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Sep 13, 2013

Why I teach the way I do

By Matthew R. Lee, psychology professor

Update, May 2014: Matt Lee was recognized for his achievements by "Diverse: Issues in Higher Education" magazine and profiled in the May 2014 edition during Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Psychology professor Matthew R. Lee
Psychology professor Matthew R. Lee's research interests include the psychological effects of cultural, racial and ethnic minority status; the effects of diversity coursework; and racial climate and intergroup relations.

Culture, diversity and psychology meet in the classroom

"Dr. Lee, why is it that you teach the way you do? How do you come up with these activities for our class?" I usually hear these questions from more than one student at the end of the semester after my PSYC 220: Psychology and Culture course.

At the heart of this class, my goal is not just to help students understand new content, theories and ideas; my main goal is to promote social justice.

"My main goal is to promote social justice."

Leveling the playing field

When we discuss issues such as privilege, discrimination and other kinds of oppression that impact people from majority and minority cultural groups, students might know from firsthand experience what it is like. However, I cannot predict what experiences and knowledge my students bring into the classroom. To "level the playing field" so that all students encounter the same interactive classroom experiences, my course includes simulations on numerous issues such as conformity, injustice, poverty, the value of diversity in college admissions decisions and raising children with disabilities.

I also incorporate a classroom methodology called intergroup dialogue, where students have the opportunity to reflect and share how the course concepts affect them on a personal level. Many surprising, emotional and bonding moments can happen in a class when students take risks to open up and realize they have many more cultural similarities with their classmates than at first glance. My students are free to express different opinions, and it doesn't impact their grade; instead it improves the classroom experience. In fact, encountering new ideas, perspectives and experiences is at the heart of promoting cross-cultural understanding.

Celebrating graduation with several students in Bucharest
Lee celebrates graduation with several of his students in Bucharest.

Diversity in people and experience matters

I teach a version of this same class in Bucharest, Romania, and those students have written about the course giving them "a sense of validation."

"To have a successful democracy, everyone's voice should count. Thus, diverse people and experiences are valued."

What I think that means is students realize that to have a successful democracy, everyone's voice should count. Thus, diverse people and experiences are valued. By the end of our Psychology and Culture course, my students and I talk much more explicitly about how to use the course information to better understand people. We also discuss how students can promote the kind of society they want to live in by making choices that support their ideology. Students acknowledge the importance of many relevant social issues, such as marriage equality, disability accommodations, challenging the glass ceiling effect for women, and the importance of being inclusive toward racial and ethnic diversity. Some students end up joining ally organizations, take more classes devoted to specific interests, travel and volunteer abroad, and strive to become more enlightened, open-minded individuals. Some of my favorite moments even occur after the class is over, when students email me years later recalling poignant classroom interactions or even vocabulary terms!

By the end of the semester students realize the unusual design of the course is intended to promote real-world critical thinking and engagement. Step one is inviting awareness of key concepts and terminology, but the more difficult step is to promote a genuine caring for and appreciation of people of other cultural backgrounds. Then I hope my students will maintain these actions throughout their lives.

A class that bears repeating

My favorite comment from past students is that they wished they could take my class again, or that there was a "Part 2" available in another semester!

It's no secret: If I could design the sequel, it would build on students' engagement with social justice and how to apply principles in more specific settings like counseling psychology, clinical diagnosis and treatment, workplace psychology, community psychology, cross-cultural research, student affairs careers and international travel.

I think JMU President Jonathan Alger would be proud of the students' discussions in our classroom. Our new president is an expert on diversity, and he sums it up nicely: "In higher education, diversity and excellence go hand in hand. Diversity in an education context is a means to an end ... and that greater end is educational benefits for students. JMU creates enlightened citizens who are prepared to succeed in a world of global competition and engage in a world of human interconnectedness."

Read more about Lee, his students and social justice.

About the Author
Matthew R. Lee is a professor in the JMU College of Health and Behavioral Studies Department of Psychology. He teaches Lifespan Human Development, Psychology and Culture, and Psychology and Literature. His research interests include the psychological effects of cultural, racial and ethnic minority status; the effects of diversity coursework; and racial climate and intergroup relations. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the summer, he teaches international students at Romanian-American University in Bucharest, Romania, via a partnership established with JMU in 1992. This summer Lee traveled to Germany and Poland to establish a new Study Abroad program for JMU. Lee travels the world in his spare time and has visited 39 countries. His research team, the JMU Cultural and Racial Diversity Studies Lab, is on Facebook.