Talk About Teaching and Learning:
March 31, 2015, Volume 61, No. 28
Community-Based Approach to Teaching
I teach introductory-level classes in geographic information systems (GIS)—mapping software—to undergraduate and graduate students. I also teach a graduate course about public health and the built environment. Frequently, students in my courses choose as a final project to apply the research skills we learn in class—making maps or conducting built environment audits, surveys, interviews or health impact assessments—to needs identified by nonprofit organizations and city government agencies with whom I work. In the spring of 2014, for example, one group of students worked with the 52nd Street corridor manager from The Enterprise Center (TEC) to build a website, conduct a property and business inventory and interview residents and customers about perceptions of safety and lighting. Another group organized an event, mapped a walking tour and created a promotional video for uGO!, a program that encourages physical activity in West Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Like many other faculty members, my use of community partnerships reflects my teaching philosophy. My job is not to impart knowledge as much as it is to facilitate learning. Given the opportunity, students can learn as much from each other and from community members as they can from me or academic texts. Penn students have enormous talent that can be directed to benefit local communities and organizations. Students will be more excited—and ultimately more successful—if they feel that their homework is useful. I can talk all day about research, but students will learn best when they are actually doing research. Over time, I’ve also come to understand that I am at my best as a teacher while mentoring summer research interns and involving them directly in my research, when I can really get to know them and they can really get to know me. In addition to making the school year feel a bit more like summer, integrating my research and teaching also offers a practical solution to the competing demands of a standing faculty position. My teaching is better for integrating my research, and my research is better for integrating my teaching.
I’m convinced that students take my courses (and yours) to learn about themselves and their place in the world as much as they come to learn about whatever the course is nominally about. I can best support this kind of learning by helping them see themselves in relationship to their classmates and to the community members with whom they work, and as part of an Ivy League institution in relation to its economically-disadvantaged-but-still-amazing urban community. This involves encouraging students to challenge their assumptions about race, class and gender, talk about neighborhoods in terms other than “good” and “bad” and learn to trust themselves as they experience new people, places and situations.
I am not usually privy to the conversations students have among themselves, out in the community or back at school, as they translate their field experiences to final presentations and projects. But it’s clear from the relationships that develop among students that those are some of the most valuable parts of their learning. Their fieldwork also leads to some very rich in-class conversations. Last spring, the students’ work on 52nd Street led to discussions about the value of popular built environment interventions to improve health such as street lighting, surveillance cameras, pop-up gardens, trash cans and building façade improvements. Questions for residents about litter and lighting had generated answers about violence, drugs and the lack of opportunities for children, leading some students to question how ethical it was to propose cosmetic solutions. Others responded with references to the “broken windows” theory and the need to facilitate concrete first steps toward larger social and economic change.
In the classroom, it’s easy to get excited about how public policies, built environment interventions and community-based programs can promote public health and equality. Spending time conducting research in low-income neighborhoods offers an important counterpoint to our course readings about things like safe routes to school, smart streets, bike share, healthy corner stores and farmers markets. During a class walking tour along a new, federally subsidized path through a low-income section of Philadelphia, students were able to talk with residents about their experiences—or lack of experiences—walking and biking in the area. Similarly, food audits of corner stores let students see for themselves how cigarette ads, potato chip displays and sugar-sweetened beverage promotions dominate efforts to sell fruits, vegetables and bottled water. Lack of resident awareness, enthusiasm and behavioral response to these kinds of programs temper student expectations of interventions aimed at promoting physical activity and healthy eating. Environmental and behavioral changes are hard to make, something best understood through observations and conversations.
I try to present myself to students as a work-in-progress who is learning alongside them, both in regards to GIS and to self-knowledge. This fall, as students introduced themselves on the first day of class, I asked them to identify their preferred pronouns. I explained to them that my sensitivity to pronouns came from guessing wrong with one student, whose face just dropped when I referred to him as “she” during a class discussion. I emailed the student that night to ask about preferred pronouns and to apologize, and we developed a good relationship over the course of the semester that continues, but at the moment I made the mistake, I felt terrible. My efforts to facilitate conversations about race in the classroom can also feel awkward, as students verbally tip-toe around the issue of racism and the undeniable but complicated relationship between poverty and skin color in a place like Philadelphia. I’ve found an ally in the great scholar and civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, in talking about race and racism, using his 1896 classic, The Philadelphia Negro, to consider the root causes and consequences of racial prejudice in an historical context, then trying to draw connections between late 19th century Philadelphia and the city today. I try to laugh at myself—and put students at ease—by telling them how someone once essentially asked me, why is a white woman from New Hampshire studying The Philadelphia Negro?
The challenges and risks involved in this project-based, community-based approach to teaching are great—and well-documented by others who do this more deliberately and more regularly than I. Students who look in the mirror may not always like what they see, especially if they’ve found it difficult to stretch themselves to fit in the unfamiliar physical, social and racial context of their community projects. I take personal safety concerns seriously and am committed to not putting students in situations when they feel unsafe, but some of their discomfort with themselves can be expressed through knee-jerk negative reactions to going to low-income or predominantly black neighborhoods. Unable to understand and express their feelings of discomfort, these students might disengage in the class and cast blame on me on their course evaluations for seemingly unrelated failures. I can live with that. Of greater concern is when students who are eager to please community partners get in over their heads, promising more than they can deliver and then disappointing themselves and their partners when they come up short. I try to minimize that situation by choosing partners with whom I have worked before and by helping scope out the project to make sure it is feasible. The risk of failure (not delivering what was promised) is real, but I encourage students to take risks because they can still learn a lot, and pass my class, even when things don’t turn out the way they expected.
It’s a privilege to be part of this great learning community at Penn and to teach such talented, motivated students. By involving students in my research and introducing them to my community partners, I feel that I can give them more of myself and help them in the process of discovering who they are. And needless to say, this approach helps me to better understand my place in the world as teacher, scholar, aspiring agent of social change and human being.
Amy Hillier is an associate professor of city and regional planning in the School of Design and
has a secondary appointment in the School of Social Policy & Practice,
where she was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award.
In 2006, Dr. Hillier was awarded the Michael B. Katz Award for Teaching Excellence in Urban Studies.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.