The Academic Conversation: Gearing Up for Diversity

By Thomas Barker | Fellow

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For many academics, the approach of the fall term means revising courses and curriculum, preparing new courses, and planning fresh ways to meet student instructional needs. This year many colleges and universities will face increasing enrollments of students from various ethnic and national groups as well as students from communities from which they draw their social and/or gender identities. The term for this trend is diversity, something higher education has mostly embraced and something technical communication instructors need to acknowledge as they begin preparing courses. Specifically, these instructors need to ask the following questions:

  • What is diversity?
  • What diversity issues affect instructional planning?
  • How can a TC professor address diversity issues?

What is Diversity?

Let’s consider the cultural makeup of a typical university classroom. While in many north American universities, students will reflect the dominant culture, an increasing number of students will speak Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, or Urdu as their first language. Here we see a lot of differences and, on a very broad level, diversity means respect for these individual differences. The School of Public Health at the University of Alberta defines diversity as follows:
Diversity recognizes, respects, and celebrates a broad range of characteristics and differences among people. These differences include ethnicity, race, language or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, educational background, family status, faith/religion, socio-economic standing, ability (physical, mental, cognitive), group affiliation, and individual ways of being and thinking (

This very broad, very inclusive definition really reflects how universities see their enrollment in the future. But where does all this diversity come from?

One source of enrollment diversity is the growing demand for higher education worldwide. This demand doubled (53%) between 1999 and 2007, and is projected to reach 3.8 million by 2025. Of that group, about half will be Asian, including students from China and India. But the catch is that countries will compete to satisfy this worldwide demand. The United Kingdom is already promoting itself as the premier destination for international students. Immigration to Canada also brings with it increased demands for assessing and meeting educational demands. Over half of Canadian immigrants already hold degrees, and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) predicts that these families will want the same education for their students. It is not unrealistic to anticipate that many of these students will want to pursue technical education and will need strong writing and speaking skills.

In the United States, enrollment of Hispanic students is projected to double by 2021, whereas enrollment of Non-Hispanic, white high school graduates is projected to decrease. Much of this enrollment is in Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), more than half of which are two-year colleges. Many of these Latino students choose two-year colleges for financial and social reasons, seeking programs that accommodate their economic status and the need to update job skills. These students, like their global counterparts, will make demands on teachers of technical subjects and teachers of writing and speaking.

Diversity also results from a recognition of communities and identity groups like the following, which are acknowledged in Texas A & M University’s “Diversity Plan”: age, cultural identity, gender identity or expression, nationality, physical and mental ability, political and ideological perspectives, racial and ethnic identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, and social and economic status. These underrepresented groups make up a diverse population and suggest the makeup of individuals that will increasingly show up in all classrooms, not just technical communication.

The question, of course, is why encourage diversity? That is, why should a university or an instructor not see diversity as an obstacle to teaching students how to write reports, proposals, and instructions? Wouldn’t individual differences just get in the way of the goals of standardized, consistent, and measurable instruction? I could go on in this vein. Don’t we want non-English students to achieve writing skills that do not mark them as speakers of English as a second language? Don’t we want to teach everyone, regardless of individual differences?

Attitudes Toward Diversity

The answer to these questions is, of course, that diversity should not be seen as something to be tolerated, but as a source of strength of a program and a university. This approach, I’m pleased to say, is taken by the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. Other institutions, specifically HSIs, argue against the “deficit” perspective and urge us to see students as “funds of knowledge” that can inform and complement academic learning. Another general strategy is to see teaching for diversity as teaching to the individual and not the group. Each individual student, whether a member of a clearly represented group or a less-represented group, needs to consider his or her characteristics as an asset to learning and something that can contribute to academic success.

Given this view, an effective approach is not to ignore diversity but to capitalize on it and apply resources to build relationships among diverse populations and use it as a platform for building university resources. For these reasons, I urge all technical communication instructors to inquire about diversity initiatives at their institutions and see how their programs and classes can build on the strengths of diversity. In the next part of this column, I will indicate ways that technical communication teachers can understand the issues that diversity presents and begin to fashion responses.

Building for Diversity: Responding to Issues

The starting point for building a solid instructional response to diversity is a recognition of the issues that diversity presents to technical communication instructors. One issue is students’ socioeconomic background. What is the student’s level of language and writing proficiency? For many ESL students, it may be lower than mainstream or more represented groups. Another issue is motivation. Why did this student enroll in my technical communication class? Does the student want to write better or simply eliminate writing errors?

Beyond student issues, we also face faculty issues. What preparation do I have to teach underserved students? Many TC faculties themselves are not diverse and may not have training and experience in teaching diverse students. Such teaching requires that instructors know what brought them to teaching and how to share that motivation with ethnically and racially diverse students. The assumption here is that teacher attitudes shape the conditions under which college students learn. The most enlightened attitude toward diversity is one that acknowledges the teachers’ own cultural identity and can see how that informs attitudes toward students, teaching. This approach gives new meaning to the idea of transparency. The more we understand our identity, the easier it is to understand that of technical communication students.

Finally, instructional issues need to be addressed: costs of textbooks and accessibility (through online delivery), our class culture and atmosphere, coordination with other units on campus—all loom as areas where technical communication academics can plan to build on the strengths of diversity. For example, many schools, like the University of Colorado, provide career counseling that can help students with diverse backgrounds prepare job searches. Additionally, many campuses provide counseling services for students who see the university as a foreign land or who need to cope with staggering personal problems.

Instructors need to find out what their schools do to address diversity. Towson University, for instance, has a Center for Student Diversity that supports multicultural student organizations, provides financial assistance to underrepresented students, holds diversity awareness events, and, among a range of other services, provides diversity educational and resource materials for faculty. For technical communication instructors and administrators, these resources can help in gearing up for diversity this year.

How Can I Address Diversity Issues in the TC Classroom?

My readings in the scholarship of diversity have suggested a number of approaches that a technical communication instructor can take to plan for a diversity-responsible curriculum. The following section outlines some suggestions you can implement in your class.

  • Build diverse communication teams. Most TC instructors assemble work teams for writing projects. Instead of ignoring your students’ diversity, build teams with an eye to cultural makeup, academic preparedness, language skills, and other issues that your student group presents. Building diverse teams can lead to seeing your class as a community in which both seen and unseen characteristics are valued.
  • Use examples that reflect a diversity of communities. Anne-Marie Nuñez, Elizabeth Murakami Ramalho, and Kimberley K. Cuero, writing in Innovative Higher Education in 2010, suggest that using examples (cases, research topics, service-learning opportunities) that reflect the diverse makeup of the university forms a connection between a student’s individual biography and the academic experience. The point is not, it seems, to simply reflect diversity, but to see the point of doing so: to validate, through a culturally relevant pedagogy, a variety of perspectives in shaping the experience of technical communicators and technical communication.
  • Model the struggle to overcome bias. A key approach to diversity in the classroom is for the teacher to model the struggle to eliminate racially or ethnically biased approaches in teaching and learning. Nobody wants to admit and list their prejudices, but that shouldn’t stop a teacher from announcing that he or she made every attempt to overcome bias.
  • Include a diversity statement in your syllabus. Look online at your institution to find suggestions for brief, affirmative overviews of your policy to build on diversity. If you don’t find one, use the Internet to find examples. Here’s one: “In [TC 101], I value diversity and am committed to fostering and maintaining an educational environment which appreciates individual differences in all areas of operation, including classroom instruction, texts and materials.”
  • Leverage institutional support. Find out what your institution does to build on diversity and help your students take advantage of it. For instance, the University of Colorado provides career services for ethnically diverse students. Oklahoma State provides an academic diversity support group to help students needing remediation. Red River College in Manitoba offers scholarships for students with diverse backgrounds.

As professors get ready for a new term, the increasingly diverse makeup of their classes presents an opportunity to discover new resources for community and instruction development. Knowing what diversity is and how to approach it is the first step. Beyond that, knowing some of the issues diversity presents and how to address them in the classroom can go a long way toward giving the next school year a “diversity-first” emphasis.


Journal of Diversity in Higher Education,

Teaching Tolerance

Teaching Diverse Learners

Teaching for Inclusion, Center for Teaching and Learning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC), 2012 Annual Conference Theme: Communities, Workplaces, and Technologies, 27–29 September 2012, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI,

Nuñez, Anne-Marie, Elizabeth Murakami Ramalho, and Kimberley K. Cuero. Pedagogy for Equity: Teaching in a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Innovative Higher Education 35.3 (2010): 177-190.

1 Comment

  • I use non-US addresses as examples in my manuals on CRM practices; I use ‘Pete, Jose, and Tranh’ as my generic consturction workers when presenting on mobile timecard input; I make sure my hypothetical nation is ‘Country X’ not ‘something-stan’ or ‘Lower Slobovia’. Those are small and simple things that let our global design firm users know they are not ancillary sideline employees; that their nation and customs are respected, and that they are the backbone of our growth strategy to serve both our core clients who are growing globally, and our new clients in non-US locales. These are small things, but it tells the employees at our newest office that they are thought of every day, and are an integral part of who we are as a firm.

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