Rather than encouraging students to “get” an education, feminist scholar Adrienne Rich entreated them to do something more: to claim their education. While getting an education might require attending class, taking notes, and keeping up with the reading, claiming an education involves active participation in producing (not just consuming) knowledge, commitment to constructive and thoughtful dialogue with colleagues, and most importantly, the mettle to ask difficult questions and learn from mistakes. Rich also recognized that the necessary skills to claim an education are not always offered to students prior to college; the acquisition of these skills is especially vital for historically underrepresented students, since education has been less accessible to those marginalized based on their race, class, gender, sexuality, or disability.
By building the tools to analyze media, power, and cultural history, my courses help students understand how cultural norms of race, class, gender, sexuality, or disability have shifted over time and continue to shape our social experience. The scholarly disciplines of which I am part, Women’s and Gender, Disability, and Media Studies, examine how race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and age impact individual lives, U.S. institutions, policies, social movements, and popular culture. To examine the complex interaction among individuals, societal norms and cultural change, my courses require students to engage with a diverse archive, including film, television, literature, photography, music, newspapers, legal documents, political manifestoes, and medical textbooks, in relation to their own experiences of diverse and intersecting cultural identities. By attending to the ways in which history and culture affect students’ experiences and educational access, I tailor my support and guidance to individual students so that they develop the necessary critical writing and thinking skills, intellectual integrity, community support, and self-confidence to fully claim their educations.
The first goal of my teaching philosophy is to cultivate a sense of intellectual community. I am guided by the belief that students are most engaged and successful when they not only invest in themselves and in the material but also in one another. To accomplish this, I attempt to gradually relinquish some of my own authority over the discussion and the materials and shift the responsibility for learning to the students. For example, in all seminars, my students choose the final week’s readings; I do this to recognize the uniqueness of each class and to give the students a stake in their education. To encourage student interaction with their community and to recognize diverse learning styles, I have also designed non-traditional group assignments that prioritize experiential learning, such as my Disability & Sexuality seminar’s “The Accessible Date” (http://disabilitysexuality.blogspot.com/). This assignment requires students to plan an imaginary date with a wheelchair-using companion using only public transportation to encourage reflection on accessibility, public space, mobility assistive technologies, architecture, sexuality and privacy. Students publish their travel narratives and photos on a blog, and able-bodied students often remark that they are surprised by how differently they must navigate the built environment to avoid inaccessible spaces. As public pedagogy, this assignment not only has created an entirely student-generated disability archive but also has inspired other instructors throughout the U.S. and Canada to use the assignment. By emphasizing intellectual community, I bring my own passion for collaborative work to the classroom to incite students to become knowledge producers who build, alongside their colleagues, a supportive learning environment based on integrity, respect, intellectual curiosity, and a collective investment in shared learning rather than individual achievement.
The second goal of my teaching philosophy is to help students to gain broadly applicable analytical skills that will produce more persuasive, critical, and nuanced writing and thinking. Thus, rather than asking students to accept course materials at face value or find one “right answer,” my assignments encourage students to strive for intellectual versatility, to find their own analytical voice, and to analyze scholarly arguments. For instance, in my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, “Primary Document Analysis” papers not only require students to critique a variety of primary documents using theoretical arguments but also teach them to think about the historically specific role of cultural representation in the social construction of gender, sexuality, race, class, and dis/ability in a particular historical moment. Whenever feasible, I also assign a collaborative, original research project that requires students to combine historical and theoretical approaches make their own argument about a cultural artifact, an assignment that trains students in constructive peer review as well as the creation and utilization of interdisciplinary research. By gaining the necessary skills to deconstruct and critique scholarly arguments within a safe learning environment, I have found that students with diverse personal and political beliefs can engage in trenchant and well-researched dialogue with their peers about controversial issues, and they learn volumes from their respectful disagreements. As students engage with a manifold archive, it is my hope that they not only gain broadly applicable media literacy skills but also learn to think critically and historically about how representation creates cultural meanings, which establish and, in some cases, contest social norms, oppression, and inequality.
As a disability studies scholar, the final core value of my teaching philosophy is to recognize intersectionality and strive for universal accessibility. As a beneficiary of a first-rate state-school education, I am deeply committed to expanding educational opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. First-generation college students, students facing mental health issues, non-white, gender-non-conforming, or impoverished students, among others, face unique educational barriers, and I endeavor to be a committed mentor to them. To do this, my students and I consciously reflect on how our identities, privileges, backgrounds, and experiences shape how we communicate and how we access education. For example, I explain that oral participation often privileges more assertive and extroverted students, so I work with students to establish confidential accommodations for communication differences, such as inviting introverted students to submit questions or prepare a statement before class to minimize anxiety and build confidence. We discuss how gender socialization affects how and how often men and women communicate in class. We learn from students of color that describe losing the “privilege of not knowing” when they are constantly told that they need to prove themselves to be “twice as good” as their white peers. Overall, I have found that transparency about my own intellectual challenges also helps students feel more comfortable expressing their own insecurities, so that they might view their own mistakes and unknowns as learning opportunities to be embraced rather than potential failures to be avoided. Overall, I believe that inviting students to claim their education is the first step in guiding them toward thoughtful and engaged cultural citizenship and the lifelong learning such citizenship entails.
 Adrienne Rich, “Claiming an Education,” 608-611 in Open Questions. eds. Chris Anderson and Lex Runciman. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005.