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Empowering Learners, Effecting Change: Sharing LGBTQ+ students’ ideas about inclusivity in the classroom

Last Thursday, I (Danielle Pierre) had the pleasure of giving a talk with our Summer Research Intern, Lindsay D’Souza, at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) Empowering Learners, Effecting Change conference. This was their largest conference to date with over 800 participants. Presenters shared their expertise in the form of keynote addresses, interactive concurrent sessions, research presentations, pecha kucha presentations, and posters.

The conference focused on giving learners the confidence, resources, and space to direct their education and development while pushing boundaries beyond the status quo in an effort to create powerful communities for learning. There were ten conference threads that expanded on the main theme; our presentation was categorized under the “student-centred curricula, assessment, and teaching practices” thread.

We focused on sharing LGBTQ+ students’ own solutions for making classroom spaces more inclusive of their identities. These solutions were derived from our LGBTQ+ Student Experience Survey. One thing that is always challenging for researchers is communicating your results in concise, understandable, and relatable ways. For this conference, we wanted to let our data (and our students) speak for itself.

So, we created a story that asked our audience to put themselves in the place of a queer student who felt invisible, isolated, and alone in their university classroom. The story demonstrated the richness of our survey data as well as the thoughtfulness of the students who took the time to share their experiences with us. This is to say, the story was grounded directly in student voices.

These are the strategies students suggest instructors use to incorporate diverse perspectives about sexual orientation and gender identity into their classrooms:

  1. Use inclusive and gender neutral language,
  2. Use students’ preferred pronouns and names,
  3. Represent queer identities in course content,
  4. Deconstruct problematic assumptions and minimize heteronormativity in the classroom,
  5. Educate themselves about queer identities, experiences, and appropriate language,
  6. Engage in training on: queer and trans identities, inclusivity, diversity, and anti-oppression, and
  7. Recognize and acknowledge queer identities and experiences.

Conference delegates were enthralled by the story we told. We were able to start a dialogue that built off of the story we shared and expanded on what discrimination can look like in a classroom. What seemed to really catch the room’s attention was the call to represent queer identities in course content. This conversation centered on dispelling any ideas that disciplines outside of gender studies or women’s studies do not need to make this consideration. While our story included three examples--from sociology, history, and english--one delegate shared their own example of exclusionary content in a biology textbook.

This really illustrated the huge number of stakeholders in classrooms: students, instructors, university administration, textbook publishers… the list could go on. Only when we put students first and work together can impactful changes be made.

Presenting at this conference was a rare opportunity for myself, Lindsay, and the organization. Not only was this a completely new experience for me, but I had the chance to apply my artistic skills to my work in order to strengthen how we communicated our message. As a current student, Lindsay found it empowering to be in a room full of professors who were looking to her as an expert. Their commitment to helping their students was unmistakable.

STLHE gave OUSA the opportunity to act on a policy file that usually just sits on a shelf. In a moment where we were not advocating to government, we were able to discuss issues that affect students as individuals. We were still representing students at a broad, provincial level (potentially even at national and international levels if you consider who attended the conference) but simply delivering our message to those in the best position to enact changes.

What was most exciting is that OUSA was identified by a third-party as an organization with the expertise to speak to the challenges students experience in the classroom, despite most of our work occurring far outside of it. This was then reaffirmed when our application was approved through STLHE’s peer review process.

Our members should feel validated in the knowledge that their experiences and voices are highly valued across the post-secondary sector. They should also feel secure in knowing that OUSA, as an organization, is recognized as a reliable representative of their experiences. OUSA’s presence at a conference aimed at university faculty is proof of these things.

I would like to invite our members to reach out to us through their Steering Committee member at any time. We value your feedback and will always do our best to act on it and share it with those willing to do the same.

Danielle Pierre
Research & Policy Analyst
Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance