Reflective Practice, Teach@CUNY

A Jar of Sugar or a Poem: Using Objects to Mediate Classroom Community

A round pink balloon tethered and floating above tethered to an empty white chair against a grey background

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

By Ana Flavia Badue

Participation and community building

I learned over the years not to feel uncomfortable with silence in the classroom. But I also learned that silences have different roles, some of which I encourage, and others I prefer not to let sit in the room for too long. The silence I appreciate comes when people are reflecting, an active silence. In contrast, there is the silence that comes from lack of participation and engagement. How, then, to invite students to participate in our classes?

Before responding to this question, it is worth asking what type of participation we want. I understand participation as an expression of engaged and active learning. Mechanical responses and right answers may elicit complicit behaviors, but not necessarily produce thinking, creativity and curiosity. Moreover, I don’t expect students to be fully responsible for their participation, because our teaching persona and the way we conduct the class have deep influence on how students react to our prompts and questions. For example, do we open room for different students to equally participate? How do we listen to them? How do we respond to their responses? What are the things we are willing (and not willing) to hear or read from them? Are we, instructors, their only audience, or do we encourage them to engage with one another?

Participation, therefore, is embedded in the collective atmosphere of the group, and we have an important role in facilitating a participatory environment. To encourage engaged participation (and active silences), we have to build a learning community. When we have a sense of belonging, we also experience trust, both of which provide students with emotional, social, and cognitive support – all of which are fundamental to learning.

At CUNY, building a sense of community has its specificities. Most of our CUNY students work, have families, and live in different boroughs. Commuting and doing non-school related activities leave our students with little time and space for meeting folks and feeling they belong to some sort of collectivity. With that in mind, I intentionally seek in my courses to nurture a feeling of connection . It takes time and work, but there are many ways to do it. A very efficient way of beginning is using objects to mediate people’s interactions.

Objects

Objects can mediate the building of small communities and interpersonal relations because when we have something between us, we have space to experiment what, how and when we open to others. Objects enable the calibration between lived experiences and previous knowledges, on the one hand, and new ones, on the other.

For example, if right in the beginning of the semester I ask my students “Let’s discuss racial capitalism”, the chances of reproducing outside inequalities within the classroom are high: more prepared and privileged students will talk more, and the quieter students will be quiet. And they will most likely talk to me, not among themselves. Why not, then, asking them to bring from home any object that occurred to their mind when they were doing the assigned reading about racial capitalism? A jar of sugar can be an invitation to talk about the first commodity produced in mass scale with the forced labor of enslaved people in the Caribbean. This is a way to break the ice because when we talk about an image, a painting, a song, an object, we talk about our ideas. We make our own thoughts objective.

Objective mediation to foster community can take many forms. I like to combine pre-made objects with objects students themselves produce.

Pre-made objects

In the beginning of each semester, instead of asking the vague question “Can you introduce yourself”, anthropologist and psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle asks her students to write essays in which they pick an object that they feel that was fundamental to their professional journey. An alternative is to ask students to pick something related to their choice in registering to the specific course we teach. They can write, draw, compose, and then present to the whole group how such object it is related to their coming to class.

These activities help the instructor to learn about students’ needs, interests, and motivations, and they can also make the group demographic explicit. Moreover, if students share these stories with one another, they begin to construct their positionality in the group. This type of activities that access more personal dimensions of students are good for first weeks of the semester, enabling each person to decide what to disclose and how they want to be perceived in public. This first step is fundamental to build trust to keep the interactions going.

In regards to course content, pre-made objects also facilitate students to explore their thoughts without necessarily feeling tested or judged by others. One idea is to bring to class a few printouts of sentences, quotations, images, etc, and ask students to stand up, walk around and annotate them. Then, students can talk about their impressions of the material in small groups. For online teaching, tools like Manifold and Google Docs are good for social annotation.

These examples enable a more egalitarian learning community, because before opening the floor for participation, everyone had the opportunity to form a thought. We don’t have to rely simply on the students who raise their hand first or who speak with more confidence. Moreover, using objects to promote conversations enable students to learn from each other, not only from faculty.

Producing objects

Another possibility of using objects to facilitate community building and in-class participation is to ask students themselves to elaborate the materials that will mediate further interactouins. For example, instead of discussing an art piece, we can invite students to produce an art work about another one, then organize an exhibition. I had a professor in graduate school that asked students to transform an academic text into a poem, and present the final result to the class. Using collaborative platforms and OER is another idea on how to transform students’ production into objects that generates new reflections. This type of activity generates multiple avenues for reflection and learning, not only the in-class discussion.

Role playing games can also create a sense of community and students can learn better by producing the very content of their learning. I once askedmy  students to break into small groups and imagine they were writing the constitution of an newly founded community. Each group then presented their constitution to the class and we discussed both the concrete implications of their decisions and the theoretical concepts that I had planned for that week.

These activities take a step further in building community and fostering participation because students not only elaborate thoughts about something else, but they also produce their own expertise. The objects that mediate further discussion, engagement and participation are a learning exercise in themselves.

Having students to produce learning materials and share their impressions about them opens space for learning through dialogue, and expands the notion of participation beyond answering to instructors’ prompts.

Leading and mediating: teacher as learning objects

I have heard from many people engaged with emancipatory teaching praxis that they become paralyzed when about to make decisions or intervening in some type of classroom situation, fearing to be authoritarian. But if we think of instructors as objects that mediate community building, we give students choices and autonomy, while questioning power dynamics in classroom and without eliminating our own role. Instead, the mediating position of instructors is fundamental to the endless encounters that occur in a classroom setting.

Teaching and learning always entail an exchange between self and other, between subject and object. Thinking of the teacher’s role as a transitional object itself is a form of conciliating the ambiguous positions that we assume when we want emancipatory teaching practices. If we see ourselves as a learning object, we can think of our role as a mediator that smooths interactions and exchanges of all kinds, content included. We do not need to illuminate our students, we can just mediate the endless potential encounters that will enable them (and us!) to learn, grow and expand.

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Ana Flavia Badue is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology and a TLC Fellow.

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