Pushing the Envelope on Diversity in Academia: Why Do Professors Challenge or Uphold Traditional Ways of Teaching and Knowing?

When I began graduate school in the early 2010s, I entered a traditional academic environment for the humanities and social sciences. Professors assigned long readings, with the expectation you were ready for the task. Sometimes it was in the tens — they wanted to give you as much material as possible to set you up for success in the field. I developed a bad (or desperate) habit of finishing my readings while standing on the crammed morning bus.

Post by BCcampus Student Research Fellow Lily Ivanova

During the seminar, the way to show knowledge of the materials was through discussions where we debated the ins and outs of concepts. This was a risky business, as many of the concepts were new, leaving first-year grad students hoping not to say something conceptually ridiculous or totally wrong in front of peers and a big expert in the field. There was also a tendency for more confident students to take up a lot of space, showcasing their agility and wit with complex ideas. Once, when it was my turn to present in a seminar, I brought a blog post that was making the rounds online as a discussion starter. I committed an academic faux pas: public scholarship doesn’t carry the legitimacy of a peer-reviewed article (now obvious!).

Ten years later I’m not sure if this is still the dominant format for grad classes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, given the modelling of what a graduate class is, professors being over-extended with responsibilities for designing curricula in undergraduate classes, and the opportunity to focus on and share their area of expertise.

On the other hand, as a witness to many undergraduate classes, I’ve noticed a movement toward more applied and student-centric approaches. While some professors continue classical approaches of teaching through lectures and evaluating through exams, others encourage students to bring personal experiences to their studies; apply academic ideas to practical, everyday contexts; and allow for flexibility in how to show knowledge about course materials. Practices like flexible deadlines, alternative assignment formats, and take-home exams have become more common, helped by the pandemic’s disruption of traditional in-person learning.

Over the years it’s left me wondering: What makes a professor more or less likely to break out of traditional formats of teaching and evaluation? Undoubtedly it has something to do with their academic identity. Perhaps some professors see themselves as having a responsibility to impart important disciplinary knowledge, like the classics, to the new generation of students. This could be the case even if they don’t believe in an overarching value of traditional forms of knowledge, seeing themselves instead as a bridge between students and a field that continues to require or reward this knowledge. They don’t want to disadvantage their students.

Perhaps it’s the opposite — they feel a responsibility to disrupt traditional forms of knowledge for various reasons, like protecting students from sexist, racist, ableist, and Western-centric epistemologies in the literature and in the field. Maybe they have personal experiences with feeling discriminated against and alienated by traditional knowledge in their field, and they don’t want the new generation of students to have the same experiences.

What leads professors to take different positions, and what effect does this have on academic disciplines and their new disciples — graduate and undergraduate students? How do professors’ academic identities and approaches influence the landscape of academics when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equity, the values universities across Canada and the world are increasingly striving for and promoting?

Based on empirical studies of these questions, some interesting theories and possibilities emerge.

The first — and common — theory explores the influence of graduate school and specifically supervision and mentorship on creating a professor’s academic identity. This work has looked at the strength and lasting influence of how a professor is socialized into the world of academia, including research practices, approaches to teaching, and values about their discipline. In a recent narrative-based study of academic faculty in Taiwan, Gregory Siy Ching noticed the importance of communities of practice in developing academic identities. It worked in two directions: professors described choosing an academic mentor who aligned with their vision and values, and their mentor provided guidance that encouraged them to continue in academia.

The findings essentially support a theory of social reproduction in academia: graduate students who are aligned with a professor’s values are supported in becoming professors, continuing a pre-existing line of thinking and approach to research and teaching.

A second theory completely challenges this idea. Instead of reproducing existing values and practices, professors may subtly or not-so-subtly engage in iteratively updating their graduate school experiences and mentors’ approaches. I call this a theory of corrections (after American writer Jonathan Franzen’s novel about children attempting to “correct” the mistakes of their parents through consciously taking up different parenting practices and — spoiler — creating different sets of problems).

In an interview-based study, of course, design decisions by STEM faculty in the United States, Amanda Oleson and Matthew Hora explored the maxim of whether faculty “teach the way they were taught.” It turned out the answer was largely no. Although most professors described learning to teach in grad school, they had a strong trial-and-error ethic — seeing what did and didn’t work in the classroom. They also relied on their own lived experiences as students to correct for issues they’d faced. One professor described using a clicker to prevent his students from falling asleep in class as he did. Another used specific examples to work toward broader abstract ideas to avoid the students getting lost like she once did. This theory suggests professors are pragmatists, using their own experiences and those of their students to update and keep their approaches relevant.

The last theory considers the importance of professors’ underlying values and understandings of teaching, learning, and mentorship. Perhaps it’s neither their graduate experiences nor a series of corrections to those experiences but rather an ancillary third factor: their general beliefs about the world that manifest in their academic practices. In sociology, theories that advocate for studying people’s core values as a signpost for how they will interpret other situations might focus on upbringing, class, family, religious background, and other socializers.

In a recent study of U.S. science faculty, Tatiane Russo‐Tait looked at how values and interpretations of equity influence teaching styles. She found that those who considered equity to mean “equality” tended to use more top-down approaches in the classroom, like lecturing. Those who understood equity to mean “inclusivity” were likely to use active learning strategies. Those with a justice orientation used critical pedagogies that encouraged students to pay attention to social inequality and actively intervene in social issues. This means professors’ positionality and values are a big influence on their academic identity and approach to the status quo in academia.

So how do you know which of these theories is most on track with understanding how faculty identities and approaches in academia are created? Why would you want to know?

My current research looks at the many influences that go into shaping an academic identity, from early life experiences with schooling to the influence of mentors in graduate school and the life purpose professors bring to their discipline. Looking at detailed academic life histories can help us learn how and why professors push the envelope in academia and when they may hang back and do things the classic way. Knowing all this can help us learn about how professors encourage equity in the classroom and what this means for fairness, inclusivity, and intervening in power dynamics in academia and society.

If you, like me, are interested in expanding your understanding of academic identities and are open to sharing your academic story, I would love to hear from you! I hope to learn more about the stories of faculty and instructors in all positions and stages. Please email me at lily.ivanova@ubc.ca

Learn more:


Ching, Gregory Siy. “Academic identity and communities of practice: Narratives of social science academics career decisions in Taiwan.” Education Sciences 11.8 (2021): 388.

Oleson, Amanda, and Matthew T. Hora. “Teaching the way they were taught? Revisiting the sources of teaching knowledge and the role of prior experience in shaping faculty teaching practices.” Higher Education 68.1 (2014): 29-45.

Russo‐Tait, Tatiane. “Science faculty conceptions of equity and their association to teaching practices.” Science Education 107.2 (2023): 427-458.

Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

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