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Capstone Project: Inclusion in Collegiate Communication Classrooms

Higher education enrollment demographics continue to change.


At present, universities are experiencing significant increases in enrollment from Hispanic and African American males and females (Kumar & Refaei, 2021). This is a welcomed change that brings increased diversity into university learning communities and classrooms. As educators, we are encouraged to look for ways to cultivate inclusive environments inside of our classrooms for this increasingly diverse student population.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become an important focus for education systems both inside and outside of the classroom. In practice, this calls for universities, professors, and students to work together in providing spaces where everyone feels welcomed. One piece of the DEI puzzle, inclusion, can be demonstrated in how students experience the classroom and whether they feel able to make meaningful contributions (Inclusive Pedagogy, n.d.). By creating an inclusive environment, educators can provide a place where students feel safe and encouraged to bring their whole selves, without the need to perform or prove.

Inclusivity is even more important for collegiate communication classrooms, where expectations for sharing personal opinions, public speaking, and presentations are increased more than biology or mathematics classes and communication can vary across cultures. While simple in theory, proactively cultivating inclusive communication classrooms requires forethought and intention.

There is a significant amount of literature and research focused on DEI and inclusivity in higher education, but there is a limited amount of information specific to inclusivity for communication classrooms. I hope to gather some of the best theories and practices for an inclusive pedagogical approach and make the information accessible and applicable for communication professors through creating a resource website.

Disciplinary Grounding
Critical communication theory and pedagogy

Underpinning this drive for more inclusive classroom environments is critical communication theory, which explores how communication is used to oppress and looks to challenge the “status quo” by looking for alternate ways to communicate (Paynton & Hanh, 2021). This theory presupposes that power is not distributed equally, and that the imbalance creates a hierarchy (Fassett & Rudick, 2016). By using the components of critical communication theory, oppressive communication can be critically analyzed and improved, thereby creating places of belonging and inclusivity (Paynton & Hanh, 2021).

Max Horkheimer (1972), a German lecturer at the Institute for Social Research in the mid-19th century, proposed that a critical theory is only adequate if it meets three criteria- it must be simultaneously explanatory, practical, and normative. Critical communication theory can explain what is erroneous about how we communicate in oppressive ways, identify practical ways to change it, and provide clear norms for achievable transformation.


Using critical communication theory as its foundation, critical communication pedagogy is a discipline-specific “umbrella term” to “encompass a worldwide movement of researching and teaching that identifies and challenges unjust power relationships” (Fassett & Rudick, 2016, p. 10). This approach in the classroom is student-centered and considers power and privilege when creating spaces that foster social justice (Fassett & Rudick, 2016).


In their book Critical Intercultural Communication Pedagogy, Atay and Toyosaki (2018) assemble a collection of essays that form ideas around what they call two important commitments of critical communication pedagogy, dialogue and self-reflexivity. They pose these two commitments as the “heart” around highlighting oppressive systems to incite activism for positive change (Atay & Toyosaki, 2018). Their research shows that educational practices usually reflect the dominant culture along with a hierarchical system that leads to “cultural othering” (Atay & Toyosaki, 2018, Introduction).


Through the examination of critical communication theory and critical communication pedagogy, it becomes clear how important intentionality is when addressing the need for inclusion in communication classrooms. An emerging approach to this type of inclusive education is called culturally responsive teaching.


Culturally responsive teaching

Using a student-centered approach to education, culturally responsive teaching highlights the unique cultural strengths each student bring to the classroom (Hererra, 2015). This encourages educators to ask and understand more about individual student’s cultural background and bring those conversations into existing classroom activities (Herrera, 2015).


Numerous studies have shown the positive benefits that come from a culturally responsive teaching approach. Chief among them is the ability to improve a student’s feelings of belonging and inclusion in the classroom (University of San Diego - Professional & Continuing Education, 2022). Studies also show a higher level of student engagement and an increase in critical thinking and problem-solving skills (University of San Diego - Professional & Continuing Education, 2022). Many of the classroom tactics utilized in culturally responsive teaching will align with an inclusive pedagogical approach suitable for collegiate-level teaching.

A growing body of research looking at predictors of academic success identified a sense of belonging to an academic community as an important forecaster (Moallem, 2013). Inclusive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching (Inclusive Pedagogy, n.d.). This requires professor and student to work in concert to create an environment that supports and fosters diverse opinions, allowing each student to feel that their perspective is welcomed and valued (Inclusive Pedagogy, n.d.).

In their book Inclusive Teaching, Hogan & Sathy (2022) offer a framework that encourages attention to the structure of the class, which can, “enhance inclusiveness in both course design and interactions with and between students.” As college professors, Hogan & Sathy (2022) provide real-world experience to fellow professors in ways to incorporate inclusive teaching practices. Their simple question- “who is being left behind?” (Hogan & Sathy, 2022).

When discussing inclusion, it is also important to examine exclusion. Kumar & Refeai (2021) talk of the challenges of higher education, noting it can, “embody broader societal biases, with unequal practices often ingrained in certain traditions or processes of the institution.” This can lead to societal biases making their way into the classroom environment (Kumar & Refeai, 2021). This can be particularly true for students coming from historically underrepresented and marginalized communities (Oliha-Donaldson, 2021).


Through a series of storytelling equity and inclusion critical incidents on campuses, Hanna Oliha-Donaldson (2021) encourages the reader to “foster educational spaces that cultivate belonging.” This will be an important resource, along with the book What inclusive instructors do: principles and practices for excellence in college teaching (Addy et al., 2021) which aims to help professors create inclusive classroom environments by looking at best practices across disciplines and institution types.

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Ethical decision making and awareness of ethical issues is an important piece of leadership. For professors, this leadership occurs both inside and outside of the classroom. Just as one professor would not be described as a leader by one action, it takes ethical decisions to be made continuously over time for one to be considered ethical. Good communication, a personal sense of responsibility, and having strong core values are important in leading with solid ethics.

Ethics and leadership are closely connected to the professor’s desire to create inclusive classrooms through these three requirements. By practicing good communication with a diverse group of students, having a personal sense of responsibility in cultivating an inclusive classroom, and having strong core values that prioritize inclusivity over superiority, a communication professor can be successful in expanding their knowledge base around inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching to the benefit of their students, their university, and themselves.

Rest’s four component model

When examining the role of ethics in collegiate communication classrooms, it can be helpful to apply models for moral behavior. One of the most widely used models was developed by James Rest of the University of Montana (Johnson, n.d.). This model can be used as a framework for analyzing subject behavior (Johnson, n.d.). Rest’s model includes four components: moral awareness, moral judgement, moral intention, and moral action (Johnson, n.d.). Rest also describes the deception that can occur called ethical fading when we tell ourselves we are acting morally, but are disguising our unethical behavior through numbing, blaming, repeated misbehavior or claiming to know the truth (Johnson, n.d.).

Applying Rest’s four-component framework to creating inclusive classrooms and culturally responsive teaching, ethical fading should be a serious concern. Too often, discussions around inclusion and cultural responsivity can lead to defensiveness and blaming behaviors that characterize ethical fading. Rest’s four component model is instructive here. Moral awareness to develop ways to include rather than exclude students will result in an overall sense of belonging. Similarly, moral intention and moral action, the two behavior-related components, can lead a professor to educate oneself about culturally responsive teaching and highlight the unique cultural strengths each student bring to the classroom (Hererra, 2015). This encourages educators to ask and understand more about individual student’s cultural background and bring those conversations into existing classroom activities (Herrera, 2015).

Ethical Pluralism

Ethical pluralism is described as the recognition that there is no singular or universal truth, but it is dependent on the variety of focuses that could be applied to the situation at hand (Hinman, 2012). When utilizing inclusive pedagogy, professors and students must work in concert to create an environment that supports and fosters diverse opinions, allowing each student to feel that their perspective is welcomed and valued (Inclusive Pedagogy, n.d.). Employing ethical pluralism here showcases that there is not one right way to accomplish inclusivity and belonging in the classroom. Hinman (2012) says, “moral judgment across cultures is necessary, but we must approach it in a spirit of humility and self-reflection. We must be prepared to learn from other cultures and have some of our own moral shortcomings revealed to us by them” (p. 47).

It is with good communication, a personal sense of responsibility, and having strong core values that communication professors can make decisions that consider the implications of ignoring inclusivity and proactively work toward the creation of classrooms that prioritize belonging.


Intercultural Communication, Leadership, and Diversity

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Colleges and universities continue to place an increasing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in almost all areas, from recruiting and admitting a more diverse student body and hiring diverse faculty, to proactively working to create a culture of inclusivity in classrooms and campus life. To that end, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has named advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion as a campus priority and provides a library of resources to accelerate these efforts through evidence-based reforms (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2022).

Inclusive excellence is one of the critical components to the wellbeing of a university’s culture identified by AAC&U. Working to help colleges and universities integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the operation of the varied aspects of the college experience, inclusive excellence will help campuses “integrate their diversity and quality efforts, situate this work at the core of institutional functioning, and realize the education benefits available to students and to the institution when this integration is done well and is sustained over time” (Williams et al., 2005, p. 4). Too often, inclusive practices and educational excellence are disconnected, with isolated efforts from a variety of committees or programs working remotely (Williams et al., 2005). Inclusive excellence seeks to unite these disparate efforts and fundamentally link diversity, equity, and inclusion practices to the educational mission of the university (Williams et al., 2005).


The concept of inclusive excellence helps inform this capstone project, highlighting the need for an increase in the knowledge and understanding of inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching particularly among communication professors. In designing the website, I want to include an “additional resources” section where AAC&U’s library of resources can be provided. This includes a nine-episode podcast series called “The Excellence Experiment” that highlights “individuals and institutions who are actively engaged in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence Initiative, an experiment that explores institutional capacity building for transformation as an approach to education reform in undergraduate science” (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2022).


There is one major limitation to this project related to diversity. Due to the amount of time for artifact creation, I am constrained to highlighting testimonials primarily from communication professors that I know or have direct access to, which is not as large or diverse of a group as I would like for it to be. In further developing this website beyond the time constraints of the capstone, it would be possible to outreach to a wider berth of communication professors diverse in both culture and experience.


With inclusive excellence as a guide and opportunities for further development in mind, this capstone website will be the starting point for a life-long education in diversity, equity, and inclusion at any college or university I have the privilege of joining.

Design Prospectus

My proposed artifact is a website designed with and for higher education communication professors to learn about inclusive and culturally responsive teaching. This website will help identify big and small ways to incorporate inclusive teaching practices into classrooms and create culturally responsive environments. The website will incorporate best practices from current communication professors sharing how they proactively bring inclusive practices into their classrooms. These best practices will be showcased in both written form and video/audio interviews. The best practices will focus on bringing inclusive and culturally responsive teaching methods into communication classrooms, providing a unique lens for the higher education communication instructor to consider whether they are building a new course or in the last weeks of the semester.

The proposed website is intended to be a resource for current or prospective college-level communication professors. The website will have “testimonials” from current college-level communication professors from a variety of different schools discussing how they view and incorporate inclusivity in the classroom. Part of the “testimonials” will be tangible and implementable ideas, in addition to personal examples of both good and bad ways they have seen inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching play out in the classroom. The testimonials will be presented on the website as either a short video/audio clip or as a short paragraph of text. Also linked on the website will be a PDF infographic that highlights the main concepts inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching. This resource can be downloaded and shared easily.













Objectives/Intended Outcomes

It is always important to begin with the end in mind. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to picture the end-user interacting with your product/project. In this case, one of the main intended outcomes is to provide a resource to current and prospective college-level communication professors that will both educate them about the importance and concepts of inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching, while also providing implementable ways to incorporate the concepts and ideas into their classroom.  It can be a resource that professors come back to as they are designing courses or looking for a way to highlight a concept in class. The hope is that it will spark ideas and inspire a mindset shift for communication professors to look for opportunities to cultivate inclusivity.


The context for implementation of this website is important.  The website needs to be accessible to anyone with disabilities or access/functional needs and easy to navigate to reduce barriers access. Offering the testimonials in three different ways (text, audio only, and video) will appeal to many different types of learners. It is my hope that this website can be a resource for the potential audience of collegiate communication professors and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices at universities around the country.


The participants for the testimonials on the website will be current college professors teaching communication classes. I plan to include professors from a variety of different types of collegiate environments, including community college, public commuter-type state schools and private universities.  I will be targeting professors that I know and asking them to both participate and refer a colleague who they believe would assist. My goal is to have 6-10 professor testimonials for the website.



For the design of the website, I would like to emulate the model of a website produced by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, created by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Georgetown University’s President John J. DeGioia (Rutherford, 2020). The Georgetown website ( shares how Georgetown professors teaching a variety of subjects promote diversity in the classroom.

The website I plan to create will differ in its focus on communication professors and the incorporation of video and audio from the professors sharing their best practices for inclusive and culturally responsive teaching. For each professor, the website will have their photo that will be provided by the professor, their name, the university they teach at, whether they are full time of adjunct, how long they have been teaching at the collegiate level, and the types of communication classes they teach. Underneath, there will be a short pull quote from the professor that I will choose from their interview. Then, there will be either the text narrative or a link to the video/audio of their interview. The infographic will be linked at the bottom of the page, along with a list of resources recommended for further learning.

Capstone Artifact

To view the infographics, interviews, and resource library, click below

Summary and Conclusion

Creating an inclusive classroom environment can be achieved in many ways. Through this capstone and the creation of the capstone artifact, I found that the ways are as varied as the professors themselves. One thing became crystal clear- inclusivity requires intentionality.


Inclusivity does not look the same for each professor or student. When both are intentionally driving toward the same goal outlined by inclusive pedagogy practices as “creating a space that works for all students” (Inclusive Pedagogy, n.d.) incredible progress can be made. This project helped highlight the importance of intentionality and provided invaluable insights and resources that I will carry into future classrooms to promote inclusivity.



The original concept for the capstone artifact was to create a website designed with and for higher education communication professors to learn about inclusive and culturally responsive teaching. Modeling a website produced by Georgetown University (Rutherford, 2020), I contacted a few professors that I met during the course of the Communications and Leadership master’s degree. Surprising me, everyone I asked agreed to participate. Through Zoom interviews, they provided important views on communication, inclusivity, and teaching philosophies.


One piece of the capstone artifact that grew during the creation was the Resource Library. Originally, I planned to provide the resource list for the design prospectus and thought that would suffice. It became clear as the website was coming together that a project of this size and with the caliber of the professors interviewed, I should go a step further and create multiple direct links to external resources. This will also continue to drive traffic to the website as communication professors revisit the website to access a resource or to see what new resources have been added.


Once all the interviews were completed, the infographic created, and the videos or audio uploaded, the site came together quickly. I have shared the site with the professors who participated in the interviews and have received positive feedback.


Examination of critical communication theory

Critical communication theory explores how communication is used to oppress and looks to challenge the “status quo” by looking for alternate ways to communicate (Paynton & Hanh, 2021). This theory highlights the need for intentionality when creating inclusive environments. Multiple times during the interviews, professors mentioned the importance of looking for alternate ways to communicate with and provide opportunities for diverse students. This challenging of the “status quo” also meant it was important for professors not to assume all students had equal access to things like internet/wifi or reliable transportation to class. Many shared ways they address student’s needs to accomplish the course objectives without being required to attend every class in person.


Ethical impacts

There are many ethical considerations to be aware of when cultivating inclusivity. Ethical pluralism is described as the recognition that there is no singular or universal truth, but it is dependent on the variety of focuses that could be applied to the situation at hand (Hinman, 2012). Professor Hagihara touched on this, citing a challenge he was having with a particular student’s writing style that differed from traditional academic writing. Professor Hagihara shared that he continually reminds himself that there is no singular truth or correct way to write, and that he needs to rely on the student’s ability to master the course objectives rather than his individual writing style.















Technical lessons learned

The creation of the capstone artifact website provided the opportunity for me to grow in multiple technical areas. The first was the design of the website. I designed most of the website for desktop viewing and neglected to check how each element looked when the website was accessed on a mobile device. It wasn’t until I shared the website with a colleague that I viewed the website on my phone and realized that the interviews and resource library were out of order. Thankfully, Wix allows you to view and edit from either desktop view or mobile view. I went back and adjusted the mobile view to be consistent with the desktop view.


I also honed skills in video editing, using a new software called Clipchamp. While I did not use this new software to its full extent, it was enjoyable and helpful to learn a new way of editing on a PC as my previous editing was done through Apple’s iMovie.



This capstone artifact has many limitations, the first and most obvious being the condensed timeline for this project meant I was only able to interview five professors that I had direct access to. I would have loved to expand the professor outreach to experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion from universities across the nation. As I interviewed the professors, I also realized that it would have been incredibly instructional to observe one of their classes before and after the interview. If the professor was amenable, I could have also recorded their classes and interspersed segments into their interview video.


Revisions for future iterations

One of the best things about this capstone artifact is that it will never be completed. There will always be new discoveries in inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching, best practices to be shared among colleagues, and new resources to educate future professors. This website can be a living online space for professors wanting to be intentional about creating inclusive environments.


For future iterations of the website, it would be beneficial to expand the number of professor interviews and perhaps make them searchable by key words. This would give a professor with a specific issue or question the ability to find information directly related to what they are currently facing.


Another improvement would be the creation of a series of infographics on the topics around critical communication theory, inclusive pedagogy, and culturally responsive teaching.



This capstone project has been an inspirational journey. I have seen the benefit of inclusive pedagogy first-hand as a student and now know that inclusive environments don’t happen accidentally. It takes an engaged, educated, aware, and humble professor to set early expectations about the importance of inclusivity and to uphold those values every semester. It is my deepest desire that this capstone artifact play a small role in encouraging communication professors and continues to benefit me as I explore the possibility of becoming a full-time communication professor.

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