Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of Wisconsin - La Crosse
"To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences." _ bell hooks Teaching to Transgress (P. 130)
Students are often compared to sponges, ready and able to absorb and memorize knowledge as it is laid before them, or as blank slates, empty and waiting to be filled with the wisdom of their instructor. However, it is my belief that these analogies dehumanize students and undermine their ability to engage within the classroom. I understand students to be individuals with a variety of different backgrounds and complex, multifaceted identities. I believe that classrooms are at their most productive when students are encouraged to engage with their backgrounds as well as in a dialogue with the instructor, each other, and the material. For me, the actively engaged classroom is a co-created space built on reflexivity and a collective recognition of diversity of life experiences. The ultimate goal of my classroom is not only to foster learning, critical thinking, and inquiry, but also to create a space of equality that provides a chance for students to find and exercise their voices. This is especially so for students who, in other spaces, may experience marginalization and feel silenced. My pedagogical philosophy is comprised of three interrelated goals that better allow myself, and my students, to stay on track and to be reflexive in the activities and projects that I assign. These three goals are (1) encourage dialogue, (2) build our classroom as a co-created space, and (3) promote learning through critical thinking and inquiry.
It is my goal to encourage students to engage in dialogue with both their peers and myself. I believe that the most productive classroom is one where students learn from each other through open conversation. I am able to foster this type of discussion by presenting students with a subject of conversation or a discussion prompt and breaking them up into small groups. For example, I like to present students in Introduction to Sociology with a fact sheet on arrest versus conviction rates by race, of which includes statistics from the National Crime Report. They then break up into groups of 4-5 peers to analyze and discuss the information together. I give them 10-15 minutes to converse in a group before bringing them back as a full class to continue the discussion. Typically, comments that students make are either based on the fact sheet or their personal experiences with the criminal justice system and/or racism. By presenting students with a fact sheet we often avoid racist or harmful comments, as the statistics are right in front of them. This creates a safe environment for discussion by lessening any oppressive views and allowing the voices of individuals who are marginalized and have had experiences with institutional racism to be heard.
My second goal is to develop the classroom as a co-created space. In my opinion as an educator, students learn best when they have a say in their education. As such, I provide them with structured choice. For every course I teach, I assign a final paper instead of a final exam because I would like students to be able to demonstrate what they have learned through a research interest of their choice. Students choose a subject for their final papers from a co-created list of research topics. This list is co-created in that students will often show an interest in new topics throughout the semester and I will add those topics to the list of options that they can write about. In the past, students have shown interest in an incredible variety of areas of research and study, resulting in a very diverse list of final paper topics. For example, the list from the last Introduction to Sociology class I taught included topics such as lack of institutional support for veterans, deaf culture, transgender identifying people in sports, stop and frisk laws, and “Beyoncé feminism”. Additionally, I encourage a co-created classroom when I create exams for my Social Science Statistics courses. Prior to an exam I ask students to each submit 3 exam questions (and the answers) and from those questions I choose 3-5 to include on the exam. Encouraging students to create questions gives them a chance to practice answering exam questions as well as ensures that they truly understand the material.
My third goal is that students learn through critical thinking and inquiry. Sociology requires that students question the taken for granted aspects of our world. I foster this type of inquiry by asking students to not just memorize what they are reading but to respond to it. Each week, a reading reflection is due in which students are required to respond to the assigned articles and essays. The students quickly summarize the main points of the article and then relate what we are reading to their own life experiences. For example, after my Sociology and Disability class reads an article on disability rights in the US, students are prompted to critically engage with social media to examine current disability rights movements. I ask,
Disability rights have made a great deal of progress but what are some ways disabled people are still disadvantaged? Using Twitter, search the hashtag #CriptheVote. What do advocates describe as the goals of #CriptheVote? What do you think about these?
Most people in their lifetime have experienced or will experience being disabled; How has it affected or how might a campaign like #CriptheVote affect your life?
Prompting students to examine the article in relation to social media and their own lives encourages an engagement with abstract material on a very personal level. This type of dialogue with the material allows students to not only critically examine what they already know but to also question what they are learning in class. It is this type of critical inquiry that promotes advanced scholarship as students are not just sponges soaking up the authors’ messages but are, instead, analyzing them critically by using their personal perspectives.
As detailed above, it is my intention that every class I teach meets these three goals because I believe that students learn best when they are engaged with their peers and myself, have a say in their education, and respond through critical analysis to not only the material but also to what they know about the world.