October 02 2022

Equity-Focused Pedagogies in the Religious Studies Classroom: Editor's Introduction

Molly Bassett, Georgia State University

students with notebooks open on laps

The essays in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching highlight faculty perspectives on equity-focused pedagogies from a variety of institutional and career perspectives. Our intention is to contribute to ongoing conversations about how faculty address issues of equity and create more equitable classrooms in ways that readers will find provocative, productive, and adaptable in their own contexts. The idea for collecting essays around equity-focused pedagogies came from my own encounter with Asao Inoue’s scholarship in a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop at my home institution. You’ll find Inoue’s work alongside many other recommended readings linked in this issue.

Inside the issue, prepare to encounter frank assessments of the insidious and injurious role white supremacy plays in learning, especially in places where its hegemonic status reigns or, as Yvonne Zimmerman writes, its “hegemonic frameworks and mindsets […] make alternatives unthinkable.” Alongside our colleagues’ descriptions of the deeply detrimental effects of inequitable education, you’ll find imaginative, thoughtful, caring, and joyful approaches to equitable teaching that may inspire your own pedagogical renovations. From approaches inspired by Bettina L. Love’s We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom to those that take inspiration from Antigone and Pose, the essays in this issue of Spotlight draw on philosophies of teaching and learning informed by queer thought, Black joy, Spanglish chisme, and pandemic perspectives.

At times, they also draw on the contributor’s own experience of marginalization. AAR Teaching Award recipient Miguel De La Torre begins his essay with a reflection on BIPOC scholar-teachers’ experiences: “Scholars of color frequently witness their scholarship dismissed as ‘being more activist oriented than academic,’ ‘an interesting perspective for an elective class,’ ‘too subjective,’ or ‘lacking complexity.’” He insists—rightly—on the inclusion of diverse perspectives in all syllabi, an idea on which Joseph Tucker Edmonds elaborates in his essay: “I want to imagine religious studies classrooms or equity-informed pedagogical practices that place Black joy at the center rather than as a site reserved for students and teachers who have resources and spaces to create them.”

Like Tucker Edmonds and De La Torre, many of the writers in this issue focus on the importance of bringing diverse voices to the forefront in learning, including the voices of their students. Kristyn Sessions explains that Love’s writing inspired a moral exemplars assignment she developed. Sessions’ assignment helps students see that they matter by encouraging them to select moral exemplars who matter to them. Developing projects through which students feel they—and others like them—matter, she notes, can counter narratives that devalue students. Using a different method, Kevin Minister focuses on student participation in an essay that describes his adoption of the reflective structured dialogue technique. “Because dialogue is grounded in structured reflection on the experiences of all participants in relation to the course content,” Minister writes, “it differs from my class discussions that invite voluntary analysis of ideas in a free-flowing format that may not involve reflection on personal experience.”

Other contributors have adopted approaches that invite students to see their own experiences, cultures, and languages as deep reservoirs for learning. Personal experience undergirds Julie Mavity Maddalena’s adaptation of Tara J. Yosso’s forms of capital in student work with asset maps. In assigning asset maps, Mavity Maddalena encourages students to consider how experiences that could be considered detrimental in some educational contexts can be assets. One example Mavity Maddalena shares is the idea that “communication skills gleaned from living in a bilingual household or community and code switching in a variety of contexts” can be a strength, rather than a deficit. Yanitsa Buendia de Llaca’s contribution explores the importance of validating Spanish-speaking students’ multilingualism by mentoring through chisme and inviting students to write in Spanish, Spanglish, and/or vernacular English in class assignments. As she writes, “For many students who have been racialized and marginalized because of the use or trace of Spanish, having the opportunity to express themselves and be assessed in Spanish can be a powerful and healing experience.” The diverse ways in which these instructors address equity center on their encounters with the students they teach and a concerted effort to help students see value in themselves.

Many faculty have revamped courses in the past few years as we have witnessed our students face heightened challenges related to access and equity. For example, Ann Burlein writes that she began “ungrading” as an equitable pedagogy before the pandemic and came to see it as critical during the pandemic: “Ungrading addresses [the] inequity [in rubrics] by asking each student to discern how they want to be intelligent in relation to course materials. Its virtue lies in how it encourages students to develop metacognition by reflecting on how they learn, what obstacles they face, how they respond to feedback, and where this class fits into their future.”

As learning moved online during the pandemic, Ashlyn Strozier realized that focusing on the process, not the product, of learning would support equitable student engagement, and she shares signposts for building an equitable, process-focused, online classroom environment. Thinking about her students’ access to resources during the pandemic led Sarah Bogue to redesign her writing assignments as projects of translation; students write a paper and then “translate” it for a public audience as art, sermon, dance, poetry, and so on. On reflection, Bogue notices that “an equitable pedagogical stance also honors the gifts and resources students bring to the classroom space.”

Ada Jaarsma had long dreamed of teaching a course on Antigone, and her encounter with Ashton T. Crawley’s The Lonely Letters completely shifted how she thought about the course from, as she says, “the what of the course to its how.” Ultimately, she realized:

 

“Here’s the crux: when we are in the throes of a semester, there is no “any student at all”: rather, there is this student, and that student; students with a whole host of backgrounds, hang-ups, learning styles, and culturally formative perspectives. This is where generalizing about “all students” hits a wall, where even universal design faces a challenge—of reaching this student and that student, through their own affective and somatic perspectives. These perspectives themselves might well be shifting, especially in times of anxiety and alienation such as a pandemic.”

 

The many, many challenges of teaching continue through the pandemic; through our witnessing of numerous murders of people of color; through political upheavals, insurgencies, and war; through students’ and colleagues’ mental/physical health crises; through our loss of loved ones; and on and on. As you read these essays, I think you’ll find favorite passages and sentences with which you may struggle. Our dedication—and these colleagues’ dedication—to equity in teaching offers a path forward through the challenges we face, and ideally our work to create more equitable environments for learning will do the same for our students.

Many thanks to these contributors and to Amanda Dominique, an educator and MA candidate in religious studies at Georgia State, who assisted in editing and assembling this issue.