Activating Humanities Knowledge: Human Rights Pedagogy and Community-Based Education

Ajay Heble, Guelph
April 25, 2017

The following is an excerpt from Ajay Heble’s Introduction to Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education, a book (edited by Heble, with chapters by his former students) published by University of Toronto Press in Spring 2017. For more information, or to order the book, please visit University of Toronto Press.


The Challenge: Calling All Dreamers

Students in the humanities can play a vital role in mobilizing, indeed in activating, their knowledges in ways not conventionally associated with their university-level learning experiences. The case studies discussed in this book offer compelling glimpses of some of the innovative ways in which students have sought to set the broader community abuzz with a series of events that have had people (from academic and non-academic communities alike) engaging in lively debate and discussion about a host of vital issues of public concern. These events emerge in response to a challenge I present to the students at the outset of my courses: Take the initiative, I tell them, to do something about struggles for social justice. Imagine moving beyond the walls of the classroom, and building a relationship between academic work and activism in an effort to make interventions in the broader community. Dream big, I tell them, and choose an issue you care about. In responding to that challenge, and in working towards their community-facing projects, the students have found themselves doing things they didn’t necessarily expect to be doing as part of a literature or humanities class: working with media, building coalitions, participating in forms of community outreach, learning how to organize a conference, building links and negotiating differences with others across a broad range of constituencies, participating in event management and community organizing, writing fundraising letters and grant proposals, understanding how best to influence policy, learning how to mobilize institutional resources, and so on. They’ve begun, in short, to rethink their understanding of the places where they look for knowledge and to confront some of their assumptions about what constitutes (and what counts as) research in the humanities.

And just as we need to encourage our students to think rigorously about the assumptions governing their interpretive practices, so, too, do we, as teachers and educators, need to put a fair bit of critical pressure on our own understanding of how we do things in the classroom. In an essay on civic engagement, community-based learning and the humanities, David Cooper puts it this way: “No longer directing from the sidelines or articulating abstractions from behind a podium,” we, as community-based educators, now find ourselves engaged in “a pedagogy that demands a great deal of preparation and planning, but at the same time requires spontaneity and flexibility. We [have] to give up some expectations about what should happen in a college [or university] classroom. In the process, we [find] new ways of thinking about those questions that all of us in higher education ponder: Where does the learning take place, and what do I want my students to take away with them?”[1] These questions needing to be asked about education, I would suggest, mandate fresh new ways of thinking: They demand a willingness to take risks, to resist orthodoxy, and to trouble settled habits of response and judgment.

…a radical reorganization of our priorities as educators seems very much to be in order.

All of which brings me to the central argument in this book: the need, put simply, for classroom action, for a radical rethinking of our pedagogical practices and priorities in order to cultivate opportunities for students in our classes not only to reflect, but also to act on the connections between what they learn or do in their university classrooms and how they come to understand themselves as socially responsible citizens. The point here is that if the exercise of human rights becomes meaningful not only through the existence of covenants, declarations, and treaties, but also as a result of the broader cultures of consciousness and obligation that might help transform those rules into acknowledgement and action, then a radical reorganization of our priorities as educators seems very much to be in order. This book thus seeks to advance an argument and an agenda for a pedagogy that is grounded in the struggle for human rights and social justice. While such an agenda is in keeping with the Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education (1995 to 2004), as well as with the objectives articulated in the follow-up UN World Programme for Human Rights Education, it remains at odds with all too many of the reigning assumptions in current educational practice, particularly those that frame teaching and scholarship within the context of marketplace logics and priorities.

Such an agenda, I must confess, is also at odds with so much of what passes for engaged scholarship and teaching in my own discipline of the humanities. Lennard Davis, for instance, in his provocative book Resisting Novels, expresses concern about how the very act of reading (and, by implication, teaching) novels inhibits social change because we allow our consideration and analysis of the transformations that characters undergo (from blindness to insight, from self-deception to self-revelation, and so forth) to become a kind of surrogate for any form of external change. Do texts in an English class, Davis’s work invites us to ask, become “sites of resistance” or arenas for dialogue, such that we don’t bother to act in the real world? Is there a danger that criticism functions only in the classroom, that it doesn’t purposefully get extended to those in the broader public arena who are engaged in struggles for human rights and social justice? Does theory (as it has become axiomatic in many humanities classrooms) run the risk of becoming so highly specialized that it may have very little to say to those who don’t, by profession, belong to the intellectual class?

Think also of George Steiner’s devastating critiques of the failure of the humanities to intervene in a world of barbaric and catastrophic offenses. In his essay “The Muses’ Farewell,” originally given as a lecture in the Netherlands in May 2000, Steiner tells us:

It may be that the resources of imaginative identification, of the engagement of feeling are more limited than meliorist optimism had posited. It may be that the ability to concentrate on, to respond to abstraction or the fictive, deflects from concrete immediacies, from a confident and ‘answerable’ grasp on surrounding social and political reality. Grief over Cordelia, immersion in a Mahler adagio, the world-banishing contemplation of a Vermeer . . . stifle the cry in the street. The more alertly vulnerable our affinities to great art, music, poetry, metaphysics or the Siren-songs of learning, the less acute our hearing of human need, of political savagery, the less empowered our reflexes of action.

For Steiner, as Robert Scholes tells us in his 2004 MLA Presidential Address, “The Humanities in a Posthumanist World,” “the humanities not only fail to humanize, they may actually dehumanize, by putting a concern for texts in the place where concern for other human beings ought to be found.” Such arguments, unfortunately, ring true: We too often, I would suggest, pride ourselves on the fraudulent and misguided belief that an attention to matters of race, gender, class, sexuality and diversity in texts offers us sufficient purchase on the urgent ethicopolitical struggles being waged in the public arena. But I’m not ready just yet to give up on the work that I do; after all, I’m still teaching, I’m still professing literature. I still want to hold onto the conviction — so compellingly articulated in Doris Sommer’s book The Work of Art in the World — that art matters, that it can function as a vital agent of social and cultural change. In Sommer’s words, “interpreting art, appreciating its power to shape the world, can spur and support urgently needed change.”[2] Sommer documents how projects that may often begin as works of art don’t necessarily stop there: “Instead,” she writes, “they ripple into extra-artistic institutions and practices. Humanistic interpretation has an opportunity to trace those ripple effects and to speculate about the dynamics in order to encourage more movement.”[3] And the cases discussed in the chapters that follow, of course, give me hope, as do the many students whose projects, commitments, and wisdom continue to inspire me.

As a teacher of literature, one of the things that has been a particular source of inspiration for me is the fact that so many of my students have, in their community-engaged work, chosen to focus, in one way or another, on the transformative potential of stories. Notice, indeed, that many of the chapters in this book emphasize the importance of storytelling, of narrative, and of performance practices in struggles for human rights. This (and the nature of the projects that have emerged from my classes) may well have something to do with the particular literary texts I have asked them to read. Two of those texts, Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories and Daniel Brooks and Guillermo Verdecchia’s play, The Noam Chomsky Lectures, have explicitly given rise to projects (Guelph Speaks and Haiti Held Hostage respectively) addressed in the chapters that follow. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that King’s text and Brooks and Verdecchia’s play both contain their own forms of calls to action. King ends each chapter (originally delivered as public lectures) by telling his readers (or listeners) to “take” the story they have just read or heard. “It’s yours. Do with it what you will,” he says. “But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”[4] A similar kind of gesture involving the transfer of power happens at the end of The Noam Chomsky Lectures when Brooks and Verdecchia, in effect, hand over the play to their audience. They call for the house lights to go down and for the audience to look at one last slide from Noam Chomsky (about Canada’s quiet complicity in human rights abuses). Before they leave the stage, they ask the audience to consider the slide and then, when people have had enough, to call out “Lights” for the play to end. In other words, the play won’t end until a member of the audience takes responsibility and explicitly calls out “Lights,” thus suggesting that he or she has had enough of (literally and metaphorically) being in the dark (about Canada’s complicity in rights abuses). Here, as Brooks and Verdecchia would have it, is the challenge: we’ve seen the play, and now it’s our turn, our responsibility, to act.

“If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives”

Any analysis of why so many of my students turn to issues of storytelling for their community-engaged work (and this is so not only with the case studies under consideration in this volume, but also with other community-projects initiated by my students over the years) would certainly need to take into account the particular texts we’d read in class that semester, as well as the conversations (and, perhaps, also the calls for action) sparked by those texts. But worth noting, too, is that there is, by now, a provocative body of scholarship that’s evolved around a related set of issues. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith have, for instance, written wisely and deeply about the role that stories and testimonies have played as essential catalysts “to affect recourse, mobilize action, forge communities of interest, and enable social change”[5] in relation to human rights and social justice claims. Human rights educator Sherene Razack and critical legal theorist Richard Delgado focus more broadly on the urgent need to engage in what Razack calls “storytelling for social change”: stories that recast the identities and histories of aggrieved populations and that promote self-representational counter-narratives that enable an enlargement of the base of valued knowledges. Indeed Razack’s notion of “storytelling for social change,” like King’s insistence, via Ben Okri, that “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives,”[6] has proved to be a tremendously powerful source of insight for students engaged in community-based learning. In Razack’s words, “For many of us who would describe ourselves as teaching for social change, storytelling has been at the heart of our pedagogy. In the context of social change storytelling refers to an opposition to established knowledge . . . to the experience of the world that is not admitted into dominant knowledge paradigms.”[7] In advancing an argument for forms of oppositional storytelling in the context of law, Delgado writes, “The main cause of Black and brown subordination is not so much poorly crafted or enforced laws or judicial decisions. Rather, it is the prevailing mindset through which members of the majority race justify the world as it is . . . The cure,” he argues, “is storytelling, . . . counterhegemonic [storytelling to] quicken and engage conscience.”[8] What’s at issue here, as the case studies that follow make clear, is the need for human rights educators to present alternative narratives and other perspectives than those promulgated by dominant knowledge producing elites, to radicalize public understanding by productively unsettling consensual understandings of history, memory, and agency. When the stories that circulate widely in the public domain so often crowd out opportunities for dissent, and when they — in the name of “freedom,” “development,” “democracy,” and, ironically, sometimes even “human rights” — so often fail to serve the interests of the very aggrieved peoples who bear the brunt of human rights abuses around the world, when control over the means of communication is so heavily concentrated in a few elite corporations, there is, I believe, a great deal at stake in our efforts, as humanities educators, to intervene in the popular understanding.

“pedagogy…must also be infused with the possibility of using interpretation as a mode of intervention”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that storytelling should take on such vital significance in so many of the projects described in this volume. From Canada’s complicity in enabling the overthrowing of a democratically elected leader in Haiti, to access to mental health services for culturally diverse populations, to what it means to be a citizen in our home communities, through to stories from marginalized or seldom-heard voices in Guelph, and about the barriers (broadly understood) that prevent people from engaging with educational processes, the chapters that follow offer (to quote again from Razack) an “experience of the world that is not admitted into dominant knowledge paradigms.” They also, I would suggest, serve to activate diverse energies of critique and inspiration, and in this sense, they remind us that critical pedagogy, as Henry Giroux writes

. . . is about more than a struggle over assigned meanings, official knowledge, and established modes of authority: it is also about encouraging students to take risks, act on their sense of social responsibility, and engage the world as an object of both critical analysis and hopeful transformation. In this paradigm, pedagogy cannot be reduced only to learning critical skills or theoretical traditions but must also be infused with the possibility of using interpretation as a mode of intervention, as a potentially energizing practice that gets students to both think and act differently. … Critical pedagogy … takes seriously the educational imperative to encourage students to act on the knowledge, values, and social relations they acquire by being responsive to the deepest and most important problems of our times.[9] (emphasis added)

Like Giroux, I want to encourage opportunities for students to activate their knowledge, to intervene purposefully in the broader communities in which they live and work. In my classes, I draw on the work of Robin Kelley to address “anyone bold enough still to dream.”[10] I thus call on all dreamers to experiment, to take on new challenges, to move outside their comfort zones, to act on the conviction (as Portuguese sociologist and human rights scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos would have it) that “another knowledge is possible.”

The notion, as Giroux puts it, that pedagogy needs to be understood as a “potentially energizing practice that gets students to both think and act differently[11] is, as I noted above, consistent with some of the key objectives and principles articulated in United Nations Plan of Action documents dealing with human rights education. “Introducing or improving human rights education,” the Plan of Action for the United Nations World Program of Human Rights Education, for example, tells us, “requires adopting a holistic approach to teaching and learning, by integrating programme objectives and content, resources, methodologies, assessment and evaluation; by looking beyond the classroom, and by building partnerships between different members of the school community.”[12] In the context of working towards such a holistic approach, this notion of “looking beyond the classroom,” or what bell hooks calls “teaching community,” ought to be central to our attempt to reflect on the key transitions (and, indeed, the most pressing and contentious matters) currently animating the theory and practice of education. At an institutional moment when complacency and careerism tend to be the orders of the day, we urgently “need a new breed of citizen scholars who can identify not only with the institution and discipline but also with community,” as Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt argue.[13] Indeed, when my students reflect on their own experiences with forms of community-based learning, so many of them come back again and again to how refreshing it is when our classroom work invites us (students and teachers alike) to think rigorously about the relation between theory and practice, especially when so much of what we do in the university “tends to be about career advancement and competition” (their words), and when so much of what we do in our classes is (again, in the words of my students) “about saying things that we don’t necessarily mean or that don’t have much relevance to people’s lives.” Students firmly believe that what they can gain from community-based educational practices, from pedagogy that looks “beyond the classroom,” differs markedly from the knowledge they derive from more familiar models of education. In contrast to the passive, compartmentalized, and decontextualized brand of learning (think of Freire’s banking model of pedagogy) that gets promoted by rote exercises that call for memorization and regurgitation (only to be forgotten when term tests and exams are over), community-based learning is very much in keeping with key principles articulated in the Plan of Action for the UN Decade of Human Rights Education, specifically that education “shall be shaped in such a way as to be relevant to the daily lives of learners, and shall seek to engage learners in a dialogue about the ways and means of transforming human rights from the expression of abstract norms to the reality of their social, economic, cultural, and political conditions.”[14] “Looking beyond the classroom,” in short, seems to me to be one of the fundamental principles and strategies that ought to define a pedagogy that’s mindful of ethics and social responsibility. In times when we’re increasingly being called to account for what we do, and when, in fact, we need to find purposeful ways to respond to the anxiety, in particular, that surrounds current debates about the relevance (and future) of humanities research and teaching (an area too often viewed as having little or no social instrumentality), community-based education for human rights not only offers a resonant opportunity for teachers and students to be explicit in articulating the public relevance of the work we do in our classes, but also productively and purposefully reminds us that learning is an ongoing process of inquiry that is linked in complex ways to notions of democratic citizenship.

Tearing Down the Classroom Walls: The Community as Classroom

The cases discussed in the chapters that follow directly take up key questions about the role and purpose of education. One of the texts referenced in many of these chapters, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, compels us to think honestly, critically, and rigorously about our teaching and learning practices. If Freire is right to criticize what he famously calls the banking model of pedagogy (and to suggest that it creates passive and unthinking citizens), if he is right to suggest that we need to find ways to resolve the teacher/student contradiction, then how might we do this? What teaching methods can we use to foster democracy in the classroom, to reconfigure the traditional teacher-student relationship associated with the banking model? As we ponder such questions about our teaching and learning practices, it is, I think, worth recalling that the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1995 to 2004 the UN Decade of Human Rights Education. As that decade has now officially come to an end, we should take it upon ourselves to ask what such a proclamation has meant (or ought to have meant) for us, as teachers and students. How might it change the ways in which texts are taught, discussed, and written about in the academy? What kinds of pressures does it put on the curriculum, and to what extent does it require us radically to rethink our teaching practices? Clearly, as many critics have noted, a human rights culture and consciousness cannot simply be legislated through government policies. Nor, I would suggest, can human rights be institutionalized simply through changes in educational practices and priorities: social justice, after all, is not likely to be achieved through the inclusion of, for instance, new books on our course reading lists. Yet one of the most compelling, and indeed urgent, challenges for pedagogy has to do with showing how the critical and analytical skills that our teaching seeks to foster are related, in complex ways, to matters of public consequence. And taking this challenge seriously means reflecting rigorously on just how education can participate in the transformation of unjust relations.

…we need, I think, to develop a more rigorous understanding of how (and with what impact) alternative pedagogical institutions function in our communities.

In the context of such a challenge, I’m determined to locate a sense of hope in the recognition among a growing number of educators that human rights education necessitates a commitment to taking teaching and learning outside the walls of the structured and formal classroom setting. This is, indeed, one of the central lessons in bell hooks’s book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope:

Teachers who have a vision of democratic education assume that learning is never confined solely to an institutionalized classroom. Rather than embodying the conventional false assumption that the university setting is not the ‘real world’ and teaching accordingly, the democratic educator breaks through the false construction of the corporate university as set apart from real life and seeks to re-envision schooling as always a part of our real world experience, and our real life. Embracing the concept of a democratic education we see teaching and learning as taking place constantly. We share the knowledge gleaned in classrooms beyond those settings thereby working to challenge the construction of certain forms of knowledge as always and only available to the elite.[15]

If we take seriously hooks’s insistence that we must attend to the ways in which teaching and learning are going on constantly (and not just in formal educational settings), then we need, I think, to develop a more rigorous understanding of how (and with what impact) alternative pedagogical institutions function in our communities. In re-envisioning schooling as part of our real world experience, in making the community our classroom, we also, as the essays in this volume make abundantly clear, need to recognize that the privileged research sites of the academy can so often be at odds with the situated knowledges, the vernacular cultures, the concerns, and the priorities of the broader community. To what extent, then, do students and faculty at the university have the right to design projects that represent and engage with the community? And, as the chapters on Guelph Speaks!, Haiti Held Hostage, and “Guelph is Skin Deep,” in particular, ask, to what degree are University students qualified to take on such projects? To what extent (and in what ways) can they successfully negotiate the right to speak from a place of privilege and to assume the role of change-makers or leaders in the community?

Our case studies suggest that, for all its inspirational value and its real world impact, the process of community change-making can be messy, complicated, and unfinished, especially when it emerges out of the context of a university classroom. The tight confines and institutional constraints associated with university-level course work — the twelve week semester format, the need to receive a grade, the protocols around research ethics, and so forth — come up as critical pressure points repeatedly in several of the following chapters, as do the more searching and complex questions about issues such as privilege, collaboration, and sustainability. What’s at stake in our efforts to tear down classroom walls and to make the community our classroom is the vital need to deepen our commitment to understanding that the sorts of initiatives that have emerged from such a focus on community-based learning and human rights education must be part of a living curriculum. A course on social change, in other words, involves a lifelong process of learning. It doesn’t (or it shouldn’t) simply end when students complete a 12-week course. Nor, for that matter, should we, as educators committed to community-based learning, allow ourselves to become complacent, to settle into (or to settle for) a kind of orthodoxy in our teaching practices.

Tearing Up the Course Outline: Unfinished Pedagogies

In his epilogue to the important anthology Human Rights Education for the 21st Century, J. Paul Martin reminds us that, that “Every curriculum in human rights imposes choices and therefore exclusions. The most important step is to make the exclusions consciously.”[16] The authors of the chapters that follow all seem to take this advice to heart. All highlight the extent to which (in the words of Elizabeth Jackson and Ingrid Mündel in their contribution on “Access Interventions”) community-based pedagogies are “necessarily messy, partial, [and] inadequate.” All understand that the teaching methods and learning strategies employed during their projects are very much works in progress, always improvisational, responsive, adaptive, and emergent. Such a recognition is in keeping with Giroux’s claim that pedagogy, in its fullest and most realized sense, ought to be understood as being “part of an always unfinished project intent on developing a meaningful life for all students.”[17] Freire, too, makes a related point: “Problem-posing education,” he tells us in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality . . . The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity.”[18] The fact that several of the projects described in this book have, in one form or another, continued to live on beyond the life of the class, that, in the case of Guelph Speaks!, The Other End of the Line, and Haiti Held Hostage, all have successfully sought ways to ensure some form of continuing institutional support and ongoing replication of their efforts, also speaks to the unfinished nature of such community-facing pedagogies. Moreover, as Gregory Fenton tells us in his chapter, “I walked away from the semester with a sense that my perception of education, my role as a student, and my understanding of community had been radically shaken. But, more importantly, I was able to practice and develop what would become skills that I valued as much as any I had learned before, skills that would continue to inspire and propel me into an ethical way of thinking about work and education.” As all the chapters that follow, indeed, make clear, the students who designed and implemented the community projects described in these pages are still exploring, still learning, still asking questions. Living with the consequences of such un-finalizability is not always easy, and it can be tempting to reflect on our projects with after-the-fact rationalizations that seek stability, predictability, and security. Refusing, however, to settle for easy solutions or to glory in a nostalgic or utopian assessment of the impact of the community-based projects that emerged out of our classes, the essays in this book offer honest and frank, if oftentimes hopeful and always inspiring, analyses of what it means to engage in community-facing projects as part of a university-level course.

In an effort to acknowledge some of my own curricular choices and exclusions, and as a way of encouraging students to develop new and even deeper ways of reflecting on the fundamentally unfinished nature of the work that they are doing, I often, towards the end of my courses, ask them to tear up the existing and institutionally-sanctioned course outline that I gave them at the start of class, and to replace it with one their own making. If you were teaching this course, I ask them, what texts would you choose? What kinds of assignments would you set? And how would you grade them? I ask them to think rigorously about issues such as what we teach (curriculum), how we teach (pedagogical strategies), and why we teach (sense of purpose), and to offer a detailed rationale for their particular choices (of texts, assignments, methodologies, etc.). And, again, wanting them to think about choices and exclusions, about the messy, partial, and unfinished business of community-based education, I urge them to consider, too, the limitations of their efforts.

How does one grade the kind of community-based learning that happens in these classes?

Having students in these classes design and rationalize their own course outlines is part of my attempt to engage them more fully in the educational decision-making process, to encourage them to negotiate and to test issues such as course design, classroom practices and procedures, and grading schemes. Grading almost always emerges as one of the critical pressure points for students engaged in community-based learning in the context of a university course. And while much of the literature on critical pedagogy is inspirational in its focus on the democratizing of classroom practices, on disrupting conventionally institutionalized notions of our authority as teachers, it tends to be relatively quiet on the subject of grading. How does one grade the kind of community-based learning that happens in these classes? Although I, like many of my students, might much prefer to work with a simple pass/fail system, the constraints imposed by the academic institutions within which we work mandate that I assign a final numeric grade for all students registered in my courses.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various grading models largely based on self-critiques, peer-evaluations, or some combination of the two, along with my own ongoing input into the assessment process. The first time I taught my graduate seminar on human rights and pedagogy, it was, as Elizabeth Jackson and Ingrid Mündel point out in their contribution to this volume, to a large and relatively fractious group of students who decided to work on a single topic for their community intervention. Although they had, to be sure, done a number of other gradable assignments in the course (including in-class seminars and written reports), they chose, as a group, to be graded exclusively on their final community-facing project. And (here’s the interesting part) they insisted that they all — all seventeen of them — should receive the same grade. Well that, as you might imagine, involved a tricky (and well, yes — messy) set of negotiations as I prepared for the flak I would be sure to receive from my department, from graduate studies, and (since this was, after all, my first time teaching this kind of course) from who-knew-where-else. The negotiations involved, among other things, working with the class to do an in depth reading and analysis of the University of Guelph Senate regulations on grading policies, and to facilitate a process whereby they would draft a detailed document of their own that would be used to establish methods and criteria to evaluate their work. Although students, when given this kind of opportunity, are often initially keen to take on the responsibility to develop their own criteria for evaluation, many of them, when reflecting on the process years after the fact, will tell me that never again would they want to go through such a thing. It’s so much easier, after all, to fall back on the conventional model and to let the teacher assign the grade.

More satisfying, for me and for students, is a model I’ve adapted from Ira Shor that allows students literally to make the grade. In his book When Students Have Power, Shor describes grading contracts as a way of sharing power, redistributing authority, and negotiating through dialogue.[19] I’ve found that a modified version of such contracts can be a particularly effective way of assessing community-based learning in university classes. Here’s how it works. When students are designing their community-facing projects, I meet with them to discuss their goals and objectives. Once they’ve adequately negotiated their goals and objectives with me (and this often involves quite a bit of back-and-forth work), I ask them to tell me what kind of grade they feel they should receive if they meet these goals. And if they fall short, in what ways, I ask them, would they adjust the grade? Students, in other words, are, during the planning and design phase for their projects, asked to think carefully about goal setting, and about how they will measure the impact of the work they are proposing to do. If they meet their goals they will, in effect, make the grade they have set for themselves. I like this grading model for a number of reasons. As Shor suggests, it’s a way of sharing power with students and of redistributing authority in the classroom. Moreover, since the goals, objectives, and contractual arrangements are mutually negotiated, it means that we’re engaged in a genuinely dialogic process of knowledge exchange. It also, of course, gives students a sense of their own active participation. And, as Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, Rob Zacharias, and Paul Danyluk point out in their chapter on Guelph Speaks!, the importance of addressing and respecting the role of students as active participants in critical, community-facing pedagogy — rather than as its passive objects — is a vital thread that runs throughout this book. Needless to say, the student-activated achievements reflected in this volume are a tremendous source of pride for me as a teacher: They speak very powerfully to the ways in which university level work can establish a genuine foundation for vital forms of civic engagement. And herein lies a message of hope.


[1] Cooper, David D. “Can Civic Engagement Rescue the Humanities?” Community-Based Learning and the Work of Literature. Eds. Susan Danielson and Ann Marie Fallon. Boston: Anker, 2007, p. 15.

[2] Sommer, Doris. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2014, p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 7.

[4] King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2003, pp. 29, 60, 89, 119, 151.

[5] Schaffer, Kay and Sidonie Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 3.

[6] Quoted in King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2003, p. 153.

[7] Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in the Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, p. 26.

[8] Quoted in Scheppele, Kim Lane. “Forward: Telling Stories.” Michigan Law Review 87 (1989), p. 2075.

[9] Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Continuum, 2011, p. 14.

[10] Kelley, Robin. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon, 2002, 7.

[11] As I’ve tried to suggest throughout, I have found the work of Giroux, hooks, Freire, and other theorists and practitioners of critical pedagogy to be profoundly inspirational, especially for its emphasis on the democratization of the classroom, the focus on student voices and dialogue, and its much-needed critique of the banking model of education. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this work has sparked some provocative assessments. See, for instance, Elizabeth Ellsworth’s oft-cited article, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering?: Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy,” which suggests that some of the “key assumptions, goals, and pedagogical practices fundamental to the literature on critical pedagogy—namely ‘empowerment,’ ‘student voice,’ ‘dialogue,’ and even the term ‘critical’—are repressive myths that perpetuate relations of domination” (298). Ellsworth asks, “What diversity do we silence in the name of ‘liberatory’ pedagogy?” (299).

[12] United Nations General Assembly (2 March 2005). Revised Draft Plan of Action for the First Phase (2005-2007) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education. A/59/525/Rev.1 Web. 16 Feb. 2012. Paragraph D18.

[13] Nelson, Cary and Stephen Watt. Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy. New York, Routledge, 2004, p. 37.

[14] Plan of Action, United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), GA 49/184 of 23 Dec. 1994. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. Paragraph 6.

[15] hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 41.

[16] Martin, J. Paul. “Epilogue: The Next Step, Quality Control.” Human Rights Education for the Twenty-First Century. Ed. George J. Andreopoulos and Richard Pierre Claude. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, p. 606.

[17] Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Continuum, 2011, p. 4.

[18] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2008, p. 84.

[19] Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 20.

Ajay Heble

Ajay Heble

Ajay Heble is the founding Director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI), and Professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. He is the author or editor of several books, and the founding Artistic Director of the award-winning Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium (www.guelphjazzfestival.com). In his teaching, Heble has sought to develop pedagogical strategies that foster connections between what students learn or do at university and how they come to understand themselves as socially responsible citizens. The final “assignment” in his courses often takes the form of a “pro-active, community-facing intervention” which challenges students to move beyond the walls of the classroom in an effort to make collective interventions in the broader community. The excerpt reprinted here is from a book-length collaboration with some of his current and former students, focusing on human rights and community-based learning.

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