"A work in process: Cultivating inclusive classrooms" with Northeastern Illinois University



On March 12, 2019, Robin Harris, Michelle Oh, and Alyssa Vincent from Northeastern Illinois University presented the webinar "A work in process: Cultivating inclusive classrooms."

Northeastern Illinois University is the one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the country, but what does that mean in terms of inclusion in the classroom? In this webinar, three NEIU librarians shared their missteps, lessons learned, and overall experiences with library instruction and research consultations while working with a diverse student population. If you’re curious to learn how they’ve cultivated more inclusive learning environments, you won’t find a simple checklist, but you’ll join an honest conversation and hear about others’ processes.

"A work in process: Cultivating inclusive classrooms."
Presented on March 12, 2019


Robin Harris is an Information Services Librarian and Subject Specialist for the Inner City Studies program at Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a librarian, she worked in publishing and project management. She earned her MLIS from Dominican University.

Michelle Oh is the Education Librarian and coordinator of information literacy and instruction at Northeastern Illinois University. Michelle has an MLIS from Dominican University and MA in Literature from Northwestern University.

Alyssa Vincent is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Northeastern Illinois University. She received an MLS from Emporia State University and an MA in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University.  

Slides and Reading Lists from Presenters:

Presenter's slides

Reading list for "A work in process: Cultivating inclusive classrooms"

ACRL Instruction for Diverse Populations Committee Bibliography

Descriptive Outline:

Defining inclusion
Inclusion is not to be equated with diversity, a term that is used to describe individual differences and identities, such as race, gender, ability, etc. Inclusion is an active, intentional and ongoing process of valuing all individuals and leveraging diverse talents. Inclusiveness is a complex and continual process—one that is complicated by the fact that librarians rarely have their own classes. But librarians can continue to talk about their work and how they are striving to do better. This should always be an ongoing process, and it should never be “completed.”

Alyssa Vincent: The difference between diverse classrooms and inclusive classrooms

Vincent and Harris were approached to teach NDP 305: Introduction to Research and Information Fluency, a 9-week, 1-credit hour class that attracts a wide range of students from many races, abilities, and programs. The primary goal is to help students become more comfortable with finding and identifying academic research.


  • Many students needed learning accommodations Vincent and Harris were not aware of, and most had limited familiarity with course technology.
  • Difficult to incorporate framework concepts while working on the brass tacks of tasks like building citations.
  • Many student were highly resistant to engaging in concepts like authority is constructed and contextual and scholarship as conversation, and simply wanted “right answers,” checkboxes, and templates. It was extremely difficult to shift student thinking in this regard.

Diverse students didn’t suddenly makes Vincent and Harris inclusive instructors. For example, they noted that even in their racially diverse class, they still focused exclusively on Eurocentric research methods. They had also not made course materials accessible for screen-reading software, which would have been beneficial for all students, not just those with learning accommodations. Ultimately, Vincent noted that it does nothing to talk about diversity—librarians and instructors have to put in the work to develop reflective course content.

In Vincent and Harris’ memorable final class session, Student A gave a presentation about her final project, an annotated bibliography about child sacrifice in Mayan civilization. (This project had used 5 peer-reviewed sources and received the full number of points for the assignment.) Student B, who identified herself as of Mayan descent, said all of Student A’s sources were made up—she said her grandparents had said child sacrifice was not part of their history, and because Student A had used the internet to find sources, her research couldn’t be trusted. This quickly became shouting match, with student A defending the quality of her research and another student interjecting how they had seen Apocolypto (a 2006 movie directed by Mel Gibson), and the child sacrifice stuff was “all true.” Harris noted how frustrating it was that on the last day of class, after nine weeks of content on critically evaluating sources, a student was using a movie as a credible source. Students A and B were willing to stay after class and have a productive discussion, but Vincent and Harris still ended the class with a sense of regret that they didn’t have another session left to discuss these issues.

In their reflection about how to do better next time, Vincent and Harris read more about indigenous research methods and dug much more deeply into the authority is constructed and contextual frame. There are no concrete answers here, but they came to realize that an inclusive classroom does not have perfectly tied up loose ends, and it must continually evolve to meet the needs of the next student.

They revisited this issue again in October 2017, during an ILI-I listserv conversation about a hypothetical situation where students refused to engage with a medical study comparing herbal tea and aspirin based on their own familial/cultural experiences. The question of authority and students’ personal experiences is one that our field needs to continually grapple with. We cannot “answer” the question and move on. Librarians must continually question the system of knowledge we are working in while balancing students’ personal experiences and the practical realities of their academic courses.

Robin Harris: Being a white librarian on a predominately black branch campus

Harris is the librarian for the Carruthers Center of Inner City Studies, a branch campus located in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. It offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in Inner City Studies, as well as some gen eds. The campus is about 98 percent African American, and the goal of the program is to focus on an African-centered perspective, instead of a traditional Eurocentric viewpoint.

Harris is highly aware that she is the only white person many of her students see at home, at work, etc., and she is also cognizant of the fact that she is taking up space as a white person in a conversation about race and inclusion. It is important to continually talk about whiteness in librarianship, and the failure of many of the field’s diversity initiatives to truly create an inclusive environment.

Considerations for instruction:

  • Coming out of her LIS program four years ago, Harris felt well-trained in one-shot sessions and that she had a lock on peer-reviewed research as a gold standard in academia. She says now that she definitely took for granted the nature of traditional Eurocentric research. She became very aware of her privilege when she walked into a class as a white person to talk about authority, peer-review, and who “peers” are.
  • This context creates an opportunity to talk about power and bias in knowledge production: challenging Western views of knowledge; examining how imperialism is embedded in knowledge disciplines; and discussing how research methods are culturally influenced.

Considerations for research consultations:

  • Students are often researching topics such as drug abuse, gun violence, foster care, incarceration, inequality—topics that are really personal. Like any librarian, Harris would get really excited when she found the “perfect” thing for a student’s research question—and then she’d find out that student was researching this topic because they’ve lost a child to gun violence. It was a good reminder for Harris to watch her tone, and approach these interactions with sensitivity. What real people does this dataset represent? Harris was reminded of her early training in the reference interview, when it was hammered home to ask only open-ended questions. Rather than approaching the research consultation with a checklist—what is the assignment, how many sources do they need, etc.—she tries to create space for students to talk about how they came to their topic.
  • A lot of students’ comprehensive and personal experiences don’t match up with the research. This is an opportunity to discuss the importance of varied perspectives and interpretations in research, and the lack of black and brown voices in academic publishing.

Michelle Oh: Broader considerations for more inclusive instruction practices

Universal Design for Learning is defined by the Center for Applied Special Technology as “a research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all.”  UDL principles often begin with considerations for students with special needs, so this broadens the scope of conversations about inclusivity beyond race/ethnicity to include special needs, gender, and other aspects of identity. Librarians can consider the following three areas within a UDL framework:

Classroom spaces

  • Furniture: Does furniture meet or exceed the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements? We may not be able to order new furniture, but we can create a welcoming workspace by moving chairs out of the way so a student in a wheelchair can easily access a table, for example.
  • Access to computing resources: Provide a lab instead of expecting students to have their own laptops.
  • Using technology: Providing access to technology doesn’t always help without knowing how to use them. It’s not enough to know screen-reading software exists; we also need to know how to help students use it.
  • Gender inclusivity: Does the classroom present a welcoming space for all genders? For example, are there portraits of all white male college presidents lining the classroom? This can be a visual reminder of institutional/structural racism.
  • Research is personal: Offer privacy for research consultations when possible, for students who may reveal very personal information about their lives (e.g. their HIV-positive status)
  • Accessibility of support: Offer varied times for research appointments, to accommodate challenging schedules

Lesson planning

  • Oh recommends an exercise from an inclusive lesson planning template (available in the presenters’ provided reading list), which invites the lesson planner to select three possible types of students that represent the diverse make-up of a class/program/university.  Know this before you plan a lesson, rather than trying to retrofit lesson to the students.
  • For NEIU, Oh selected the following students:
    • Most first-generation students are working either full or part-time, and report more struggles with time management. A simple modification to make to a lesson plan is to budget class time to complete portions of an assignment.
    • Returning adult students have a lot of experience, but have difficulty adjusting to changes in academic technology. For this group, don’t make everything an online activity or poll; use paper assessments or components when possible. Pair students together to help one another, which is beneficial for everyone.
    • For students for whom English is not their home language, don’t make all activities discussion-based. Not everyone is comfortable contributing verbally. Use closed captioning on video, which is beneficial for many groups of students.

Use of language

  • Try to conduct sample searches with culturally diverse and relevant examples: NEIU is a Hispanic-serving institution, so many students are interested in examples about immigration or how to search for Latinx groups.
  • Don’t leave out undocumented students: Questions like Did you vote? Or Did you fill out the FAFSA? may come from a good place, but undocumented students are not legally able to participate in those processes, so they can marginalize rather than include.
  • Addressing groups of people as “guys” can be a microaggression.
  • Try to remember to face the class and speak clearly—this is important for both deaf students and those who may not speak English as their first language.


  • Know resources that are offered through an Office of Diversity (if you have one) or Office of Disability Services. These might include note taking services, sign language interpreters, scanning services, etc.
  • There are as many different experiences as there are people. Some issues of diversity just aren’t visible, so be mindful.