How do students’ intersecting social identities affect their learning? How do the life experiences of faculty members influence everything from course design to classroom management? And how does the University of Denver’s commitment to inclusive excellence improve classrooms across the disciplines, from education to engineering?
All of these questions are coming into play as DU and universities nationwide embrace a practice known as inclusive pedagogy. The aim is to create rigorous academic environments that engage the many intersecting social identities, backgrounds and abilities that faculty and students bring to their learning environments.
“Faculty at DU are removing barriers to learning and better serving students who might arrive on campus without a robust skill set or even language for engaging collegially across difference with their peers, faculty and the world at large,” says Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, director for inclusive teaching practices in DU’s Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL). “Because these skills are seldom mastered in K-12, college is a vibrant space for students to deeply explore and engage with theories, epistemologies, points of view and cultures different from their own. These explorations are paramount for student success and professional identity development. After all, we want all our students to reach their highest potential and become inclusive leaders in a diverse world.”
DU’s new Faculty Institute for Inclusive Teaching ensures that faculty members can learn as well, whether they are building on years of inclusive teaching practices or just beginning to incorporate them into their classrooms.
Iturbe-LaGrave arrived at DU four years ago to help the University build on inclusivity commitments in the DU IMPACT 2025 strategic plan. In her first year, she gave 47 talks, workshops and individual sessions—all by request of deans, department chairs and faculty wanting to navigate differences in their classes. Since then, her work has been featured in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and other national publications.
Today, all DU faculty are required to participate in self-paced training modules that establish a shared language and understanding. “We’re building a culture of inclusivity, so it touches every corner of campus,” says Leslie Alvarez, director of OTL. “Faculty are invested in our commitment to inclusive excellence, especially since COVID forced so much of our work online and inequities became more visible.”
DU’s efforts are attracting national attention and even funding. Since 2017, DU faculty members and OTL directors have received more than $250,000 from the National Science Foundation for a project titled Cultivating Inclusive Identities of Engineers and Computer Scientists.
Inclusive teaching is about more than recognizing the dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender or class. “Inclusive teaching is [also] a humanizing pedagogy that considers neurodiversity, cognitive processes and life experiences,” Iturbe-LaGrave says. That may mean supporting the needs of a cancer survivor whose treatment resulted in cognitive changes. Or it might mean ensuring that the syllabus offers warnings about material that could trigger trauma or stress.
“Inclusive teaching reminds us that students do not leave their identities or life experiences at the door,” Iturbe-LaGrave says. “Instead, they process knowledge through those identities and experiences.”
As a law student, DU Provost Mary Clark saw the advantages of an inclusive classroom for herself. “When ‘the reasonable man’ is presumed to be white and upper middle class, others are excluded,” she says. By the time she was teaching law, one of her areas of specialty was critical race and gender theory, and she was deeply committed to inclusivity in the classroom. “I wanted to make sure everyone felt comfortable speaking.”
A doctoral candidate in the Morgridge College of Education and a program coordinator at the Colorado Women’s College (CWC), Lauren Contreras brings her identities—as a queer, Latinx woman—to her work helping a cohort of nearly 50 CWC Leadership Scholars navigate academic challenges. Contreras says that while the scholars are first-generation college students from historically underrepresented communities and may struggle to belong, they also enhance the classroom environment with important perspectives and strengths. The best way for faculty members to improve the teaching environment, she says, is to “co-create the space” with students.
“When professors allow students to give input and feedback, it helps create the inclusive environment,” Contreras says. She recently shared her experiences in a blog for student affairs professionals at naspa.org. “Like students, faculty are continuously learning,” she explains. “When students are able to choose some of their own readings and topics for projects, they feel more connected. That enriches the learning and adds value for their peers.”