My approach to teaching is grounded in critical and feminist pedagogy and the belief that an educator’s role is to facilitate critical thinking rather than simply impart knowledge. This approach is informed by my work in cultural studies and women’s and gender studies. It results in teaching practices designed to help students understand the relations of power and processes of knowledge production that affect them, both inside and outside of the classroom. I help students participate in the crucial process of coming to see themselves as agents, providing them with the tools and vocabulary to apply their experience in the classroom to their everyday lives. My approach involves creating a participatory classroom environment where responsibility for the learning process is shared between teacher and students, fostering a workshop environment in the classroom, emphasizing the process of knowledge production in addition to the creation of final products for assessment, and using assignments and activities that connect the classroom with the world at large.
Because classroom participation helps students take ownership over the learning process and fosters conversations about topics related to class that are important to its participants, it is a big focus in my approach to teaching. While participation is a requirement, I offer multiple avenues for achieving it. Asking an informed question, responding to a question with another question, asking for clarification of a concept, or trying out an argument or idea in its very early stages all ‘count’ as active participation. To foster a participatory environment, I pose questions to the students designed to allow them to drive the discussion and our collective process of knowledge production.
In addition to valuing classroom participation, I foster a workshop atmosphere in the classroom where we each come prepared, but work through problems and questions together. This approach allows students space to ask questions and wrestle with topics they may not otherwise feel comfortable tackling and provides them with the opportunity to drive the development of the body of knowledge deemed important. One method I use is incorporating small group activities into our discussions where students discuss particular questions inspired by our course materials and report back to the class. In a class devoted to discussing the global supply chain of a T-shirt and the structures and individuals implicated in it, students formed groups and imagined themselves as entrepreneurs developing a new supply chain for their T-shirt business. Each group brainstormed the conversations and discussions they might have now that they were armed with information about the people, organizations, relationships of power, and inequalities present in traditional supply chains. The groups then shared their ideas with the class.
valuing the Process of Knowledge Production
Valuing the process of knowledge production helps students to be reflexive about their research and analytical processes and understand intellectual work as ongoing rather than a finite path of arriving at the right answer. Therefore, while I use exams and require the production of polished work in the form of papers and presentations, where possible, I emphasize the process of working through problems posed by the course material in addition to the final product. I often accomplish this by breaking larger projects into stages, where students propose their topics for a larger project, receive feedback from myself and their peers, and rework their ideas before receiving additional feedback or taking the project to the next stage. I sometimes ask students to articulate specifically how their argument and approach have changed since the last round of feedback. Similarly, my feedback includes questions to spur further thinking and suggestions to help students further develop their ideas, even on projects that will not be revised for resubmission in my course. This approach is designed to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between teacher, student, and peers and to continue the process of inquiry beyond the end of the course.
Connecting Theory with Everyday Life
Knowledge is of little value if it cannot be applied to one’s social world. It is essential to me, therefore, that my students leave my course not just with new vocabulary, information, and skills, but also with a new or enhanced framework for observing, understanding, and participating in their everyday lives. To that end, in addition to regularly inviting students to discuss how the concepts we’ve explored relate to their lives, I often assign projects that work toward that goal. In one course, for example, students wrote a proposal to change something on campus and sent their proposal to the person or persons who could effect that change. In another course, students analyzed an everyday object, applying the analytical tools we were practicing to something they encounter every day. I structured my approach to a feminist theory course around the notion that theory is of no use if it cannot be applied to everyday life, and repeatedly invited students back to questions of how the theories we explored apply to their lives and the lives of others in their social world. In a course on globalization, students analyzed a phenomenon resulting from globalization that has a direct impact on their everyday lives.
I count as successes those times my students have noted that the knowledge they have gained and produced in our class has forced them to approach their world differently. One student explained in a note that accompanied his final research project that he had set out to write his paper as “a straight forward and familiar security analysis.” But, due to the class environment and discussions, which kindled his newly “sympathetic view” of a group he had previously dismissed, his “original plan to simply promote and assert international power on a global ‘loser’ became a [proposal] to right a globalized social injustice.” This, to me, illustrates one of the major goals of a critical pedagogical environment and my classroom in particular: to provide students with tools that help them better understand and engage with the world around them.
Source for thumbnail photograph: David Shankbone
The People's Library, Occupy Wall Street, November 2011