My pedagogical approach to diversity began to form as a student at Cabrillo College, in Dr. Ekua Omosupe’s Critical Thinking class with an emphasis on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Through this class I saw that we come to an understanding of the world through an understanding of the self. That is the first step in learning and growing. The second step, if we choose to continue to grow as people, is to learn how to step outside of our own perspectives and see the world through another’s eyes. This is crucial to emotional and intellectual growth. This is also the basis of critical thinking.
That experience of evaluating arguments that straddle the personal and political was what led me to, at UC Berkeley, write an honor’s thesis about June Jordan’s confluence of feminist, anti-racist, and queer activism. Citing George Lakoff’s theories of cognitive categories, I argued that June Jordan’s mix of minority identities gave rise to an integrated view of humanism, which is the core of a liberal arts education.
My classes are working with the intersection of identity and the humanities on two levels: at the level of the assigned readings and at the level of the students. I cannot run an effective workshop or discussion if any of the students feel like her or his voice will be occluded. Through a wide range of readings (both in terms of content and in terms of social identities of the authors) I try to give each student a chance to see their interests and identities mirrored back to them.
I do not use discussions as a way to push my own values—except as a way to underline the necessity of inclusiveness and openness in my classroom. For example, after reading Zadie Smith’s “The Girl with Bangs,” the class will usually come slow to the discovery that the narrator, who relates the experience of falling in love with a woman, is a woman. Once the whole class sees Smith’s slight of hand, we talk about how the author constructed this ambiguity and I ask them how the story changes when they think the narrator is male or female. In this way, the text functions for all the students: those who identify with the narrator’s desires feel that they are being spoken to directly by the author and they feel a sense of inclusion. Those students who do not identify directly with the narrator’s subject position practice the critical thinking skills of trying on different points of view. All of the students get to have a discussion about their experience of reading and understanding the story. In whatever subject I am teaching—creative writing, literature, or composition—the crux of the class rests on students trying to see the world in some way they have never seen it before. I believe that once we have that critical thinking tool, we will become more compassionate humanists.