Each day I have the opportunity to interact with students, whether in the classroom, in our shared community, or electronically, I work to accomplish three goals—to emphasize the importance of learning, to concretize the connections between academic knowledge and students’ lived experiences, and to foster critical awareness of social injustice. Learning, or more specifically, learning how to learn, has been of vital importance in my experiences as a black woman negotiating limited and limiting expectations for what I might be capable of achieving. I teach, then, always with the hope of igniting a love of learning and I take seriously a commitment to make each of my students a more successful learner—firmly believing that the confidence that one can learn well, translates to greater adaptability and ambition in all aspects of life.
Providing students with a strategy for mastering dense theoretical material is one way this commitment is manifest in each of my undergraduate courses. For example, when introducing students to poststructuralist thought, I provide a functional scheme for decoding authorial voice. Using a piece of theoretical writing, students and I consider where and why the author may be writing from a diagnostic, analytic, and/or prescriptive posture. Being able to discern when an author is attempting to make empirical assessments of the world, versus provide an analytical tool with which to think, versus make a
theoretical or political intervention, has notably changed my students’ willingness to take on “hard” material, has resulted in more enthusiastic class discussions, and ultimately greater mastery of the material.
I have found that classes, like individual students, have personalities. The challenge we take up as educators—to successfully reach and impact each student—can have the effect of magnifying the differences between the individuals who take our classes. By cultivating a climate in which community is stressed, I find that nurturing the emergent personality of each class of students mitigates the difficultly of making academic content relevant to the lives of individuals with very different experiences, interests, and capabilities. Attending to both the individual student and the collective identity students negotiate together provides a means of making course material relevant to each student. But perhaps more importantly, provides students with the means to discover the relevancy of course material through the experiences of others as part of a shared class culture. In doing so, students transform cognitive and emotional spaces outside the boundaries of their own lives into spaces of learning and growth. I have seen the productivity of these layered student identities in the interactions on course blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and group projects—instructional tools I often use in teaching undergraduate courses.
I strive to make transparent my efforts to maintain safe and inclusive learning environments, to acknowledge a range of learning styles, and to use the diversity of human experience as an educational resource. In doing so, my goal is to demonstrate that creating a just and egalitarian space, whether it is our classroom or our nation, requires dedicated effort. I challenge students to confront the workings of power and privilege, not only in explicit historical contexts, but also in the workings of everyday life. This challenge, I believe, cannot be ethically posed without equipping students with intellectual tools beyond critique—without guiding students to contextualize the injustices they confront as ripe with opportunity for creative problem solving. As such, I frequently use a problem-centered model to design courses, encouraging students to develop projects in response to questions drawn from current controversies and crises in the communities to which they belong. By encouraging students to define projects within the scope of their own abilities to know and act and by framing course content as conceptual and methodological tools, I support students in creating solutions for specific problem spaces. Projects such as these demonstrate to students that they are not only capable of a heightened awareness of social injustice, but also have a greater and more informed capacity to act.
My approach to developing and teaching courses is supported by three specific pedagogical strategies: backward course design; learner-centered teaching; and service-learning.
Backward Course Design
By using a backward course design model to develop, revise, refresh, and evaluate my courses, I ensure that each course is grounded in a prioritized set of learning objectives that include: 1) a range of material that I believe students should have familiarity with by the end of my classes; 2) a group of skills or competencies students should have developed by the end of my classes; and 3) goals for deep learning and critical thinking that will substantively impact my students as learners after the class is complete. I work to provide transparency to students, explaining how each of my lectures, readings, in-class activities, and assessments are explicitly connected to one or more of these learning objectives or their constituent parts.
I work to place emphasis on my students as learners, rather than myself as an instructor, in order to encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own learning process. Specific strategies that I use in this regard include:
- Inviting students to collaborate with me in developing portions of the syllabus, so that they have a greater stake in the material taught;
- Delegating meaningful portions of graded assessments to peer evaluation;
- Introducing students to Bloom’s Taxonomy and framing coursework in terms of the ‘type’ of learning they should be working to achieve;
- Offering transparency with regard to learning objectives and how all components of my courses are designed to reach those objectives;
- Providing structured opportunities for students to take the role of instructors;
- Frequently ‘flipping’ my classroom, so that lower order learning is conducted outside of the class, leaving class time for the discussion, reflection, synthesis, and application of material;
- Using a course contract to formalize the expectations for my courses on the part of all participants, including myself; and
- Allowing students to experience the consequences of abdicating responsibility as a learner in my classes.
I use service-learning to enrich the educational experiences of my students by connecting academic content and meaningful community service. When students, community agencies and I forge mutually beneficial partnerships to solve shared problems, students develop a greater sense of civic engagement and social responsibility, gain real world experience, develop professional networks, and begin to see the world around them as a laboratory where they might test and apply concepts from my classes.