My philosophy of teaching is largely informed by my early graduate teaching experiences in Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies classrooms where generative contention, collaboration, and intellectual exploration are practiced and valued. As a response to feminist theorist bell hooks’ and Jeannie Ludlow’s charge to shift our understanding of the classroom as a necessarily “safe space” to an inherently “contested” one, I build learning commons that encourage students to interrogate the operations of oppression, privilege, and (cultural) power from a critical race feminist perspective.
Recognizing that classrooms do not exist outside of systems of power and privilege, I incorporate several critical reflection activities that I have used in my past role as an equity, justice, and inclusion administrator. In my “Survey of American Literature” course, for instance, I have students complete a social identity wheel exercise. The social identity wheel includes categories such as age, ability, class, gender, race, and sexual orientation, among others. I then ask them to write a brief follow-up reflection where they consider aspects of their identities that align with or run counter to, normative categories of social identification. I also complete this exercise and share some of my responses to mirror the accountability, collaboration, and openness I want us to practice in the classroom. On the second day of class, I extend our social identity discussion to debates regarding the inclusion of multiethnic literature in the American literary canon. To get us started, I ask students to reflect on the following Toni Morrison quote: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” We then put this quote in conversation with an assigned excerpt of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. This pairing allows us to dissect what it means to render and (re)produce whiteness as race-less and the discursive silences and historical gaps that this racial unconsciousness, as Morrison puts it, produces in our nation’s literature, history, and culture. Moreover, it invites students to consider how literary and cultural workers and those who read, interpret, and assign value (and “universality”) to specific texts, do not exist outside of ideology or systems of power. These “contentious” conversations are, of course, not easy nor comfortable ones to have. Yet the contested classroom invites students to express their thoughts and work through potentially problematic ideas/notions that they have been taught by family and/or society without the anxiety of being reduced to these ideas.
The contested classroom, moreover, invites intellectual exploration and risk-taking. Though I include “traditional” assignments such as literary analysis essays in my courses, I also incorporate collaborative projects that mix traditional and non-traditional forms of research and writing. My assignments, in turn, range from creative podcast projects to collaborative Google mapping projects. By translating their research into public and multimodal mediums, my students consider the significance of making their research accessible to diverse communities and learn to adapt their writing for varying purposes. They also learn to think of themselves as scholars and budding experts on a particular topic. In terms of writing-intensive assignments, I combine guided scaffolded writing tasks with writing workshops and flexible grading policies in order to encourage students to experiment with their writing/ideas, to approach difficult theoretical concepts with curiosity, and to openly make mistakes without the fear of being rendered academically inadequate.
The contested classroom, as a site of generative contention, collaboration, and intellectual exploration, makes room for “conflict” without necessarily being reduced to/defined by conflict. Indeed, leaning into “discomfort,” to borrow bell hooks’ phrasing, ultimately allows me to “teach in ways that transform consciousness, creating a climate of free expression that is the essence of a truly liberatory liberal arts education.”
What Students Are Saying
“Prof. Vado is very approachable, an effective communicator, and overall a pleasant person and therefore an enjoyable professor, which all makes it easier to be engaged in her class. She does a good job of “leveling out the classroom” and by that I mean she does not often assert herself or her own opinions, which is important in a critical thinking class. She structures a basis for the class but does not spoon-feed us ideas.”
“Professor Vado is very much so a challenger. She challenges the ideas society has put before us and expanded my view of the social problems throughout the world. She created an environment in which everyone could speak freely and openly.”
“I LOVED her class. I never in a million years would think that I would like a science fiction class. Thank you for challenging us to think critically and apply what we learn in class to real-world situations.”
“Prof. V is brilliant. She is eloquent in what she says and she makes people feel comfortable to speak. This class deals with some difficult topics but she does a great job of teaching us in a way that doesn’t make us feel stupid.”
“Professor Vado is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. She is excellent at posing challenging and thought-provoking questions that I believe have drastically enhanced my analytical skills. In addition, she has been the most compassionate and understanding instructor I have had at the university so far which I think is essential in making a quality professor.”
“Professor Vado was truly an amazing teacher. I was impressed with the structure of her course because she used pieces that built upon each other with perfect transitions for the entire 16 weeks. She put in a lot of thought and effort in her class and valued her students’ opinions. She created a safe space for discussion and critique. Her assignments allowed for creativity and were open-ended allowing students to draw their own conclusions.”
“Professor Vado’s [Introduction to] Latinx Studies course has to be one of my best classes for my first semester. This is because it was based on free-thinking and discussion, and I believe this to be one of the essentials when learning any subject.”
“As a Puerto Rican Dominican Haitian, this class [Introduction to Latinx Studies] has done wonders for me. I learned so much about my people which was the first time that has ever happened. Most of the Latino Studies classes I have taken have been mostly about Mexico and Spain. This class talked about everything in the U.S. and Latin America. Also, it heavily addressed the anti-Blackness within the Latinx community which is never addressed. This class was unapologetically real. I appreciate how this was an exact representation of what happened and is happening in our community.”
Sample Student Work/Projects