(Re)Place Pedagogies for Remaking Place and Spaces Together

Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2021
By: Danielle Lake, Director of Design Thinking & Associate Professor, Elon University; Vanessa Drew-Branch,, Assistant Professor, Human Studies Services, Elon University; Sandy Marshall,, Assistant Professor, Geography, Elon University; Bobbi Ruffin, Director of Mayco Bigelow Community Center at North Park; Shineece Sellars, Executive Director of African-American Cultural Arts and History Center

While studying abroad is often seen as a primary pathway towards global education and cultural humility, it can be impractical, inequitable, unsustainable, and questionable as a method of intercultural learning (Hartman et al. 2020; Wick et al. 2019). Meanwhile, often overlooked  forms of boundary crossing—including intercultural service learning with migrants and refugees (De Leon 2014), engagement in intentionally multicultural group work (Reed & Garson 2017), critical service learning (Mitchell 2007), and liberatory decolonizing pedagogies (Constanza-Chock 2020), have proven effective in contributing to intercultural learning. However, even these proximat forms of face-to-face global learning have become a challenge in the era of social distancing and remote instruction. Rather than conceptualizing global citizenship education as only taking place in a particular global context necessitating international border crossing, we explore how interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and interracial collaboration, as carried out through in-person campus/community partnerships and remote translocal connections, can foster intercultural learning. In order to contribute to critical and emerging conversations around diversity, inclusion, and equity in global education, we outline our process, initial findings, and tentative recommendations from the design and facilitation of a cross-course community-based learning project with a local African American history organization and community center under conditions of social distancing over the fall of 2020.

Boundary Crossing Curriculum: Collaboration as Intercultural Learning

The What, Why, When, & Where: The 2020 Power and Place Collaborative was formalized during the summer of 2020. The collaborative includes the African-American Cultural Arts and History Center, the Mayco Bigelow North Park Community Center, and faculty and students from an interdisciplinary cross-course collaboration including an honors sophomore seminar entitled Place and Placing-Making and a senior seminar in health and human services. In support of community-identified goals to center narratives from the African American community in Burlington and surrounding areas in Alamance country, the aim was to create interdisciplinary near-peer teams of students who would work together to conduct remote oral history interviews with community members and co-produce public facing digital stories from these interviews. The collaborative interviewing and digital storytelling process, combined with walking tours of local neighborhoods, created opportunities for students to enter into relationship with, and contribute to, the local community. This place-based experiential learning was combined with trans-local learning in the form of guest speakers, both from the surrounding region and further afield, who shared insights from place-making initiatives in their own communities.

The How: Grounded in a commitment to mutually beneficial community/university relationships, collaborative members spent the summer co-creating the curriculum, including designing assignments, sharing readings, planning the oral history interviews, and scheduling the walking tours and guest speakers. 

The Fall 2020 semester began with a focus on building relationships between students and with community partners through class visits from community partners and walking tours of historically black neighborhoods. Before beginning the work of interviewing community members, students first created their own autobiographical digital story examining how their personal sense of place has been impacted by the events of the global pandemic and/or the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Prior to interviewing community members, students also learned the technical tools of digital audio recording and video editing, studied the practical and ethical challenges of community-based learning, and practiced empathetic listening and peer reviewing. These practices provided students with an opportunity to experience first hand how sharing one’s story publically can be both inspirational and empowering, as well as fraught with questions about personal privacy and authenticity. 

Over the course of a week, students conducted oral history interviews remotely with community members, who attended their interview sessions using a laptop and microphone set-up at the Mayco Bigelow Community Center. Students transcribed interviews and produced a draft script for their digital story, sharing their draft with community partners who provided additional context and suggestions on potential themes to emphasize. In alignment with relational, cocreative design practices, students then shared a revised script with community members for feedback and suggestions. After collecting images, video, sounds, and music, students edited together their digital stories for additional peer and community feedback. Finally, students and community storytellers presented and celebrated their co-produced stories at a public screening via Zoom. 

Aligned with critical race theory, this relational and iterative process developed a sense of community connection, introduced students to a critical understanding of how social constructions of race, place, and identity intersect, and demonstrated the importance of centering on Black voices. Seeking to go beyond victim narratives or understandings of place based on deficiency or lack, we drew upon McKittrick’s (2011) notion of a Black sense of place that “brings into focus the ways in which racial violences [...] shape, but do not wholly define, black worlds” (947). As Delgado and Stefancic (2017) point out, "powerfully written stories, and narratives may begin a process of correction in our system of belief and categories by calling attention to neglected evidence and reminding readers(viewers) of our common humanity” (51). 

What Did We Learn? Mixed Methods Longitudinal Assessment

Given our commitment to understand how locally situated engagement mediated by technologies yields outcomes similar to and different from conventional forms of education abroad, the collaborative is also engaged in a mixed methods, longitudinal research study. The study seeks to understand how our approach to engaged learning 1) generates knowledge networks connecting students, instructors, and community partners across multiple locales, 2) impacts efforts towards deep listening and empathy, and 3) imbues a greater sense of humility, nimbleness, and resiliency. As a part of this study students were asked to complete the Global Engagement Survey at pre- and post-semester intervals. In order to track the longitudinal value of this approach, they will also be asked to complete the survey two years out. In addition, we have conducted observational analyses and plan to conduct semi-structured interviews with students over the next four years. 

While it is too early to share substantive longitudinal results from the GES survey, initial analysis of written reflections and our own observations have led us to believe this cross-course community-based learning project increased students' understanding of and appreciation for local place history, including the incremental and small scale efforts that people pursue toward the broader aim of social and racial justice. As one student reflected at the end of the semester, “I was really blown away by [our interviewee’s] commitment to the community and how hard she has worked to create a sense of place.” This student went on to note that this project has led her to commit to designing-with communities, saying “I learned so much through this project and I hope to bring this knowledge to future community-oriented endeavors.” 

Another student wrote that they especially valued the opportunity to break “the narrative of discussing Black geographies as placeless.” This student valued how the stories did not attempt to present placed narratives within a “context of suppression and loss,” saying their oral histories engaged both “big thematic questions about race and the County” while also “celebrating the lives of our interviewees.” In this way, the collaborative storytelling process not only created opportunities for learning about and engaging with community at the local scale, but also thinking critically about broader scale issues of racial justice. 

We also found that the iterative, experiential, and relational learning process of collaborating directly with community members appeared to teach students resiliency and humility and confronted them with the real world ethical challenges of participatory research and design.  One student put it aptly, saying that their “digital story is about learning and unlearning.” Another began their post-course reflection by writing, “I was rather nervous at the idea of interviewing and then telling the story of the interviewee.” However, after getting feedback from the community partners and the interviewee, and after “hours upon hours of hard work and sitting with this story,” the student reported that they “learned so much” from the process, including the strong influence that place had on their interviewee. 
Challenges and Tentative Recommendations

Given that these projects unfolded in the fall of 2020, the long-term, post-course value of these practices is yet to be determined. We are committed to pursuing our longitudinal, mixed method study over the next four years in order to trace the threads that unfold. Nevertheless, we can offer some tentative lessons learned and recommendations. 

Our collaboration benefitted from institutional support for community-based learning including project funding, direct support via reduced teaching loads for faculty, access to summer stipends for curriculum development, and (limited) structures for team-teaching. Even still, our participatory approach clashes with the need to have relationships and plans in place prior to student enrollment in our courses. We sought to mitigate this by involving students in the post-project evaluation and design ideation for future iterations of the partnership. Likewise, we aim to involve students from past course cohorts in these future iterations, whether as teaching assistants, interns, or undergraduate researchers. The outcomes of this long-term approach to creating scaffolded opportunities to deepen engagement with local communities will be the subject of further research.


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