Teaching Geography through Innovation, Diversity and Inclusivity
As a human geographer two key learning objectives I strive to achieve in my classes are for students to examine and synthesize the spatial characteristics of human and environmental phenomena and for students to test their ideas by applying them to daily life situations. For example, in a lesson in Cultural Geography on the concept of “territoriality” as practices of claiming and controlling space, I asked my students to draw from Steve Herbert’s (1997) groundbreaking book, Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department, to illustrate a variety of factors that shape how police officers control space. Rather than having students enumerate Herbert’s typology of factors called “normative orders” that shape territorial practices of the police (i.e., law, bureaucratic control, adventure/machismo, safety, competence, and morality), I formed teams and asked each to dramatize police responses to a range of scenarios that I provided. Each team had time to discuss the scenario that I typed on a slip of paper. Each team then planned how to dramatize the scenario and reached consensus on the response the police were likely to take. At the end of each team’s performance, I asked the audience to describe the normative orders that were deployed and allowed the team to validate or contest the audience’s response. I then synthesized the team activity by asking students to evaluate the normative orders deployed by each team and to derive possible implications to the ways in which the police control space, using particular scenes in the dramatizations as evidence to support their analysis. I closed the discussion by asking students what they would do differently if they were in the position of the police officers in each of the scenarios and why.
In my classroom, the pedagogical implications of innovation, diversity and inclusivity are paramount. First, innovation-based education consists of an inductive and student-centered process by which students factor a wide range of ideas as opposed to a deductive approach where learning largely centers upon the teacher. To facilitate this approach, I designed each class as an output-oriented learning environment where I identify a clear set of measurable learning objectives (i.e., to create posters for a UN program that illustrate the differences between William Easterly’s concept of “planners” and “searchers,” etc.). I then provide a variety of structures for student engagement based on a particular lesson as well as the mechanics of the delivery of student output whether in the form of class participation, paired work, group presentation or individual research project while ensuring that students experience a flexible environment in which new ideas and practices emerge. In a lesson about “sovereign territorial state system” in a course in International and Area Studies, I organized my class in teams to conduct a debate on a proposition “Nation-states are important to globalization.” Each team argued either affirmative or negative, and presented their arguments alternately to introduce the argument, rebut, and deliver a final statement. Ibrahim, a soft-spoken Global Studies student, earned the loudest applause from the class with his impassioned delivery of the negative team’s concluding statement — matched with air quotes — to argue that “nation-states are ‘significant’ to globalization to the extent that the sovereign state system that allows for the free flow of capital but limits the flow of people actually denies us a world that is truly interconnected.” To choose the winner of the debate, I also formed a student jury tasked to evaluate the performance of each team based on the engagement of concepts in the assigned reading material on the topic, supporting evidence, and overall clarity, organization and persuasiveness of the argumentation. I observed the deliberation of the jury as they examined the strengths and weaknesses of each team before concluding the debate with the announcement of the winner. “Nerve takes a normal section and makes it interesting,” one student remarked, “no two sections were similar whether it was a poster presentation, debate, or a hands-on example of the topics in class. It kept the section always lively. This also helps students who may learn better visually and through hands-on learning.” Another student wrote: “Nerve puts in a lot of effort to make sure that the students understand the lecture material and uses engaging and thought-provoking tactics to develop in his students a deeper understanding of the course materials, fostering intelligent discussion about real world applications of the ideas we discuss.”
Second, my students thrive on the value of diversity that I emphasized in my classes. In my Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course, the lab sessions were typically devoted to a demonstration of a particular mapping skill and troubleshooting. But on Week 6 when students were asked to discuss in the online forum the importance of place names, I began the lab by asking students to read their responses. Ani, a second generation Armenian Political Science student, volunteered to read hers first: “When people disagree about a place name, this can cause tension, polarization and possibly, even genocide.” Aparna, an Indian American senior student majoring in Molecular Cell Development Biology chimed in: “I agree, place names are very politicized. In 1995, one of the largest cities in India was changed from Bombay to Mumbai following the election of new officials who largely come from the Maharashtra region where the word Mumbai actually originated.” Sheena, a highly articulate International Development junior offered a synthesis: “Consequences surrounding disagreements in toponymy can often be political and, to a degree, personal.” As we reflected quietly on Sheena’s response, I made sure to call on Adeola, a shy first year student from Nigeria. In response to my question, Adeola pointed out that “there are several places with offensive names, racist even, and places named after people are barely named after women. When we mapped the cities of the world on Week 3, I found out there are very few cities named after women here in the U.S., and this is 2017.” After closing the discussion by highlighting the importance of the GIS Code of Ethics in recognizing the potential impact of the work of GIS professionals on society particularly toward minorities and future generations, I paused and looked at my students, many of whom are women of color and international students. I thanked them for their engagement and told them that the diversity of our student body is so valuable that it can make a technical course such as GIS especially meaningful and relevant to our lives and the geopolitical conditions of our time. Whether teaching concepts such as “rules of place,” “neoliberal economics” or “cartography,” I underscore in all my courses the relations of power and the processes of marginalization based on race, ethnicity, gender and class inherent to the world we inhabit. Additionally, my experience in the U.S. as a brown, queer, foreign graduate student raised in a working-class household in Manila motivated me to carefully think about how I teach and mentor students from marginalized communities. I find that it has been especially generative for our LGBT students, students of color, undocumented students, students from low income families, and international students to learn from teachers who share familiar experiences of racialized, gendered and class discrimination. Further, my responsibilities as a teacher and mentor illuminated my understanding of the ways in which one simultaneously inhabit spaces of privilege and marginalization, and how the classroom can function as one such space. An awareness of my privilege and marginalization bolstered my desire to volunteer on campus as the coordinator of the annual Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Day (EID Day) to help new graduate students from marginalized communities navigate their first year at UCLA. My volunteer work also taught me a wide range of mentorship practices from various faculty, staff and colleagues across campus and allowed me to offer informed advice to my students about resources such as the Bruin Excellence and Student Transformation (BEST) program under the Office of Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in fostering an inclusive campus climate.
Finally, I see the classroom as a bold opportunity to inspire students from all backgrounds to go above and beyond their goals. All of the courses I teach at UCLA attract students from a wide range of disciplines from north and south campus, different year levels, transfer and international students. An ESL student wrote: “I am an international student and do have a hard time with this social science class. But Nerve helps me a lot.” I also designed an approach that allows students of all levels to gain confidence in conducting spatial analysis in a fast-paced, technology-rich and online learning environment. In my GIS course, I made “skills sharing” a main component of the lab to help students simplify complex technical procedures by giving them the opportunity to explain the concepts they learned to their peers. I formed semi-permanent teams and assigned each to demonstrate a particular skill (i.e., querying, etc.) using a computer attached to a projector and to walk the class through each step similar to “what you see in a cooking show.” Through this approach students gained mastery of GIS by teaching one another in a supportive environment. “I wasn’t particularly interested in the course,” one student wrote. “I had to take it to fulfill a requirement, and I set out to do the minimum. Nerve was so kind and so enthusiastic about the material that I ended up doing a bit more. In the end, it was a pleasure having Nerve as my guide to the meticulous and powerful world of GIS.” Another student remarked: “Nerve was always willing to provide assistance and feedback while pushing students to delve deeper and expand on ideas/applications. Through an engaging and welcoming approach, TA Macaspac instilled students with the drive and confidence to succeed.” Further, I developed assessment tools and grading rubrics that acknowledge student work that exceeds the high expectations I put upon them, and awarded the highest score to work that is truly exceptional. I also acknowledged students who produced high quality work through emails and recognition in class. A student in GIS wrote: “Nerve really expanded on the ideas presented each week and gave us ideas and examples so that we were able to succeed on each week’s assignment. I went from producing C (75/100) work at the beginning of the course, to much better A (95+) work at the end of the quarter. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about map making, data visualization, as well as graphic design and real world applications. This has been one of my favorite courses at UCLA and I now plan to pursue the GIS&T minor.”
My work in the classroom reflects my commitment to academic excellence, student-centered learning, diversity and inclusivity, and critical pedagogy. I approach teaching and mentorship with an appreciation that academic excellence and personal growth emerge not from a controlled learning environment, but within spaces that ignite a dynamic exchange of a multiplicity of ideas. “Nerve is a great, excellent, stellar TA,” one student wrote in an evaluation for my course in International and Area Studies, “and allows everyone the space to express their opinions and dialogue with one another.” A student from my course in Cultural Geography commented: “Nerve is a great and inspiring TA that challenges us to really critically analyze the course materials and figure out how we can change the world. He helps reinforce lecture concepts and clarify confusing things from the lectures or readings. He really helps us hone in on the key concepts and teaches us with interesting and collaborative activities.” Another student in Economic Geography remarked: “He did a great job in student engagement and making us question things like always asking ‘Why?’ and to expand on ideas.”
All of my achievements and endeavors in making my classroom a generative experience for my students are rooted in a desire to promote a critical geographic perspective to people regardless of their ethnic origins, race, age, gender, economic status, physical and cognitive abilities, religious affiliation and political beliefs. Such desire is by no means self-serving. As a public intellectual, I make great efforts to strike a balance between the pursuit of self-actualization and social responsibility, virtues that are embodied in UCLA’s primary purpose as a public research university. But sheer talent and intelligence are not enough to help me fulfill my humanistic goals as a teacher and mentor. As places around the world increasingly become globally connected, feminist geographer Doreen Massey reminds us, there is a tendency to put up more boundaries. In a world that is increasingly shaped with great speed by technological innovations yet becoming more hostile to immigrants, undocumented individuals, refugees, people of color, gay, lesbian and trans* communities, women, indigenous peoples, differently-abled people, and the elderly, I approach teaching and mentorship as inherently scholarly and political practices that are grounded on a commitment to help make a better world. Geographic education is pivotal, now more than ever, in promoting a quality of mind, a set of skills, and a clarity of purpose beyond that of catering to the gendered and racialized labor market that awaits our future graduates. I teach with a high regard to the intellectual needs of each of my students and strive to cultivate their talents and commitment to innovation, inclusivity and positive social change.