Liberal Education

Institutionalizing Inclusion in the In-Between

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are.—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Over the past seven years or so, my institutional position has shifted as I have moved slowly but steadily away from the teaching center and into the provost’s office at Elon University. This transition has challenged my assumptions about the most effective ways of cultivating inclusive learning environments on campus. My new position has given me a different vantage point—and as standpoint theory suggests, who and where you are shapes what you see.

Changing vantage points

Before becoming assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon, I had spent a decade at two different institutions, where I had approached the work of cultivating inclusive cultures from four relatively stable standpoints: I am a straight white male; I am a historian; I am a faculty developer working in a teaching center; and I am (and was) at a predominantly white university in the American South (first Vanderbilt University, then Elon). This has meant that my attention to diversity and inclusion has centered on questions of race and gender, focusing on the concerns and issues of faculty in their classrooms with occasional forays into the work of departments and programs. My various efforts shared certain elements: I was working with colleagues to build from the ground up, with the assumption that faculty are the primary actors and classrooms the main stages in the educational drama.

As I moved into the provost’s office through a series of steps (leading a university-wide initiative, becoming a member of the academic deans’ council, and so on), both my role and my perspective shifted. I came to realize, as a colleague and I recently wrote, that “most higher education institutions are structured in ways that make organizational sense but may not reflect the experience and needs of our students.”1 On a residential campus like mine, faculty are central players in student learning and students’ lives, but they are by no means the only (or even the primary) influencers. Undergraduates are surrounded by peers, staff, family members, employers, coaches, and many others who profoundly shape their educations. By focusing on students, I came to recognize that people beyond faculty and programs beyond the curriculum play vital roles in creating and nurturing an inclusive learning environment. My perspective had changed, leading me to see the task and the campus in fundamentally different ways even though the institutional context had remained the same.

The change in my role dramatically widened the scope of possibilities for my work and expanded the number of allies with whom I could collaborate. This isn’t to say that I hadn’t been engaged in meaningful work through the teaching center. As a faculty developer, I had partnered with instructors to support classroom and curricular initiatives, such as the teaching center’s Diversity Infusion Project. That program (now called Diversity and Inclusion Grants) still provides resources to teams of faculty seeking to develop and implement strategies that infuse the curriculum and pedagogies with best practices related to human diversity, broadly defined. In one early project, five faculty members collaborated to create and share diversity-related content units and experiential classroom activities that could be adopted in the many sections of introduction to psychology taught each year. From a faculty developer’s perspective, at an institution of Elon’s size, engaging five faculty from a single department in the creation of sustainable teaching resources for a multisection course is a meaningful project. In my new perch in the provost’s office, I still think we accomplished something significant.

However, institution-wide work can require engaging many people who are not within the typical realm of faculty development, including students, professional staff in student affairs and residence life, and others. Cochairing a committee on student peer mentoring, for instance, immersed me in scholarship and lived experiences that demonstrated the profound influence students have on one another’s sense of belonging on campus. Because of this work, I entered into ongoing discussions about new student orientation, the intellectual climate in residence halls, and staffing configurations in student affairs. I had to rethink my assumptions about the most effective ways of creating and nurturing inclusive learning environments on campus, as well as recalibrate my beliefs about who the central actors are in this shared work.

Seeing potential

My experience highlights and complicates what Kezar and Lester describe as “dual authority structures” in higher education.2 Faculty typically are leaders-in-place who may lack formal administrative authority but who can draw on their professional power and expertise, along with the traditions and structures of shared governance, to act as grassroots leaders. Administrators occupy seats of authority within the institutional hierarchy, although their actual capacity to act autonomously is often circumscribed. As my position shifted from one of these structures to the other, I came to see the distinct affordances of each—and to recognize the generative in-between place that faculty developers occupy at many institutions, including my own.

As Green and Little document, faculty developers typically exist in a liminal space between faculty and administration.3 This position can constrain them, but it can also make them pivotal actors on campus: fulcrums on which diversity and inclusion efforts rise or fall. They are neither fish nor fowl, but they connect across and function within dual authority structures on campus. Ironically, as I left my formal role as a faculty developer, I came to see even more clearly the power of boundary-spanning roles. As bell hooks has explained, being in marginal or liminal spaces may offer “the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”4

In my new (and still evolving) role, I have attempted to maintain this liminal orientation, keeping a foothold in what Walker calls the “as-if” places and opportunities within the institution5—“spaces within which we behave the way we want to live” in the academy and in the world.6 This requires me to recognize and accept the limits of my own knowledge and the uncertainty of the outcomes I pursue. Given my positioning as a white male administrator, awareness of my own limitations seems a prudent place to start as I work with faculty, staff, and student partners to enhance inclusive excellence for all at Elon.

Notes

1. Brooke Barnett and Peter Felten, eds., Intersectionality in Action: A Guide for Faculty and Campus Leaders for Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Institutions (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2016), xiii.

2. Adrianna J. Kezar and Jaime Lester, Enhancing Campus Capacity for Leadership: An Examination of Grassroots Leaders in Higher Education (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 6.

3. David A. Green and Deandra Little, “Academic Development on the Margins,” Studies in Higher Education 38, no. 4 (2013): 523–37.

4. bell hooks, “Marginality as Site of Resistance,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art; Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 341.

5. Melanie Walker, “Pedagogy for Rich Human Being-ness in Global Times,” in Global Inequalities and Higher Education, ed. Elaine Unterhalter and Vincent Carpentier (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 219–40.

6. Alison Cook-Sather and Peter Felten, “Ethics of Academic Leadership,” in Cosmopolitan Perspectives on Academic Leadership in Higher Education, ed. Feng Su and Margaret Wood (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 180.


PETER FELTEN is assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and professor of history at Elon University.

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