Addressing students’ diverse needs
Fear of being categorized as a “single-issue” scholar
Some students, whether minority or majority, are concerned that if they select questions of gender, race, sexual orientation, or the content of marginalized cultures as thesis/dissertation topics, faculty will mistakenly assume they are interested in pursuing only these topics for their entire careers, or will question the relevance of their work. If your students are passionate about such questions in their research and teaching, help them bolster the scholarliness of their agendas.
- Ask students what their research interests are rather than assume that their interests are driven only by personal characteristics.
- Find out what motivates your students. Then, help them learn how to use sound disciplinary concepts and theories to frame the issues that drive their intellectual curiosity.
- Discuss with your students how race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics expand the types of questions asked in your discipline and the tools used for answering them.
- Help students practice job talks and interview responses that illustrate the depth and breadth of their research interests.
- Encourage students to anticipate skeptics’ responses to their topics and to plan ahead for addressing them.
Burden of being a spokesperson
It is unfair to assume that any single student can speak representatively for the experiences or beliefs of a whole group. When certain issues arise in seminars or theoretical discussions, especially those of race, class or gender, the pressures of being a spokesperson arise, which tend to burden underrepresented students more than others, although any student can feel this pressure. Consider the burden placed on a female student in an engineering seminar asked, “How would a woman approach this design problem?” or the burden on a male graduate student in a feminist theory class asked to provide “the male view” on an intellectual topic.
- Avoid assuming that the “white, male” experience is the norm. Understand how race, gender, and other characteristics influence, but do not predetermine, your students’ perspectives on intellectual problems or issues.
- Avoid asking students to speak as spokespersons for the group to which you perceive they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
- When you hear students voluntarily taking on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have gained from their contributions to the discussion.
The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, those who assert themselves in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. Many women, minorities and international students, express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to see interjecting themselves in this manner as rude and disrespectful; yet they fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute their lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they do assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in a way that their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.
Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority students and that women feel such alienation more intensely. Women have said that the system does not reward praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school.
Importance of positive feedback
Many students want frequent constructive feedback on their work, and the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Women tend to attribute negative experiences they have in graduate school to personal deficiencies, while men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Many men are more content than women with mentors who offer solid instrumental— yet seemingly impersonal — advice. Women may interpret a professor’s distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them. Studies suggest that these nuances hold true for minorities, as well.
- Set ground rules with your students for group discussions in your courses or labs, and explain how your expectations for participation will advance students’ learning goals.
- Experiment with ways of preventing a few students from dominating your seminars. For example, encourage students who have participated in discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
- Avoid calling on male or female graduate students to be spokespersons for their gender. Invite students to offer their perspectives, and, if appropriate, ask them to share how they think gender may or may not influence them.
- Adjust the tenor of discussions that become overly critical. Remind students that it is easier to criticize a work than to produce one, and follow up with: “What contributions does this particular piece make?”
- Acknowledge multiple forms of participation, e.g., group work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions and office hours. Some students contribute better in small groups.
- Be aware of how discussion groups form in your seminars and determine ways to intervene if students become excluded or marginalized.
- Make sure graduate students know how to contact a departmental and Graduate School representative if they feel they are being treated in ways that negatively impact their work.
- Use concrete language to convey feedback on students’ work. Saying “this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point” is clearer than “this is not bad” or “I don’t have any major problems with it.” Ambiguous feedback hinders students’ performance.
Strategies: Dealing with isolation
Graduate study can be an isolating endeavor. Isolation from other students or from one’s community leads students to loneliness and self-doubt. In more severe cases, isolation can lead to depression or dropping out. Students from historically underrepresented groups can feel particularly isolated or alienated if their department’s composition is highly homogenous.
- Encourage students to attend departmental functions and form study or writing groups.
- Be aware of students who seem to experience difficulty taking active roles in departmental settings and find ways to include them. Ask them about their research interests, hobbies, activities and avocations.
- Introduce your students to others with complementary interests, regardless of their backgrounds.
- Remind students of organizations on and off campus that provide a sense of community, e.g., cultural and religious groups, reading groups, professional associations and the Graduate School’s varied resources.
Strategies: Sexual orientation and gender identity
Unlike other underrepresented students, many gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender and queer (GBLTQ) students are “invisible” because sexual orientation has no defining physical characteristics and because many may have chosen not to be out. Some students talk about their sexual orientation openly. You should maximize learning and professional opportunities for all of your mentees.
Even within a fairly accepting educational climate, GBLTQ students convey that they encounter homophobia around campus and in the classroom, whether as students or as teaching assistants. Behaviors can range from the blatantly offensive, such as verbal or physical threats or attacks, to the less obvious, such as the casual remark “that is so gay.”
Many professors and students discuss topics with the unconscious assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Straight faculty and students who have developed some heightened awareness of gender issues on campus might still think about the world from a heterosexual perspective. As a result, GBLTQ students can find their experiences and perspectives missing in research or discussions, and that absence can lead them to feel isolated from intellectual engagement.
Genderism is the assumption that male and female assignments of gender are fixed at birth. This is not the case for every person. Gender biases in classrooms and departments (e.g., saying “it” to refer to individuals of ambiguous gender; gendered bathrooms) are oppressive to individuals who feel the need to alter their gender identity.
Being out as a GBLTQ student is not a one-time event, but rather a decision he or she makes in each new situation. With each new interaction comes the burden of having to assess the personal, social and political ramifications of disclosing one’s sexual orientation. Heterosexual students do not bear this weight when interacting with peers and professors.
Assume that GBLTQ students are present in every classroom, lab, seminar or campus meeting in which you participate and that they might not feel safe being out.
- Establish standards for language use and communication when you interact with graduate students. Convey that your goal in doing so is to ensure an environment that is conducive to effective learning and achievement.
- Avoid using examples that are exclusive to heterosexual experiences. For example, when talking about families use words like “spouse and partner” instead of just “spouse” or “husband” or “wife.”
- Ask students whom you know are “out” to discuss with you how best to address their learning and professional needs. Ask them if they are willing to foster discussions about how sexual orientation in academic settings can be handled productively.
- Realize that your mentoring is more effective if you develop sensitivity to sexual orientation as a multi- dimensional phenomenon. That is, homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation.
- Discuss how discriminatory remarks impede the learning process, not only of GBLTQ students but of all students.
- Encourage your department to put GBLTQ concerns on the agenda of graduate student orientations and faculty and staff training programs.
- ASUW Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transgender Commission offers programs regarding issues of sexual orientation.
- Affirming Diversity: Moving from Tolerance to Acceptance and Beyond, a presidential task force report on GBLT issues, suggests ways to improve campus climate, student resources and policies.
- Q Center is a resource for classroom speakers, research, and information on Queer issues.
- QGrad is a support network for graduate sexual minorities.