When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud.

This quote by Zora Neale Hurston that appears in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, hung on my bulletin board next to my desk for all of my years teaching. It was a reminder to myself that every student that entered my classroom had been cut up, beaten down and covered in mud to varying degrees. This could come in a multitude of ways – poverty, abuse, addiction, homelessness, death, bullying, mental illness, race, religion, gender – some that were visible to the eye and some that weren’t. I couldn’t assume that some students carried more burdens into the classroom than others because most were invisible. My job was to find the spark. To be open to whatever form that spark took in our classroom. To create an environment in which that spark could appear.

Our culture has long associated exclusivity with things of value and those that should be desired. This idea that the more limited the acceptance into something, the more valuable and worthwhile it is deeply engrained into how we think and how we function in higher education. Many faculty seek to “weed out” students who don’t have the skills or ability to make it in certain majors. But what if those students who aren’t able to enter environments of exclusivity are really just those who have experienced the most mud which has covered their spark?

While none of us want a doctor performing surgery on us who didn’t do well in biology, it’s worth considering what it would look like to shift from a deficit mindset to one that seeks out a student’s strengths and interests, what Ken Robinson calls finding their Element, defined as:

…the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion… When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they’re really meant to be doing with their lives.

What does it look like to shift from being exclusive to being inclusive?

In a recent talk on inclusive teaching, Kareem Edouard, Assistant Professor of Teaching, Learning & Curriculum at Drexel University, defined inclusive teaching as:

…the defining of the space. How do you create an environment that not only supports students’ identities – the way they speak, the way they engage – and most importantly the freedom for their own self-beliefs, to be a part of the curriculum itself?

Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, Director of Inclusive Teaching Practices at the University of Denver, defined it as:

Actively engaging the wealth of intersecting social identities and positionalities that students and faculty bring into the learning environment.

It’s a powerful thing to demonstrate to students:

You belong here.

You do not have to change yourself to be here.

Your experience and identity is essential in this classroom.

The era has ended when only a small percentage of students of privilege attend college. And thank goodness for that, because this complex, messy world that we live in requires all perspectives and life experiences to create positive change. Most of our colleges now have a different type of wealth, that of students’ vastly diverse experiences and life journeys. The future of teaching and learning includes shifting our mindset from “weeding students out” to supporting students on their journey to finding their Element. This shift requires creating curriculum and learning spaces that engage the “wealth” of those identities to dig into the complexities of true growth, learning and change.

Edouard, K., Iturbe-LaGrave, V. and McGuire, P. (2021, April 22). Advice panel: An inclusive environment [Conference Presentation]. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Reset Leadership Summit. Virtual Presentation.

Hurston, Z. N. (1937). Their eyes were watching God. J.B. Lippincott & Co.

Robinson, K. and Aronica, L. (2009). The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. Penguin Books.