A Flexible Framework - Inclusive Teaching as a Dynamic System and Through a PWI Lens

Inclusive Teaching at a PWI - A Dynamic System is in a blue rectangle at the top of the graphic. Below are three green circles for Climate, Pedagogy, and Content. Each green circle has 2 arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down.

Inclusive Teaching at a PWI as a Dynamic System

All approaches to teaching comprise at least three domains (or related areas):

  1. class climate,
  2. pedagogy, and
  3. course content.

However, the dynamic relationship among these domains is central to implementing inclusive teaching at a PWI. If we imagine that each domain can move in a positive (upward) or negative (downward) direction, we can conceive of inclusive teaching as a dynamic system where the positive or negative force of each domain affects the entire system. For example, an instructor may work very hard to improve their teaching methods and learning activities (pedagogy) and to meaningfully diversify their course content, but if there is a negative class climate, those positive efforts in the domains of pedagogy and content will be blunted by the negative force of a poor class climate. In another instance, an instructor may create a welcoming, inclusive class climate, but continues to use ineffective teaching methods and course content that represents predominantly White scholarship. In this version, once again the good efforts at creating a positive climate are counteracted by the negative forces of the pedagogy and content domains.

A Diagnostic and Assessment Tool

Understanding inclusive teaching at a PWI as a dynamic system opens the door to new ways of thinking about professional development and changing curricula. We invite instructors and departments to use this framework as a diagnostic tool. After reviewing this guide, self-assess your courses. Which domains are exerting a positive or negative force? Should instructors or departments focus their professional development efforts in one or two domains? Or should they prioritize a specific domain that historically has been overlooked? Or, if one could only focus on one domain now, which domain would make the most positive impact, if improved? While all domains are essential and interact, a diagnostic self-assessment can be a useful point of departure. After making changes in the domains, “retake” your diagnostic and compare your “before” results with your “after” results. Also be sure to look at your results with other teaching data or evidence (such as early/midterm student feedback, SRTs, peer review of teaching, student assignments, etc.).

Inclusive Teaching at a PWI - The PWI lens in a blue rectangle at the top. Below are three green circles for Climate, Pedagogy, and Content. Climate-How do PWI practices feel to BIPOC and other student populations? Pedagogy-What are your “inherited” teaching practices? Content-What are the origins of your discipline? Who is represented?

Definitions of a Predominantly White Institution

In numerical terms, a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in higher education is a college or university where 50% or more of the students are white (Bourke, 2016,13). Most 4-year colleges and universities, including the University of Minnesota, are PWIs according to this numerical definition. Of note, this numerical definition does not say anything about the percentages of white instructors, administrators, or staff. In terms of how a PWI shapes and informs the culture, practices, and policies of a university, we distinguish Whiteness (uppercase ‘W’) as a system from white (lowercase ‘w’) as an individual or personal racial identity. A PWI is a system where “what is predominant … is not simply the number of white students versus the number of students of color but embedded institutional practices that are based in [W]hiteness” (Bourke 2016, 20). With this expanded definition, we see it’s possible for student demographics to change - BIPOC students could become a numerical majority - but for Whiteness as a system to persist and continue to shape the institution. So a shift in student demographics on its own will not necessarily alter the influence of the PWI as a system. 

The Lens of a Predominantly White Institution

When we look at inclusive teaching through the lens of a PWI, we become aware of the assumptions and values of Whiteness as a system that shape the practices, policies and behaviors of a PWI (Cabrera et al. 2016). PWIs operate from assumptions and values that are common in the U.S. such as “colorblindness” or race neutrality, the primacy of the individual and individual rights, majority rules, an assumed middle class status, and the belief in a meritocracy, among others. In our teaching, these PWI values inform course policies on attendance and participation, instill the practice of scientific objectivity, privilege academic writing over other kinds of communication, favor competitive rather than cooperative learning, and promote other teaching practices that are “taken for granted” and may be exclusionary. 

Implications of the PWI System

The PWI operates not only from Whiteness as a system but also from “middle and professional classness” as a system. The PWI is organized to best serve middle and professional class white student populations rather than first-generation college student populations of any racial or Indigenous identity. In this regard, the PWI engenders a hidden curriculum that also shapes our “inherited” teaching practices. Additionally, in the U.S., the PWI may be challenging for international students, regardless of their social class, because some international students, upon studying in the U.S., will be racialized as non-white, possibly for the first time in their lives. The experience of being racialized as non-white in an environment that claims to be “colorblind” is disorienting for many international students. Moreover, international students are not likely to be well versed in the histories of racial and Indigenous communities in the U.S. further mystifying their experience of being racialized. Finally, the PWI racializes Indigenous student populations, rather than acknowledging Indigeneity as a unique identity based on tribal sovereignty and survivance (Vizenor, 1999). All of this is to say, inclusive teaching without questioning the PWI lens will likely lead us to replicate rather than replace inequities in our teaching.

We emphasize that viewing your teaching through the PWI lens will help instructors work with rather than deny the dynamics of race and Indigeneity and lead to more responsive inclusive teaching for our BIPOC and white students. We invite you to review these suggested practices and references.

Suggested Practices for Self-Assessing Your Teaching

  1. Develop a shared language about inclusive teaching using this guide and its references
  2. View your teaching through the lens of a Predominantly White Institution
  3. Self-assess a course or major or program using the 3 domains of the Inclusive Teaching at a PWI Framework
  4. Document evidence for each of the 3 domains (climate, pedagogy, content)
  5. Measure progress by comparing your “before” and “after” self-assessments and other evidence
  6. Commit to inclusive teaching at a PWI as an ongoing endeavor

Predominantly White Institutions References

Bourke, Brian. 2016. “Meaning and Implications of Being Labelled a Predominantly White Institution.” College and University. 91(3): 12-21.

Cabrera, Nolan L., Franklin, Jeremy D., and Jesse S. Watson. 2016. “Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analysis.” ASHE Higher Education Report. 42 (6): 1-125.

Vizenor, Gerald. 1999. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.