College Classrooms as Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

In discussing the importance of children's literature written by and about underrepresented groups, Rudine Sims Bishop uses three metaphors: books as mirrors, books as windows, and books as sliding glass doors. These serve as important metaphors for our own classroom communities as well.

Books are mirrors for young readers, Bishop explains, in that they often reflect a dominant discourse. For children who are from different cultural backgrounds, reading books only from a dominant perspective could suggest that their own image in the mirror, so different from that presented in the book, is not important. But Bishop also suggests that white children who only read books by and about the white world may get an exaggerated sense of their own self-worth. After all, the world is becoming much more diverse.

Books can also be windows, Bishop notes. Here young readers can look through, see other worlds, and see how they match up or don't match up to their own world view. But diversity needs to go both ways. A sliding glass door allows entrance into worlds different than children’s own. It is that opening up of boundaries that spawned the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) movement. In 2014, a BookCon panel of four men, all white, was announced, and the blogosphere declared it time to raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored. Since the initial declaration, sources as divergent as Bitch Media and The Christian Science Monitor have covered the efforts of WNDB.

As I updated information about WNBD for this semester’s class on young adult literature, it struck me that these metaphors could be useful as college classrooms negotiate the increasingly tumultuous U.S. political climate. Classrooms that only mirror back a dominant discourse miss opportunities for students of all backgrounds to see our discipline from multiple vantage points. How can we move from only reflecting a dominant discourse to opening up a door and allowing students to move back and forth between and among divergent perspectives? Although there are a variety of excellent resources online, I find it useful to focus on the following questions each semester:

Who is the self that teaches? This question from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach remains the most meaningful for my classroom community, and, remarkably, I answer it differently each time I enter the classroom space. Like my students, my lived experiences change and change me. Each semester I reevaluate how my selfhood is informing, reforming, and potentially deforming my classes.

What is on the invisible course syllabus? As I’ve previously discussed, course syllabi have become a contract of sorts – a protection for the professor and a list of dos and don’ts for the student. If we are honest with ourselves, each course has unspoken rules and expectations that drive what we do. One example would be my expectation that my students speak like me. Since I teach in the Southern Plains, I hear variations of “y’all,” and I shudder every time, especially during presentations. My own language preferences reflect a class positioning – one that privileges some students and not others.

How have I made myself uncomfortable? At the beginning of each semester, it is easy to change a few dates and copy content from one D2L shell to another, but this complacency does not open doors. Instead, the assumption that we and our classes can stay the same semester to semester suggests that the course is ours, not our students. Using feedback from other semesters, I force myself to change one assignment and one reading assignment each time I teach the same class again.

Who are my students? This question cannot be answered by looking at a class roster. While research data about today’s Millennial students is interesting, knowing students on an individual basis is vital. During the first few weeks of the semester, I take time to ask students what they literally brought with them to class, what they metaphorically bring to class, and, finally, what they wish they could bring to class.

How have I embedded opportunities for reflection? This is important for all classroom participants. I often require a mid-semester written response that answer questions like, “Tell me about what you learned so far” or “What else do you want to know?”

There are, no doubt, many other questions that help us move from reflecting dominant ideologies to providing open doors for all of our students. The hashtag “We Need Diverse Books” resonated with people all over the world, and perhaps a similar hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseClassrooms, needs to shake up higher education. Whether or not that comes to fruition, each of us can do our part to open classroom spaces and welcome what our students bring to that community.