My Journey Toward Inclusive Education:

The Baby with the Misaligned Stars

Jayashree Nimmagadda, Ph.D, MSW, LICSW

Associate Professor of Social Work
Rhode Island College School of Social Work

"Would you like to teach a course?" The director of the doctoral program asked me as I was walking to my doctoral student den at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. "Sure!" I replied without thinking. "Great! You are on," he said.

This short exchange was the beginning of a teaching career eleven years ago. A few hours later, I panicked and chided myself for my impulsivity. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this? How can I teach a course to American students? I have never been in front of a class back home, let alone in the United States. I had visions of being stuck in front of the classroom without words to say, students complaining about my poor classroom performance and my accent, and getting sent back home because I failed since I was on an international student visa. To be honest, when I replied, "Sure!," I was only thinking of money that would support my living in the United States, 20,000 miles away from the comforts of my home.

The Brahmin Neighborhood

Home was Chennai (Madras) in South India. I was born into a middle class Brahmin family. My parents were traditional hard working people. My dad was a college graduate, and my mom had finished high school. For my parents, education was of utmost importance. They sacrificed a lot and enrolled me in a private Catholic school, Sacred Heart, where I studied from kindergarten through grade twelve. I can still say "Our Father" from memory and remember all the masses I attended. But for my Hindu parents, sending their daughter to the Catholic nuns was not threatening: the nuns would teach me proper English and manners. Speaking English fluently was a status symbol. My parents, who were children when the British were ruling, concluded that this skill was the gateway to opportunity.

I lived in a two-room apartment in a tenement building. This middle class neighborhood consisted primarily of Hindu Brahmin families and one Christian family across the street. Needless to say, there was not much diversity in the neighborhood, and I was socialized into Brahmin ways of interpreting the world. I would go to school and say the "Our Father" and come back home to listen to the chants of "Vishnu Sahasranaman," a prayer to Lord Vishnu. Looking back, I can see how these everyday negotiations between two different religious worlds gave me coping skills that would help me settle down in the United States.

At my school, there was diversity. There were Muslims, Christians, Brahmins and "Non-Brahmins," Hindus who were not Brahmins were called Non-Brahmins. My family and neighborhood friends often made unkind remarks about the Non-Brahmins. As a young child, I internalized the privilege of being a Brahmin and believed the status I had was something I deserved.

As I grew older, I began questioning my parents' and neighbors' positions. I remember when I was around ten years old, I let the servant maid into the kitchen of my house to pick up some dirty pots and pans that needed to be cleaned. When I told my parents and grandparents, they were livid. They thought that the "purity" of the kitchen was lost, and they needed to "cleanse" the area where the Shudra (the lowest of the Indian caste system) servant maid had walked. I remember shouting at the top of my voice, "Show me where it is impure. Let me see what happens when we do not cleanse this place." Neighbors were shocked and told my parents, "You have a problem child."

As I grew into adolescence, my problems compounded. I was dark skinned, to the point of being almost black. My parents were concerned and tried various techniques to make me fairer. They made up excuses and gave explanations that ranged from the scientific (some recessive gene in the family) to the astrological (I was born on a Saturday with Saturn ruling my horoscope). Whatever the explanation, they felt immense pressure to take care of my "deficit." Being dark skinned was another piece of me as a problem child.

When I was around fifteen years old, an athletic coach saw potential in me as a track and field athlete. I had won several interschool competitions since I was ten, but my parents did not see this as an opportunity for me to move up in life. Amidst their protest, I joined this athletic club that involved rigorous training. It also meant that I had to be in public training grounds in shorts and a t-shirt. As a result, my skin color was apparently getting darker as I trained in the sun. There was some tension and negotiation. I managed to convince my parents that my athletic talent would help me secure admission into a good college or university. They seemed placated. Indeed, I was admitted into Stella Maris College with much fan fare as a state athlete. Meanwhile, my friends were biting their fingernails waiting for their admission letters. I felt really privileged. But for now, I was back with the nuns!

In the neighborhood, I was branded as the "defiant" daughter. My parents were not exactly pleased with me running around in competitions and hanging out with the boys who were my friends at the athletic club. I also questioned them on some "rules" in the house that seemed oppressive. For example, the whole family had to know when a woman was menstruating so that she did not contaminate the kitchen and other sacred parts of the house. The menstruating woman was to be segregated those 4 days. I refused to abide by these rules and would not tell my family when I had my periods. My parents were desperate with my defiance. I later heard that they consulted with the family doctor about "the wrongness" in me ("Is she having a psychological problem?") and with the family astrologer to see if I was going through a bad period in my life.

My undergraduate education sailed by without any major events, despite my parents' disappointment that I chose sociology as my major. They had hoped I would become an engineer or a doctor instead. During the final year of my undergraduate degree, most of my friends were married. My parents started the process of looking for a bridegroom for me, but they were having no luck. I decided to pursue my graduate education at Stella Maris again. Since the college did not have a Masters in Sociology, I joined the Social Work program. When I finished my Master's, there was still no sign of a bridegroom, so I decided to work. I worked as a social worker in a de-addiction unit. My parents were more anxious and worried now. "Can't you use your athletic ability, find a job as a bank manager, or become a clerk in central railways?" they would ask. These were considered plum jobs in India. I quipped, "I could if I wanted to, but I don't want to count money or look at accounting books all day."

When I was growing up, society was at the cusp of a major social change. A woman working was a desirable thing for the socioeconomic status of the family, as well as to attract a desirable bridegroom. This emphasis on a career was more so in the urban areas than in the rural parts of India, which make up about 80% of the nation. Affirmative action was in place to encourage women in professions that were dominated by men. In my urban Brahmin neighborhood, getting a Central (Federal) government job or a state job was desirable and would add positive points in marriage proposals. For example, your dowry may be less. Parents encouraged their daughters to study, but not too much since graduate degrees would potentially drive suitors away. Getting a job and staying fair skinned was also encouraged so that parents could find a good spouse that would translate to a comfortable and good life for their daughter.

Within the above context, a social worker was not a status job and to make matters worse, I was working with those "drunk Non-Brahmins." I still lived in the same Brahmin dominated neighborhood, and I told everyone that alcoholism was a great leveler. I saw Brahmins and Non-Brahmins addicted to alcohol and drugs as well as Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Sikhs.

As the years passed, I was still unmarried and there was no sign of a bridegroom. It was getting a little stifling, and I was losing heart. The negativity and sadness that surrounded me was engulfing my mind, and I was feeling claustrophobic. My friends all had kids now and here I was, still single.

As I walked home one day after visiting a friend who had given birth to a daughter, I reflected on how I was viewed in this marriage market. Being dark skinned was no fault of mine, yet I was discriminated against and my parents were being shunned as well. Suddenly money was crucial. My parents were struggling to bargain with prospective spouses as to how much they would or would not give them to compensate for my darkness. This life experience has had a profound effect on me and how I view the world. It made me aware of skin color - in a society where discrimination was always defined as caste, class and/or gender. I felt helpless and had no control over this monster of societal expectation. Even though I had a degree in social work, this experience was an epiphany, as I could now see more clearly how my private trouble was related to a larger societal issue. When that personal connection to feeling oppressed or discriminated against is lifted to consciousness, there is much to learn and share. In my teaching today, I utilize a method of inquiry called Standpoint theory by Dorothy Smith (1987) to make this connection. The use of this method of inquiry in my teaching is discussed in detail in a later section.

After about two years during this low point in my life, I was offered a chance to come to the United States. I did not even have a passport. I had to start from scratch.

Journey to the Land of Paradise

I attended a workshop offered by two American professors. They asked me if I wanted to go to America to complete my Ph.D. Without a second thought, I replied "yes" and gathered the application packet. Afterward, I was in a panic and once again chided myself for my impulsivity. Three days later, I filled out the application packet and was accepted into the doctoral program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

So the panic feeling in the hallway when I agreed to teach that first course reminded me of this impulsive moment I had had back home. Maybe this would be good, I said to myself, as I realized that I had not even asked him what course I would be teaching!

During my first year in the United States, I met a wonderful Indian male whom I married after dating for three years. He is a Non-Brahmin! Needless to say, my parents were bewildered. It is reported the family astrologer laughed to my parents, "I told you when she was a teenager that this was what she was going to do. Her stars and planets were aligned a little differently." I am blessed with two boys.

My Journey as a Teacher

How do these differently aligned stars and planets define me as a teacher in the classroom? When I arrived in the United States, the potato chip-crunching students in the classroom took me aback. Coming from a country where Guru (Teacher) is revered and relationships are hierarchical even in the academic setting, I could not take my eyes off students who stretched their legs onto empty chairs in front of them and relaxed with a cup of coffee as their professor talked. No one stood up when the professor walked in except me.

In one of those early classes, a professor looked around the classroom and saw the international students. He said, "I would love to hear from you about the exotic experiences you have had, but I have so much to teach you." This had a profound impact on me. I firmly believed that my ontological position of being Indian, being female, being young, has influenced me as a social worker. Yet, the professor did not want to talk about this. I felt marginalized as a student, as my knowledge in practice did not apparently count for anything. "I have worked with poor, illiterate people for the past four years," I ranted to my Australian classmate, "Don't I know a thing or two about working with people who are vulnerable? This is Western imperialism!" "Stay on track and finish your education here," she gently urged me. I agreed that I needed to stay on track and finish my doctorate.

The first class that I taught, Social Work 199, was a skills course offered after a theory based course. It was a bumpy ride. My confidence was low, I felt unprepared every week when I stood in front of my class, my accent was thick, and when I wrote on the board, my spelling was different (colours vs. colors). Students wanted answers on "how to practice" with specificities for which I had no fixed answers. Student evaluations were not encouraging. I was frustrated and wanted to learn "how to teach." Unfortunately, a majority of the doctoral programs in social work do not work with their students on their teaching skills, even though most of the students become faculty after graduation.

I did not let this deter me from working on my teaching skills. I remember meeting Dr. Margaret Adamek, a social work faculty member at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is now a faculty member at a school in Indiana. She made me feel comfortable, and talked with me about "how to teach." I met with her regularly, and she gave me tips and suggestions on how I could develop a lesson plan and deliver it effectively. My teaching evaluation scores slowly climbed.

When I was ready to graduate from my doctoral program, I began interviewing for faculty jobs across the country. On one such campus visit, I did the usual routine and also presented some ideas from my research project to the faculty. From my point of view, everything had gone well, and the director seemed enthusiastic and positive. However, I was not offered the job and was very surprised. Eventually, I found out that they had not offered me the job because they were concerned about me being a "non-American" and had not practiced social work in the United States. They wondered if I would be able to teach social work practice to American students. When I heard this comment, it made me curious. As a result, during the first semester of my teaching generalist practice, I maintained a journal as to what I said and did in class, and my reflections from the class discussions - just to see what I was, as a non-American, teaching American students about social work practice.

My first full time teaching job was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Social Work. I was hired to fill in for sabbaticals and I was assigned to teach three courses per semester. Late in the summer, I was assigned the courses that I would teach. I was wide-eyed when I saw the list. They were all research courses - I taught six research courses that year. Within the field of social work, there is a resistance to teach the research classes since it is not popular with the students and historically, evaluations are low. Being at the bottom of the pecking order as a visiting assistant professor, I had to teach what nobody else wanted to teach.

On becoming a teacher: challenges and growth

In the Fall of 2004, I received a flyer announcing a seminar on "inclusive teaching" and it intrigued me. I had never heard this phrase, so I looked it up and read about the New England Center for Inclusive Teaching (NECIT) group and its activities. I figured this seminar could help me share and learn since I routinely keep a journal of how I teach the practice and the research courses. What is it that I do that makes research as interesting and palatable? How do I teach? After finishing my class, I usually jot down some points from the experience, including new things that I tried that particular session, any moments of feeling lost or any moments of feeling incompetent. When I reviewed my journal, several themes jumped out at me. I had mixed feeling about participating in the NECIT seminar. This would be my first opportunity to actually have dialogue about teaching, however I was afraid of being judged. Like most professors, I have never been taught how to teach.

While completing the doctoral program at UIUC, the social construction theorists heavily influenced me. This epistemological position resonated with me and allowed me to reflect on my tacit practice knowledge and look at the contextual nature of phenomena. Social construction theories also allowed me to make meaning of my life experiences and helped me find my voice - as a practitioner, to articulate my beliefs in practice; as a student, to share my reflections related to knowledge creation; as a daughter, to help my family understand that there are many ways of doing things; and as a teacher, to create an inclusive classroom environment.

The tenets of qualitative approaches to inquiry are based in principles that call into question singular realities, unitary truths, and knowledge hierarchies that privilege scientific method and "expert" formulations over other ways of knowing (quantitative vs. qualitative methods). This epistemological stance also reflects how I position myself in the classroom. I allow for multiple realities to emerge in the classroom, cultivate a culture where there are no unitary truths in social work practice, and debate scientific methods and ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated. Yet, no-where in my lectures (other than in the research course) do I explicitly state my epistemological position to the class.

When I began my career as an Assistant Professor at Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana, three doctoral students and I had worked on our collective ideas about our teaching and our epistemological positions. The ideas in this section are from two pieces of writing we did together (Andonian, Chaisson, Nimmagadda, & Wagner, 1998a; 1998b). The following are some examples of my attempt to be an inclusive teacher and to help students find their voices in the classroom.

Not being an expert: I am a non-American and I use this to position myself in class, which I think is useful. My attitude is I do not know about American social work, so let us discover it together. I have gained knowledge through my experience as a social worker in India and through my education, but this does not make me an "expert." I pose several questions to students from this position of "not knowing" and thus am more of a facilitator rather than a knowledge giver. Since my practice experience is based in two countries now, I ask students to compare the readings from the textbooks to the everyday lives of their clients. Gubrium and Wallace (1990) refer to this as "everyday theorizing" and it has been a useful way to engage students in questioning the materials they read and parallel this to their own knowledge and that of their clients. For example, in the practice classes, students are asked to compare their strategies of intervention and the theories that may have influenced this process and the relationship between the two.

Another technique I use to position myself as a non-expert is when I role-play in class as a social worker with one of my students pretending to be a client. In the early years I never wanted to do this since I was anxious that I would make a fool of myself. Over the years, I have matured to be more open to the possibility that I will make mistakes in front of the class, and that it actually helps students to see their instructor struggling to ask the right questions, to be empathic and reflect feelings, to avoid "why" questions, and keep the conversation flowing in a smooth manner. It takes away the myth of "perfect interviewing techniques" and gives a more everyday perspective to counseling, instead of this "competent all sure of oneself" therapist. This also helps students who need to connect with their anxiety of performing as a social worker, since many of them have no experience and are intimidated.

Being partners: Students are involved with their peers and me in a collaborative process of knowledge building. We are all, therefore, partners in the learning process. It is important to value tacit knowledge that students bring to the classroom. I recall the time when the teacher in my doctoral program had told the international students that she had too much to teach us and thus did not have time to listen to our "exotic stories." I solicit and embrace "the exotic."

One of the dilemmas as a social work professional is that we are supposed to be experts, but "the power in our expertise can dis-empower our clients and thus subvert the goals of our profession" (Hartman, 1992, p. 484; 2000). Throughout history, the social work mission and traditions of practice have focused on helping oppressed, disenfranchised and marginalized populations - those populations whose knowledge is subjugated. This paradox extends to teaching as well (Figureira-McDonough, Netting & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001; Laird, 1993). As Palmer (1998) has discussed, students are essentially "marginalized groups" and need to be repositioned as a contributing members of a learning community. My epistemological position as a social constructionist is critical to creating an inclusive classroom. The material I present to students on the various theories (expert knowledge) implicitly or explicitly conveys my assumption about the nature of reality, of knowing and the many ways of knowledge production.

Several times, the knowledge the students bring to the classroom is in conflict, in some ways, with the textbooks. Allowing students to talk about and use their experiences to relate to recognized expert knowledge is crucial to developing life long learners. In my social work practice classes, students are involved in role-playing every week and they provide feedback to one another. This also helps them to process expert knowledge along with their tacit knowledge and to critically examine any conflicts that may arise.

My epistemological position: As an avid qualitative researcher, I think my epistemological position influences me to be an inclusive teacher. Being aware of multiple realities, I invite multiple opinions about a phenomenon, and gently persuade students that we are all biased and that no knowledge can be value-free. The emphasis on context and sharing examples of how we make sense of a theory based on its context strikes a cord with the students as they loosen up and articulate their reservations/critiques about class readings, instead of treating the readings as "expert knowledge" that they need to learn/agree to. Using standpoint theory, proposed by Dorothy Smith (1987; 1990; 2002), I am able to help students understand that they learn about phenomena from the standpoint of those who have actually experienced it on a daily basis (Smith, 2002). Often I ask students to share a time when they have felt anger, frustration, or pain, when they could not practice at their best. I request them to share this experience. Valid inquiry into social phenomena can be launched from the position, perspective, and standpoint of those who actually experience the phenomena first hand. So I often ask students to share experiences of a time when they felt pain, anger or frustration - when they were not able to practice according to the best social work practices, values or ethics.

Home-made social work knowledge: Using the concept of home-made (for example, home-made jam or banana bread), I try to draw students into a discussion of "home-made social work" - starting with the self and using the ingredients at hand in a local setting; not being mechanical or standardized but at the same time not rejecting technical supports as appropriate. Thus home-made social work is a kind of social work that begins in its particularities from where the practitioner and the client are situated in the world. This engages students and asks them to talk about the practice wisdom they have (their home-made knowledge) in a similar way and to reflect on how their position shapes the possibilities that they see personally and professionally. This helps them to take risks and participate fully in class.

Final Thoughts

As I write these themes that identify the strategies that I use as an inclusive teacher, it might seem as though every class is smooth sailing. But it is not. After all these years, I still feel butterflies in my stomach on the first day of class. Some students talk and share and others do not. Over the semester, I try to consciously create an environment where students feel comfortable enough to find their voice.

When I walk out of the classroom, I can sense how the class went. There are days when I feel a sense of accomplishment and think I am competent. There are those days that do not go so well. I work hard to keep those low days to a minimum. I struggle with how I can inspire students to work through their challenges, to be creative and feel comfortable in a field that does not have categorical answers. How can I inspire them to believe in themselves and in their capabilities? How can I help students extend themselves and understand that there are many ways of knowing, and that what they know is valuable knowledge?

As I reflect on my life's journey and where I am today, I cannot help but think of the stars that are misaligned. Maybe I should be thankful that they are misaligned. It is those misaligned stars that made me a "problem child." It was the misaligned stars that allowed me to think out of the box and argue about the personal oppression I experienced. It was misaligned stars that led me to the United States; the misaligned stars that helped me find a Non-Brahmin life partner; the misaligned stars that allow me to position myself as a qualitative researcher; and the misaligned stars that propel me to be an inclusive teacher. Imagine what my life would have been if they had been aligned well? I shudder to think.

Works Cited

Andonian, J., Chaisson, R., Nimmagadda, J., & Wagner, R. (1998a). What qualitative researching has taught us about teaching. Paper presented at the Annual Program Meeting, CSWE, Orlando, Florida, March 5-8.

Andonian, J., Chaisson, R., Nimmagadda, J., & Wagner, R. (1998b). Acts of knowing as acts of social work. Paper presented at Conference on qualitative research in education, Athens, Georgia, January 8-10.

Figureira-McDonough, J., Netting, F. E. & Nichols-Casebolt, A. (2001). Subjugated knowledge in gender integrated social work education: Call for a dialogue. Affilia, 16(4), 411-431.

Gubrium, J. & Wallace, J. (1990). Who theorizes age? Ageing and Society, 10, 131-149.

Hartman, A. (2000). In search of subjugated knowledge. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 11(4), 19-23.

Laird, J. (1993). Revisioning social work education: A social constructionist approach. New York: Haworth Press.

Hartman, A. (1992). In search of subjugated knowledge. Social Work, 37, 483-484.

Smith, D. (2002). Institutional ethnography. In Tim May (Ed.). Qualitative research in action (pp 17-52). London: Sage.

Smith, D. (1990). Texts, facts, and femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling. New York: Routledge.

Smith, D. (1987). The everyday world as problematic. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Back to top.

Page last updated: March 15, 2006