Entering into a classroom is always fraught with tensions and possibilities, however these both may be felt more acutely in politics classes. Students arrive with an expectation that debate and conflict will be a central component of the course. The idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and thus all opinions should be given space in the classroom is one that remains pervasive. So too is the idea that politics can be studied rationally and objectively. To share your personal politics is perceived as teaching with bias. At the same time, teaching elective politics courses offers a unique opportunity to challenge students to deconstruct their expectations about the classroom and politics itself.
Student-centered, inquiry-based methods have always informed my approach to teaching. However, attending to how teaching can and does transform students, and society has become increasingly important to my practice. In particular, I am committed to using my classroom as a space to challenge systems of oppression that remain so normalized that they become invisible to those who benefit from them. Confronting racisms, sexism, ableism, colonialism, heteronormativity, classism, and the intersections of systems of oppression is uncomfortable. It is difficult work to face up to one’s privileges and disadvantages, particularly in a room of strangers. Even when students are receptive to such provocations, they may become lost in feelings of guilt and frustration, ultimately disengaging from any productive change. My work as an instructor is not simply to inform students about these practices, but to empower them to feel like they have a role in transforming the communities they inhabit.
Engaging students in this works requires an instructor who privileges reflective practice, approaches learning as an iterative process, and is committed to welcoming and valuing community voice within the classroom. These are my guiding principles in the classroom. However, anti-oppressive teaching practice does not stop at the classroom door. It requires that we consider the very institutions that employ us. This shift in my thinking is in part a result to Sara Ahmed’s work on feminism and academic careers. As she writes, “To work as a feminist means trying to transform the organizations that employ us – or house us” (Ahmed 2016). Centering my teaching practice on social justice requires that I also engage in transforming Sheridan College and my discipline generally. In the sections that follow, I describe how I attempt to realize these goals in my daily practice.
Learning through Reflection
Critical reflection on the learning process is central to my approach to teaching. As such, students need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts in the classroom. I emphasize to my students there is no direct path to learning or research, and that mistakes and missteps are an integral part of the process, as they require that we stop, reflect on what we have done, and adjust accordingly. During activities, I draw on my own personal research experiences to show how I have used mistakes as opportunities to develop as a student, researcher, and instructor. Formal student evaluations conducted at the end of class provide another opportunity to reflect on my own development. My commitment to improving my teaching skills is evidenced through the reflections I do for each course after I receive my teaching evaluations. These reflections are documented through my website, which I share with students to serve as an opportunity to model how I employ reflective practice in my own learning.
Anti-oppressive teaching requires that reflective practice be used strategically to encourage students to unmask the assumptions they hold, and to ask why they hold those assumptions. In one activity, I ask students to define what it means to be a good citizen. After a discussion, students are asked to identify where or from whom they learned that idea or set of values. This exercise allows us to start unpacking where our values, ideas, and beliefs come from, without targeting students who might hold problematic assumptions of what the term means. It creates space to think through who benefits, and who doesn’t from any definition of an ‘ideal’ citizen, and why someone or some institution might want to push a particular definition. Reflective opportunities have become a core feature of my classroom, with each week of my offering of Introduction to Politics centered on a reflective exercise related to the topic. This provides space for students to explore how the content we are learning is relevant to their own lives, and space to think critically about their social position. Central to these activities is a focus on action. Students are continually prompted to consider what they can do – today, this week, this year – to change their communities.
Learning as a Creative Process
I find that focusing on balancing content with developing learning and critical thinking skills also helps me to be responsive to the needs of my students, as students arrive in classrooms with different experiences, expectations, and knowledge. As evidenced through my experience as an instructor for an Inquiry-based learning course, and an Experiential Learning course, I am deeply committed to non-traditional and innovative teaching methodologies. Further, I am committed to the purposeful and thoughtful use of online learning management system.
The use of non-traditional teaching methods can help to challenge student assumptions on what learning is, how it happens, and what good scholarship looks like. While traditional lectures remain an important component of my class design, I use them to support active-learning activities that require students apply the information presented to them, and to work collaboratively. For example, exam and test reviews are done as a group. This is purposefully designed to encourage students to think about learning as a collective good, not a competitive enterprise. Supporting each other in learning benefits the whole. This approach aligns with my commitment to social justice, and challenging the neo-liberal logics of post-secondary education that encourages focusing on individual benefit.
Incorporating creative expression of ideas and content is an important part of my practice and reflects the importance I place on empowerment. On a most basic level, allowing choice and flexibility in both the topics and method of delivery allows students to direct their own learning. For example, in Introduction to Politics, I allow students to deliver their final assessment as either a traditional paper, or vlog/blog post. However, in order for this to be effective, it is important to provide students with small assignments early on in the course so that they can receive feedback and I can provide some guidance if needed. Thus the scaffolding of writing and research skills into in-class activities enables me to be responsive to the diverse needs across classrooms, and in developing student confidence in their own abilities.
I try to foster an environment in my classes that encourage students to not only ask questions of me but of each other. I believe that providing opportunities for students to assist each other helps them to develop a deeper understanding of the material they are covering in the course. Further, I have found that asking students to provide feedback to their peers helps them to be more critical of their own work, while also stimulating interpersonal communication skills. In Canadian Politics, I facilitated a “speed-date” of thesis statements earlier in the term. The activity helps students to refine their thesis statement through feedback from their peers, but also through the process of having to explain their thesis in increasingly shorter time increments. This exercise reinforces several themes in my classes: learning is an iterative process, learning can be collaborative, and good scholarship takes many forms.
Connecting the Classroom to the Community
As an instructor and researcher I am deeply committed to community-engaged learning. I believe that post-secondary institutions have a responsibility to work with the local community to develop research and teaching agendas that are mutually beneficial. While there are important pedagogical benefits to Experiential Learning for students, it is critical to balance this with ensuring that the community’s needs are at the forefront of any joint venture. In my previous class, Leadership through Experiential Learning, I achieved this by building relationships with the community members involved and worked with them to create the syllabus, as well as structuring the placements. In other courses, I have use student-controlled twitter accounts to encourage the engagement beyond the classroom.
Opportunities to integrate guest speakers from the community are important to my practice because they create a space for students to engage with people and ideas they might not otherwise interact with. In Power, Politics, and Influence in Canada, I provided several options for participation, including the opportunity to organize a series guest speaker panel. In all of these cases I have found that students not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. This serves as evidence that community-engaged classrooms both challenge and motivate students in their learning. However, as noted by Page and Curran (2010), we cannot assume that simple exposure to a powerful idea, experience, or narrative is going to resonate with students, or be transformative. Through their own reflective practice, they found that the expectation that learning would happen automatically was embedded in their practice. One responded who reviewed Page & Curran’s self-reflections note that instructors “cannot take a “‘drive-by approach’ to issues of equity,” if our goal is meaningful change. As my teaching practice evolves, it is on this front I will target my action. How can I provide regular but meaningful experiences for students to engage with their community within the bounds of a 14-week term? In the spirit of an ongoing commitment to reflective practice, I leave this question unanswered, for now.
Ahmed, S. 2016. Resignation is a Feminist Issue. [Blog] feministkilljoys Available at: https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/08/27/resignation-is-a-feminist-issue/
Page, M. and Curran, M., 2010. Challenging Our Stories as Teacher Educators for Social Justice: Narrative as Professional Development. E