By Hannah Patterson
Classes have started back at TCU with a mix of in-person and online options. However, regardless of the format, students have been diving into their syllabi to make note of due dates, quizzes, exams, and readings. Embedded in most professors’ syllabi is a diversity statement recognizing the significance of transparent disclosure of how their classroom will navigate differences and discussion.
Courses centering topics of race, gender, class, sexuality, and more can leave students vulnerable to unexpected triggers or uncomfortable conversations due to contrasting viewpoints. With this, students look to their professors to navigate the room with not only respect but accountability.
English professor Dr. Brandon Manning provides a clear and meaningful diversity statement in his syllabus that acknowledges students’ right to belonging while also recognizing that his classroom will not be a space that allows contribution rooted in the oppression of someone else.
“I wanted it to be framed but also warm and welcoming,” explains Manning. “I wanted to make sure students had a space where we could kind of create and craft community where they could potentially feel vulnerable so they could work through some of the things they were grappling with as it pertains to race, gender, class, and sexuality.”
With experience teaching courses around social identities, Dr. Manning aspires to foster a space for purposeful dialogue while barring the opportunity for students to believe that certain topics are up for debate.
“Because we oftentimes talk about race and gender and sexuality in discussion-based classes, a number of students think that it’s up for discussion or say, ‘this is just my opinion,’ and it’s really important for me to tell them ‘no, this is actually a school of thought.’”
At a predominantly white institution such as TCU, many students are not used to the discourse surrounding race and gender which can lead to discomfort and hostility.
“I had a mentor of mine a long time ago tell me that if you’re going to teach what we teach and do it well, you’re going to have some students that don’t like you, and you need to be okay with that,” says Manning.
A term often mentioned in syllabi for discussion-based classes is “safe spaces.” A safe space is often defined as a place for people to profess their thoughts and emotions without fear of judgment or attack.
Manning notes, “Where the rhetoric of safe spaces oftentimes goes awry is when it protects people who speak on behalf of oppressors or the dominant discourse.”
A specific emphasis in Dr. Manning’s diversity statement is that “students’ ideas, contributions, and life experiences make them uniquely qualified to offer substantive insight into the course material.” With this, Manning aims to be very intentional about letting his students into the class process.
“I let folks know I need to hear from others because maybe some people have taken up a lot of the space and I need to hear from the women in the class or folks of color or whomever,” declares Manning.
A diversity statement with this level of authenticity and accountability fosters an environment of respect that is valued amongst students and more specifically, students of color. When difficult topics are discussed and people work through the heavy emotions that often accompany these conversations, a room with a clear set of rules and regulations for what is and is not appropriate or allowed protects students from potential emotional trauma.
Manning acknowledges the vulnerability of his own position in his classroom, as well. With this, he wishes to promote trust from his students.
“I enter into the classroom space relatively vulnerable,” Manning reveals. “I’m much more interested in just having a conversation with students than this kind of top-down authoritarian perspective. And so, because of all the things we’re working through, it all ends up working.”