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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 51   Number 4 Fall 2018

Student Issues

Edited by Jaimelee Behrendt-Mihalski & Erin Godly-Reynolds, University of North Carolina Charlotte

Graduate Student Instructors in the College Classroom

Using Disclosure when Teaching About Diversity

Written by Christina J. Thai, Seini O’Connor, Lydia HaRim Ahn, and Katherine Morales, University of Maryland, College Park

Many graduate students in psychology have opportunities to work as instructors or teaching assistants for undergraduate classes. Whether or not these classes focus exclusively on multicultural psychology, they may provide an opportunity to engage in important conversations regarding diversity. Weaving a rich understanding of diversity into instruction is critical for helping undergraduates develop as more aware members of the community. It is also helpful for graduate students who want to develop further as multiculturally-competent psychologists, in line with the APA’s recently revised Multicultural Guidelines (2017).

While all four of us are graduate student instructors and identify as women, we have different privileged and marginalized identities in terms of race, age, immigration status, and other hidden identities. During this year’s Winter Roundtable on Cultural Psychology and Education at Teachers’ College, Columbia University (February 23-24), we drew on our classroom experiences to lead a roundtable discussion on approaches to teaching about diversity. We structured our discussion around identity disclosure—that is, how instructors talk about their own identities in the classroom. In this brief article, we summarize our discussion, sharing both our own perspectives and some of the insightful views that were offered by roundtable participants.

Approaches to Instructor Identity Disclosure

As captured in the APA’s Multicultural Guidelines (2017), we believe it is essential for graduate student instructors to build awareness of their own identities and how those identities might be salient in each topic they are teaching. After reflecting on our own identities, we used three main strategies to help students think about identity-related power, privilege, and oppression: disclosure of invisible identities, disclosure of identity related experiences, and unpacking our privileged identities. 

Making the “invisible” visible

To share an “invisible” marginalized identity we revealed something about ourselves that students may not have already known or perceived. Two of us talked about our own identities as non-citizens and how that influenced our experiences in the U.S. One of us disclosed an invisible disability, and shared experiences of how that affected her learning and emotional health. One of us disclosed explorations around sexual identity and the challenge of accepting uncertainty in a climate where that could be met with great disapproval. One of us disclosed how her (visible) racial identity intersected with her (invisible) socioeconomic status, and how this intersection shaped her early schooling experiences and aspirations.

These disclosures made us feel vulnerable but closer to our students. We believe disclosing helped to deconstruct power imbalances in the classroom, which is in line with APA Multicultural Guideline 5, addressing systemic inequities, and evoked a sense of interpersonal understanding and connection between our students and us. For instance, in response to the instructor’s disability disclosure, one student shared her own emotional difficulties with her peers’ reactions toward her learning disability—sharing that many called it “fake” or “not a real disability.” In response to the instructor’s disclosure of her low socioeconomic status, many students from similar backgrounds shared their experiences with classroom peers.

Disclosing identity-related experiences

We also disclosed our experiences related to our visible marginalized identities. For example, three of us shared how, as women of color, we were subject to repeated microaggressions in school and social settings.

Similar to disclosures of invisible identity, we believe these disclosures of personal experiences helped to destabilize the power differential between instructor and students by creating a climate in which openness and sharing could become safer for students. These disclosures also facilitated discussion about how different life experiences—including the absence of negative experiences, or even positive events—could influence attitudes and beliefs, which is in line with APA Multicultural Guideline 2, recognizing that we are all cultural beings. For example, when one of us shared her experience of racial microaggressions, white students expressed their surprise and lack of awareness that these microaggressions were commonplace.

Unpacking privileged identities

Finally, we centered our privileged identities and invited students to imagine what our life experiences might have been and how they might have differed for others with less privileged identities. For example, one of us asked her students whether, as a white international student, she was likely to fit the image people had in mind when they made negative statements about immigrants, or if she was likely to have faced difficulties with immigration. This helped to start a discussion about the intersection of racism and attitudes toward immigration, which is in line with APA’s Multicultural Guideline 1, appreciating intersectionality, and helped the instructor learn to model personal recognition and deconstruction of privilege. 

Alternative Perspectives: Potential Pitfalls and Benefits

When sharing these teaching experiences at the Winter Roundtable, we received mixed feedback. Although we framed our approach in terms of benefits, some participants voiced caution and highlighted the potential pitfalls for instructors who discuss their identities. For example, experienced instructors noted that disclosure of marginalized identities could wear instructors down over time, creating an emotional burden and sense of exhaustion. Rather than disclosing their own experiences, they suggested using vignettes or case examples for a rich learning experience without direct emotional taxation.

Some participants noted the sense of obligation racial minority instructors may feel to teach diversity classes. These instructors may teach out of fear that others with more privileged identities would not teach diversity as well, while also feeling hindered by not being able to teach other courses to further their own professional development.

However, other participants said they also saw benefits to disclosure, particularly as a pedagogical tool and as a means of providing them credibility in the classroom. For instance, one instructor gave an example of teaching a class on sexual identities. In one class, they disclosed their identity and, in the other, they did not. The instructor felt that the students viewed the material differently and were much more engaged when they believed it was coming from an insider perspective, rather than from a (perceived) outsider. Another instructor shared that he always named his marginalized and privileged identities at the start of a teaching semester, in a clear but casual way, which he felt was important for encouraging students to be similarly vulnerable and open. In a similar vein, an experienced instructor said that she always gave students an identity exploration and a reflection exercise at the start of the semester and completed and presented the same assignment herself to signal that all identities were important and influential in the classroom.

Building Classroom Environments that Welcome Identity Disclosure

Instructor self-disclosure can create possibilities for new learning—but also discomfort. Each of us faced students who challenged us, and with whom we struggled to find the best way to connect. For example, one of us had a student who vocalized her concern that the syllabus and teaching environment were not sufficiently neutral or balanced, and said that the class made her strong conservative Christian identity feel consistently underrepresented and marginalized. Another experienced three white male students who asserted that they were marginalized and rejected discussions of white privilege.

We struggled to find a balance between connecting with these students and engaging meaningfully with their viewpoints and being mindful of the way they made students with minority identities feel when they voiced their strong opinions. We wanted students to feel brave, own their perspectives, appreciate their unique strengths (in line with the APA’s Multicultural Guideline 10, a strengths-based approach), and not avoid difficult discussions—but also to feel safe. At the Winter Roundtable, other instructors affirmed the importance of difficult conversations for growth and learning and suggested that all instructors think carefully about the differences between discomfort and safety.

Concluding Thoughts

Our experiences of teaching, reflecting on, discussing, and, now, writing about our teaching have been important parts of our growth as graduate students in psychology, and as psychologists aspiring to follow the APA Multicultural Guidelines fully. We feel there are many benefits for both instructors and students in a classroom if instructors disclose and discuss their identities. However, we acknowledge this is most readily done when instructors feel confident, affirmed, and supported as disclosure is an inherently vulnerable approach. Accordingly, we particularly encourage instructors with privileged identities to model self-examination, and to support privileged students to do the same.  

References

American Psychological Association (2017). Multicultural Guidelines: An Ecological Approach to Context, Identity, and Intersectionality. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/about/policy/multicultural-guidelines.pdf

 

SCRA Transitions

A Message to Student Members from the Incoming and Outgoing Student Representatives

Moving Forward: Introductions and Invitations to Student Members

Written by Joy Agner, University of Hawai`i at MānoaJoy_Agner.jpg

Aloha SCRA student members! I am thrilled to be joining the SCRA Executive Committee as the new Student Representative (SR), and would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself and my goals as the incoming SR. I am a fourth-year doctoral student in Community and Cultural Psychology at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa and an occupational therapist. My research focuses on the betterment of health services and systems to promote patient empowerment and engagement, and I work under the direction of Dr. Jack Barile. My goals as the SR align closely with the work that Jaimelee and Erin have been doing thus far. I plan to:

  • Promote funding opportunities for student theses and dissertations
  • Increase students’ voice within the SCRA executive committee by raising any concerns, comments, or suggestions that you share with me
  • Push SCRA to uplift and support student movements happening across the US (e.g. unionization, support for Dreamers, Title IX policies, diversity committees and scholarships, and support for students with disabilities)
  • Encourage visibility of community and cultural psychology to undergraduates
  • Promote opportunities for student publications (consider submitting a column to the student section of TCP!)
  • Further develop funding opportunities for national and international students to participate in the Biennial
  • Design fun and meaningful Biennial events for students geared towards networking and professional development

Honestly, I have been inspired by each and every community psychology graduate student I have met. We are dedicating our lives to making our countries and communities better! However, we need academic and financial support from our mentors, our institutions, and also our national organization to be successful. If you have ideas about how SCRA can better support students, or if you would like to get involved in any of the efforts I mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Jaimelee Behrendt-Mihalski and Erin Godly-Reynolds, thank you for your service, advocacy, and accomplishments for the student members thus far.

Looking Back: Reflections on Two Years as a Student Representative

Written by Jaimelee Behrendt-Mihalski, University of North Carolina at CharlotteJaimelee_Behrend_Mihalski.jpg

Over the past two years, I have had the honor of being a SCRA Student Representative. While the role came with some challenges, it has been my pleasure to serve, and I have learned so much. Thinking back, I managed three student research grant cycles, attended bimonthly Executive Committee meetings, and advocated for funding student initiatives through the budget process and at the Mid-Winter Meeting. In addition, I spearheaded a fundraising plan, contributed to the membership survey, coordinated travel awards for the 2017 Biennial, hosted a student social at the 2017 Biennial, and interacted with students in many additional ways, such as sharing resources and information about how to be more involved with SCRA.

My tenure as a SCRA Student Representative gave me the opportunity to take the lead on and participate in several capacity building initiatives: revamping the student research award’s request for proposals and scoring rubric, examining SCRA’s current fundraising practices and recommending others and, working on a student needs assessment that was eventually merged with the membership survey. These various tasks allowed me to look introspectively at SCRA and the Student Representative role. Specifically, I took on the task of editing materials for the student research grants because previous materials did not align with SCRA’s mission and goals, and we wanted to ensure that SCRA was rewarding students whose research is firmly situated within community psychology. In addition, the fundraising initiative allowed me to see how SCRA members give to the organization, how SCRA can better track and report fundraising efforts, and other potential mechanisms SCRA can use to fundraise. While many of the report’s recommendations are on hold until SCRA receives additional guidance from the American Psychological Association (APA), SCRA now has the beginnings of fundraising plan that can be used to secure additional funding for various initiatives—and, specifically of interest to me, initiatives that cater to student members. Finally, this past year, I was part of an effort assessing the needs of students and SCRA’s capacity to serve them through a pilot needs assessment at Southeast ECO in Miami. This effort eventually merged with the membership survey, and results from this survey will inform an outward approach to serving students over the next Student Representative term.

Being exposed to various students’ research through SCRA’s student research grants has been one of my favorite parts of being Student Representative. In the three student research grant cycles I administered, we received many high-quality and impactful proposals from community psychologists in training, many of whom were requesting support for their dissertation research. It has been a pleasure reading these and working with grant awardees over the course of their milestone projects. In the future, I hope more master’s level students will submit proposals and student research grant awardees can better represent the diversity of SCRA. In addition, I hope the Student Representative role can better reflect SCRA’s diversity going forward and our Student Representatives can facilitate more opportunities for interested students to get involved. In the past year, Erin and I enjoyed collaborating with Cultural, Ethnic, and Racial Affairs (CERA) members to improve the mentoring section of the membership survey. Moving forward, I hope these, and other relationships will continue to be nurtured and will foster a more diverse student presence.

In conclusion, I want to thank the SCRA students who elected me to this position, as well as the SCRA Executive Committee for supporting me over the past two years and giving me a space to grow as a community psychologist. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Erin Godly-Reynolds for all her work this year, and I wish her and Joy Agner luck in the coming term.