April 21 2024

Crafting Inclusive Learning Experiences with Emily Gravett

Interview by Nichole Phillips

Dr. Emily O. Gravett currently serves as associate professor of religion and is the assistant director of teaching in the Center for Faculty Innovation at James Madison University. Attending to the intersections of religion, society, culture, literature, and art, Gravett’s innovative approaches to course design and classroom practices demonstrate her commitment to inclusive learning experiences and improved religious literacy.

The following interview was conducted by Nichole Phillips (chair of AAR's Committee on Teaching and Learning) and has been edited and abridged for clarity and publication on Religious Studies News.


Nichole Phillips:

How would you describe your teaching life? Is there a word or phrase that captures your pedagogy and in what ways?

Emily Gravett:

The teaching life is a life of learning for me; it represents my life in all facets – one of constant growth, reflection, experimentation, and attempts at improvement. The work that I do with students and with colleagues is a part of this. I’m trying to create exciting, interesting, challenging, and inclusive learning experiences for my students, but I am also trying to create that for myself as I learn along with them. I often start my classes in a way to create opportunities for community building, and part of that is to say, “I’m here to learn alongside you.” This process includes adjustments and changes that make the learning process better, which might be a new kind of assignment, a new in-class activity, a new reading, or a new video. The scale of change is often pretty modest, but I am constantly trying to tinker and hopefully improve the learning process.

Nichole Phillips:

You talked about creating an inclusive learning environment. What does that mean for you?

Emily Gravett:

That’s a great question. These terms are used in a lot of different ways by different people. For me, an inclusive learning environment means that students feel comfortable being present and bringing their full selves into the classroom. This has to do with their background, prior knowledge, and experiences they have had, but it also has to do with the different identities that they may hold or different groups that they may belong to. It’s important to make space for all of that and to make sure that students feel like those perspectives and experiences matter.

I try to do this in a lot of different ways. This can be the types of assignments that I engage them in, the way that I interact with the students, and the way I create community norms to guide how we all interact with one another. But I also want them to realize that who they are affects how they learn. We are all coming to our subject material with particular lenses – and so is everybody else. I try to help students become more self-aware and then make sure that I’m encouraging them to recognize that others are doing the same thing.

Part of this fits nicely into the broader enterprise of religious studies, which is helping students cultivate empathy – not just empathy for the religious peoples and traditions that we study, but also empathy for one another within the learning experience. You don’t necessarily have to agree with somebody else or condone their choices, but I would like to get students to a place where they can understand why something might be reasonable from somebody else’s perspective.

Nichole Phillips:

Do you use any particular resources to draft your syllabi or course designs?

Emily Gravett:

I often incorporate what I’ve learned from the course design institutes hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. These institutes help instructors learn a “backward design process.” This means that you start your syllabus or course design by thinking about the desired endpoints. What are the outcomes I hope to achieve? What do I want students to know or be able to do by the end of our experience together? Another way to say this is: What would I be really embarrassed by if my students didn’t know by the end of the course?

But this approach is also broader; it’s about principles of religious literacy including the reality that within any religious tradition there is great amount of internal plurality or diversity. I want my students to apply this information to both their own religious experience and tradition as well as to other groups and communities. I care very much about the bigger principles and concepts, and from that endpoint, I try to determine what in-class activities or homework activities I can have them do along the way to support those end goals. I’m thinking about my material choices, the textbook(s), YouTube videos that I might assign. This is different than what I think most of us were taught to do which is to start with the textbook: Week one is going to be chapter one, week two will be chapter two, etc.

I also try to treat my syllabi as invitations to a relationship because this is the first time that students will be learning about me. I want to use that document and the design of the course to convey the excitement I feel for it, for the questions and big ideas of the field right from the start. And maybe this goes back to your inclusion question, but I want it to be inviting and collaborative. I want them to feel like they matter and are going to be valued participants in this process because that sets a precedent and a tone that I can carry forward and reiterate in lots of other ways throughout the course.

Nichole Phillips:

Do you use any special skills or exercises to help students in their writing?

Emily Gravett:

I love writing and I write a lot not just in terms of scholarly articles but also blog posts and nonfiction. I think writing is an important skill for students to develop, and what I think about writing is also applicable to learning in general. For example, I like to assign an essay called “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott. Her point is that writing – like anything else in the learning process – takes time and iteration and no one, not even Anne Lamott, is going to be great at the start. I often pair this article with some of the peer reviews that I have received on my own articles, including some really nasty ones. Then I show students the published article, the one that looks super professional and drastically different than what the peer reviewer saw.

I want to connect with my students and show them that my process is super messy and that I also struggle. To help them with the messiness of writing, I do a lot of low stakes, quick-write activities in class so that they are just writing and using that as an opportunity to think, process, and reflect. Any time I do a larger writing assignment, I always make sure to sequence or scaffold it, so that there are staggered checkpoints and deadlines along the way. I am forcing them to participate in a process rather than dump right before the deadline – which will inevitably be a shitty first draft that they turn in.

Nichole Phillips:

What do you believe has been your most effective tool in reaching students?

Emily Gravett:

The comments I receive the most often in my course evaluations and other forms of student feedback are related to community building and care. I truly believe these are my most effective tools in reaching and teaching students. This starts with getting to know them as real, whole people and encouraging them to show up in that way in my class. I try to model this myself so that I show up in an authentic way too. We know from research that students learn better when they’re able to connect what they’re learning in your class to what they care about in the rest of their lives. That might be other classes or their major, it might be a part-time job, it might be a career aspiration, it might be their community, or it could be their family or passions.

I want to encourage those connections and let them know that I care about that stuff. We also know that students learn better and try harder when they have good relationships with their instructors, so I work really hard to cultivate good relationships with students. This isn’t just one type of activity that I do at the beginning of the semester and then it runs on its own. It is reinforced at many different points and places in the course. Students need to feel comfortable to try and to make mistakes and then to succeed as well. Sometimes success is hard, so I try to create caring dynamics that undergird our classroom community.

Nichole Phillips:

It seems as though inclusiveness is a significant aspect of your teaching philosophy, something you always seem to be striving towards. What do you believe is your major contribution to the profession of teaching?

Emily Gravett:

It is difficult for me to believe that I’ve made any major contribution to any group or profession. There have been so many great teacher scholars that I’ve worked with who have been role models to me, people who have written books about teaching. I will say one thing I hope to embody in my practice, if that could be a contribution, is authenticity and levity. I recently wrote a blog post for Wabash about being silly. I wrote that often, in the academy, there seems to be an assumed correlation between being serious and being taken seriously. So, if you’re not serious, then maybe you shouldn’t be taken seriously. I think we can bring our full – even silly – selves to the classroom, to committee meetings, to presentations, to interviews like this. I don’t think that diminishes us in any way. I don’t think that means we’re not intelligent. I don’t think that means we’re flaky or flighty. It’s okay to laugh and to find joy and to mess up and then to laugh about it again. Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is I think it’s okay to be human in this endeavor. What I’m trying to do to contribute to my department, or to my courses, or to the programs that I offer peers, is this authenticity.

Nichole Phillips:

What advice would you give to junior faculty just beginning their teaching careers?

Emily Gravett:

At this point in my career, I would advise folks starting out in their careers – but actually anyone – to be gentle with yourself. You don’t need to be perfect or do it all or do it all at once. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to make choices that are not only for the students but also what will be workable and manageable in your own life. Give it time. I am a very different teacher now than I was 15 years ago, and a lot of that is due to experience. It’s about becoming more comfortable and becoming more confident. Especially as academics, a lot of us suffer from imposter syndrome, so the kinder and more patient we can be with ourselves, the better.

Nichole Phillips:

You are active in The Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI) at James Madison University. Can you tell us more about that and how it adds to your pedagogy and forming teachers?

Emily Gravett:

The CFI is focused on professional development broadly speaking, but I lead the area devoted to teaching support. Teamed with other faculty members, we create programs, offer consultations, and run institutes for individuals and groups around teaching development and improvement. These programs are not required, so those who come are interested in this type of lifelong learning and want to improve for their own reasons and motivations. I think many professors really need this kind of center for support, ideas, inspiration, and collaborations outside of the particular silos of their departments.

Nichole Phillips:

Given the changing landscape including shrinking religion departments and seminaries closing, what would you say to a person on why is it important to continue to teach religion?

Emily Gravett:

I assume we all think it is important to teach religion for a variety of reasons. Yet, sometimes, that message is not getting across to prospective students and especially not getting to prospective parents, the public, or politicians.

I spend a lot of time in my classes actually talking to students about why it is important to study religion. Why does religion matter? To answer this question, I have my students look online and talk with other people to figure out the reasons. We brainstorm in class and I have them read pieces about religious literacy by scholars like Stephen Prothero and the Harvard Religious Literacy Project. Religion is entangled in everything. It’s everywhere. I talk about religion having tentacles: it’s influencing art, geography, education, politics, and international relations. I think it’s really important for students to understand religion in order to be good citizens of our democracy, to be knowledgeable about not just one religion or their own (if they happen to be religious), but to have familiarity with lots of different religious traditions.

It is also important regarding some of the broader principles I mentioned earlier like diversity within groups. For example, just because I know that a person happens to be Christian, it doesn’t mean that I know much else about them. I try to get my students to think about these broader principles and be able to apply them to other areas of their lives. This is my way of making an argument for a sort of relevance or applicability – that some of the principles we teach in religious studies classrooms are much broader principles about how to be human and how to relate to other people in the world. What we are seeing now, in the United States, is people who don’t know how to talk across difference. People who don’t know how to disagree, people who don’t know how to apply critical thinking to sources. These skills are often lacking at the higher, influential levels. So now more than ever, the types of principles, concepts, and skills that we are teaching in religion courses are needed.