This handbook contains guidelines and resources for fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion in our linguistics classrooms. We introduce ways in which instructors and teaching assistants can eliminate language-based biases in their curriculum and teaching practices. We hope that you find this resource helpful.
This handbook is informed by our two goals:
- To foster an inclusive space for all students
- To teach linguistics that is free from language-based biases
These two goals are elaborated upon in the following sections. We also provide numerous examples of how this could be executed.
Fostering an inclusive space for all students
Valuing diversity and inclusion
Setting an inclusive learning environment is a crucial step toward eliminating language-based biases in our classrooms. One concrete way we can demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion is by providing a diversity and inclusion statement in our course syllabi (or for TAs, an introductory slide during the first tutorial session). The University of Arizona Department of Linguistics has sample language for inclusion in course syllabi available here.
All languages and language varieties are valid
All language varieties are valid, not just as objects of study within linguistics, but as ways of using language. However, we are aware that in linguistics, linguistics pedagogy, and higher education in general, many languages and language varieties are often marginalized, disadvantaged, stigmatized and oppressed in many different ways. This is seen most especially in the different values placed upon standardized and nonstandardized Englishes as a result of external institutional pressures or our own implicit biases. This influences the way students navigate academic and standardized English that is typical of our classrooms. In particular, this disadvantages those students who do not have native fluency in standardized varieties of English by introducing extra hurdles, barriers, and labour.
To that end, here are some concrete ways we can address this in our curriculum and teaching practices:
- Acknowledge that nonstandardized English as well as standardized English are both equally good resources that students can use to facilitate their learning during lecture or tutorial discussions
- Introduce low-stakes tasks or activities where students are encouraged to use their own varieties of English.
- Place minimal emphasis on standardized academic English writing in rubrics or assessments. The main focus should be on building cohesive and compelling arguments.
- Encourage students to challenge language myths. For example,when appropriate, remind students that everyone has an accent. Do not let the mentality of having a foreign accent become a barrier to participation.
Students as language experts
Each student has their own unique lived experiences that influence their worldviews, interactions, and language use. This kind of diversity should be recognized and seen as advantageous in the classroom. In other words, we can use the students’ varied linguistic backgrounds and experiences as leverage in understanding the linguistics concepts that we teach them.
- Administer a class “language survey” to learn the language backgrounds represented in the classroom. This can be done via an online survey/poll or via classroom discussion.
- Invite students to connect the course materials to patterns in their own languages or dialects. Sample questions may include, “Does this phenomenon exist in your language? How does it work in comparison to another language?”
- Invite students to read aloud different types of data. When dealing with linguistic data (phonology, syntax, etc.) with which students have experience, invite them to read aloud the word or sentences.
- Relatedly, welcome students to critique the data. Phonology data sets are generally “cleaned up” to fit the topic at hand, and native speakers often have intuitions about what sounds more naturalistic. Take this as an opportunity to briefly discuss how data sets are curated.
- Be mindful of who you are calling on and how often. If the active and outspoken students are mostly native speakers of English, this might put nonnative speakers at risk of feeling excluded as their experiences are not foregrounded and represented.
Using inclusive language in classroom interaction
Because we are surrounded by language-based biases, even as linguists we are often influenced by them, resulting in individual unconscious bias. These can lead to common linguistic microaggressions: for example, mispronouncing students’ names (especially students from other countries) or using the wrong pronouns (misgendering) or a previous name (deadnaming) for a transgender or nonbinary student are common microaggressions in the classroom. Names and gender lie at the heart of a person’s identity, and these kinds of microaggressions can have severe detrimental effects on their mental health and academic success.
Some suggestions for maintaining inclusive language practices in the classroom include:
- Use terms that people use to describe themselves. It is always good practice to use terms that students use to refer to themselves, even if they are not familiar to you.
- Have students use the IPA to write their names. This is a fun way to practice IPA, and a great opportunity for students to be exposed to sounds that exist in other languages.
- Avoid comments like “That’s an unusual name” or “What’s the origin of your name?” Such comments lead to othering and contributes to the perception that non-Anglocentric names are nonnormative.
- Similarly, avoid comments like “I’m bad with names” or “I don’t have that sound in my language”. These are not excuses for mispronouncing names. These only serve to perpetuate ethnoracial hierarchies and harmful language ideologies.
- Remember that when in doubt, it is best to ask politely and apologetically.
- Lead by example when it comes to the sharing of pronouns in the classroom. Share your own pronouns and point students to the growing body of research on inclusive pronouns regularly and intentionally.
- Normalize mindfulness regarding pronoun use by encouraging students to share their pronouns with you (if and only if they are willing). However, be mindful that not all students are comfortable sharing their pronouns, or that some are still questioning what pronouns they would like to use. It is therefore important to not single out or directly ask a student to share their pronouns ‘on the spot’. A very informative Twitter thread by Sam Dylan Finch @samdylanfich outlines numerous reasons why doing this can be harmful.
- Correct instances of misgendering in the classroom kindly but firmly. For example, you can respond to a student who has just misgendered another student with a recast such as “Yes, what I heard from what they said was…”
- Emphasize that this is for us. We want them to feel safe in our spaces.
- Avoid language that reinforces stereotypes or shows indifference such as “Men, am I right?” or “It is what it is”.
- Be mindful of linguistic appropriation.
- Avoid ableist language. Even well-intentioned folk may not be aware of they are using disability metaphors in interactions which in turn promotes ableism. Be careful and avoid using words like “crazy”, “dumb”, “lame”, “nuts”, “psycho”, “suffers from __”, and “wacko”. These words carry stigma that may alienate some people.
For additional reading, the UofT Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) has a great resource for inclusive teaching. UBC’s Equity & Inclusion Office also has a great Equity & Inclusion Glossary of Terms.
A Welcome Survey, whether shared in lecture or tutorials, is a great opportunity to get to know your students a little bit more. It may contain questions about their names, pronouns, language backgrounds, accessibility concerns, and can serve as a great low-stakes opportunity to solicit other information that you might find supportive in learning about and cultivating your classroom community. It is important to highlight, though, that these questions should be entirely optional —students should not feel pressured into answering the questions (or completing the survey), nor should the survey be part of their participation mark for the course, since there may be information that they are not comfortable with sharing.
The questions below can be used in creating a welcome survey. It is always good to pay attention to using affirmative language; and provide examples where appropriate.
- Your name in UofT records: ____________
- Your student number: ___________
- Name that you would like us to use when referring to you: __________
- Which pronouns should we use to refer to you? (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them, any, I would like to use no pronouns at all): ____________
- I can use these pronouns with you… (e.g., in all contexts/in the classroom only/in private conversations only/something else)
- Which languages do you speak, or have learned or studied? How well do you know them? : ____________
- Are there particular ways that I can make the class a more comfortable environment for you? (e.g., the need for computers to take notes, large font on handouts/slides, etc.): ____________
- What is one thing that I could not possibly know about you––that you’re comfortable sharing?: ____________
- Are there any questions you have for me?: ___________
It is crucial that we take their responses into account as we interact with them as well as develop lecture and tutorial materials.
Student engagement forms a crucial component of our lectures and tutorials. To this end, it is our responsibility to practice equitable facilitation of class discussion and participation. We recommend that you lay the groundwork early in the term by making your participation expectations explicit. At the same time, it is important to get feedback from the students about what they would like to see from you––participation is, after all, a two-way street.
Some suggestions for equitable classroom facilitation:
- Be mindful of students’ backgrounds (cultural, educational, personal, etc.). Based on their past experiences, students may have different forms of showing active engagement and participation; explicitly name for them that you recognize this.
- Consider both verbal and nonverbal forms of participation in overall assessments.
- Incorporate low-stakes participation tasks such as tickets-out-the-door to gauge involvement and comprehension. Some sample questions include:
- What is one interesting concept you learned today?
- What is one concept that you found quite challenging today?
- What would you like to see more in future tutorials?
- Pay attention to who has spoken and how often: be mindful of which groups are speaking more often than others. Do not rely on the students who raise their hands first. Acknowledge them and let them know it is not about them or their ideas. Instead, emphasize that you want to create a more equitable space by providing other students enough time to think and raise their hand.
- Have frequent pauses so that students can process the material and ask clarification questions (e.g., pause after each slide). Similarly, give students ample time to formulate their questions.
- Make use of Zoom Breakout Groups equitably: if the class is delivered online (via Zoom or other platforms) and you want to make use of Breakout rooms, one way to form an equitable environment for students is to create different rooms for different types of interaction.This gives the students the opportunity to work within their terms and boundaries.
- Room 1: TALK (for students who like to talk using their mics)
- Room 2: CHAT (for students who like to talk using the chat function)
- Room 3: INDIVIDUAL (for students who like to work individually)
- Take advantage of other Zoom features such as Polls and Annotation. This provides students a way to engage nonverbally and anonymously.
- It is okay to ask clarification questions if students’ questions are challenging to parse. It’s also a good idea to paraphrase and confirm whether this was the intended question.
Accessibility and Resources
Part of inclusive teaching practices include addressing language-based accessibility concerns.
- Be clear on the syllabus about the language-based resources that students can access such as the UofT Writing Centre, English Language Support, UTSC’s English Language Development Support, UTM’s Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre English Language Learner Support. Note that some of the St. George campus colleges offer their own writing centres.
- Be mindful of the pace in which you speak. Students might miss important information if we speak too quickly (This type of feedback is quite common in course/TA evaluations).
- Offer live transcription if at all possible. Powerpoint, Google Slides, and Zoom offer a live transcription feature and the accuracy rate is generally high.
- When sharing audio or video resources to students, make sure captions or subtitles are available
- Make frequent use of prompts and cues. Signposting is particularly important when conducting lectures or tutorials virtually. Statements like “Please focus on the slides as I will write down some notes” or “I will now be checking the chat window to
In general, positionality statements describe who you are, how you view the world, and how you orient yourself in relation to the social and political context of the course topics. Such statements can be a valuable tool in creating an inclusive classroom because it can give your students an idea of how your daily experiences actively shape the way you interact and teach (among others).
Positionality statements can also be useful particularly in engaging with EDI-related discussions. There might be situations where instructors might feel that they are not the appropriate person to lead such discussions, and students may perceive such conversations as disingenuous. This could happen, for example, when teachers of Anglo background discuss the linguistic practices of the Black community within the backdrop of racism, segregation, and social oppression.
- In the beginning of the semester (during the first lecture/tutorial), share some information about your backgrounds and acknowledge that there may be topics that you are not able to speak to in a very nuanced way, but that, in spite of this, you will do their best to engage in these topics in respectful and responsible ways (e.g., bringing in guest speakers/experts, or deferring students who may have lived experiences)
- Some instructors have made use of “(Socio)linguistic Autobiographies” to share with students how they became interested in (socio)linguistics, and what kind of lived experiences they have had that informs the kind of questions they pursue in their research programs
Students often have a hard time completing homework assignments, quizzes and tests not necessarily because they do not understand the course concepts, but rather, they have a hard time understanding the instructions.
- Write short and clearly-worded instructions. Sometimes, instructions have hidden implicatures that are not very clear for nonnative speakers of English.
Teaching inclusive linguistics
Diversifying our materials
We are currently developing a repository of materials that instructors and TAs can use. Please visit ledir.utoronto.ca for a variety of resources that are available.
The data that we use in publications and in the classroom often reinforce unjust hierarchies and stereotypes, such as those concerning gender and culture. Often, we rely on English and other major European languages to exemplify linguistic phenomena––students might think that such features only exist in these languages.
- Avoid heavy reliance on English (and other major European languages) as a model. If unavoidable, use this as an opportunity to discuss that linguistics has historically been an Anglo-centric field.
- Avoid using common Anglo and gendered names like “John” and “Mary” in example sentences. Make use of the Diverse Names Database for list of diverse names.
- Create supplemental problem sets using data from languages that are not major Standardized European languages
- Include data from sign languages and highlight that sign languages are languages
Reading lists and discussion of scholarly works
Given that linguistics is a historically colonial, Anglo-centric field, with heavy North American influence, much of the seminal works are written by western, often white, scholars, and will often be included necessarily. However, this does not mean that works from diverse groups of scholars cannot be included. If such works are not available, we should explicitly highlight this so that students can reflect about why this is the case.
- Expose students to a wider range of voices/narratives by including readings from a diverse group of scholars
- Allow students to suggest readings that can complement the existing list
- Expose students to research papers on lesser-studied language and varieties by replacing English and other major European languages to exemplify linguistic phenomena
- Provide resources from a mix of genres (journal article, book chapter, blog, etc.) so students are exposed to both formal and informal ways of conveying information. For example, there are many great podcasts (Lingthusiam, Vocal Fries Pod, Word to the Whys) that cover linguistics topics that very often addresses its impact on society.
- Bring in guest expert speakers. Invite junior and emerging scholars, scholars of colour, or community members to speak about particular topics. This may mitigatesome of the concerns instructors may have about positionality.
In addition to including a diverse group of scholars in the course reading list, when talking about the research of any scholar it is a good idea to include a picture of said scholar so that students can “put a face to the name”.
- If possible, include a picture of the scholar(s), whose work you are discussing.
- If not possible (e.g., perhaps the scholar did not provide consent or there are no publicly available photos), an alternative is to share a link to their professional website
Dismantling language-based bias as part of core curriculum
There is often particular focus on theory, but as part of diversifying our materials, their application and social ramifications should also be part of the core curriculum.
- Expand course materials to bring explicit focus to language-based bias as content thatthe students are expected to learn. Creation of modules can range from individual assignments (homework, exam questions, etc.) to full units (multiple interconnected lectures, readings, and assignments)
- Actively avoid materials that perpetuate myths and inaccurate views about certain linguistic phenomena. For example, avoid making students debate the existence of the singular pronoun they.
- Avoid terms like “deficient”, “deviant”, or “underdeveloped” in talking about nonstandardized or minoritized language varieties or features (e.g., AAVE, heritage languages, etc.). Such terms are borne out of outdated and biased frameworks.
- When discussing scholarly work, be explicit about the population or group being examined, even if they are not from racialized and minoritized groups.
 Thanks to Lex Konnelly for sharing their Welcome Survey questionnaire.