Diversity as a Threshold Concept: Graduate Student Teachers’ Experiences Negotiating Liminality in the Postsecondary Classroom

Devon Thacker Thomas, Laura Border


In an attempt to better understand issues of diversity in the college and university classroom, the authors applied two conceptual approaches—the threshold concepts framework and intersectionality—to the study of diversity as a complex, multi-faceted reality, which all instructors confront and sometimes resist at various points in their careers.  An examination of qualitative data from open-ended questions on a survey about diversity in the classroom revealed the strength of these two approaches to elucidate hidden instructional complexities.  Applying the threshold concept framework through an intersectional lens suggests that the learner’s confrontation with new information may be troublesome and disorienting as graduate student teachers described difficulties with their own and their students’ identities. The data also reveal the reality of different phases in which the instructors appear to stagnate, begin to realize the need to engage with diversity, then begin to transit and exit the disoriented or liminal space.  Because the instructors’ transition—from being a teacher who cannot deal with diversity to a teacher who can—appears to be challenging, the authors conclude that issues of diversity in the classroom can be clarified and understood using the threshold theory framework and intersectionality approach in the education and preparation of future faculty.  Graduate and professional student developers centrally and within disciplines need programming to help graduate student teachers move successfully through the liminal space to teach contemporary collegiate undergraduates most effectively.

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