My philosophy for teaching is to engage students in the process of learning in multiple ways by planting seeds to reach all learners but also to maximize the learning of all students. I am thoughtful about the curriculum I create, and each lesson that allows me to meet the goals of the curriculum. When I have difficult students or difficult moments in the classroom, remembering how thoughtful I have been about creating a curriculum that honors multiple modes of learning gives me the space to be open to/and implement change without changing my entire syllabus when students may not fully grasp where we are headed but also the flexibility to learn new methods, to change directions and to stay well informed. Good teachers, take the time to understand students, the epistemological and disciplinary goals and constraints and the conditions that allow students to flourish or fail, such as their mental health, interests, and familial issues to name a few.
As a Black Caribbean woman, my identities impact how I am read/taken up and responded to in the classroom and has a direct relationship to my scholarship. Mel Michelle Lewis in her article, “Body of Knowledge: Black Queer Feminist Pedagogy, Praxis, and Embodied Text,” states, “I teach what I am, I am what I teach, an intersectionality, an interdisciplinarity, a complex epistemology, and pedagogical location. I live and perform my multiple social identities, both visible and invisible, and teach both through institutional knowledge and my own ‘embodied text.’ As I teach through these embodiments, it has become apparent that the methods through which we teach women’s studies must be intersectional and interdisciplinary, while recognizing the body as a site of learning and knowledge” (Lewis 49).
I quote her at length because she captures beautifully how I have come to my philosophical framing. Although my discipline is not women’s students, education is also an interdisciplinary field and I pull from a number of disciplines including women’s studies, Africana studies and American studies to situate the work I do in education as a discipline. This makes me a transdisciplinary teacher and researcher. I pause here to elucidate the difference between transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary teachers and scholars. Interdisciplinary scholars integrate disciplinary theories and frames into the practices of a particular discipline. Transdisciplinary teachers and scholars translate, recreate and craft new methods and theories in particular disciplines. My embodied knowledge and my transdisciplinary approach to teaching and research allows me a dynamic pedagogical approach to the craft of teaching.
My pedagogical strategy can be fully described as a four step process loosely based on my experience and expertise as an intergroup dialogue facilitator. Intergroup dialogue has a four stage model and is designed to take students from exploring self, institutions, power structures and hierarchies to building coalition. When I teach classes on intergroup dialogue, I usually follow strictly the process and structure of intergroup dialogue. When I teach other classes, I pull from Intergroup dialogue the process of the method. Specifically, I divide the weeks of the class into the italicized sections below.
For the review period, I taught the following classes: EDUC 235 Issues in Contemporary Education, EDUC/WMST 288 Rethinking gender in an educational context, EDUC/URBS/AFRS 255 Race, Representation and Resistance, EDUC/URBS 373 Adolescent Literacy and EDUC 384 Abolitionist Teaching and Research (senior seminar). I will discuss each of these classes in relationship to my pedagogical strategy and highlight numbers 5, 11, and 14 of the CEQ’s that demonstrate how students assessed my teaching effectiveness. I also taught a yearlong intensive which was not evaluated formerly by students per faculty legislation for the first year of intensives. The courses were EDUC 210 and EDUC 211 – Race and Migration (The Anglo Caribbean in the Fall) and Intergroup dialogue on Race and migration in the Spring.
Education is part of larger systems shaped by colonial discourses of “inferiority/superiority”.
To understand how gender is constructed in dichotomous, and hierarchical ways, I start with decolonial, indigenous feminist thinking because it gives us a place from which to situate how the education system as we know it has come to understand gender. For example, in EDUC/WMST 288, “Rethinking Gender in an Educational Context” (See the appendix for syllabus) the first class I autonomously developed at Vassar College, we read indigenous femminist thinking about the U.S. role as a settler state. We start there because I ask students to think with the authors about how gender difference comes to mean gender hierarchy and gender binary. We do this because when we talk about gender discrimination in schools, the students begiin to understand that the binary and the hierarchy around gender is not “natural” and has not always been but has been imposed. They also learn that centering indigenous voices and texts in a settler state teaches us what we otherwise take for granted.
The assignment that is most critical in this class is the intersectional autobiography about race, sexuality and gender that they submit twice before the mid term point. This assignment asks in part that students apply an intersectional frame to their understanding of race, gender and sexuality. In other words, I ask that they think about how their experiences with race, gender, and sexuality, constructed and experienced together, shape who they are. I ask them to submit a draft on which I provide detailed feedback because in most of their experiences they are accustomed to thinking about their identities as separate entities and not co-constructed together.
My goal with this assignment is to ask students to apply methodologically what Kimberly Crenshaw coins as “intersectionality” and to begin to understand that many of us possess dominant and subordinate identities that shape who we are. I also expect that the struggle to write this assignment allows them to think complexly about why inequality exists in schools. It is important to me that they approach the assignment using an intersectional frame and not a singular frame, because I want them to understand that the women who crafted the Combahee River Collective statement meant that as Black, lesbian women, there was no way to separate the experiences that emerge from these identities and that as students they also cannot seperate themselves from the experiences that have come to shape them. Appendix B has two examples of student work that met the goals of the assignment successfully and student work that did not meet the assignment successfully. This course helps students think about why their K-12 experiences rarely asked them to engage their social identities and helps them redefine who is constructed as “smart”, “cool” and “popular” in schools.
When I taught this course in the Fall of 2018, 77% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students indicate that the course met its objects, 96% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students indicate that I am an effective teacher and 92% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students indicate that their knowledge increased as a result of taking this course.
When I taught this course in the Fall of 2019, 82% of students indicated that the course met its objects (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale), 87% of students said I was an effective teacher (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale), and 81% of students said they increased their knowledge as a result of the course (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale).
I believe the discrepancy in the score is attributable to less students completing the CEQ at the end of the term. Only 16 of 22 students completed the CEQ form for a return rate of 73%. The first time I taught the course, I had more students in the course and the CEQ return rate was closer to 100%.
We are personally implicated in educational inequity
In all my classes, the first assignment is an autobiography focused on particular identities. I ask students to do this, because it allows me to get to know them better, I want them to understand that their identities matter and mean something for schools and finally that the academy has space for them to explore who they are through academic writing that is personal because these things are not incommensurable. For example, in EDUC 255 – Race, Representation and Resistance, I ask students to write a racial autobiography. The intent of that exercise and that class is to ask students to begin to think about racial inequality as structural but that we all inhabit racial codes that allow us to act and experience our world in particular ways. Students are often surprised that they will get graded on an essay about themselves but are most surprised to learn that they are implicated in larger systems and structures.
It is important to me in an education classroom that students have a good sense of their identities and themselves as well as the content of the course. Students often expect that in the class we are only going to spend time talking about their K-12 experiences. In this class in particular, I discuss race, representation and resistance at the K-12 level but focus most closely on race, resistance and representation as they experience it now. I do this because they often believe that they can do critical work in schools (through volunteer work or if they become teachers) without understanding their relationship to power. Understanding their relationship to power allows students to be strategic about how they volunteer in schools, how they make sense of their experiences and what curriculum they create in the future.
In the spring of 2019 for EDUC/URBS/AFRS 255, 84% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students said that the course met its objects, 92% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students said that overall, I am an effective instructor and 79% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students say they left the class knowing more than they did when they entered. This indicates to me that the pedagogical strategy and the content of the course are well developed and that students indicate deep learning from them.
The classroom is a community building space for addressing difference and similarity.
I work with students on a variety of community building exercises that allow them to get to know each other and begin to speak across their differences in class. I do this by engaging them in discussions about group guidelines, discussions of pronouns, asking them for permission to share student work, and asking them to engage in group work in class. These different ways of engaging them in community building efforts, has the effect of allowing students to get in touch with themselves and with the other students in the classroom. I do not believe in creating safe spaces because safety is a relative concept but I can promise students a place to connect and to explore together in ways that are meaningful for them.
A discussion of group guidelines and pronouns allow all of us as classroom community members, to understand going into the class what the expectations around difficult topics and one’s identity will be. I understand how difficult it is to open up to strangers and so on the first day we engage in a process of documenting how we expect to engage. Although many students introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns, I have come to learn that many of them have never engaged in an intentional conversation about why they do it. I believe that as part of my strategy to allow them to understand how power is circulated through us and interactions, that I should facilitate a conversation about why using someone’s preferred pronouns is a part of the expectation for our course. I have heard from students that they appreciate this practice because they understand better the significance of the practice.
Students engage in group work, give peer feedback and I ask for permission to share exemplary work in class because these methods build community. I ask students to work in groups often class because I have found that it allows them to learn from each other and that small groups facilitate much peer learning. Peer feedback must be done with care and the ways I do it, is that I ask students to provide feedback (using a rubric) about a variety of factors without assigning a grade. This method also allows them to learn from each other and to understand how one might engage with an assignment in multiple ways.
For example, in EDUC 235, Issues in Contemporary Education, I spend much time building community in the beginning of the year in the ways I described above, but also through-out the class through games (the American Dream), and other experiential learning methods. In the Fall of 2018, 100% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students said the course met it’s objects, 100% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of students said the class was effective and 100% of students said that their knowledge increased after taking this class.
Coalition building projects address social inequality and begin to change culture, and structures – All of them
Cumulatively, in almost all the classes I teach, I ask students to engage in a coalition project. I explain that this project is not the same as a group project at the end of the term. The difference for me is in the structure and process of the assignment. Structurally, I ask them to choose a project of their interest but I also ask them to think about why they chose this project and how their identities impact this project. Similarly, I ask them to engage with each other about the power dynamics between them and their peers. The word coalition is also important as students think about what it means for them to work in a community where people look different from them but also have political views that are different than theirs. I use that term intentionally to ask students to think seriously about the work they create as more than a term project but as a potential alliance between different people. This process honors a process over the product of a project that may have no meaning for students beyond the semester, and they learn how to negotiate instead of divide and conquer group projects.
In the Fall of 2019, I had the opportunity to teach the department’s senior seminar which is designed as a special topics course. I called the course Abolitionist teaching and research and focused it on Bettina Love’s 2019 book “We want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom.” There were 12 education seniors in the course. I had taught 10 of them sometimes more than once and thought I could push them to really think about how their education degrees had prepared them or how they could use the degrees in the pursuit of educational freedom. Much of the themes that arose were around community building and coalition through community. I was hopeful that his would be a question they would continue to think about long after the class ended.They indicated with 4s and 5s that 100% of the time on the CEQ measure that the course met its objectives (measure 5), that I was an effective instructor (measure 11) 100% (using 4s and 5s as the measure, and that 100% of the time their knowledge increased having taken the class (this is measure 14 using 4s and 5s as the criteria).
Courses Taught outside of content area
On two occasions I was asked by the department to teach courses that fall outside of my area of expertise. There were two methods courses at the 300 level. One I taught prior to the evaluative period, EDUC 392, Adolescent Methods. The course I taught during the evaluative period, EDUC/URBS 373 Adolescent Literacy. I will focus on Adolescent literacy. That course was my first attempt to teach a literacy course. I tried to bridge the gap in my knowledge by meeting with the instructor who usually teaches the course, reading as much as I could and collaborating with other literacy teachers. Students indicated that 72% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of them thought the course met its objectives, 91% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) thought I was an effective instructor and 72% (scoring 4 and 5s on a 5 point scale) of them left the course knowing more than they entered the course knowing. This tells me that although this course was outside of my content area, that I was still an effective teacher and I was able to put together a class that taught them something new.
In the fall of 2019, I taught a year long intensive course that looked broadly at the former British territories of the Caribbean. I had six students in the course. My original design was to have Poughkeepsie high school students (many of whom have afro caribbean heritage) read alongside Vassar college students one of the texts from the course and together create a project. In the spring we would enter into an intergroup dialogue conversation more specifically about Caribbean identities especially around race and class. Unfortunately, It was difficult to cultivate the relationship with the Poughkeepsie high school students so the course continued with no students from Poughkeepsie high. As a result, the spring portion which was always designed as an intergroup dialogue class, shifted to more broadly look at race and migration instead of the caribbean. We will meet for the first six weeks of the semester and partner with a fifth grade classroom at Arthur S. May elementary school. Students in the course, after learning the principles of dialogue will facilitate a dialogue with the fifth graders.
What I learned from this intensive is how difficult it is to cultivate community partnerships. I had the liaison teachers set up and ready to go. We had several conversations about design and execution but for a variety reasons, we were not able to move forward. But, I also learned that I am creative and innovative and that when working with community partners, one has to be flexible. Being able to work with the fifth grade classroom at Arthur S. May will allow me to build partnerships with teachers and students in the Arlington school district that I believe will serve multiple purposes for me and for the education department in the future.
Reflection on Teaching
As I reflect on my teaching during the 1.5 years of the evaluative period at Vassar, I recognize a pattern of excellence in my teaching. The four courses highlighted above indicate in almost all cases, that I am an effective teacher. Students like my teaching style and I appreciate knowing that how I have approached teaching my classes, allows students to grasp content that in many ways, is new for them.
Teaching is difficult and it has taken me a little while at VC to understand the students I teach. I had to learn how to grade students who were very good at performing “good student” without fully grasping the content or being honest about their struggles around the content. I had to learn to manage students who were widely read and prepared and students for whom everything was new and they were not well read. I did this by paying attention to who they are, asking them questions, paying attention to my CEQs and engaging in conversation groups using the faculty teaching grants for support to supplement my knowledge base. These strategies have made me a better teacher and a better instructor for Vassar students.
I have been able to sustain an active research agenda in addition to my teaching. During the review period, I have authored or co-authored five papers that should all be published in 2020. They are designated as forthcoming with the intended date on my CV.
My larger research goal is to convert my dissertation into a manuscript and to explore
new areas of interest that emerged through my dissertation. I am interested in continuing to explore International teachers and afro-Caribbean women teachers in particular. My particular work is connected to the larger area of educational research that explores teachers of color in the U.S., their experiences, why there are less of them and how teacher education programs can be more inclusive in their curriculum.
A new line of inquiry for me is exploring the impact of international teacher recruitment on now have undocumented children because of their migration. I would like to explore undocumented Black youth experiences in this population nad generally as part of the undocumented stories we often do not hear. This Spring, I will begin working on a book proposal.
I think of myself as a transdisciplinary scholar because I pull from a variety of disciplines to make meaning of the largely Afro-Caribbean population with whom I work. In addition to the book project, I also explore Black and Indigenous coalitional possibilities and have a paper coming out in 2020 that explores this theme.
To support my scholarship I have applied for the following funding:
Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2019 – Pending
Vassar College Faculty Research Support – Funded, 2019
American Educational Research Association best dissertation award, 2018 – Denied
The following articles are scheduled to be published in 2020:
Williams Brown, K. (forthcoming 2020). Transnational and Decolonial Refusal: Afro-
Caribbean Women Teachers’ Liberation. Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Research.
Williams Brown, K. and Washburn, R. (forthcoming 2020). Trans-forming Bodies and Bodies of Knowledge: A Case Study of Utopia, Intersectionality, Transdisciplinarity, and
Collaborative Pedagogy. Introduction to Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press.
● Williams Brown, K., Beck, M., Nganga, C. (forthcoming 2020). Transnational Feminist
Understandings of the Neoliberal Recruitment of International Women Teachers of Color.
Handbook of Teachers of Color.
● John, K. and Williams Brown, K. (forthcoming 2020). Settler/Colonial Violences: Black and
Indigenous Coalition Possibilities through Intergroup Dialogue Methodology
American Indian Cultural and Research Journal (AICRJ). Special Issue
● Haddix, M. and Brown Williams, K. (forthcoming 2020). Black Students as Architects of Future Designs for Teacher Education. Handbook on Teachers of Color.
I am a housefellow in Raymond House (Fall 2019 – present)
How to “College” 101. A dialogue series about how to be successful at Vassar College (Suggested date and time: Wednesday nights 6-8 pm beginning September 11. Dinner will be catered).
Week 1 – Reading, Comprehending and Managing your syllabus
Week 2 – Time Management
Week 3 – Self Care and Self Management (Invite in Wayne Assing)
Week 4 – Alcohol and Other Drugs and the Academic Mission
Week 5 – “Call your mother!” Sustaining relationships at home
Week 6 – Mid Terms! How to study, reassess priorities, drop a class, and other pesky things that creep up at mid term. (Drop deadline is October 18)
Other (select) housefellow Activities: Thanksgivesing Dinner (with Davison House), Attend student fellow meetings twice a semester
Member, Africana Studies Steering Committee (Fall 2019 – present)
I am a member of the capacity building EPI group (Fall 2018 – present)
Teach a class for teachers in the Poughkeepsie and Arlington School Districts every Spring (Ongoing)
Present to the faculty and the vassar community about my intensive (October 2019)
Represent the college at the Pyramid Society dinner (January 2020) regarding my intensive