, by definition, to require not zero-sum power-sharing but net-positive power expanding.

But then, with a pang of doubt, I hear Pittman and Tobin remind me: ‘easy for you to say.’

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Jonathan Gyurko, PhD

For three decades, Gyurko has led innovative efforts to create and expand educational opportunities of the highest quality for students around the world.