Genevieve Leonard: Utilizing Intersectionality to Empower Instruction

Utilizing Intersectionality to Empower Instruction

by Genevieve Leonard

Presented at the 2019 Fall Forum

Intersectionality is a concept that can help educators understand their students’ motivation in the classroom. The term, that was first created to describe a branch of feminism, can be repurposed to better understand the 21st century learning experience. An instructor’s teaching style must evolve to accommodate classrooms that are populated with students who have diverse learning styles, family structures, citizenship, genders, race, etc. The talk will identify issues that exist within lecture only lesson plans, explore the consequences, hypothesize alternatives – that include the entire student experience from housing to mental health, and conclude with a discussion about goals. Recognizing a student’s motivation will have a ripple effect that can help a student mature into a working artist who will continue their involvement in the professional and academic community. 


My talk today will examine the concept of intersectionality and discuss how we can apply it to the classroom environment to support a diverse student body. Diversity is a complex topic. It’s great to include in a mission statement but often risky when attempting to execute in a lesson plan. I started actively thinking about this in 2014. I had a student who was physically disabled.

They were unable to walk or speak without assistance. My first impression was this student would not survive in the competitive marketplace. I followed the accommodations they were permitted. However, treated them like every other student. This student struggled to keep up. At one point their parents had contacted me demanding an explanation as to why their child was struggling in my course. I encouraged them to speak with their child directly.

(Go FERPA!) I requested a follow up meeting with the student. They explained to me that I was the only instructor who did not talk down to them – after all, they had a physical disability, not a learning disability. After years of being stigmatized, they developed poor work habits, blaming their laxed performance on their disability.

Attending my class made them realize there was a complex world outside of school. If they were going to work as an artist, they needed to be properly vetted. Receiving a good grade in my course meant they earned it. After this encounter, I began thinking about my other students, misrepresented.

The transgendered student who consistently came to class late. A second career student who was isolated in the corner of the classroom. An army veteran who was reported to student affairs for creating disturbing content. Their issues were disruptive and took time away from the lesson plan. Since their problems were not academic, I felt it was not my responsibility to call them out.

Teaching at the college level made me think about the bad student problem differently. College students want to participate and will pay enormously to do so. Then, why were they not succeeding? Serendipitously, I was exposed to the concept of intersectionality – meaning the cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination intersect in the experiences of marginalized people.

The term was coined in 1989 when legal scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw, wrote about discrimination against black women. She cites a court case against General Motors by several black women. General Motors claimed they did not practice discrimination because they hire black people and women.

Crenshaw points out they hired black men in the factory and white women in the administration, never in combination. This blind spot in General Motors’ HR practices motivated me to reevaluate how I approached classroom. I claim to welcome diversity, but can I own that when I reject students who don’t follow the idea of a “good student”?

Thinking about my physically disabled student, I became passionate about this problem. I was frustrated they understood their predicament only a year before college graduation. This was not enough time to break bad work ethics. I decided that I want to be a pro-active part of the solution. First, I had to reject the good student mumpsimus and re-define it.

During my research, I decided to adapt the “System Model approach to education which requires seeing the whole picture – not just a fragment – understanding broader context – appreciating interactions and taking an interdisciplinary approach.” I began by identifying struggling students then interviewing them – focusing on their performance in the course.

Their answers were unexpected. My assumption was their answers would be a variation on – the material was too difficult or there were too many assignments. The transgender student had a chronically ill family member. The older student felt they had nothing in common with their classmates so were not compelled to participate. The veteran struggled to empathize with his classmates’ perspectives on violence.

I followed up by asking them how they felt these issues kept them from being successful. All of them had similar answers – being isolated from the class was a painful experience therefore they were never fully engaged. This was depriving the students from what Frank Betts calls – synergy. Without it, the students were not participating in the full experience and the class, as a whole, was not achieving its potential.

How do I resolve their issues to create a productive learning environment? One option is to address their needs, individually. That approach becomes impossible to scale up. Another approach is to segregate the students into groups with similar academic achievement. That would make lesson plans easier however, the students would not grow or connect with the rest of the class.

I’ve decided to adapt the flipped classroom model that supports the Student Centered Classroom. The flipped classroom is a technique that I addressed in my talk last year. I’ve added an additional approach – Student Led Lectures and Critiques. Here is a copy of the LMS from my graduate course – Post Production. It’s a technical course with few native English speakers.

Over several years, I’ve migrated all of my teaching materials to be available, any time, to the students registered in the course. Instead of having one midterm and one final, students must present their short homework assignments during class.

I coach the students to discuss the technical breakdown of digital tools used to complete the assignment, but I also have them review content – including historical context and aesthetic breakdowns. These sessions allow me to learn more about my class. To accompany my ever-growing cultural knowledge, the last few classes are without a definitive lesson plan.

These open sessions are dedicated to identifying the needs of the class, based on their participation. At midterms, I have private sessions with my students where we discuss their progress and define their goals with the materials. After gathering this information, I plan for the remainder of the classes. In year’s past, I’ve scheduled studio tours, improvised tutorials, and organized small group discussions.

In my 18 years of teaching, I’ve learned that granting admissions opportunities to more diverse groups of people is only one step on the long winding hike to education equality. As we continue to welcome different people into our institutions, we have a responsibility to hear from them, create opportunities to share their experiences, and continue to evolve our practice, without stagnation.


Citations – – Origin of Intersectionality

Gender equality and diversity politics in higher education : Conflicts, challenges and requirements for collaboration : Uta Klein

Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings – Brochure published by Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) – University of Wisconsin

Shifting the Power to Create a More Student-Centered Classroom – Lauren Zucker – English Journal May 2018

Personal Anecdotes – Students from Pratt – DDA400 FA16, DDA390 FA17,  Digital Filmmaking – Art Institute NYC – SP14

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