Latino In America
Breaking Down the Walls of the Classroom

By Marisel Moreno

Photo credit: Marisel Moreno

We have a diversity problem in academia. This lack of diversity is reflected at all levels, ranging from the administration, to faculty, to the student body, and the curriculum. I know that changes have been taking place, but these are coming too slowly to keep pace with our increasingly diverse world. So, how do we tackle the root of this problem? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are academics out there. Some may propose the aggressive hiring of women, LGBT, ethnic, racial, and religious minority faculty. Others may propose strong mentoring programs, especially for minority junior faculty and students. And others will support the recruitment of non-majority students. All of these are crucial steps that must be implemented, but I’d like to suggest that we turn our attention to the classroom as a potential site of civic and social transformation, especially through the application of a community-based learning (CBL) pedagogy. CBL alone won’t make universities more diverse, but it has the potential to make our students more sensitive to issues of diversity in order to effect change in the future.

CBL links the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to the real-life lessons that can be gained from our communities. It is an instructional methodology that provides us with ways to bridge the “town-gown” divide, and in the process, to “produce” students who are more likely to become civically engaged and committed to social transformation. My own experiences have shown that bringing students into the community through a sort of “mini-immersion” experience within the context of rigorous academic coursework, often produces deeper learning outcomes. CBL is a flexible pedagogy that can take many forms, and with imagination and creativity it can be adapted to a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, as well as other fields. The key to exposing students to diversity, in order for them to see it as a pillar of society, lies in the successful partnerships that can be created between the classroom and a community organization serving underprivileged and underrepresented groups. When students learn from those who are typically “invisible” or marginalized, they are more apt to recognize the interconnections that bind us as all humans, as well as to respect difference. Once we begin to cultivate solidarity, understanding, and tolerance, we are opening the doors to a more diverse future.

With over 5,000 hours of community service logged by my students over the last five years, I have seen these transformations take place among my students in my upper-level CBL-U.S. Latino/a literature courses. Teaching minority literatures at a predominantly white middle/upper class institution certainly poses certain challenges: many of my students, for example, come with very limited knowledge of, and have had minimal interactions with U.S. Latino/a communities. This is why their CBL work with La Casa de Amistad, a local non-profit organization that provides after school tutoring and programs, citizenship and ESL classes, and legal counsel to the Latino community, has been a crucial element of their learning. In a CBL class like those I teach, students are involved in two very important types of learning. On the one hand, they study the literatures, histories, and cultural productions of different groups of Latinos in the U.S. On the other hand — and this is perhaps even more important for their intellectual and social development — they enhance the knowledge obtained in the university classroom through active, hands-on involvement with local Latino/a communities. By tutoring and mentoring local children, many students begin to see the bigger picture and find common ground with kids with whom they never imagined they would share anything in common. In my experience, a significant number of my students have gained a deeper understanding not only of the complexities and challenges of growing up as a minority in this country, but also of concepts such as racism, sexism, migration, transculturation, and citizenship privilege. And perhaps more importantly, many begin to understand their own privilege while confronting and challenging the stereotypes that society tends to perpetuate about Latinos/as. This is how social transformation takes place: one student at a time.

As a flexible pedagogy, CBL can take many forms that can range from a semester-long local-immersion model, to a week-long immersion at a different location within the context of a course. At my institution, for instance, students interested in U.S. Latinos and immigration can take CBL courses (like mine), but can also choose to participate in seminars such as the Center for Social Concerns’ “U.S.-Mexico Border Immersion,” which offers opportunities to connect and learn from grassroots and government organizations about immigration issues in the Tucson area. For several years I had been hearing about this seminar from my students, and this past January I was able to participate in this program when it was offered for the first time to faculty and staff. Experiencing the seminar as a “student” was not only refreshing, but it validated the maxim I have applied to my own CBL courses: there is no substitute for personal experience.

And this is perhaps one of the central points I wish to make. Experience and human interaction are crucial both to learning and to producing social change. However, in academia many of us have lost sight of this truth. It is easy to lose ourselves in our own research and be obsessed with our publication records, while silently ignoring the potential that we hold as academics to foment change by connecting our research and/or teaching to the world around us. But let’s face it, hands-on and social justice-driven pedagogies like CBL are hardly ever recognized as authentically “academic” by those unfamiliar with them. Yet, the truth is that academic rigor does not need to be compromised while teaching a CBL course. What we need are, on the one hand, more academics who are willing and motivated to put in the time and dedication necessary to practice a transformative pedagogy, and, on …read more

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