Learning environment

Navigate micro-aggressions in an online learning environment


Recognizing the pervasiveness and impact of microaggressions is essential for the development of inclusive and anti-racist learning.

Over the past year, educators have taught in a variety of Online Learning Environments (OLEs), which have had many benefits, but also produced unintended consequences. One of these consequences has been the increase in microaggressions, which create an unwanted environment, negatively impact the teaching and learning process for students and instructors, and negatively affect people’s mental health. present. These assaults can take many forms: they can be between peers, directed against the instructor or the TA, or they can also be perpetrated by the instructor or the TA against a student. Recognizing the pervasiveness and impact of microaggressions is essential for the development of inclusive and anti-racist learning environments.

A task force at the University of Toronto has been formed to address microaggressive behavior in OLE. Discussions revealed that micro-attacks have increased in emails, chats, meeting rooms and chat rooms. Recognizing that the situation required immediate action, we produced a preliminary written resource and a webinar. This was a group effort that drew on the vast body of literature and resources from other institutions. Our intention was to help instructors and teaching assistants react to situations involving microaggressions and develop other resources since microaggressions are a systemic problem. In addition, our dean launched a campus review exercise this year to ensure that our commitment to inclusion, indigeneity and anti-racism is reflected in our educational programs and supports.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional acts of discrimination, which are often rooted in personal biases and power systems and can have harmful effects regardless of intention. They include the following elements:

  • Hostile, derogatory, contemptuous or negative visual actions, remarks or cues, usually directed against people from socially marginalized groups.
  • Communications that deny, reject, or deny a person’s worldviews, feelings, or lived reality.
  • Subtle communications that demean a social group or identity.

Create an inclusive anti-racist environment in the classroom

Instructors and TAs are encouraged to incorporate explicit statements into their programs that underscore their institution’s commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, respect, civility and anti-racism. Statements can describe behavioral expectations and emphasize that promoting an inclusive community is a shared responsibility. The strategies include the following:

  • Address the values ​​of the university at the start of the term, setting clear expectations for civil and respectful conduct, without any tolerance for racism or other forms of harassment.
  • Explain your own values ​​as an instructor or TA and how they are reflected in your teaching approaches.
  • Behave in an inclusive and respectful way in your own interactions with students.
  • Invite students to help establish ground rules and a collective framework for your course that will encourage discussion while adhering to the principles of respect, inclusion, civility and anti-racism; calling and calling (bringing people into the conversation in a more inclusive and warm way, not just blaming them) those who don’t respect them.
  • Let students know that the university takes the code of conduct seriously and will impose penalties on those who do not follow it.
  • Anticipate resistance and consider explicitly teaching students how to create an anti-discrimination and anti-racist learning community in which members hold each other accountable.
  • Be aware of the power and authority dynamics that you as a teacher or TA have over students.
  • Recognize the differences between / between population groups and model micro-statements, especially with students who may feel under-represented or invisible.
  • Recognize that people can say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. If students are not exhibiting respectful behavior, consider closing the chat room and turning off the chat.
  • Critically unwrap your own privileges and help students understand fairness and unconscious bias.

It is important to stress that professors are not solely responsible for these kinds of proactive teaching and learning strategies. We encourage institutions to consider ways to incorporate equity, inclusion, and anti-racism into discipline-specific training and support for instructors and TAs.

Respond to micro-attacks in the classroom

Even with proactive frameworks in place, micro-attacks can occur. If you witness a micro-aggression, it is important to intervene and report it. Doing nothing may send a message that the behavior is acceptable.

If you witness a micro-aggression directed at another student:

  • Identify the specific behavior that concerns you.
  • Disrupt the moment by asking for clarification and discussing the potential impact on others.
  • Explain the negative consequences of the behavior to encourage students to change it. Guide the response and consider creating a word or phrase that people can use to safely call and call their peers.

If a student reports micro-aggression to you:

  • Listen to and validate their experience.
  • Recognize the emotional work and the difficulty they may encounter when they manifest.
  • Consider intervening on their behalf or discuss what the intervention and response may involve.
  • Sometimes providing a student with the tools to respond can be stimulating, depending on the context and the needs of the moment. In other cases, they may need help.

If you are the recipient of a micro-aggression in the OLE, by email or via comments in the course evaluations:

  • Seek the support of your mentor, supervisor or president / director.
  • Seek advice from your teaching and learning centers and your equity, diversity and inclusion offices.
  • Document all incidents and keep records of your attempt to resolve a micro-attack.
  • Be factual and objective, and use quotes where possible (eg, keep and report offensive email, take screenshots of inappropriate language in an online chat).

If someone is critical of your inclusive teaching practices or if your students are reluctant to do so, reiterate why they are important and don’t hesitate to ask for help if needed.

In all cases:

  • Slow down, be thoughtful, consider actions.
  • Respond to inappropriate remarks in a professional manner and try to avoid creating an adversarial relationship where there is no room for movement.
  • Try to find out why the student is disrespecting.
  • Look for learning opportunities.
  • A conversation with a college professor can have a lasting effect on a student. Look for an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the situation.
  • Allow space for explanations and excuses.

Some student behaviors can be resolved in the moment or in a follow-up conversation, while others may be serious enough to warrant formal disciplinary action. In any case, to create an inclusive learning environment, it is important to tackle the problematic behavior.

Karen McCrindle is Associate Professor, Teaching and Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Dr McCrindle is also Director of the U of T Scarborough Teaching and Learning Center. Krystle Phirangee, PhD, is an Instructional Developer in Online Assessment and Learning at the U of T Scarborough Center for Teaching and Learning.


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