On a Year Teaching at Fordham

It has been a difficult year, one filled with uncertainty, anger, and confusion over the new political administration in the U.S. and the directions we are heading in as a country. Recent events have made divisions clearer, sharper than ever before… So, yes, it is a new world we are living in but this racism, hate, and injustice are intertwined with long histories of oppression that people in underrepresented minoritized communities know all too well. So in another sense, this world is not that new after all.

At the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the good that has happened this year as well. Looking back, I am filled with pride in the students I taught at Fordham who faced these trying times in the best possible way- with a willingness to listen and learn from each other. This openness to really hearing the voices and perspectives of others is something that these students modeled with bravery and grace, and I wish that it was a practice reflected more broadly in the worlds we live. I have learned so much from them and I will miss our conversations, their thoughtfulness, patience, and the many unexpected, unruly directions they took, when I assume my new role as a Postdoctoral Fellow and the Interim Associate Director of the Futures Initiative later this summer. Knowing this, I wanted to share some highlights of my year at Fordham, the kernels that I will remember and take with me as I press ahead:

Teaching Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink (2012). This magical realist novel immerses readers into a dystopian futuristic landscape where persons with any trace of an immigration history are tattooed with barcodes indicating their status, from citizen to temporary worker. Discussing this text with my classes couldn’t have happened at a better time; thinking through Vourvoulias’s novel allowed us to grapple with debates on immigration and the rhetoric of xenophobia, hate, and fear that pervaded the 2016 presidential race. It served as an anchor for reflection and critique as we grappled with fluctuating emotions in an increasingly uncertain present. And, I will say, that while the novel is dark, with too much bloodshed and loss, there is also hope that comes in the form of magic and a budding revolution.

Create your own lesson plan. I experimented with a new final assignment for some of my classes this year that asked students to work in groups to design a lesson plan around a text of their choice. This gave them an opportunity to collaborate with their peers and contribute to the class syllabus, to share materials that resonated with them and the course themes and questions, and to address important gaps in our conversation that I couldn’t have anticipated in advance. I thought it was a generative assignment not only because of the range of texts students introduced but also because it gave them insight into the nuances and challenges of crafting a lesson, that is, the need to decide how to communicate their ideas and questions to the class, how to manage time, prioritize topics, and engage their peers in thoughtful, nuanced conversation. And although there are things that I would tweak, to flesh out guidelines and offer students time and space to test out their ideas with their peers, it was a generative assignment that allowed them to bring their own perspectives and interests into the classroom, and one that I know I will return to in the future

Robin Coste Lewis’s Public Lecture on Voyage of the Sable Venus. One of the amazing things about working at Fordham this year was being exposed to the Reid Writers of Color Reading Series and how it impacts teaching and learning in the English department and related programs. Each year, a work is selected by a contemporary author of color, which in this case was Robin Coste Lewis’s breathtaking poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus. The department actively encouraged all faculty members to teach this text in their classes, regardless of subject area, historical periodization, or geographic scope (and, of course I taught it in all of mine). I was astonished by how conversations shifted when students and faculty were reading and discussing the same work, how they were able to make unexpected connections with other courses, themes, and questions. The culminating experience was a public lecture with Lewis, where she shared her reflections on writing and putting together this collection; it was a fabulous way for students to meet the author, get their books signed, and connect with their peers. In short, this program was able to accomplish so many things; it not only supported the work of a rising author of color, but also introduced students and faculty to a text and voice they might never have read or heard otherwise. Above all, it showed me the value of having texts in common, something shared that lays the groundwork for and facilitates cross-departmental and, if I’m extra hopeful, cross-institutional, dialogue.

Google ClassroomThis past year was my first time using Google Classroom in my teaching. The platform was an excellent way to keep all of my students connected and is far superior to Blackboard (though that doesn’t set the bar high). It was easy to post announcements and questions, create assignments, and receive and grade student work. Most of my students liked the simplicity of the user interface; it is intuitive and gives them a clear sense of what work they still have to submit. But as with much technology, I have some gripes: (1) I dislike how you can’t format text when posting announcements or assignments on the class stream or homepage. Being able to bold or underline certain words/ phrases helps identify key dates and items to students so I hope this is a feature they’ll add; (2) There is only one grading system available currently; it utilizes a number scale and while I made it work for my classes, it would be helpful to have more versatility (e.g., letter scale, check system, or custom model); (3) I’d love the option to create a space for ongoing forum-style discussions. I could post an announcement/ question that students can then reply to but it would be nice to have a designated tab that collects forum discussions so they could be found easily even after new items are posted in the class stream. Overall, I enjoyed using Google Classroom and could see myself returning to it in the future (perhaps/ probably in combination with WordPress).

Game-based Pedagogy. I played more games with my students this year than I can remember because it’s what they chose to bring into the classroom to shape their facilitations and, for some, even their final projects. It still amazes me how they gravitated toward a mode of game-based pedagogy so early on, without any instruction (or inspiration) from me to encourage the most active participation from their peers. And it worked. Fantastically. We played musical chairs, jeopardy, Kahoot!, and so many other original made-up games. And while there was a bit of a learning curve- I had to tell them not to prioritize “yes/no” and fact-driven questions with easy answers and work instead to get at the more complicated questions about themes and the nuanced layers of the texts and the social and historical contexts in which they are immersed. But that worked too, and before I knew it, students were challenging each other and awarding “points” to their peers not for getting the “right” answer but for offering more detailed analyses and for getting more of their classmates speak up and share their thoughts. Watching them grow over the course of the semester, to challenge themselves and their peers in this way was an inspiration and a reminder for me to continue to provide opportunities for students to bring their creativity and unique skills into the classroom.

There are so many other things I could say about this exhilarating and exhausting year, what didn’t work, what was challenging, unbearable, about teaching in these turbulent times, but I choose to take with me the good that my students brought with them into my classroom and into each other’s worlds.

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