Write-up — Pedagogy of the Empowered: Teaching as an Act of Resistance in 2017 and Beyond

On April 6th 2017, the University of Southern California’s Center for Excellence in Teaching held an event entitled “Pedagogy of the Empowered”. Four Teaching Assistant Fellows — Leslie Bernsten, Mary Donhoffner, Rima Basu, and Lizette Solórzano — spoke individually about how to be inclusive in classroom dialogues on political or difficult topics, providing us with strategies and practical advice on how to deal sensitively with specific scenarios that can and do happen. This is exactly the kind of event that is essential in the current political climate, and I left the session feeling that everyone who is teaching right now should attend an event like this at least once. I was grateful to be able to attend.

Leslie Bernsten opened the session by saying that teaching is a caring profession; research supports that the best teaching is that which is above and beyond the call of duty. She mentioned the anxiety that some may have of being a teacher at an R1 university, where you might not be expected to make teaching a priority, and perhaps will receive less support from the institutional framework around you. But she affirmed something that I have always felt — that the best teaching happens when human beings treat others as human beings. Here are some tools and strategies which I took away from this event:

  • If you want to respond to a recent political moment in the classroom, be clear with yourself and your students on why you are doing so. The classroom is not the right place to rant about how you feel about what’s going on in politics. If you want to talk about something that is happening, make sure you tie it in to part of the curriculum, and take the time to present it in a way that does not simply reflect your own political beliefs, but allows students — who have many different beliefs and experiences — to be able to engage with it.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you want to talk about a politically charged issue, prepare as much as you can in advance.
  • Create a classroom contract. How do you set up your classroom so that serious conflicts do not occur? How can you make sure that everyone feels fairly treated, and that the class discussion is productive for everyone? One way to prepare is to be clear from the first day what your students can expect from you, and what you expect from them. Guide them through the syllabus to show your expectations. How will late work be dealt with? How will grading work? How will conflict in the classroom be handled? An effective strategy is to have the students workshop community guidelines: have your students work together to write a charter which describes how they will behave towards each other. And always explain to your students why you’re having them complete a task; doing this can help avoid a sense of being infantilized.
  • Be aware of how you can help marginalized students. Many students have had experiences which leave them emotionally and legally vulnerable. Recent studies show that at certain universities up to 30% of female students are survivors of sexual violence. That means that you need to keep in mind that there is a very high probability that several of your students (male and female) have had this experience. If a student confides in you that they have been sexually assaulted, you are legally obligated to report this to the Title IX officer at your university. Many of your students may also be undocumented, or their family members may be undocumented. These students are living with a very real threat of deportation. If a student confides in you that they are undocumented, you must not tell this to anyone else. This is an example in which maintaining confidentiality is crucial. Teachers at the university level are not necessarily (and perhaps even usually) trained to be able to give students the support which they need; instead, we have to know where to send them when they need help. So we should know what the counseling services are, and whether our university has an immigration clinic. In these cases, we must send our students to trained professionals who can help them emotionally and legally.
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