Safe and Inclusive Classrooms: Transgender Students Describe Ideal Learning Environments

Earlier this fall, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a special report, “Diversity in Academe: Transgender on Campus.” Touching on everything from language and pronouns to restroom facilities to transgender athletes and faculty members, the report issued a strong call for providing equal access to transgender students on college campuses and for providing facilities, support, and safe environments in which all students may thrive.

As our fall semester draws to a close, I thought it would be a good time to share one component of this special report that resonated especially strongly with me and which may prompt many of us to reflect on how we communicate with students in the classroom. Chronicle reporter Julia Schmalz produced a powerful video entitled, “‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know,” in which students from a range of institutions (including community colleges, HBCUs, and other four-year institutions) and representing a range of gender identities and sexualities were interviewed about how they would like their professors to address them, among other topics.

At the 8 minute 26 second (8:26) mark, the “Ask Me” video introduces the encouraging and inspiring topic, “Ask What Gets Them Excited to Learn.” In this section, viewers are met with joy and enthusiasm from students who describe their appreciation for dialog, hands-on learning environments, opportunities for deep investigation, and analytical and critical thinking in class discussions. But overwhelmingly, the students emphasize the importance of feeling safe, validated, and included as prerequisites for effective learning.

As many of us in the library are aware, individual classes develop dynamics of communication and interaction among and between the students, professor, and, in many cases, graduate student instructors as well. These classroom dynamics do not typically get checked at the door when a class enters the library for a one-shot instruction session or when a librarian makes a visit to the classroom. And though we do not, in most cases, have the benefit of a semester’s worth of knowledge to inform our interactions with any one class that we meet with, we do our best to adapt our own teaching and communication styles to accommodate the character and dynamic of the class with which we’re currently meeting. As we develop experience in library instruction, this kind of on-the-spot adaptation becomes second nature for many of us but we can certainly be thrown off -- sometimes happily so when a class demonstrates a noticeably strong dynamic of camaraderie with an accompanying high level of participation -- and sometimes deflatingly when a class brings an air of discord, lack of interest, or seemingly unyielding silence.

Hearing the students’ interview responses in this video prompted me to think about some of the underlying factors that can contribute to classroom dynamics and to consider ways to be more sensitive to them. Of course, as librarians, it is not likely that we are in a position to diagnose and treat established classroom dynamics and this is not what I am suggesting. But we can certainly be thoughtful and proactive in efforts to make all students feel safe and included during the time that we meet with them. The library environment, with its emphasis on neutral and equal access to information, provides a solid foundation for our classroom interactions, whether they occur on library “soil,” so to speak, or whether we carry these principles into the other areas on campus that we visit. As library instructors, we stand to benefit from further investigation into our efforts toward ensuring feelings of safety and inclusion in the classroom.

What are some concrete steps, you ask? I don’t know, let’s brainstorm! Maybe we can add a question about the nature of the learning environment to our standard evaluation survey. Maybe we can do more team teaching to make sure we are attentive to all students in larger classes. Or try adopting something like the post-it technique described by Miriam Posner. But no matter what, let’s continue the conversation.