As recent events have again made clear, diversity, equality, and understanding are of the utmost importance. I was nine years old when my best friend told me he wasn’t allowed to watch the latest Hollywood action film True Lies (1994). A practicing Muslim from Lebanon, he explained that his parents hated the way Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character used Middle Eastern populations as target practice, representing them as nameless, simple-minded zealots. His family—and many of their friends—were boycotting the new release. I never watched a film the same way again. I was fortunate to grow up in a community where Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, and Ramadan were equally well known to most people. My friends comprised primarily first- and second-generation Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Portuguese immigrants who were Atheists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, and many other denominations.
When I accepted a tenure-track position in the Appalachian Mountains of north Georgia after earning my PhD in 2012, I realized how different experiences could be. Towns County is 96.3% white according to the latest census. Far fewer people in the region own passports or have travelled out of the country than those with whom I grew up. Their knowledge of other ethnicities, religions, and cultural practices consequently relies much more heavily on mass media than interpersonal experiences. As such, I have come to better appreciate the importance and challenges of media literacy when considering issues of diversity in higher education.
As a professor, my approach to teaching critical thinking and literacy skills has developed from a somewhat confrontational approach (“That’s not true”) to a more nuanced dialogue with students (“Why do you think that?”). Inspired by the work of bell hooks and critical feminist scholars, I now attempt to meet people where they are, offering questions rather than imperatives. For instance, when I first taught public speaking in 2012, students wanted to present persuasive speeches on why “Obama shouldn’t take our guns away” and how “welfare recipients spend all their money on drugs.” While my first inclination was to ask them to stop watching Fox News, I knew that kind of approach, as many scholarly studies now demonstrate, would likely further cement their views. Instead, I simply asked students to collect quality sources such as Obama’s policy for taking away guns and state reports of how many welfare recipients take illegal drugs. Those particular students came back the next week asking to change their topics. It turned out Obama had not created policies to take away guns and recent efforts in certain states found a drug-use rate far below 1 percent after spending millions of dollars testing welfare recipients. My goal is never to “convert” anyone’s political or cultural beliefs. Instead, I endeavor to introduce students to life-long practices of critical engagement and verification. A wonderful byproduct of such dialogues is that many biases and prejudices slip away when students find little evidence to support what they have heard and choose no longer to hold such beliefs themselves. In a polarized and politically charged time, such practices are an essential part of the educational experience that help form more open and accepting communities on and off campus.
Fostering an inclusive learning environment remains a top priority in all my classes. Many students I teach are first generation and cannot rely on friends and family members with experience to guide them in higher education. For this reason, I ensure all assignments follow a transparent curriculum, rather than the “hidden curriculum” through which students are already expected to understand and work within the conventions of the university. Having been the first person in my extended family to go to university—and the only one to earn an advanced degree—I understand what it's like to see some students seeming to “fit in” while others feel unsure of what professors really mean but do not want to “look dumb” by asking questions. It is very important to me never to implicitly or unconsciously create a situation where first-generation students or those from outside the standard American model of education feel that they do not belong. This transparent approach means providing demonstrations and sample essays to students, discussing not only the scholarly requirements, but how I read, interpret, and assess all elements of a student’s contributions. In course evaluations, students often remark upon the open and supportive environment in my classrooms.
When I became Chair of the Communication Studies Department, I encouraged faculty to achieve a greater awareness of diversity when preparing syllabi, creating rubrics, holding discussions, and providing feedback. These measures have included holding discussions in which I ask instructors to reflect on the scholars and authority figures they present to students. While I do not mandate certain changes or interfere with the instructor’s choice of texts, I ask whether they are reflective of the student population as well as the country’s. Many faculty tell me they had not considered these questions before our conversation and were somewhat taken aback to see they had included no women or people of color in their reading lists or classroom examples. This realization pushed them to reconsider some of their choices and I was pleased to see more diverse reading lists and case studies as a result of such questions. The necessity of acknowledging implicit assumptions and expectations in higher education is also something I have written about in Batman and the Joker: Contested Sexuality in Popular Culture (Richardson, 2020), Violence in American Society (Richardson, 2020), Habitus of the Hood (Richardson & Skott-Myhre, 2012), “Can’t Tell Me Nothing: Symbolic Violence, Education, and Kanye West” in Popular Music and Society, and “Between ‘Scarlem’ and ‘the Ivory Tower’: An Autoethnographic Examination of Marginality in Canadian Communication and Media Studies” in the Canadian Journal of Media Studies.
Committing to equality on campus among administration, faculty, and staff is also very important to me. When I found out that Young Harris College—like the state of Georgia—did not include sexual orientation or gender identity as groups protected from discrimination, I led the ad hoc committee in the faculty senate that researched and proposed new and more inclusive language in our handbook and non-discrimination policy. I demonstrated how widespread such policies were in higher education and argued that omitting these groups now provided an implied message of intolerance to current and potential students and employees. The resolution was then passed, and changes were made to our hiring guidelines and benefits to reflect these more inclusive frameworks. This remains among my proudest accomplishments in relation to faculty service. Since then, I frequently receive invitations to serve or consult on new initiatives, having earned a reputation as someone who is able and willing to work toward policies of inclusion and diversity on campus.
Ultimately, I believe that all teachers, researchers, and administrators must work towards the most inclusive policies and experiences possible because we are representatives for the attitudes and expectations of others on campus, particularly young people who are coming to college—sometimes the first in their families. Demonstrating a sincere desire to foster an accepting learning community that welcomes and engages people of all abilities, classes, ethnicities, gender expressions, sexual orientations, and life experiences is an essential element of higher education and one I pride myself on reflecting in all aspects of my teaching, research, and service.