Flavia Peréa, Lecturer in Sociology (FAS) and Director of the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, teaches Pursuing Truth and Justice: Principles and Methods of Equity Through Inquiry. This course aims to be “an example of what equity and inclusion can look like in the curriculum” both through the topics covered—for example, liberatory research methods, oppression, and structural injustice— and by supporting students “to be able to think about messy things, put out hard questions, and really wrangle with ‘what does it even mean for me as a student at Harvard to be doing this work’?”
Peréa’s course aims to provide students with both the theoretical foundations and methodological skills to engage in participatory research. Many students are eager to collaborate and partner with community stakeholders, but first they need a “methodological toolbox” that allows them to engage in ethical and productive ways. Peréa encourages students to be introspective, to “think about how they as individuals with their multiple identities and their locations bear upon the work,” and to grapple with challenging questions about what it means to be a researcher.
“[In class,] the expectation is not ‘there's a right answer.’ It’s to come in and get to a place where you can deal with being unsettled, question your own assumptions, and then have others in class question your thinking in a way that is kind and from a place of wanting to facilitate everybody's learning, challenge each other intellectually, and encourage intellectual vulnerability.”
Equity-oriented work raises difficult questions and prompts different—often emotional—responses from students. “The key tenets of good educational practice,” Peréa argues, “are built on lived experience and existing knowledge, and so our students come in with experiences that are the basis for making sense of who we are and what we want them to think about when they come to class.” These are “hard conversations, and you can’t get there unless you spend time investing in the relationships with and among students.” As faculty, the challenge is to ensure that students are both scaffolded in their learning and supported in the process of engaging with the material from a social and emotional perspective.
Takeaways and best practices
Simple actions can lead to a strong community and trust. Peréa starts her classes with a simple check in: “How is everybody feeling today?” Students go around the room and share. While this practice may take away a bit of instructional time, “the richness of the time you get because you spend time building comfort and a sense that students can be safe in this space is invaluable.”
Give students space to reflect.
Peréa notes that many students wrestle with “privilege and what it means to have the big crimson H floating over your head, how identities and affiliations change the way we are perceived, and how to negotiate that.” It is challenging for students to find spaces on campus to process these feelings and questions, and Peréa thinks it’s essential for faculty to engage in these questions intellectually and integrate opportunities for students to grapple with them in the classroom, both in terms of time and material that can help students make sense of what they are learning in the context of their experiences.
Vary your assignments to push students’ thinking.
Instead of asking students to write papers, Peréa finds that giving students opportunities to present orally, represent their ideas graphically, and express themselves through various mediums creates a more pedagogically inclusive classroom and pushes students to connect ideas and demonstrate understanding of course concepts in new ways.
Equity-centered classrooms should ascribe to a “whole student” perspective on development, encouraging scholarly growth while being attuned to the social and emotional aspects of student learning.