My least favorite class of all time – high school geography – started and stopped with rote memorization: every week I committed a list of countries and capitals to memory, took a quiz, and promptly forgot everything. I resolved never to take another geography class again, certain that it was the dullest subject in existence. Now as a geographer and teacher myself, I seek to cultivate what L. Dee Fink calls “significant learning experiences”: transformative encounters that connect students with content in ways that excite and galvanize them to participate in knowledge-building in an inclusive classroom setting. Students are not ‘empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with content to be memorized and recited. They arrive in class with a wealth of lived experiences and knowledge. My goal is to introduce course material in ways that build from these experiences, while supporting students to feel respected and valued for their contributions and become active, empowered partners in the classroom. I develop my teaching and mentorship through the following six pedagogical principles.
First, I am committed to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion across classroom, university, and disciplinary scales. I recognize that my assumptions of what education and research should entail are shaped by my own situatedness within deeply uneven social and power dynamics, and that these relationships continuously shift. I am committed to continue developing my awareness of how the axes of privilege, difference, and oppression operate, and to putting this knowledge into practice as a teacher, mentor, researcher, and colleague. I constantly seek to improve my anti-racism awareness and practice in these spaces. For instance, I completed a 2018-19 Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Fellowship at the University of Georgia. Based on the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), DIG promotes inclusive teaching and research by engaging graduate students across intersecting axes of privilege and diversity. I have also taken part in the Academics for Black Wellness and Survival training, and continue to develop my understanding of white supremacy and social justice through self-directed reading, research, and service. I welcome the opportunity to implement these or similar anti-racism curricula and to help coordinate comparable professional development opportunities for students, staff, and faculty.
Second, I seek to cultivate an inclusive classroom centering students with legacies of marginalization in higher education. College is a key transformative experience as students are introduced to new ideas, spaces, and people. I therefore view my role as one of supporting students from different backgrounds through this time of transition, rather than imposing expectations that may be difficult or culturally inappropriate for students with varied identities, experiences, and skill-sets. I also aim to guide students from more privileged circumstances to critically situate their histories within uneven landscapes of power. To strike this balance, I approach teaching as both “window and mirror,” to use Emily Style’s metaphor. Students with a range of experiences see themselves mirrored in the teaching materials and methods, while also being exposed to novel perspectives through new windows. Illustratively, students in my introductory Resources, Society, and the Environment class complete a series of Photovoice-inspired photo diaries over the semester: students take a picture illustrating a key course concept, then respond to a prompt about how that concept relates to their lived experiences. I show the class three to four examples of student work, highlighting both the breadth of experience among their peers and high-quality examples of critical analysis. Students thus see their experiences “mirrored” by completing the assignment, while also viewing other students’ experiences through the assignment “window”.
Third, I share power and control over the learning process with students. In the first week of every class, the students and I co-design the participation policy, generating a list of criteria for best and worst classroom cultures and teacher/student behaviors. We synthesize these lists into an actionable class policy emphasizing the needs of students who may not feel comfortable with traditional participation measures such as class discussion, often due to histories of marginalization in the classroom. I also deploy alternative course design elements such as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ structure where students select their own assignments and grade distributions. I am eager to experiment with other ‘ungrading’ approaches – for instance, assigning learning portfolios for students to reflect on their learning trajectory, course objectives, and instructor feedback throughout the semester, before meeting with me to collaboratively determine their final grade. I also welcome the opportunity to apply Team-Based Learning, an evidence-based method focused on collaborative student-led instruction, which I see as uniquely suited for maintaining peer interactions and community-building in online contexts.
Fourth, I support diverse learning needs with active learning methods. For example, the photo diary project engages students who prefer visual and/or experiential learning, provides a medium-stakes writing outlet, and supports critical thinking as students apply foundational concepts to their day-to-day lives. This project is also easily transferred to online courses, facilitating active learning for students working remotely. When in-person activities are not feasible due to remote learning, I encourage asynchronous online engagement with such methods as written response prompts, class blogs, discussion boards, and crowdsourced visuals (e.g. maps) or other artifacts (e.g. Wikipedia entries). I also use collaborative role-playing games such as Reacting To The Past (RTTP), where students research and role-play key figures during historical events like the 2008 Copenhagen International Conference of Parties climate change meeting. I am currently developing my own RTTP module based on my dissertation research, with students role-playing the environmental justice controversy over banning hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Role-playing games like RTTP can also be easily shifted online using Zoom or similar software.
Fifth, I structure what Ken Bain calls a natural critical learning environment where students engage real-world tasks that require deep analytical thinking, effective communication, and critical self-assessment. For instance, students completing the Climate Change Symposium capstone project work in groups to develop and present multi-scalar climate change policies from diverse political perspectives. Scaffolded project stages (e.g. division of labor plans and timelines, guided peer assessments, annotated bibliographies, etc.) develop proficiencies in time management, team-based collaboration, verbal and written communication, and critical analysis. I also include students in my own research to provide training across stages of research design, implementation, and reporting. For example, the student research team I supervised as part of the Texas A&M Pathways to Sustainable Urban Water Security project developed skills in literature searches and reviews, qualitative content analysis, project management, and academic writing. Such projects also create opportunities for student co-authorship and publication. In addition to incorporating students into ongoing research activities, I am committed to bridging my teaching and research by working with local community organizations to develop participatory, community-based research and service learning opportunities for students.
Sixth, I provide numerous opportunities for students to provide and respond to formative feedback. For example, students may complete an annotated bibliography on an environmental topic of their choice. In class, I provide students with sample annotations drawn from previous assignments, illustrating a range of characteristics. Together, we grade these annotations and generate a list of grading criteria for the project. Students may also complete structured peer evaluations of their work with a partner, and/or revise their final annotated bibliography in response to formative feedback from me. I also provide multiple opportunities for students to submit their own formative feedback for my teaching, such as a mid-semester evaluation which I summarize and discuss with the class to determine potential solutions.
Through the six pedagogical principles outlined above, I aim for every student entering my classroom to feel supported throughout their educational journey. Attending college – and later, graduate school – were transformational experiences that not only broadened my educational horizons, but also helped me understand how my own intersecting axes of privilege and oppression are embedded within structural systems of power and knowledge. My goal for every student I teach and mentor is to not only develop their own awareness of these systems, but to guide and encourage students through navigating them.