As an instructor, I am committed to centering the voices and experiences of marginalized communities. This commitment informs my pedagogical decisions and practices from a number of interdisciplinary fields, including Women’s and Gender Studies, Sexuality Studies, Cultural Studies, Native Studies, and American Studies. Through rigorous course design and readings, my courses require students to interrogate their existing worldviews, question commonly-received assumptions, and apply their learning to their lives. Doing this can feel very unfamiliar to students, so I am also dedicated to creating welcoming environments where students can learn while being challenged. As a result, students leave my classroom with skills to engage in critical thinking, to engage with people who do not share their worldviews in an honest and interested way, and to clearly articulate their ideas and analysis.
The courses that I teach are rigorous in their curriculum and students engage with materials that tie together historical content, current social context, and artistic productions at multiple levels through assigned course readings, class discussions, and multimedia. I employ an intersectional pedagogy that takes seriously and centrally the experiences of marginalized people in a way that asks students to critically examine things such as settler colonization, American exceptionalism, implicit bias, social justice, and institutional systems of power and dispossession. For example, in my “Feminist Perspectives on Violence” course, students often expect that they will take a class that engages with domestic/interpersonal violence and sexual assault. While these topics are in the course and we take them very seriously, students have often been surprised by the course’s framing which puts settler colonization, systemic heteropatriarchy, racism, and xenophobia at the center of both systemic and individual experiences of violence. Because these large concepts can be difficult to grapple with, students are required to write regular discussion papers during the course of this class. One student commented in her final evaluation that “Discussion papers without a doubt helped me learn. You had to tear apart the articles and really engage yourself in the class in order to get good results on [the papers].” This deep reading of articles and application to contemporary social issues is exactly the focus of my teaching.
I also extend this intellectual rigor to teaching students tangible writing development as one way to articulate information. For example, in my online Summer 2015 “Black Women Writers: Text and Context” course, students had paper assignments where their online comments and ideas could be used as a foundation for an analytical essay, which they then reviewed with a peer to improve the analysis. Though I had used this peer review workshop in other courses, I had never assigned it in an online class and encouraged students to use Track Changes in a word processing program to send drafts to one another. After a student emailed me and expressed confusion about the assignment, I surveyed the class to ask how many people knew how to use Track Changes. When only two students expressed familiarity with the function, I developed a workshop to teach them the use of track changes, using peer review on one of my own articles in progress to show them different forms of feedback and the uses of Track Changes in developing writing. Many students commented later in the semester that knowing how to use this function made them view drafting and feedback processes differently and encouraged them to get feedback on drafts prior to submitting their final papers.
I am committed to students applying what they learn through theory, social science, literature, film, and poetry in my classrooms to their own worldviews and the world around them. To do this, I design assignments and course activities that require that students not only summarize the arguments and information that they have learned in my class, but to apply it to their lives, their culture, or their major fields. In my “Gender, Sex, and Power: Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” course, one ongoing assignment is for each students to present at 5 minute “Current Cultural Artifact” to the class, wherein they identify an artifact from pop culture, a news article, a video, a television series, or a current event that they see differently due to the materials they have learned in the class. In Spring of 2013, one student who was a hijabi Muslim asked if she could present on gender, Islam, and misconceptions of Muslim hijabis. Though her initial presentation was 5 minutes long, questions from other students and subsequent discussion of her presentation ended up being 30 minutes long and informed our discussions of spirituality, religion, and feminism toward the end of the semester. Other students also commented throughout the semester how important that conversation was in highlighting forms of Islamaphobia and misinformation about Islam which they previously would not have seen.
Creation of a Welcoming Environment
All of this rigor and challenge can be quite difficult for students to undertake. In recognition of this, I understand the other vital commitment in my teaching is to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment where students feel seen as whole persons and where they are invited to be in relationship with one another and with me. This structures my instruction from the beginning and is important throughout the term. In my syllabus, for example, I consider how students really need to use a syllabus, which is not as a narrative device, but as something which frames my expectations, gives them clear locations to find policies and procedures, and to communicate where they can find the information that they need. I design syllabi to be used both as a document which is easily used as a reference document throughout the term, as well as to articulate my expectations and commitments throughout the term. As a result, my students rarely ask questions that can be answered by reading the syllabus.
In my daily instruction and design of course materials, I am also committed to calling into question stark hierarchies between students and myself as the instructor. While I acknowledge both the institutional power that I have and the content knowledge that I contribute, I also recognize that they also bring knowledge, expertise, and experience into the room. To highlight this, I often integrate student-driven final paper or project topics which must connect to course materials but also bring in outside research or materials. For example, in my Autumn 2015 “Introduction to Queer Studies” class, students produced final projects that ranged from a queer reading of energy policies and rhetoric around energy production by an Electrical Engineering major to an analysis of queer urbanism and the ways that controlling urban spaces impact architecture and planning from an Architecture major. After submitting feedback on his final paper, one first year student emailed me: “I contacted one of the websites I used as a source regarding their citation information, and they asked if they could post my analysis. I’m considering taking this seriously as an independent line of research in the future … your class has been immensely enlightening and even life-changing to me.”
This commitment emphasizes how important it is for students to see each other as full human beings, to be seen by me, and to see me as a person. To foster, I emphasize that students should refer to each other by name when commenting in group discussion or extending one another’s comments and make the same effort myself. I also try to make myself available in ways that foster connection with me, including always being present in the classroom for 10-15 minutes before the class starts and playing music. Over every semester, this encourages students to approach me and one another in this time before instruction has started and I find that students converse more freely prior to class. One student emailed me after the end of a compressed Summer session offering of “Black Women Writers: Text and Context” and said: “I really enjoyed taking your class. And you as a professor were warm, genuine and easy to talk to. It’s really nice to be able to connect with your professors academically and personally.”
Finally, I recognize that inviting students to engage in challenging intellectual work can be a dangerous act for students. In acknowledgement of this, I introduce students to the concept of “brave spaces,” wherein all of us in a learning environment are valuing one another’s learning, being brave enough to be able to be wrong, and being willing to consider our positions within systems of power. This can yield uncomfortable, but productive conversations. In my “Black Women Writers: Text and Context” course, I had a white, straight, middle-class man comment, after reading Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, “I just don’t feel like these texts were written for me.” This comment allowed a class discussion not only of the invisibility of unmarked identity categories such as whiteness, but also how marked and unmarked identity categories framed how we thought of ourselves as presumed audiences for writers of color, something which was a core learning goal of the course. This allowed students both to be aware of their own metacognition and also to see where they had developed critical thinking and analysis skills. Thus, the valuing of a welcoming but challenging intellectual environment provided the framework for students to effectively challenge their own understandings of the world and their places within it.