The High Impact of Engaging Race Consciously
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
For over a decade, Kuh’s (2008) work on the critical importance of engaged learning has shaped the undergraduate college and university experience. Taking part in at least one engaged learning practice, dubbed “High Impact Practices,” at some point during a collegian’s higher education career has become an unstated given. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) currently lists eleven practices (for example: undergraduate research, living learning communities, service learning, study abroad, capstone courses) that, according to the work by Kuh and colleagues, have a likelihood of generating deep learning opportunities and gains across both academic and social domains. These gains are largely driven by immeasurable opportunities for collaborative learning, which includes teacher-student partnerships and opportunities for tailored and nuanced feedback. There is no shortage of research (e.g., Finley & McNair, 2013; Kilgo, Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015; Quaye & Harper, 2014) on the importance of these practices and the multi-level benefits for the academic community, which includes the institution, the student, and the faculty/staff.
However, lurking in the shadows of this important model for student development and achievement is a persistent racial disparity in engagement. In previous posts, I have discussed the necessity to evaluate educational structures, policies, and practices for the tendency to be centered on the predominate group (i.e., Whiteness). If we shift our framework to one that purposefully centers the experience of historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS), will we find the same patterns regarding high impact practices? Are HURMS engaging at comparable rates to majority students in these high impact practices and are the outcomes or benefits received similar? To begin answering these questions, we must become, what Dr. Shaun Harper refers to as race-conscious educators.
According to Harper, who is clearly embracing a critical race theoretical framework, the first step in becoming a race-conscious educator is shifting responsibility for engagement away from the student to you (whether you are faculty or staff) as the educator and agent of the institution. What exactly does this mean? It means in its most simplistic answer, instead of waiting for students to approach you about opportunities for engagement, you must ask them. I remember as an undergraduate psychology major that I loved participating in psychology labs. At my institution, psychology was considered a natural science and the introductory course had an accompanying lab requirement. In addition to that course, many of the foundational courses in the major had a lab component as well. Aside from an unfortunate queasy incident with the dissection of a cow’s eye, I loved participating in labs, working in small groups to create small experiments to test hypotheses and then writing up the findings. In reflecting on these curricular experiences I was enmeshed in engaged learning, and these experiences were happening nearly a decade before Kuh’s 2008 study.
However, as much as I loved my applied coursework, I yearned to be one of the elite students working closely with a faculty member. Those students that ran the studies we all participated in for extra credit. I wanted that experience, but I had no idea how to get it. I assumed that I needed to be asked to participate, and so I waited. Luckily, my performance in my sophomore year research and statistical methods course impressed my professor, and he asked me to work with him. The request was life changing. I don’t think I would have considered a career in psychology that was research-based as opposed to clinical had I not participated in undergraduate research.
My professor wondered out loud when I began working with him, why had I not sought out opportunities with other faculty prior – I clearly had the skills. The answer was easy; I didn’t know that I could ask. As a first generation Black American student, why would I believe I had the power and privilege to walk into my White male professor’s office and ask to be a part of his research? In fact, my previous research on the experiences of first generation Black collegians has shown that there is tendency for first generation students to rely on their academic performance as a gateway into their institution’s community. In comparison, non-first generation students believe that their status and positionality in the institutional community is gained through relationships and contacts. This finding would suggest that first generation students might be less inclined or not feel empowered enough to ask for an opportunity like participating in research. They would assume that achieving the opportunity is through remaining in good academic standing and receiving an invitation.
Harper identifies that as an issue of equity. He urges us to consider that when we “expect minority undergraduates to comfortably initiate interactions with faculty, seek out engagement opportunities with the same ease as their white peers, and visit campus offices staffed by people who lack cultural competence, [this] unfairly puts the onus entirely on the student” (p. 6). A race-conscious educator, according to Harper, is one who actively seeks out HURMS and invites them to participate or at least does not assume that they will actively pursue opportunities with the same ease and assumption of entitlement that a student from a majority background would.
However, I would caution the overly simplistic interpretation that the path to racial consciousness is paved solely with invitations and requests to enter the disciplinary canon. At the heart of the invitation is critical self-reflection that continuously recognizes the positionality of the educator (you) and that of the student. For Harper, this means shedding the “embrace” of colorblindness while continuously engaging the student’s perspective and lived experience as a HURM in academia. Further, the race-conscious educator must reflect on how their own previous and current approaches have upheld inequities – there is no time for self-congratulatory moments or the belief that the job is done. The job will not be completed for a long time. The final point Harper makes in advocating for the development of race-conscious educators is the unwillingness to accept inadequacy. It would be easy to say that your institution is doing all that it can, or that your discipline just doesn’t attract high numbers of HURMS – there is nothing you can do. This is not true. There is always something you can do; there is always a question you should be asking. Why not start here, think back on the high impact practices you have engaged in with a student, ask yourself why you partnered with him or her, and then ask yourself the critical question why not him, her, or them?
- Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. With an Assessing Equity in High-Impact Practices Toolkit. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- Harper, S. R. (2009). Race-conscious student engagement practices and the equitable distribution of enriching educational experiences. Liberal Education, 95(4), 38-45.
- Kilgo, C. A., Sheets, J. K. E., & Pascarella, E. T. (2015). The link between high-impact practices and student learning: Some longitudinal evidence. Higher Education, 69(4), 509-525.
- Kuh, G. W. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. American Association of Colleges and Universities.
- Longmire-Avital, B., & Miller-Dyce, C. (2015). Factors related to perceived status in the campus community for first generation students at an HBCU. College Student Journal, 49(3), 375-386.
- Quaye, S. J., & Harper, S. R. (Eds.). (2014). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations. Routledge.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.