This year’s NITOP was fabulous as always (although pretty chilly). I had a great time meeting up with the twitter #squad and discussing with colleagues different aspects of teaching. One thing that really stuck with me came from two particular talks:
Mikki Hebel gave a general session talk about gender and race gatekeeping and included some examples in academia, such as this study and this study which show that letters of recommendation often show gender bias. Her talk was fantastic, but I want to focus on another kind of gatekeeping that was actually brought up later in a talk by Erin Hardin.
Hardin was discussing backwards design. The premise of backwards design is that you when you are designing your class, you start with what you want your students to know, and then work backwards to determine the assessments and teaching methods you need to use to accomplish those goals. For more on backwards design, here is a chapter from Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design. Next week’s post will talk more about backwards design and some ideas about how it can be used, but I want to focus on something that Hardin said. When discussing the idea that we need to question WHY we do things the way we do, she said something like:
“Are you assessing the stuff that you care about?”
She then linked this to Hebel’s talk with an idea that I have been thinking since been thinking a lot about: academic gatekeeping. That as instructors sometimes we are unintentionally assessing our students’ educational privilege rather than what we think we are assessing. For example, do you require students to be responsible for learning from the text the first week of class? If so, do you provide a copy of the text in the library, or on your LMS for students to access? If not, you might really be assessing whether or not students have enough resources to purchase their textbooks before financial aid checks are sent to students. Do we go into our classes assuming students are familiar with our university’s LMS, or other technology? I learned just this fall that so many students are used to using things like GoogleDrive or Office365 online, that they don’t know how to download and save the document so that the student can upload it onto our LMS. When we take a moment to think about the educational environment our students are immersed in, this isn’t all that surprising.
As this concept of academic gatekeeping has been brewing, it also got me thinking about a post I wrote last year. In it I wrote about some of the policies that we adopt in our classes, such as late and make-up policies. Since that post, I actually made a change to my late policy. I now allow all students one opportunity to turn in an assignment within 48 hours of the due date. I call it a Late Pass and the only thing students are required to do is email me before the deadline to let me know they are using it. They don’t need to explain anything to me. I adopted this because I know that sometimes stuff happens, a computer crashes, someone close to you (or you) is in the hospital, or you just forgot. I’m all for “assessing” students on life skills like sticking to deadlines, but I also know that many of my students have complex lives that can get in the way of classes sometimes, so I also want to show compassion.
What can we do about it? There are probably a lot of different approaches we could take. I think the first step is recognizing it. Take the time to do the central part of backwards design, ask WHY you are doing things the way you are. For me, I am going to take time at the beginning of class explaining not only why the class is set up the way it is, but also what that means for them; how can they use the tools I provide to be successful in class, on exams, or assignments. My hope is that this means I am no longer assuming students know how to be successful in class or how to use the variety of resources they have in the most productive ways.
What are some other examples of academic gatekeeping in the classroom? How might we better recognize it in our own courses? What can we do to prevent it?