Two Chinese students sat down in my office and put a copy of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the table in front of them. I imagined that in Writing 100: Transition to College Writing, I’d spend most of my time talking about essays. These students, however, wanted to talk about the reading, not the upcoming essay assignment. Actually, they didn’t want to talk about the reading either. They wanted to ask me one question: what is King talking about?
My stomach dropped as I realized what I’d done. They didn’t know anything about Dr. King, the civil rights movement, or Christianity. The entire letter was incomprehensible to them. What bothered me most was that their problem was entirely predictable. These students had been in the US for a grand total of three weeks. If I’d given thought to their experience at U-M thus far, I would have been prepared with appropriate resources to support them as they completed their work. Instead, I created an assignment that put them at a disadvantage because they hadn’t had a lifetime to soak up American culture.
This is the question at the heart of inclusive teaching—what barriers are there in this learning environment that could negatively impact student success? What can we do to remove those barriers? Many of those barriers are built when we hold unexamined assumptions about our students and their academic experiences. I carry my mistake with me as a reminder that I need to slough off another layer or two of my own assumptions.