Applying Classroom Learning and Theories in Practical Ways

How to challenge students to apply classroom learning and theories from course readings in practical ways off campus? How to bring what’s learned elsewhere back into the classroom? This perennial dilemma can be addressed by constantly moving back and forth between praxis and practice. This can be further intensified by asking students to learn from those who went before them and to help teach those who will come after. One student called this “reciprocity.” That’s the theory behind a unit on museums in the Sophomore Research Seminar on Cases and History of Equality (SRS299). With the help of WordPress and guidance from Instructional Technologists, the Seminar asks students to apply theories to three museums.

Students collecting data at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.This past fall, the Seminar’s Unit II asked students to view case studies of movements for educational access and self-determination in the U.S. and Mexico. Then, students undertook a decolonized museum assignment, an assignment suggested by colleagues in Anthropology. Students began by reading theoretical articles by U.S. scholars defining a decolonized museum. They then split into groups of four or five and learned how to use WordPress in a class session run by Jessica McCullough, Instructional Design Librarian. In addition, they consulted recommended websites and YouTube videos that offered pointers on how best to take photos, make audio recordings, and gather other kinds of documentary evidence at the museum for later analysis. Before we left campus, they also gleaned all the information that they could from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center’s website and floor plan.

After spending a half-day at the Museum, students met to create a “rough draft” of their WordPress sites and discuss it with class. The assignment ended there. The goals were to 1) give students a lower-stakes way of organizing their analysis and the evidence backing it up and 2) put this in a format that the current students could leave for future students to consult and expand.  Students did a fine job making an argument based on criteria found in the readings and backing it up with evidence from the Museum. They also endowed the Seminar with three very informative WordPress sites.

Entrance to the Museo Jtatik SamuelTwo other faculty and two students who took the Seminar in the fall are helping redesign it to accommodate up to thirty students and a separate community-based learning segment. The Decolonized Museum assignment will begin with initial historical background on First Nations in Southern New England presented in lectures and videos. Each group will be assigned one of the past WordPress sites from fall, 2015 to begin its work. The introductory background and an opportunity to prepare a research plan within each group will be followed by a series of three museum visits. The first will again take students to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, the second is the Tantaquidgeon Museum, a small, private museum in Uncasville, and the third is a virtual tour of the Museo Jtatik Samuel, in Chiapas Mexico. Spaced a week apart, each visit will require students to make a plan to gather materials, analyze them, integrate them into a WordPress site, and discuss findings. This will create a more thorough educational experience for the students going back and forth between theory and practice, reconciling these and discussing them at each step of the way.

This approach should leave an extensive set of WordPress sites for the seminar participants in 2018. It will also prepare a handful of students for summer internships at some of these museums in CT and Chiapas. Between now and spring, 2017, arrangements for the museum visits and Skype conversations need to be made. And the “virtual tour” of the Museo will be created next fall.  The faculty and staff involved in this Seminar are also continually learning and working as well!

Shortening Distances through Technology

Employing technology in the classroom can shorten distances; this semester student researchers into topics of sustainability and social justice enrolled in SRS/HIS/CRE299 History and Cases of Equality interacted through Skype with counterparts in California, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Peru, and Mexico.

Alumni in each location described how they came to engage in social justice research while at the College and in study away. Critical pedagogy, on-going self reflection, and making study away intentional proved critical in each case. Finding ways to combine activism with research remains core to how they are currently undertaking teaching, law school, and graduate school.

Cuban popular educator Ariel Dacal Díaz visited class September 30th
Cuban popular educator Ariel Dacal Díaz visited class September 30th

Skype allowed the class to learn from and share their own beginning projects the students and activists who have gone before them. Technology in the classroom allowed this to happen during the assigned class period in our assigned room, bridging time zones, overcoming the prohibitive costs of bringing these guests to class in person, and requiring only 30 minutes of their time (half a lunch break for one of the teachers).

The main flaw in my approach to this was not scheduling enough time to reflect on and discuss the Skype interactions in class right after they happened and we had hung up. I also scheduled too many, sometimes two back to back in the same class period. In the final analysis, the students concluded that the class visits by activists and scholars from Chicago and Cuba were more powerful and more beneficial to their own research. Therefore, I will strive to improve the first and continue the second.

Making Global Connections and the Digital Divide

Classroom technology can widen the digital divide and strengthen language barriers and socio-economic inequality. This can happen if we expect all students to have smartphones to complete an assignment, if we expect the classrooms and students that we connect with abroad to speak English, if we assume everyone has internet access, and if we do not actively work to interrupt this cycle. In our College, in our home neighborhoods, in our country, and in our world today, information and communication technology becomes yet another mechanism that awards ever more privilege to the privileged at the expense of the rest, of the majorities.

The courses in the Pathway on Sustainability and Social Justice attempt to interrupt this cycle and to always remain aware of its presence pushing us to perpetuate systems of inequality almost without thinking. To make our Skype connections work optimally, we require extra equipment in speakers, microphones, and especially designed classrooms with screens, projectors, and overhead speakers. We absorb extra staff hours to set everything up and make sure that it works well. We rely on excellent Internet access and a whole team of staff people who keep it working and virus-free. To interrupt the cycle, our staff indicated simple steps and best practices that our “virtual guests” via Skype can take to optimize the communication link with us. To confront the language barrier, we push ourselves to learn Spanish and French, and we take turns translating.

Connecticut College staff and faculty in Chiapas
Connecticut College staff and faculty in Chiapas

Our library and IT staff dedicated time this year to travel to Chiapas to assess the Internet and computer capacity of our partner university—Universidad de la Tierra—and the MSN house that our students, MSN personnel, and we use as living  and teaching space. Through some simple changes to how the Internet is accessed in both spaces, service was sped up. Back on campus, we found Cisco System Access points that possibly could be provided to expand Wifi coverage to the whole UniTierra campus. And we became involved in a project to extend internet access to five rural centers that serve many dozens of rural villages. Each center houses schools, cooperatives, medical facilities, and autonomous governments. There is usually not even cellphone service in these centers. $1,600 in equipment from the Tech Fellows/Mellon Global Initiative cooperation allowed Internet to reach two of these five centers this fall. And a similar amount may bring it to two more.

These changes are making it possible for communication among these two centers and UniTierra as well as making it possible for our students to be virtually present at weekly and monthly public events, forums, and debates at UniTierra and hopefully soon at some of the rural centers. Many more steps remain to be taken but these are the first ones.

How to Best Access and Work with Documentary Footage & Testimonials

One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is that you enjoy more freedom to offer a wide range of courses on topics outside your area of research expertise. Over the years, I have been able to develop and offer courses on Mexico and Cuba, environmental history and social movements, the Cuban Revolution, and race and ethnicity in the US and beyond.

As a specialist in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of my research is with documents, [now rare] books and religious tracts, and occasionally maps, paintings, and examples of material culture. How to bring those items into the classroom and feature them in undergraduate learning has been one of the major challenges that I strive to meet in my teaching at the College and in my publications. I am always searching for websites, museum collections, feature films and documentaries that deal with this early period in colonial Latin America.

Teaching classes that cover the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries offer many more opportunities to aid student learning with access to photographic collections, sound recordings, film, video, and recorded testimonials. Over the years, my classes have benefited tremendously from the Latin American collection assembled by my predecessor—Jeffrey Lesser—and the careful building of our holdings by Lorraine McKinney. As the physical items in the collection age, many of the videos and a few of the DVDs do not work, and staff have made great efforts to track down new copies, or, more often than not with materials no longer available, have made copies or digitized the materials. It is an ongoing job to make sure that what’s in the teaching collection actually works and can be used in the ways I planned when carefully embedding it in class and sending students to use it to extend or complement an assignment. With my cassette tape collection and slides, I also face the same challenges, compounded by the fact that I often need to find and carry around something to play them on. The digitization process is slow, and advances sporadically when staff are able to carve out a few hours here or there for student workers to process some part of the materials that I have collected to teach with.

My dilemmas:

  • As we increasing turn to using streaming video through products like Kanopy video collections, for example, and the in-house replacements of older material is offered in digitized form, I worry how stable and enduring are those platforms and formats? Once great material is found and incorporated, students and teachers want to keep using it and accessing it. So the question of access and how best to ensure it is key for me this year as a Technology Fellow.
  • Increasingly some of this old material as well as lots of testimonials, testimonial collections databases, and activist work is being posted or released online (with or without permission). How to navigate and access on a more permanent basis that online material is part of this broader question.
  • What to make of this material is an important issue for my students, too, because they try to access and interpret material of widely varying quality. Too often they not only do not know how to cite these sources, but also fail to be able to find who made the material, when, where, and for what audience.


  • On my Moodle site for FYS on Cuba I not only placed video materials and links to materials, but I also included links on how to evaluate media sources.

An example:

  • I particularly like what Anthropologist Lynne Stephens has done with both publishing selections from and archiving online all of the testimonies she was given access to by activists, artists, and protestors in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • This is a part of Mexico that the College sends SATA and TRIPS to, and maintains other exchanges with. And even this summer, we are sending a delegation to Chiapas just to the south to build on the partnership there. Among them are connections with the folks involved in community and indigenous radio (similar to what is featured in this video available through Kanopy.
  • Over the years, we have hosted at the College representatives of the Chiapas Media Project who came to talk about their work (and the College library owns copies of two of the videos produced in this Project).