On April 17, 2017, faculty from International and Area Studies, Public Health, Ethnic Studies, and History shared strategies for engaging students around issues of social justice. Ula Taylor (African American Studies) moderated a lively, interactive conversation with panelists and audience members. This program was the second in a series of faculty dialogues on inclusive pedagogy.
The invited speakers began by introducing themselves and describing their reasons for joining in, then each talked about the explicit and "sneaky" ways they bring real-world lessons and concerns into their curriculum and classroom. Panelists also touched on challenges, such as students' different levels of readiness and preparation and ways to provide individualized support and feedback in large-enrollment classes. Audience participants also offered their own ideas and suggestions. A full transcript of the discussion is below.
TAYLOR: Thank you. Thank you for hosting us and hopefully we will fully maximize this hour and a half. And we will fully maximize it because we want it to be interactive, in terms of us thinking about social justice education. How do we make this happen in our classrooms? And how do we make this happen in our classrooms that are just so varied, not just in terms of the material that we’re thinking about and that we’re teaching, but also the students in our class. And students are coming with a lot of ideas that they've been raised with, a lot of ideas that you might find troubling, and so how do we find a middle ground to teach what can be explosive if it's not done well?
Okay, and so today we have four faculty from different departments to talk about their strategies, what has worked in their classroom, and we want it to be interactive, so if you have questions, hopefully the panel will be able to provide some tips and maybe help you work through it—what you're trying to do in your own classroom. So again, my name is Ula Taylor and I'm a professor in African American Studies. I'm going to have each panelist introduce themselves and then I'm going to open with a series of questions, just to ignite the conversation. But we definitely want it to be interactive, okay?
SMITH: Hello, I'm Charlotte Smith. I'm a lecturer in environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health. Environmental health science...the way I usually explain how it differs from environmental science [is that] an environmental scientist is concerned about measuring sea level rise because of climate change and then environmental health science is concerned with the effect, let's say, displacement of communities, because of that sea level rise. Or heat stroke because of increased temperature. So, that's what I do.
KADIR: Hey, I'm Khalid Kadir. I teach in a couple of different spots. I'm a lecturer in International and Area Studies, in Political Economy, and in a couple different engineering departments. I'm sort of spread between them. I guess what ties them together at some level is a common focus on poverty and thinking about the role of expertise in that process.
JONES-ROGERS: I'm Stephanie Jones-Rogers. I am an assistant professor in the Department of History, where I specialize in 19th-century African American history and particularly, I focus on slavery and white women's economic investments in the institution.
ROBINSON:: Hi, I have two hats—well, at least two. One is lecturer in Ethnic Studies and the other is the director of the AC Center—the American Cultures Center, that hosts the diversity requirement for the campus. But my own teaching really circulates around the apparatus that we call the carceral state, which I often explain in shorthand as meaning the "prison beyond the prison." So, focusing on explicit spaces of carcerality, like detention centers, jails, and prisons, but also the kind of social infrastructure and cultural understandings that also gain legitimacy for those spaces. So often working across the apparatus around immigration detention and deportation and mass incarceration.
TAYLOR: Thank you. And so, my first question is, why did you say yes to this panel? Because we're constantly asked to participate, to be wonderful departmental citizens, to be wonderful university citizens, and if we said yes to everything, we would never get our own work done, right? If we said yes to everything we probably wouldn't even go home.
So, the question is, why did you say yes to this particular panel? What is it about the questions of how do you design an assignment to engage social justice education that spoke to you?
SMITH: Probably because I’m a bit of a braggart and if I have an idea, everyone has to know about my idea. So that’s why...I want to share what I'm doing in one of my classes in terms of incorporating social justice and environmental justice in what most people would think is just a pure science class.
TAYLOR: So, we’re going to come back to that, right?
KADIR: I’d say the root of it is because of who asked and who they’re associated with. I found that, as I stumble my way through these spaces...the amount I've learned from other folks, particularly the person sitting at the end of this table and some of you in the audience who I know—that has been sort of instrumental in my own understanding of how to approach this sort of stuff, so whenever I get invited to those spaces, I know I'm going to get a chance to up my game a little, so I think that’s a little bit of it.
JONES-ROGERS: So, besides the fact that wonderful people asked me to participate today, I’m really interested in equipping my students with the information that they need to enter this world that we now are living in, fairly prepared to process what’s happening around them. And I think history allows them to do that in a way that perhaps other fields (not saying necessarily the fields that are represented here, but other fields) may not necessarily be able to do, so for me it's really something that I constantly think about.
My students constantly engage me about issues of social justice and what they can do about the movements that are taking place on the ground that they’re involved in or that they want to become involved in. So, for me, history is the key to helping them to enter those efforts and enter those endeavors far more equipped and knowledgeable than they would have beyond that. So, for me, teaching is a way to communicate that information to them without it being an additional burden on them, so that’s one of the reasons. And I think it's wonderful for us all to be prepared to do that for them.
ROBINSON: Gosh, well, I think to echo a lot of the sentiments already shared...it is who invites us to these spaces. I think we join a community and this is a community of practice and deep thought that most of us are invested in. But as somebody coming from the Department of Ethnic Studies, our political tool is teaching, so you can’t think of the classroom as anything other than the possibility of practicing social justice work. And I think just sitting on shoulders of giants, it's important to bring forth a whole generational / intergenerational aspect of where we’ve learned this work from. And I’m here because I continue to learn and I'm hoping to have some of my own questions addressed and considered, which is sustainability, the impact of this work, institutional commitment, some of the emotional hardship, and in some ways, I think growing trauma that presents itself in the classroom. Students really do feel like there’s an urgency to holding the work pretty damn quick.
TAYLOR: So, my next question after they engage and offer a reply, [to the audience] I want to bring you in. I want them to describe an assignment that they have assigned students, to share with us the challenges that were exposed in the process of the students doing the assignment and if the goals were met, and if not, how did you adjust when you had in your head a particular outcome, but something else totally unraveled. So, maybe, would you like to start?
SMITH: Some people know me and I’m not shy at all. So, the course I’m specifically going to focus on for the discussion is my drinking water and health class. The competencies that students are expected to have when coming out of the class are to understand the source of water contaminants, water treatment, the safe drinking water act or WHO relations governing the contaminant, so very much the health effects of course of, let's say, lead, for example.
So, we have all of that in the course, but I bring in the social justice part...if we think about lead in Flint as the example, basically, the way the course is run, it’s student taught, but before that, the three-student team has to meet with me, make sure that the teacher part is all under control. So, I see what they're going to present, we have a session and they're explaining to me what they're going to explain to the class. So that all gets taken care of before the class. Then they give the contaminant within the case...so, for example, talking about the health effects of lead within context of the lead situation in Flint, then they’ll talk about the different stakeholders that are involved, the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Equality, the citizens, the health community. So, they’ll explain that a bit on Tuesday, then on Thursday we have stakeholder meetings, so each of the groups have to talk about their role and their responsibilities...what they would do different, what did they learn from the experience as a group, as a stakeholder in the event. Am I going off topic? Is that what you want me to say? Just the context, right? I didn't know if we got to the what didn't work part yet.
TAYLOR: If you could just describe it, what you’re doing is fine and then maybe if you could offer at least one hiccup. One hiccup that you had not anticipated.
SMITH: Well, the hiccup or the weak link in all this is really how much background the students really had to understand the processes as it really plays out in the city. We kind of helped that with what’s also required in addition to the required readings, which tend to be more peer reviewed journal articles... There's always required viewing or required listening, sometimes both, but these required viewings, which are for the case—news clips from the evening news or you know, where they’re interviewing different people, so I kind of rely on the media to help me educate the students on the on-the-ground aspect of the case as well. Because the media will go out and interview different stakeholders. So, the students are getting a taste of the role of the different stakeholders and the real issues. We do this every week and some cases have been stronger than others. What’s weak in the ones that I'm not as thrilled about would be just the level of understanding. But then, they’re undergrads so how much can I expect really of their background understanding of how things play out in the real world.
TAYLOR: But I think you’re pointing out something that probably touches on all fields. And that is what students are bringing or not bringing into the classroom in terms of their knowledge base, right? So, I find it interesting that you met them by having them look at local visuals, like the news. So, rather than stacking more traditional ways of understanding the problem or the concern from refereed journals or blogs or whatever it might be, you say, let me give them a kind of different assignment that kind of shakes loose from a traditional way of understanding the problem.
SMITH: That's in addition to...this course is way too much work. There’s a lot. They have to really do a lot, for a mere three credits.
TAYLOR: Can you also talk about the three-student team, because I think perhaps one of the ways for us to engage these larger questions is to understand that we don’t have to do it on our own. That we can break up students and empower them to take a part of the work. So, can you talk a little bit about that?
SMITH: So, they’re randomly selected at the beginning of the semester. I make a wejoinin sign-up and they're, well, self-selected because they sign up for the contaminant they want. I don’t assign that. But then they have some readings that they're supposed to go to and they're supposed to do their own literature review, educate themselves, and then create this PowerPoint for the Tuesday class. But before that Tuesday, the week before, they have to meet with me, present the PowerPoint and that's when I...they’re supposed to come to that meeting with questions that they didn't understand of the science part of it.
What usually comes there is they’re a little weak on sometimes the health effects and the water treatment component, so we fix that, get them off the learning curve on that and then they’re ready for the next week, but I also have to approve the videos. So, they select all that....what I don’t do is post last year’s slide deck on bCourses, because they would just take that, so every year...I mean, they're probably on the Internet and I’m just deluding myself, but it doesn't look like it. I mean, I want them to create their own materials to present.
By the end of that little exercise, at least they become experts on the one area, but then they're seeing these themes throughout the semester. Every water contaminant is going to have...you know, we keep hearing the same stakeholders and the same issues, the same sort of environmental justice issues. Flint is not a unique situation, so a lot is on those students and then on Tuesday, they’re also controlling the stakeholder meeting, going around to the four groups of stakeholders answering their questions.
TAYLOR: So, do we have any questions about this particular assignment or what you were thinking about when she was describing it to you?
Audience member: Do the students go and discover these other forms of media like traditional TV or radio...because what happens is I assign my students to watch the evening news and nobody watches the evening news, so how do you...?
SMITH: No, they go to YouTube and they find videos and I've seen a difference with different student groups. Some of them have as many as four 2-minute videos interwoven into their Tuesday lecture, that was quite effective. Some only seem to be finding a longer video and they'll tack that on the end.
A couple of times, I have also assigned [something] for the whole course to prepare. I already have in bCourses assigned readings for the whole class, [but] just this past week, the podcast Reveal was specifically on environmental justice, talking about Alabama and Flint, so that's going to be assigned to the whole class.
But to answer your question directly, for their case, whether it’s lead or arsenic or cyanobacteria, the students are finding the videos that they want to show and they're supposed to also give a supplemental reading, which is a lot lighter. The supplemental readings they've been giving me are generally not peer reviewed; sometimes they are, but they tend to be more newspapers.
TAYLOR: All right, we’ll go to our next assignment.
KADIR: I’m torn. I haven't yet decided which direction I'm gonna go, but I'll decide in the next 3 seconds. Partly because my initial approach was to think about a series of assignments that are built around reflections, but when you asked about, you know, the question about, well, we don’t have to do all of the work, how do you get the students engaged in that, it made me think about these reflections I'm about to share and also some of the work I do in ACES (American Cultures Engaged Scholarship) courses, which Victoria helped me put together.
A lot of it is built around encounters, about getting students to have encounters with difference and then having them create a sanctioned and incentivized space to process those encounters and how they understand those encounters and what they’re learning and in which ways are they growing and what frames they're using to make sense of those encounters.
So, the reflection assignments are a way of giving students very specific prompts around how did XYZ show up in your encounter. But another important part of all of that is I very much push the students to locate themselves in the encounter. I often start there, because I want them to see, well, who are you? How is who you are a crucial part of understanding any encounter that you have had, rather than just thinking about the other and just thinking about what is this other thing I’m trying to understand. Well, who am I, doing the understanding? And what do I bring with myself to this picture.
I try to get them to recognize their own social position and how that informs the way they understand the thing, then through reflection assignments, commenting on those reflections and challenging them in that process. You know, I read through reflections and say, well, did you think about this or how did this thing show up and how did this land? And having a series of reflections enables you to build a relationship over the semester where you see thinking develop over time and you can see whether or not the places you've pushed are showing up later.
It does take a lot of energy to both carry the struggles they’re having in those encounters and the struggles they have with their own social position and finding language to put all of this together and also to really be analytical about each person’s individual circumstance and the encounters they’re having and trying to get them to be thoughtful. Part of the logic behind this is that, there's a way in which when we encounter difference—and this is pulling off of some work by Lawson, I can’t remember her first name—that we can just reproduce the frames we already have or what does it take to challenge and to develop new frames through the encounters we have.
And I feel like the reflection assignments are a great way to help students create new frames so they don’t just come in with, "I have a sense of the other, I had an encounter, and see this? I saw what I thought I saw." And then to say, how might I see differently by first seeing myself and then seeing how that may be played out in a complex way. So, a process of reflection and written reflection.
Audience member: How familiar are students when they come into your class with that kind of sense of cultural position and meta-analysis...
KADIR: Greatly varied.
Audience member: And then for those who are encountering it for the first time, how much do you kind of hand hold them or you know, press them, especially when things come up in relationship to other students?
KADIR: I’m always pushing, always. I push hard. Part of the secret to pushing hard is the students knowing you're gonna be there all the way through the push, that you’re not going to just push and let go. And I think that’s really crucial that you build that trust. I’m going to push you, I’m not commenting on your identity or self-worth or anything like that, I’m pushing you because this is a place you can be pushed when you’re out doing things that can more directly affect people’s lives and the stakes are higher.
So, there’s that piece and I struggle a bit with this idea that's been coming into my space a lot lately about meeting people where they’re at. I struggle a little with that term because sometimes I’m not interested in meeting people at a place where they’re misogynistic or racist or something like that, right? So, how do you—I haven’t encountered that a lot at Berkeley, so at least there's a...I worry about the language, people self-policing, that process, because they already know who I am and they’re worried about that. But I definitely try to push them on the ways in which you see things slide in there and call those out and open those up as a space, like, hey, let's think through this. Where is this language coming from?
Let me give you a little referential point...part of this is in the GPP program, the Global Poverty and Practice Program, and it’s their third course, so they have had a lot of background, so you get a lot of the heavy lifting has been done already. The other one is in the ACES course, where I feel like the folks who enter that class are often already oriented towards “I want to understand this,” so I haven’t encountered as much of that sort of thing. That'll be a lot harder, I think, to deal with folks who this is a newer concept, and especially in the context of a semester, which is such a short time to work through that kind of` personal growth.
Audience member: Can I ask a quick follow up? How can you manage it in a large class?
KADIR: The largest class that I do it in is 60. I don’t sleep as much. I mean, that’s the short answer. You spend—I do 60 reflection assignments, 10-15 minutes each, that adds up fast. That’s 10-15 hours. I’ve struggled with how much I can share. I have GSIs for that class, but I struggle with how much of that I can share, because I hold the idea of the class centrally and I feel like these reflections are such a crucial moment that I have to own them myself. So, that’s a little bit, yeah.
Audience member: Can you give us some idea of how are those encounters are organized—who's encountering whom—I just want to know the framework.
KADIR: Fair. In the GPP program it’s students who have spent the summer working on some project related to poverty alleviation, housed within another organization. So, there’s some ownership by the organization taking care of their process (locally, internationally), some very different types of experiences and different types of encounters. In the ACES course, they’re working with one of six environmental justice organizations in the Bay Area around environmental justice issues as a part of teams but also as in partnership with these organizations. So, they’re happening partially facilitated with organizations, but those organizations don’t always have the best politics either. They don’t always understand that stuff really well, either. And so, shepherding students through those processes and really capturing those jarring moments—those are the spaces where the learning happens.
Audience member: So, encountering poverty and those other things?
KADIR: Yes, but also encountering people with just different life experiences and different orientations to community work and work with people who...it even happens among people with poverty, yes, or even people of similar class and racial positions, but different life experiences. Sometimes that informs a big difference.
Audience member: I was just wondering if you could give us a specific situation or an encounter you observed, something concrete.
KADIR: Yeah, a group of my students were once, this is kind of funny. They were doing a survey along the Richmond Greenway to understand some issues, since there’s a lot of watershed projects up there. The Richmond Greenway is a space where there's a lot of developing happening, really community led in a way I've never seen anywhere else, in a coalition of community organizations.
The students were really insistent on the survey to ask people’s income. I told them not to, the community partner told them not to. I sort of talked to the community partner and asked them is this an absolute veto or how do we feel about this, but the students were insisting and they didn’t understand what they were asking. To give you a sense, the Richmond Greenway borders one of the lowest-income communities in the Bay Area, average income for a family of four there is something around...I was told at one point, don’t quote me, 18? That seems particularly low but it's really low. And so, the students didn’t understand...and the categories they picked on that survey, you know: 0-20, 20-40... And the instant tension they felt when they were out there doing the surveys, and being like, oh, I’m a jackass, look what I’m asking people, you know?
On that same survey, they asked questions about "Well, where do you live?" A lot of homeless people live on the greenway, point just over there, and they’re like, “Oh, how do we decide—because they did a drawing, you know, a raffle with the survey—how do we get this to this person if they win the raffle. This real logistical issue forced them to think about social justice in an exciting way and that process did the work itself. We pushed them not to include these questions, they insisted, and then they saw it. So that was kind of easy in that way, but these kinds of things where they bring their frames about what are important things to know and then they understand, oh, that was important for me, but it’s different for other people.
TAYLOR: That was a great example and it gives—why this kind of work is so very, very important. We can say all kinds of things but in the end, they have to experience the repercussions of some of these questions they’re asking. One of the things that you pointed out, if you have 60 students...very few people want to restructure their courses, right? To figure out how do I create a platform to engage social justice education is that it’s going to be more work for me. So, my question is, given the fact that you’re staying up really late at night because you have this large class, can you rethink how you can still keep the students on task with the larger goal you set out without doing as much of the work that you’re currently doing?
KADIR: I’m definitely looking for advice on that front and I can walk you through the process of where I’m at now. In the ACES class, where I'm working with community partners, the more structure I have set up in advance, the less—I mean, it’s the exceptions and the moments of complications that created a lot of time cost. So, the more structure I have ahead of time, the smoother it is and the less work it is on me.
Related to that structure, working closely with my GSI on the process of division of labor, making sure that we’re really clear and we don’t lose a lot of energy on overlapping because early on, I found that we wasted a lot of energy on that process. Like, have you talked to that student, have I? Who's responsible? So, creating that really operational structure was very helpful and then developing...on the reflections—that hasn’t worked this year in particular, but in the past—there are some common issues that would come up and I would develop a common set of responses to those, copy and paste them so I don’t have to retype in the same thing. Have you thought about race?—like, over and over again. So, these little steps have been the best way.
I've also found that—and I'm debating whether I can pull this off, I don't think anybody likes grading—I almost think it would be easier for me to have 60 conversations than read 60 reflections. Like, it might take a little more time, but it might take a lot less of my emotional energy to sit there in bCourses commenting and grading things. So, I’m considering setting up mandatory office hour reflections and even...you write it and let's talk about it. I’ll read it a couple minutes before you walk in and let's talk through it. I’m just not sure if, when students walk into that conversation, is that the right moment that they’re able to have a good conversation. If it's written and I comment, they might be able to deal with it when they're ready and think about it when they’re ready, so that’s where I’m struggling.
TAYLOR: Any suggestions?
Audience member: Well, it's very similar to the British system where they sit and talk about...instead of doing papers. But I think you make a very good point that it is disadvantageous for the introverts or people for whom it takes a little while to process, that for them, having the time to think, contemplate, rework and come back, is helpful, so I think you have to really judge your group, because both of them have advantages, but they also have disadvantages.
Audience member: I was thinking of a hybrid that might possibly work. On a lot of the platforms you can do voice comments. And I've found that students are really intrigued by hearing you comment about what they’ve written. And it's easier often.
KADIR: I’ve thought about the voice comment thing and I'm happy to hear that. Because I was worried about the process of click, play, click, play. Do they see it the same way or experience it the same way? But I've been toying with that idea, because it is way less stressful talking than writing and you can say a lot more. You don’t start cutting your words down because you feel like you don't want to type as many, so you can just let loose a little.
Audience member: I think it does take a little getting used to, but people are used to the voice texts.
Audience member: Is the bulk of the work done in groups or are they individual encounters, because I kept thinking of your point of having students work in groups, Charlotte's point about group work, and sort of having them participate in groups in the reflection process
KADIR: So, I've thought about it. I wondered about this process and I’ve been hesitant. In the GPP it's individual and in the ACES class, it's groups. The reflections are all individual. I thought about almost hosting focus groups to reflect on that stuff and the concern I have about groups is the common blind spots. If groups don’t have enough of differential perspective, there's a way in which... I also try to work against the "Let's divide and conquer and get this done," so it's an efficiency metric. I got 18 other things I gotta do. So, I want to interrupt that and get everybody engaged in the process and to challenge one another.
I haven’t felt comfortable with the peer grading of reflections and I’m also really careful with my students about...these reflections are private between you and me, nobody else ever sees them, so you can say what you want. And you know, it takes a while to build that trust where they feel like they can. And you find, you get a lot of difficult thing to carry in that space because students don't usually have that kind of space. And they suss it out early on. But I worry what will happen if they have peers and how they perform for one another versus how they perform for me.
Audience member: Well, I imagine you would be in on them.
KADIR: Yeah, okay, and that seems intriguing to me to get them talking together with me in on it. It could be an interesting way to divide up the 60 down to fewer.
Audience member: I was going to mention, there’s a professor in my department who does walks with as many as three students, but no more than that, for one hour at a time, and he requires every student to do one of those during the semester. It’s a very interesting structure for small group contact. It's Clark Kellogg. I haven’t done it myself, but I’m curious to try it. He’s in architecture and I’m in business.
KADIR: I love it.
TAYLOR: I like that, too, because you’re getting a little exercise, you're getting outside, in the air, and everyone can feel a different level of comfort. One of the things that you were talking about, when you were talking about the different things that you've been considering...We can always remember we don’t have to go full throttle in the beginning. We don’t have to do voice comments for all 60 people, you know? You can say, this semester I'm going to do, like, 10 voice comments or you can say, this semester I'm going to do an option. You can either come in and have your reflections conversation with me or we can do it exclusively via bCourses or whatever the system might be. So, you can kind of mix and match until you figure out, okay, this is actually taking more time or this is taking less time. Given that some people feel more comfortable face to face and others don’t, that gives them an option to either coming in or doing it one way or another.
KADIR: I told you I came here to up my game and now I'm like...I've been thinking about this for years and all of a sudden, I've got more notes than I had in the last two years.
TAYLOR: And I love the voice comments!
KADIR: Yeah, that's super helpful.
Audience member: There's Google Hangouts...I heard about it in one of the last pedagogical conferences, which can put people in virtual rooms. So that would be a way of being with them and having five persons in the room and five persons in the other room and you don't even need to walk from one room to another. I think the maximum is 6, and... [inaudible]
KADIR: I think the campus signed on with Zoom? I think we can use Zoom now and you can have a whole bunch of people in a room. Similar to Skype but more sophisticated and stable, and works well.
JONES-ROGERS: So, I got into history because I was interested in issues of social justice and the work that I do I see as a means by which to deliver justice to the` formerly enslaved—those whose voices have been obscured, those whose experiences have been silenced or ignored. So, the work that I do, I see as a work of justice and so many of the classes that I develop and have designed since I’ve been on campus have been very much motivated by my hope to, again, equip students with the knowledge they need to go into the world, to be global citizens, to engage with individuals, and to have at least some sense of what their experiences have been like, what their ancestor’s experiences have been like.
So, I decided to get a little funky with it over the summer, last summer, because I listened to what my students call socially conscious hip-hop, but what I called social justice hip-hop, because it really is about injustice and how to ameliorate the circumstances that have led to those injustices in the first place. So, I decided to try it out with the six-week session format.
What the students are asked to do is they're asked to listen to a series of hip-hop songs or rap songs. We start at the very beginning. So, I picked songs that, for example, in the first week, they talk about Africa and the importance of Africa, and the kind of centrality of Africa in the experience of the descendants of African slaves and what the experience is like here, blah, blah, blah. So, then I pair it with historical scholarship, so academic articles.
As a consequence of reading them together, I want them to think about how they inform each other—put them into conversation with each other. So, the assignments are, one, to submit two discussion questions, which I then incorporate into the lecture that I have with them. They also have a very similar assignment where they write a summary of all of the readings, but also to think about it towards the end, how the readings have shaped the way they now understand the songs. They also read the lyrics along with the academic material. I ask them to read the songs as text. So, a little bit of literary theory there as well.
It's really interesting because the students are diverse and it’s not an AC [American Cultures] course, which most of my courses are, and I do that intentionally and I’d be happy to talk about that later. It’s a very sneaky way that I can get my social justice issues into the class without it looking like I’m stuffing it down their throats.
But nevertheless, this course, it wasn't an AC course, it’s a 2-credit course, so many of the students that are in the course are from the sciences, they're from the humanities, they're from everywhere, and lots of international students that are just visiting over the summer are also taking this course, in large part because they need those extra two credits to get financial aid. So, I get a whole, really diverse swath of the student body in the class. And they're all—many of them, most of them, if not all of them—are really interested in hip-hop so that’s really the hook.
They don’t realize that it's actually the second half of the African American history survey. So, what I’m essentially doing is teaching them the history of African-descended people in the U.S. from the Civil War or from Reconstruction to the present. Many of them don’t understand that a lot of stuff happened to Black people after the Civil War. They think that Black people were emancipated, and they clicked their heels together, and they just went off and had a great life, that everything they’re complaining about—this is how they frame it—that they’re complaining about now is all their fault.
They have this very clear idea, this very clear historical trajectory which leads from emancipation to Black people’s own failures and thus, why they’re being killed by police is also is their fault. They say, why can’t they get their act together? So, for me, this class is really about showing them how over the course of the 20th century, there were a number of systemic—institutional and systematically racially discriminatory and biased—institutions, programs, laws, etc. that led to the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans: the disparity of income, inequality in educational opportunities, etc.
For me, the questions that they submit every week is my attempt, my way of understanding where they are: how much information they know and whether they, too, entertain these ideas of African Americans. I just want to share with you one of the questions that one of my students submitted as a part of this assignment. (As an African American woman, I can tell you that this class is more challenging than I anticipated it being in the beginning.)
So, I had an international student ask me after reading—this was probably in the 5th week—after reading all of this academic scholarship, all this really rigorous scholarship, and hearing all of these songs that are connected to this scholarship and also the lecture material is jam-packed with additional factoids that they need...this person asked: “Are there any actions that Black people can take to improve their impressions in other people's eyes?” As you might imagine, after five weeks of two-hour, biweekly lecture sessions engaging with students, I was almost destroyed by this question, because I didn’t know what I’ve been doing from the past five weeks. But for me, I stepped back after I gathered my senses and I got myself together.
I decided I'm going to use this as a teachable moment, in large part because if this individual is asking this question—and this class was about 60 students in the summer—there are probably at least 20 that have this question and perhaps wouldn't frame it in this way, but have this idea circulating in their heads, about why won’t Black people just get it together, make people like them, and then they won’t get shot in the streets? They won’t have to go through this stuff. So, I used it to incorporate an entire section about for example, redlining, racial covenants, housing discrimination, understanding why, you know, African Americans are talking about the ghetto in all of these rap songs. How did the ghetto come about? How did it come to be? There are laws that are put in place to allow this to happen. How does the murder of Trayvon Martin happen? Well, if you look at from slavery to the present day, ideas about Black mobility and Black freedom are curtailed and there are laws and legislation that emerge in order to control Black mobility and Black freedom from the time they’re in slavery to the time they come out of slavery.
So, these questions, these assignments, allow me to see exactly how much stuff I need to give to them—where the voids are, where the gaps are, where the silences and the absences are, and to use the class in order to fill those gaps in. I often have to improvise on the fly because I do also bring the students into the class in that way. Because I do, in fact, have lecture slides and then create lecture slides in response to the students' questions. So, I use the discussion questions to bring students in, specifically the introverted students who I never ever hear from. So, I bring those discussion questions in. I do in fact read all of the discussion questions on Sunday. So, I ask them to submit them on Sunday. That way they pretty much have the bulk of the reading done before we get to class on Tuesday, and we can actually have an informed conversation in the classroom. And then I bring those questions into the classroom, to bring the students into the classroom, and then I ask other students to weigh in, to contribute to the conversation if their question is slightly problematic.
I do say, "I realize that for some of you, the question may be problematic," like the question I just read to you. Many students were just appalled, and it was just like, "[gasp] Oh my God, I can't believe that this person said that..." That was a moment when I understood that student may have felt isolated or felt targeted, but I very clearly said, "Look, this is a safe space in which we should put all of our questions on the table. We can ask any question we want. We will respectfully address those questions and work through the issues that emerge in those questions." So, for me, those questions are a way to bring the students in, but also to see just how much work needs to be done on my end to bring them to the point I want them to be at, which is, how do I want them to understand the African American experience in particular and what do they need from me in order to really understand that and truly understand that.
For those students who are, in fact—many of the students are, in fact, involved in different movements...many of them went to the Women's March, for example; many of them are active in student groups, ethnic groups on campus, involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, are very closely aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement—`they want to know this stuff so they can actually enter those movements in a more informed way. So, for those students, it equips them beyond the classroom, but for me that's the ultimate goal.
The questions and the responses are really for me to understand the students better, to get a sense of what falsities they've embraced, what kind of false notions and assumptions they bring to the classroom, and to demystify and debunk many of the myths, to let them leave the class knowing a little bit more, more accurate information than they knew before, and in particular, the experiences of people of color, and particularly African Americans in the present. So, those are some basic assignments that they seem to really enjoy.
A lot of students in their—what I've been told, because I don’t go on RateMyProfessor, but my husband goes and he reads my professor ratings and he says that they’re relatively high and that many of the students, one of the things that they cite as a positive is the fact that I bring them into the classroom with these questions, and I’m attentive to them. The other reason why I think this is important is because I don’t have discussion sections. Most of these classes are really large. The class that I'm teaching now is "Defiant Women," and it's 156 students. I also teach a class called "The History of Women in the U.S." and so of course that class, if I wasn't a Black woman, they would probably assume that it would be a relatively Anglo centric, Anglo-heavy class, but I bring in Asian-descended women, so we talk about women and the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example. We talk about indigenous women, we talk about Mexican women on the west coast, so I bring a lot of different groups into the conversation. But they talk about those questions. They talk about the fact that in these huge classes—that one was 182—in these huge classes, they become individuals. So, for me, that's also a form of social justice. They see Maria, they see Fatima, they see all kinds of different names and that brings the culture and the diversity and the individuality, the identity of those individuals into the class as well. So, for me, the questions are very simple, but it does a whole host of work for them but also for me.
SMITH: Just logistical, because I like all the content part. Are the questions anonymous or on the bCourses discussion tab?
JONES-ROGERS: So, I actually have them submit them to me directly, so they submit them as an assignment and I download them all, scan through them, and I pick out questions I hope will guide the conversation the way I want it to go in the classroom.
SMITH: So, you're assigning some points for some of the questions.
JONES-ROGERS: Yes, because they wouldn’t submit them if they didn't get points or some kind of credit.
SMITH: I tried this, but without points and I didn't get questions. I mean, I got some, but I want everybody. That's part of learning, right? To think of questions.
JONES-ROGERS: Yes, that's an important question. What I do is they submit them every single week—again, they submit them before we have class on Tuesday, so they submit them by 5 p.m. on Sunday. Because there are so many—you know, some students just love asking questions, so they'll submit ten questions, and I have to read them all times a hundred. So, I don’t control that, but I randomly grade only two per semester.
So, for the regular...for this semester, I select two, and they get really heavy, a significant portion of credit for them. So, the incentive is they never know when I'm gonna grade them, so they always submit them because they don't want to get dinged. I give them 10 points for each of those two graded assignments and they're randomly chosen, so they submit them every week without fail. They do not want to get deducted. So that's a way of lessening the work for me, but also keeping them accountable, holding them accountable every single week. I do that for the response papers as well, so they only get a selected few, three, are graded per semester but they submit them every single week because they don't know which weeks are going to be graded. So, it’s less work for the readers and for me as well.
TAYLOR: So, I did have a question about the credit for the questions and how you engage that. You know how you said the students don’t know, right? So, every week they’re submitting at least something. So are you seeing a pattern in terms of some people take it, give you ten. Others are doing it because they know they have to submit something. So, I’m wondering how are you really measuring where they are or if some of them just see it as a task as opposed to really being self-reflective in the way in which you were talking about the reflection papers. Can you just talk about that? Because maybe you might even see...do you see a pattern—there are some people who are, like, for example, the history majors engaging with, like, two questions versus maybe the international students who are just trying to get their two units, if you will, just putting in one or two questions. I guess I'm trying to get at, how do we get at disciplinary commitments in these kind of courses?
JONES-ROGERS: It’s really shocking to me because I have, particularly this semester, an extraordinary, a huge number of folks from the sciences, which I was shocked about. I was, like, okay, I know they’re just Pass/No Pass folks, I just made the assumption, and then I started getting these really extraordinary questions—really deeply insightful—[that] showed they really had absorbed the information and sat with it for a minute and was processing it and thinking about it in relationship to other material that they had in other classes. And I was, like, well, that has to be a history major, and it was a SCIENCE person, you know?
So, I find that it really does vary. And in large part because... I understand that many of them are coming from a background where they don’t have to write extensively, where they don't have to do this kind of reading, so I equip them with models. They are given models from previous students, where I say this is a full-credit assignment and so these are really chunky and beautifully eloquently written assignments. So, they get to see, this is the top of the game. They also get, for the response papers, which is where I really see the reflection, where I ask them to really personally engage with the reading. They get a model response paper as well and they also get a series of questions...I give them a series of questions that they should ask themselves as they complete the assignment. And then after they finish the assignment, to go back and ask themselves, can you affirmatively answer all of these questions? If you can’t, then you didn’t do it right. So, they go back to that. So, they have a model to see, before they even start the assignment, and then they're asked to go back and make sure they dotted all of their "i"s and crossed all of their "t"s. That’s the way that I get them all to be invested and to know that those questions are also part of the grading rubric. So, those questions aren't just throw aways but they're also the questions that the graduate readers will be asking when they read those assignments. Points will be deducted if the graduate readers read those sections of the paper, ask those questions of the paper, and then find that they can’t affirmatively answer those questions. So, points are deducted, then the students will come to me and ask me, how can I improve this. They are really invested in large part because I set them up so they know what’s expected of them from the beginning, and I give them clear-cut examples of what would be considered exceptional work.
Audience member: I wanted to make sure we got to Victoria, but I have a question. You mentioned that you were sneaking social justice into these summer classes and it’s a non-AC class. I’m just curious what you’re noticing in terms of the students’ growth and where they start from. Just the differences between the ones that explicitly...because we talked about that as one of the framing questions for this panel, how explicit to be. I’m wondering what you notice in terms of the students.
JONES-ROGERS: Well, I mean, most of them come into the class, even though in the course description, I mention that this isn’t a history OF hip-hop class, it is a history AND hip-hop class, which is an important distinction, because what I want to do is to read—to really take these artists seriously and to consider them as scholars, organic intellectuals, so to speak. So, I’m using their raps as texts. Initially, students come in, they haven’t read the "of" vs. "and." So, they just assume we're just gonna be in there bouncing around the walls, just listening to hip-hop, and just talking about hip-hop. I debunk that myth relatively soon. But because they come in with that assumption, that this is going to be a really easy two-credit class, that they’re going to breeze right through, it takes them a minute to kind of recalibrate. As soon as they see the syllabus, they recalibrate for sure!
But I tell them, if you’re really, truly passionate about hip-hop, you'll notice that the central theme of most of the artists we'll be hearing in this class is surrounding or concerning social justice, they’re concerning mass incarceration, so they see themes: mass incarceration, revolt, and resistance. There's a whole week on women and the exoticization of certain kinds of women's bodies and so forth.
So, they can really see from the themes that social justice—issues of injustice—will be certainly central to the class. So, that’s my way of tipping them off, but they still need a little bit of informing when we first get into the class because they have assumptions about what will not be happening and what will be happening in the classroom.
Audience member: Can you say something about your earlier comment [inaudible] I know it’s a very big class, but something I have found useful with bCourses is when we have the discussions and they have to first post theirs and then comment on at least one or two of the other people. That also starts a dialogue between themselves, which is as important as me guiding them. So why do you prefer that everything is just funneled to you and you select what’s asked?
JONES-ROGERS: Well, one is because of the sizes of these courses. They started out very small. Like when I first taught "Defiant Women," there were only 60 students in the class and now it’s 156, so what happened is, as it grew, it became more difficult to rein in the conversation and to also shape the direction that it would go in because one of the things I'm trying to do is also to keep us on subject, on task. So, for me, being able to filter through the questions—they see the questions that I select—but they don't see everybody’s questions. This allows me to keep the conversation on track but also to bring the students in a really important way to the classroom, so that’s why I chose that. They also have a discussion section, discussion board thing, on bCourses where they can engage with each other, and they do actually use it out of their own volition.
ROBINSON: Jean, can you pull up that slide for me, if that's okay? Jean's gonna pull something up that kind of gives you a visual reference of the massive bandwidth of what I would call and name a social justice assignment that has been developed in the ACES program. We should share this with people later so that they can use as kind of a mind spring of inspiration. So, it’s under "student projects" and some people in this room’s sites are up there—the engineering one is Khalid's. And if we go down a little bit, track down, there's also a GPP assignment that you put up, Khalid...Sean's is in here somewhere—it’s a whole load of inspiring assignments. Can I just click on the middle one, which is mine, the Ethnic Studies?
So, it’s funny... It wasn’t until I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy book that was assigned last year as the "On the Same Page" project that he put into words what I'd been doing pedagogically for, now, 17 years on the campus. So, I should have realized sooner, but it wasn’t really until I was in a freshman seminar class where students were articulating “Oh, that’s why we’re doing this," that I was able to put into words what are the kind of key elements of really pulling social justice assignments into something of great worth for a student.
So, just to kind of riff off Bryan for a moment, he says that the work of social justice requires you to get proximate. Nothing done in the abstract will create anything mindful of change. So, what does it mean to create kind of an intimacy within an assignment? And I think Khalid has already spoken to the idea of personal intimacy—what does it mean to know oneself, right, in ways that you may not have known yourself before. And then the idea of these encounters—what's it mean to position people to encounter the idea of a proximate difference. And then the second kind of offering he creates in Just Mercy is the idea that no work that is working towards social justice has ever been created through a smooth ride. It’s not like Rosa Parks, that moment when she was being positioned by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, like, I know what I'm going to do today, right? I mean she knew what she was going to do because it’s part of political strategy, but she knew the work was going to be hard. Change doesn’t happen in smooth circumstances.
So, what does it mean to calculate for the students, a calculated level of difficulty? I think that’s really an important lesson for students. The idea that there is some calculated difficulty, but as already has been spoken to on the panel is that our students, even more now than before, require some idea of comfort—the idea of insurance and security. It's just so much of a level of discomfort and difficulty.
The analogy I sometimes give is when you do 10-pin bowling and you imagine throwing that you're throwing the ball in the middle and there’s bumper at the side, right? Those bumpers are there so the ball doesn't go off too far...you might hit, you may NOT hit...but at least your ball is not going to hurt somebody in the next aisle. So, the job in some ways is creating difficulty within these bumpers, so there’s some sort of insurance within the room. And then the third, which I think is really, really important, which Bryan has obviously shared in his book, is what I’m trying to do in a meta-term in the class—is to shift the narrative, change the terms.
So, in thinking about how I bring student assignments into the classroom, with the idea of both short-term and long-term social justice impact is to really think about narrative affect. I care what happens to every individual student, but I really care about the impact of the collective action. Which I feel really depends on—to use some of Sean's words, a public archive. What does it mean to shift the terms and create new narratives that become reference points that can shift the dialogue in fundamental ways? Those ideas of what those narratives should be and what terms should get shifted always come with engagement with a community partner into the class.
So, let me just walk through those four assignments for the current class. It’s "An Introduction to Abolition Pedagogy and Practice." That's its working title, but when students sign up online—maybe I shouldn't say this—when they registering for the class, what they see is "A Comparative Survey of Race and Ethnicity in the United States." (laughter)
Which doesn’t quite match up to the political impact of the actual working title of the class. And so, the first couple of weeks are, well, what do you mean by that? What have you gotten me into? Can I decide on this before the add/drop deadline? And I’m not too unhappy with that. It’s a small fib. But there’s something that happens with us all coming to terms with the terms that I’m laying out in the class.
But every semester, partners that I’ve been developing relationships with, now, over the period of 7 years, we brainstorm...like Khalid said, you set the terms and you think about the assignment design way ahead of time...this can’t be done on the fly. And you really think about what’s possible, what do we need to achieve, and where does this take us after this semester? So, the four assignment designs this semester. One of them is represented here and this is prior to the current political landscape and administration. We worked on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) work. And the idea of this class is thinking about the intersection of apparatus between incarceration (mass incarceration), detention, and deportation. And what are the social movements that have contested those terms of interlocking immigrants, often undocumented, with the idea of what a criminal is considered to be.
And so, the work of this organization, the East Bay Sanctuary, across Bancroft here, they really wanted to provide information, broadly, about demystifying DACA. DACA had all of these cultural borders around it, about who thought it applied to them and who it didn’t think it applied to them. And the students have this charge by the community partner to think about what is the information I need—and in doing that, right, they're self-teaching each other and the entire class about what is the information that's necessary, who does this apply to, what is the political context in which we've arrived in this moment, what does it mean to create a social movement that might be successful around a path to citizenship, what are the problems with the narratives that something like DACA creates? There's this kind of respectability myth in some ways to the idea of who is eligible for certain programs, and what was lovely is if you go around the university now, you’ll probably see both the Spanish and the English language versions of these in most offices (most student affairs offices in particular). And these are viral.
The students just took them out, printed them, and posted them whenever they wanted to. They created stickers out of them, provided leaflets to their churches and it was something that was out of the hands of us. And a social justice assignment—if you can value its creation in terms of control, it was out of my control. Its seed may have started in the classroom, but where it went was totally not up to me. So that's something I've often been looking for. The political architecture of this class in particular is to siphon off the resources of the university and then spread them broadly. So, in essence, I teach the students to hack into the resources of the university. What does it mean to hack into all the opportunities that are available, whether it be the Haas Scholars Program or this course that has a certain set of resources...what it means to really think about where they can really do their work best?
So, one assignment was brought by the East Bay Sanctuary two years ago that ended up being this DACA program and it’s still is continuing because we’re still doing DACA processing work. But the second one ended up taking me in a direction that I had no idea we were going to go. So, you probably know that we have 497 detention centers around the country and yet, there’s a lot of invisibility and illegibility about what happens in those detention centers, why people are there, and how fast they move through them. And so, as Stephanie was already saying, the idea of controlling bodies through immobilization is something that born through slavery...I would also say it's the after-life of slavery's effect on other injustices. So, undocumented people in particular are often captured into these detention spaces and we know very little, because of their civil status, about what happens to them.
So, the East Bay Sanctuary, this partner that we’ve been developing this work with, said, we’re really concerned about that because our pro bono legal system is just not keeping up with how many cases we really need to think about. So, what would it mean if we created more data about how quickly people move through certain spaces? Some spaces are jails with an extra bed, some are purpose-built detention facilities. Why is someone moving through one center in ten days and another is staying there for two weeks?
So, we worked with something on campus that's just been developing called the Data Science Initiative [now the Data Science Education Program]. They have a Data 8 course and they have a lot of money, so hack the university and find out where the money is! So, I was sitting in a faculty boot camp and I'm like, whoa, this is powerful. Students are becoming data literate but also there's a cultural literacy that might develop alongside data literacy, right, and at the same time, hopefully emotional intelligence. So, I'm sitting in that faculty boot camp, don't understand a thing about java and python coding but understand enough about what might happen as a result of that to think, well, what if we brought a small data science assignment into this current abolition class, using the interest of East Bay Sanctuary and then it’s kind of an AC class.
It has computer scientists, public health, anthropology majors, ethnic studies...what if they worked in teams, thinking about this question about why are people moving faster in some ways to detention and deportation than others? So, the data science kids, who are amazing, did something called scrubbing the data, which I have no clue; to me, it was like creating clean data...oh, I've got very clean data in the class. But apparently, it’s so you can make these spreadsheets happen and they do this coding thing and at the end of it, they can come out with some data visualization. So, currently 15 students in a class of 70 (because I really want to create selectivity of these different assignments), are working on, with the interest of the East Bay Sanctuary, an assignment that is retooling the data science initiative on campus to look at data sets about why people are moving. It's just data: how many people and for what time are people in different detention centers or spaces and to hypothesize why they’re moving so fast.
And the hypothesis is not one of rocket science. It’s that what we call a rurality index. The more rural you are, the less attached you are to family networks, the less attached you are to legal services, probably the faster your removal. So, I love the idea that through a sustained relationship with an organization that now trusts that relationship to the university, we’ve been able, through some long-defined conversations to figure out what’s happening on campus, where is the political landscape, and to really remember that undergraduate students at Cal are bloody fantastic, so there’s going to be this diversity of skills in the classroom.
If we’re explicit about what the assignment requires, maybe we can actually compile a set of skills that can deliver this kind of thing. I didn’t know that my computer science major, who is a senior, who's taking the class to get his AC requirement and get out of here, coupled with the freshman ethnic studies student, would be sitting alongside each other and be able to work together. They’ve kind of blown me out of the water with the fact that there's so much humility and generosity between them. One doesn’t think they’re better than another in this assignment, they’ve somehow been able to match their skills. I think it’s also because they're peer led from the data science team, who are kind of inspiring them along the way.
But another assignment that I feel speaks to something that we all could do that’s an entry level...would you Google quickly "prison industrial complex" for me? With Corliss Lee sitting in here, through a partnership with the library, there is a basic annotated bibliography assignment in this class. Students go into the library and they become content expert deep on one area of a thematic, which is circulating inside the class, but also particular issues brought to us by another community member, Critical Resistance.
So, facing the 2012 elections, we were told by Critical Resistance, the public knows very little on the political context of these prison-based reforms: three strikes, juvenile justice alternatives to incarceration, what would it mean to create these new information spaces? The legislature is just like us, it's general public, they’re going to Google whatever the hell is on the ballot too, so surreptitiously we knew, whoa, if we did something that was very public, then maybe we'd also get information into the hands of policymakers and it was far more effective than we could have ever thought.
Those annotated bibliographies supported by Corliss in the Library, developed with a partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation ended up developing all these sites. This one has had, I want to say, somebody told me 27 million hits. But the important takeaway from this is it really tests students' ability to concretize a huge amount of information, they care deeply, they care far more about what’s been said about their work in public than they do about the research paper they gave me. So, they’re far more invested in it...it's what we call "sticky education" and the students can’t seem to leave it alone. As one student said, "This class has ruined my life." I took that as maybe a good thing, but anyway, there’s a whole kind of set of examples up there and there’s only, it's only two minutes to go [for the panel].
TAYLOR: A question?
Audience member: I guess this is just an observation upon closing and maybe opening in terms of future dialogues. Thank you, Jean, thank you, all, for a really tremendously rich session. What does it mean for us to create the kind of proximacy that's been evoked today in our larger classes? What does that mean for how we comport ourselves in our own, what I like to think of as our own dialogical practice in the monological position of lectures, sometimes to these hundred-plus, two hundred, three hundred [students]. But also, something that I continue to work at is how do we foreground at the start of these social justice-centered courses a way of talking about learning that sets up a kind of experiential line or anchor for everyone to relate to, so those encounters of difference—the classroom is the encounter for some students in so many of these larger classes—so that there’s a way in which we can collectively navigate the ruptures, the pain of ruined epistemologies? That's really potent stuff.
TAYLOR: I think my big takeaway is that everyone has made themselves somewhat vulnerable. That's something that we can all do, and that's a start. Some of us are not going to be able to create the kind of assignments that eventually looks like this, okay, depending on your area of specialization that you’re teaching, but I think we can all make ourselves a little bit more vulnerable in the classroom in order to push students to be vulnerable themselves and to kind of reflect on what they know. With that said, we’re going to put closure; thank you for coming.