Interview with Nara Milanich, Professor of History
The current pandemic and #CovidCampus context that we now face happened quickly and is without precedent in terms of schools and universities needing to continue almost every aspect of their work online. Please describe how you have navigated transitioning your courses, your pedagogical approach and your classroom/student community online. Please address both challenges and what has been working well for you and your students.
I’m teaching two classes this semester. One is a lecture and one is a seminar. The lecture is Women Gender and Sexuality in Latin America. The second is a class called Seeking Asylum: History, Politics and the Search for Justice at the US-Mexico Border which is a seminar following an engaged pedagogy model. When I taught the class last year, I took students for a week to the largest ICE detention facility in the country, in South Texas, and they volunteered with a pro-bono legal project as translators and legal assistants. This year I wanted to try something different and so we are pairing with an organization called Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) which represents unaccompanied minors in immigration proceedings. My students are conducting country conditions research for actual cases that are being represented by kind lawyers.
I decided that for now I am going to keep my Women Gender and Sexuality in Latin America class as it is. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing because I think the class works well. I’ll start each class with a brief overview which is how I normally start and then we’ll launch into discussion. We’ve had one class meeting remotely and I have to say it worked! We figured out the hand-raising function on zoom and happily most students had access to video.
One of the important things is, too, that we already had a classroom community: I already know some of these students and they already know each other and so I think that makes it a lot easier. We had a pre-established culture of our classroom and a vibe and we already have our inside jokes that we’ve established over the course of the semester. That said, that was under the best possible conditions where many students were still on campus with wifi; I don’t know if most students going forward are going to have access to wifi. We will have to see, and I think the College will have to offer us directives about what to do if there are students who cannot attend class ever because they don’t have access to a computer or to wifi.
BCIT did a heroic job of getting all of these classes up and running in the space of 72 hours. I think it’s going to work for many classes but I don’t think it’s going to work for all classes and for all students, unfortunately. This is our 2.0 where we need to figure out the other part. I can think of things that students can do if they can’t show up online. I’ll cross that bridge when and if I come to it.
The second half of the Seeking Asylum course is really organized around doing the country conditions research. We’re going to go forward with it. We’re still doing it. We’ve obviously lost a bit of time, but that’s okay. The research is still very relevant. It is hopefully going to be useful for actual asylum cases and there is now actually an extra value of this research.
When I started the class, the value was, ‘You are all going to be a deep dive into country conditions research, and we’re going to train you in research techniques,’ which I did – we had the librarians come in and we did sessions with them and they had an opportunity to work on the research – and the value added is that you’re learning all these research skills but it’s not for a one off term paper that is going to be read by one person in the world, i.e. me. This is actual research that has real world consequences where you are using your liberal arts skill set to generate knowledge about the world that has the potential to impact someone’s life - to save their life – if their asylum case goes well. There was already an interesting dimension to the class and to the research but the last two weeks have only made that significance all the more important. My hope is that doing this research gives students a sense of mission, of purpose, and a sense of perspective. Yes, this situation is disruptive but wow – if you think it’s disruptive for us, let’s look at this population of refugees seeking asylum who have all kinds of economic, legal, social, psychological and other challenges and we’re going to be doing something that hopefully has significance for them.
I’m hoping that the research actually gives students something to hold onto as we move through this. We’ll see if it does. I have heard from a couple of students in the class who wrote and said, ‘Classes are cancelled for the first part of the week – do you think we could have an informal meeting?’ They’re raring to do this – the ones who are home and who are in a stable environment. Obviously, one has to be mindful that not all students are going to be in that position and that’s fine. To the other students, I say ‘You do what you can.’ But to those who are hungry to have this sense of normalcy and purpose, I can’t think of a more important activity than the activity that we were already doing in our class. That’s my hope: that this research actually winds up having a benefit not just to the lawyers and the clients but also actually now for the students who are doing it themselves.
Please describe what pedagogical innovations you are working on or plan to create as part of instructional continuity with your students. Feel free to point to helpful resources you have created (alone or with other faculty) and any other resources that you have found particularly positive and helpful to you and your students.
I know there’s so much information out there and people have been very helpful in putting together google docs and lists of resources. It’s kind of overwhelming. And as everyone is saying, if you teach a real online class, you don’t retrofit it halfway through – you plan it that way from the get-go.
I feel like I would prefer to play to my strengths and adapt as necessary. For example, if I see in my lecture course that a third of the class can’t make it to class anymore – that’s going to require some kind of adaptation. I can imagine that in the lecture we might go much more to text-based kind of instruction where students will write responses and then respond to each other’s writings.
For the seminar, I already know there are going to be at least two students who are going to have trouble ever coming to class. They are already divided up into groups: the Honduras group, the Guatemala group and the El Salvador group. A lot of this research is quite solitary but they are collaborating in groups. The students have asked to meet in their groups remotely now. A lot of the innovation in pedagogy is actually coming from the students!
I told them that this is the time to practice the fine art of adaptation, which is a good life skill and I think they appreciate that faculty are making this up by the seat of their pants as much as students are, with the exception that I haven’t had to pack up my life and move across the country in the last ten days and leave my friends behind - possibly forever - if I’m a senior. The displacement that they have experienced is pretty radical and I actually think that is the main issue that they’re experiencing as opposed to the remote teaching.
Insofar as we can’t be together in a classroom it’s just one more kind of displacement; hopefully it can partially combat the social displacement that [the students] have experienced by making them feel as though they are still part of a community. It’s one thing to zoom with your friends – I think it’s another thing to have a purpose to come online in zoom. I think coming together with a purpose: ‘We’re going to discuss this article, and this is really important stuff – this is consequential and it matters in the world. I think this is important, I think you should think it’s important and we’re going to come together and talk about it.’ That’s true of the material in my lecture course as much as the other one, even if the lecture course doesn’t have an engaged pedagogy component. And that coming together both gives students who are intellectually engaged an outlet for that engagement and it’s also a social experience on some level. It’s not the classroom, but it’s something.
Our Seeking Asylum class was already connected on Slack because there are a lot of moving parts of this class. The students are doing translation work for the organization downtown, they are doing research for KIND, they are doing the readings, we have a website. I am now seeing messages of people posting news about what’s going on with the border right now, people asking me questions, asking if we can get together, offering ideas of how to continue the research. I have three students who are research leaders for their country team and I see them writing to their other teammates. [Slack] turns out to be a silver lining. On the one hand, the class is really complicated, with many moving parts, many of which are probably going to end up being stalled. But the platform and the communication and the organization are probably going to end up working to our advantage.
I think the College has done the right thing in trying to create policies in the initial instance with students who are displaced, unable to work, psychically impacted, economically impacted – by going Pass/Fail, for example, clearly the College is trying to respond to questions of equity and issues that some of the most impacted students will face and I think that’s absolutely the way to go. I also think that now we’ve liberated from the tyranny of grades, we can just go in and learn and work on this important research and read these important texts. And if you miss one, it’s okay! But here we are! We’re going to be here, three days a week. And hopefully that will be an oasis for some students. I don’t think it will be for all of them, but it will be for some of them. I can already see it, when they’re asking to meet even though we don’t have class.
Could you share a couple of examples either of 1. Particularly interesting research that your students are working on and have been working on well since the move online and/or 2. Some insights/’pleasant surprises’ about your courses, your approach to teaching, your students and classroom dynamic that have emerged and are emerging.
The country conditions research is a really particular kind of research: for the purposes of asylum cases it refers to getting together material that in essence backs up claims that the individual asylum maker is making. We were presented with a series of so-called fact patterns, which is the legal term for the basic facts or circumstances surrounding a case and we have maybe 20 fact patterns. They all involve youth under 18 because we are working with this organization that works with minors and the fact patterns will be things like “boy to whom an LGBTQ identity is imputed being persecuted by local gangs,” for example. Then we need to do research on gang persecution of LGBTQ youth, the status of LGBTQ youth in whatever the country is.
Typically, what happens is lawyers who do these cases very often are pro bono attorneys who may not actually be experts in asylum law at all. They may be corporate lawyers who are doing this on the side. They don't necessarily know anything about Central America, they don’t necessarily speak Spanish. Even if they do, they probably don’t have a lot of time to do this kind of research and so they tend to skim the surface: US State Department reports on violence in Honduras, a New York Times article about domestic violence in El Salvador. They tend to be English language, easily accessed. They don’t have the bandwidth to be able to do a deeper dive.
I think that’s exactly what we have the bandwidth to do, because we have fabulous research librarians who came in and helped us because we have access to journals that are firewalled and because we have the potential to think creatively about questions of source which is one of the main things that historical education teaches. Where do you find information? From whom? Whose voices and perspectives are represented in a given source? How do you find that source? I’m trying to use a lot of the skills that I use as a historian to inform students’ contemporary country conditions research. Even though it’s contemporary, I think the logic of the research is very similar.
Along the way the students are learning research skills and they are again hopefully producing research that is useful for these actual cases. Our research dives into quite specific fact patterns. Asylum law is a very odd, Kafkaesque realm of thinking. Suffice it to say, we're trying to be mindful of how asylum law is organized, the kinds of things that you have to establish in the court in order to win your asylum case, the kinds of information and evidence that are going to be most powerful. We're trying to think about those things as we go about our research.
Please feel free to add anything else that you would like to mention about your courses, your students, your ideas going forward for the rest of the semester.
The College has assumed, as well it should, that instruction for students is potentially burdensome. It requires certain conditions to be able to take place, students feel worried about it, they're worried about their grades - and so [the College] has tried to alleviate that burden.
But I think that also the teaching we do isn’t just a burden for students; it's also an opportunity for intellectual engagement, for political engagement and for social connection. I think that we have the opportunity to seize on those benefits of what we do. It's not going to be the same as if we were in the classroom, but it's definitely better than nothing. I have the sense that one proposal that was floated was simply to suspend instruction for the rest of the semester. I think there was a fear of disadvantaging certain students and I appreciate that set of concerns, but I think that we're doing the right thing in continuing forward. I actually think that we have a lot to give to our students and the students have a lot to give to us and each other by maintaining community and conversation and critical research in the face of this unprecedented crisis.
We are teaching and not even just teaching – we are all practicing adaptation and resilience and community, and that has to be a good thing.