There are things you expect from a working session on lessons for bringing diversity into the classroom; a photo of then-governor George C. Wallace (yes – he of the “Schoolhouse Door”) posing with a smiling journalism class is not one of them.

Dr. Frank Deaver's journalism class meets Gov. Wallace, 1985

Yet, this is — at least in part — what qualifies Journalism & Creative Media Associate Professor Chris Roberts on the subject. He’s there in the photo as an undergrad in 1985. As he’ll tell you, he’s already “lived this as a University of Alabama student.” And now, as a professor at his alma mater, and in his home-state, Roberts, a self-professed “middle-aged white guy with issues” is in a position to very intentionally incorporate diversity and inclusion in his pedagogy. And so, he does.

Roberts’ presentation focused on four strategies for making courses more inclusive. These are straightforward techniques, sound pedagogy teachers can use to incorporate diversity in a range of classes not specifically devoted to diversity. Roberts, for example, discussed his first-year large lecture Introduction to Mass Communication, which is decidedly not a diversity-focused course. Nevertheless, in that class he uses the following to engage inclusion, equity, and diversity:

Personal examples

We all use personal anecdotes in the classroom. Roberts uses these to make issues of diversity and inclusion more relatable to students. So, when his class engages the definition of communication as “the process of creating shared meaning,” Roberts discusses his cousin’s command: “don’t bring shorts” when he visited her in Dakar, Senegal, as an example what constitutes that shared meaning.

Roberts’ first-year students are reminded that Senegal, like Alabama in August (and September, and October . . . ), is aggressively hot, and are asked to puzzle through shared cultural norms that make shorts acceptable in Tuscaloosa, but not Dakar and its majority Muslim culture. The lesson: culture creates communication, and communication reinforces culture. And students learn that one society’s culture isn’t necessarily “wrong” when compared to their culture, but just different.

Simultaneous Instruction

Roberts suggests that instructors highlight issues pertinent to diversity and inclusion as illustrations of lesson plans. For example, in a class session on how different communication channels elicit different intellectual and emotional responses (the medium is the message,), Roberts uses original news coverage of “Bloody Sunday” from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. The class begins by reading a phlegmatic written account of State Troopers attacking marchers, then moves on to an uncomfortable photograph, and finishes with harrowing video of police beating peaceful protesters. Students grasp the principle because of its reliance on equity, inclusivity, and diversity. At the same time, they learn about Alabama’s racial past.

Direct / Overt Instruction

Sometimes you serve vegetables as the main course.

In a general lecture explaining the economics and cultural impact of the U.S. film industry, he uses the Bechdel Test to illustrate how many feature films deny women meaningful roles. And to drive the point home, he asks students to apply the test’s three prongs to the movie they’ve seen most recently in a written assignment: is there an on-screen conversation (1) between two or more (2) named female characters (3) about something other than a man?

Invariably a handful of students question the relevance of the exercise—or the test’s concern about how woman are portrayed in popular movies. But women in Roberts’ classes make short work of objections. As he puts it, “I just shut up and let the students take care of it.”

Current Events

Like their nutritional diets, students’ information diets may be low on “veggies,” but Roberts finds students’ interest in popular culture a reliable side-dish. In a recent class on the perilous state of print media, he connected the rising tide of media moguls fired or disgraced for sexual harassment or assault — from Ailes to Weinstein — to a magazine start-up’s investment funding, which was yanked after reports of sexual harassment by its founder.

A lively discussion followed Roberts’ presentation. Faculty, administrators, and students posed questions and related experiences about diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Highlights of that exchange included:

  • A student-prompted discussion about how to avoid tokenism, which led to a consensus that syllabus content and intentional shaping of classroom environments can protect students from underrepresented groups from being singled out.
  • Insights from Dr. Christine Taylor, VP and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, on diversity education and the difference between landing a job and advancing in that position. Dr. Taylor related a story from a multinational employer who explained that companies may hire based on the institution’s bona fides, but they promote based on employees’ ability to work across difference.
  • A thoughtful discussion about how professors from marginalized populations can address diversity and inclusion without accusations of indoctrination, which was prompted by thoughtful questions from Drs. Jennifer Kenney (criminal justice) and Barbara Brickman (New College.) The conversation invoked issues of Intersectionality, the value of inclusivity in the workplace, and how allied faculty can use forms of privilege for the benefit of students.

Teachers know there’s no one magical tool or technique to solve issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But as we add to our toolboxes and expand our skillsets, Dr. Chris Roberts will attest that we can open that schoolhouse door wider and wider.


John Miller is an assistant professor in New College and a member of the Teaching Hub Advisory Board