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Teaching Students at the Margins: What it Means to Design and Teach Courses for University Students


An open door to our higher education learning center for students living in the Kakuma Refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

In 2012, I had completed my PhD and I was anxious to get started applying what I had learned about higher education for refugees. I went to LinkedIn and literally entered a Boolean search phrase of "Higher Education" and "Refugees" into the search bar. I was curious to know which of my contacts - 1st, 2nd, or 3rd tier - were involved in some way in such an endeavor.

My answer? None of them.

But LinkedIn being the great social network that it is brought me to Dr. Neil Sparnon, who was the Chief Academic Officer of an organization that was providing higher education in refugee camps. I reached out via a contact request, and from there learned more about the organization, and how I could perhaps teach for them in the future.

By 2013, I was teaching philosophy. By 2014, I was attending workshops to learn how to design courses using Ignatian pedagogy and creating learning experiences that would provide the opportunity for transformation. By 2015, I was traveling to Northern Ireland to create the documentary footage and conduct the interviews for a course I was asked to design. In 2016, I came on board as Academic Director.

With our film crew in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2015.

It's been a learning experience, so when I was asked on a conference call last week with a university partner what I had written regarding online teaching for students at the margins, I surprised myself by saying, "nothing."

Nothing? That's right...nothing.

I've written about the camps; I've written about traveling to Africa; in a few weeks I'll be presenting at a higher education conference and sharing the experience of being an academic administrator for the program, and in August I'll present about the organization and student outcomes, but not once have a sat down to write about designing courses for, and teaching courses for our refugee student population.

Well, it's time to change that. Right now.

If we assume that teaching for refugee students is the same as teaching students in the US, it's not. Conversely, if we assume that teaching for refugee students is wholly different from teaching students in the US, that's wrong, too.

Teaching Students at the Margins - or, why Starbucks is not a good example for a discussion prompt

When I taught my first course, we were using borrowed courses from the Jesuit university network in the United States. While the program was credentialed to provide college credits through a prominent US university, the online course content might have come from any one of its partner universities. I'll never forget the first online discussion - an asynchronous assignment akin to an internet message board that is used to get students to discuss a topic they are learning a particular week. The prompt asked students (as my memory serves....this is not verbatim) to go to their local Starbucks, buy a local newspaper, make observations about the people around them and find an article that relates to their local community. Discuss.

Obviously, the prompt had to be reworked...local Starbucks are not too prevalent in refugee camps, although they certainly do have areas where people gather.

A local Ethiopian restaurant in Kakuma.

I also remember that the introductions were far different from what I was used to in my classes at my local university in Florida. Gone were the comments about how many kids they had, what their hobbies were, what they were majoring in, and where they worked. The students wrote about displacement, lost family members, tragedy, and identity. Against all odds, here they were in my online class, learning philosophy, and getting college credits from the United States.

Lessons Learned - from loathing Algebra to transformation

I've learned a few more things as I oversee the online diploma program we offer. First, there is a omnipresent fear and loathing of Algebra that transcends culture and context. However, on-site tutors help with that challenge significantly. Second, there appears to be a universal tendency of college students to procrastinate. Third, not reading the syllabus is an affliction of all students despite location, race, ethnicity, or gender.

I also learned new sensitivities in the time I have been overseeing all the diploma courses and in talking with our students: Asking a refugee student to create a family tree for an assignment or share in any way about their family can be traumatizing. Assuming that a student in a remote location with low bandwidth can watch an instructor's welcome video is probably going to lead to student frustration. (All of our course content is downloaded well ahead of time at our learning sites so that live streaming is not an issue.) Preparing students in some of our more conservative Islamic cultures to see, and objectively discuss, the meaning of Michelangelo's David in the Arts course should not be overlooked. Establishing clear expectations regarding what asynchronous really means is necessary (some of our students used to think that the instructors were on the other side of the internet connection from them when they were online...thus leading them to wonder why they did not get immediate replies to their emails or discussion questions.)

Getting students to analyze content rather than take information at face value can be extremely tough...much more so than I had experienced in the US. Learning that things like flash floods, malaria, and internet outages that can last weeks may mean that an entire course has to be extended a few weeks for all students. Expecting that students can catch up on late work while staying current with existing work leaves most instructors having to challenge their notions of deadlines. However, not expecting deadlines because we should have pity on students who are refugees is a huge disservice to them. Believing that standards for excellence can be universal and trans-cultural means that we create learning environments where transformation is possible.

Standing with our academic team in Dzaleka - Creating educational opportunities in refugee camps offers hope and transformation.

From Teaching to Designing - Or Why Context Really Matters

When I designed the political philosophy class, a few things became apparent very quickly. First, course design based on a transformative learning theory meant that the learner's context and the act of reflection would be big parts of the experience. Second, every verbal construct I was used to in the political realm would need to be considered carefully.

I've had a lot of experience - nearly 20 years - teaching politics. I've also had a lot of experience trying hard to get students out of their context so that they can consider a new way of thinking. What would be new would be to work with students whose contexts would be so binding to this issue of identity. If we believe that people's identity is what helps them to express themselves, find sure footing in this world, believe in something greater than themselves, or to help others, then just imagine being a student who has been taken out of their context, and asked to put on a whole new identity to survive. (And then to do it again if/when they get resettled or they return home.)

I mean, come on...how was I going to teach students about the effects of good and bad government - authoritarianism, or justice, or democracy - when their context and their identity was taken from them precisely because of the effects of such government? How was I going to take them out of their box (again) and have them experience something new? And was I even wise to do so?

Ambrogio Lorenzetti's masterpiece, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, is a mural on the walls of the civic hall in Siena, Italy. It would be used in my class as a way to explain the virtues and downfalls of civil society.

I had lots of input on this from well-meaning faculty in other disciplines from some of the best schools in the country while attending the course design workshop led by Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz and Neil Sparnon in 2014 - "You must cover Mandela." "Don't forget about the Truth Commission." "The Rwandan genocide will also be important...you need to be sure to explain the historical roots of the conflict." "Of course the African context will be the most important, but don't forget about political philosophers from the Far East!"

How to Create Authenticity When Your Students are the Ones You Need to Learn From

I was beginning to doubt I could pull it off with any sort of authenticity. There was a good chance I could create a bland learning experience by trying to cover all the relevant African conflicts that could have represented the context for our students, but there was also the real risk that I could get it wrong...very wrong. Because within any conflict, there are stories, there are experiences, there are fundamental truths that don't get covered by the history books, and it's not until we use philosophy do we develop a broad enough way of thinking to recognize that all contexts can be true and all of them impact people in very different ways.

Thankfully I had a great team to help me. Our team of course designers, videographers, and technical geniuses helped me to craft my ideas into a class. I remember mentioning that I wanted to get out of the African context as much as possible, for all the reasons mentioned above, but primarily because despite everything, I wanted to take students out of context and teach them about political philosophy objectively first, and then have them use what they had learned to apply it to their personal contexts and experiences.

African Conflicts are Important. But Would They Take My Students Out of Their Own Contexts So That They Could Learn?

When you have a great team working with you, this crazy thing called synergy happens. Cindy suggested that I do a case study on Northern Ireland as a lens through which to teach political philosophy. And then it all made sense: taking students out of their own context to learn could mean taking them through the streets of Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland, where the effects of good and bad government were made plainly obvious. Conflict wasn't the sole purview of the African continent, just like not all political philosophy had to be from the ancient Greeks.

Ongoing tensions in Belfast demonstrate the very real modern-day context of the effects of good and bad government based on centuries-old disputes.

I interviewed, and the production team videoed, ex-combatants of the IRA and the Protestant paramilitary side. The production team got video of a taxi tour through Belfast, showing all of the angry artwork and competing national flags of Ireland and the Union Jack and the (ironically named) 'peace walls' that were a direct result of a breakdown in government.

A memorial to a Protestant paramilitary member in a Belfast neighborhood.

I created a short documentary video on the Bogside Murals of Derry that told the story of the Troubles.

"The Petrol Bomber" is one of the Bogside Murals in Derry that explains the story of the Troubles. It's part of 12 murals called The People's Gallery.

The intense moments mixed with the funny ones (this was Northern Ireland, after all) created that authenticity I was hoping for. The highlight was the discussion on peace leadership - was it reconciliation? I'm not sure. But was it a coming together where dehumanizing masks were replaced by former enemies working together to launch their own peace workshops in the UK? Yes, and beautifully.

James Greer and Anne Walker are filmed during our interview about their work in the UK, Europe, and the US to create mechanisms for peace.

But I still wasn't sure it would work. I was also worried that one of the elements in the class that was decidedly atypical of political science classes would flop: Students would have three assignments where they had to create their own "Bogside Murals" by using artistic elements of drawing, writing a short play, or creating poems that related to their final project topic. It was a risk.

A Gamble and the Reward

When I taught the course in 2016, it seemed to run relatively smoothly. Students related to our two Northern Irish interviewees, appreciating their perspective of being on the front lines of a conflict and the epiphanies they had about peace. They learned about how art is often an expression of political thought. They examined their own views of feminism in power.

When I first traveled to Dzaleka - the refugee camp in Malawi - in January of 2017, I met one of my former students. He was now leading a dance troupe of young boys from the camp who were starting to gain some international recognition.

Some of the youth from Salama Africa sharing their dance at a farewell party for the JWL Site coordinator in Dzaleka.

His eyes grew wide when I told him I had been his political philosophy teacher and that I was the one who designed the class. He told me that at first he couldn't understand why the Northern Ireland case study was used, but began to learn about political thought through learning about the stories. And he realized the power of stories would help him share the story of refugees in Dzaleka. He further realized that art and expression could be used to tell this story...and that his dance troupe wouldn't just feature youth dancing; it would feature youth telling their story through dance. Salama Africa would also create an Intercultural Youth Center to organize:

- Cultural and artistic activities: Dances, Music, Drama, Poetry, cultural animation, Educative cinema, Photography, Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, DIY classes etc.

- Scientific creation and reflection activities: Conferences, constructive debates, etc.

- Sportive activities and apprenticeship - which are currently in progress.

Beautiful, yes?

And then this week, I received word that Creighton University had published an article about a few of their students who had taken the class with our students. In it, two of the students discussed their experience:

Romero found the course he took part in to be particularly prescient given the disposition of his international classmates, relative to his life. To talk about feminist theory, regimes, uses of power, the social contract and individual freedoms, the course examined the three-decade conflict in Ireland known as The Troubles.

“It was an ethnic and a religious upheaval and we discussed it within the context of where they had seen similar conflicts occurring in their home countries,” Romero said. “For me, there was a lesson in the privilege I have as an American to not have suffered through major upheavals and tragic losses of friends and family. To hear about what they had endured and to see that they still had the motivation to be in a class and learn was an eye-opener. There was a punch in the gut every once in a while.”

With discussion boards, papers and a set of projects that could include artistic and literary means of driving home points, the . . .courses opened Pulverenti and Romero up to a new and sometimes harrowing world.

“There were times when I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to do that assignment,’” Pulverenti said. “And then I’d remember that some of my classmates are worried about where they’re going to live or what they’re going to eat or why they haven’t heard from their family. It really did put into perspective the Jesuit values we try to learn and live by at Creighton. It made me more thankful and intentional about my education and what I want to do with it.”

...and that was the beauty of this whole experiment in education.

Peace,

Tara