“If a university is a repository for knowledge, then some of this knowledge should spill over to the neighboring community. A university must not be an island where academics reach out to higher and higher levels of knowledge without sharing any of their findings.” – Muhammad Yunus
I first heard this statement by Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, while I was involved with the University of Oklahoma Center for Social Justice as a Graduate Student Research Fellow. Although it speaks more directly to the opening and sharing of academic research, I also see its relevance in the classroom. As I conduct research and create knowledge, I seek to share what I learn with the communities with which I work and in the classroom, where I encounter future civic leaders and professionals.
I approach the classroom the same way I approach my research, by working to create mutual respect. I take a Freirean approach to pedagogy, never assuming my position in the classroom to be superior to that of my students. Instead, I strive to create an environment where we can work together to share knowledge and increase our mutual understanding and respect for each other. I acknowledge what I do not know and welcome the experiential knowledge of students to create an inclusive learning environment for everyone. Because social justice is at the heart of my pedagogical approach, I incorporate issues of diversity in every one of my classes, whether it’s how to engage diverse target audiences through multimedia campaign strategies or how to critically analyze media messages to understand the impact that results from a lack of diverse representation in media. In addition to course content, I work hard to create a classroom culture that is inviting and inclusive to all of my students by establishing ground rules based on respect the first day of class and reinforcing those ground rules every time we engage in controversial discussions for the success of all students in the class, particularly students who may feel more vulnerable during these discussions based on their identity politics or cultural background. I view the classroom as an opportunity for students to learn course material and also for me to learn, each semester, how to become a better professor. Through self-reflection, mid-semester course evaluations that I request, department course observations, and student evaluations, I acknowledge my successes and also focus on addressing aspects of teaching I can improve upon for the benefit of my future students.
When approaching any course or instructional activity I ask myself three questions: How will this pedagogy help students better understand the course material? How does this material help students gain a better sense of who they are and their impact on the world? How can this material transcend the classroom and have real-world application? As I answer these questions, I find that my teaching usually incorporates an aspect of social justice. In most courses this is seen through the incorporation of a critically-engaged civic learning (“service-learning”) project that strives for sustainability and reciprocity between community partners, students, me, the university and the community. These projects are reflexively designed for students to connect their community engagement with their educational goals and course learning objectives to better ground their conceptual learning in real-world experiences.
It is important to me that class material reaches beyond the classroom with practical value for students in their everyday lives and future careers. Like research, learning does not occur in a vacuum and neither should the curriculum we introduce to our students. By incorporating a community-based pedagogy combined with course material, academic research, and social justice issues, I strive to promote growth in my students academically, as community members, and as individuals. Through reciprocal collaborations designed to address public issues and enhance academic learning, I help prepare students to understand the importance of community involvement and be well versed in the privileges and responsibilities inherent in citizenship and community membership. One example of this is my first year seminar, Social Justice & Superheroes, which uses the course theme to create a sense of community among the students and engages them in projects that create social impact in the local community. For example, for the past two years the students partnered with an urban agricultural initiative, The Food Project, to harvest food with and for low-income families in the Lynn, MA community as they explored the concept of food justice.
I have worked hard to create many experiential learning opportunities for my students that include conducting their own research, participating in my research, service-learning, and engagement with clients and community partners. I also incorporate my research into the classroom to help my students achieve a better understanding of academic research and its place both within and outside of the academy. For example, one area of my research addresses the marginalization of people living in poverty as they seek to disseminate their voices and experiential knowledge in society. I bring this research into my classroom through media literacy lectures and discussions that focus on the importance of participatory media and civic media as an example of how marginalized groups use media to engage with the dominant discourse and establish their credibility as poverty experts. Through these lectures and discussions students learn how to critically analyze media sources (commercial vs. community) as well as how media can be used to address hegemonic structures in society. Students also learn how research can move beyond the academy while also having a place and importance in the university setting.