My students and I were sitting on a dirt-floor hut in a squatter village on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mexico. Joining me were mostly white, economically privileged students who sought to learn about God from the poor. Our “teacher” was an illiterate mestiza who was patiently answering our questions (with me serving as translator). We asked who God is to her; who is Jesus Christ; who is the Virgin Mary? Her answers, theologically speaking, were frightful. They were a mixture of superstition and popular Catholicism. It soon became clear she lacked orthodoxy – correct doctrine. Then her barefooted boy (about eleven years old) entered the one-room hut with a few pesos earned selling Chiclets to tourists. As she collected the money, she placed one peso aside. I asked her what that was for. She replied that it was for the poor. At that moment, the orthopraxis of this poor woman taught my students (and me) more about Divinity than all of the academic books we have read. Seeing the giving of the “widow’s mite” was more effective than any lecture I could have possibly given.
What is effective teaching? And how do you know it?
Effective teaching entails a response to injustice and oppression. By forcing my students to occupy the uncomfortable space of the marginalized from which to approach religious studies, they are provided with a unique outlook on the normative discourse, a view I believe enhances traditional curricula. Because individuals enter the educational system with a lifetime of experiences and knowledge, I design my courses to bring their suppositions into conversation with those who many may consider have nothing to offer the intellectual dialogue, i.e. the poor woman of Cuernavaca. Only by being organic intellectuals can my students and I contribute toward the struggle against oppression which has become institutionalized. For this reason, my role as a teacher-activist must include participation with the least among us. The praxis of dealing with oppressive structures within dispossessed communities is more crucial than books published by the “experts.” I do not teach or publish just to express my views in the marketplace of scholarly opinions; rather, I teach and write to give voice to the voiceless – to shout from the mountaintop that which is commonly heard among disenfranchised people – to put into words what the marginalized are feeling and doing. No doubt, such a methodology will usually anger those who are accustomed to viewing their power and privilege as a birthright; still, teaching from the margins of society must be done if I, as a teacher, hope to raise the consciousness of my students.
Teaching Principles and Philosophies
The (class)room is appropriately named, for it is indeed a room of class – a room where students learn the class they belong to and the power and privilege (or lack thereof) that comes with that class. The fact that some students are able to pay sufficient money to attend particular rooms of class located on prestigious campuses indicates that they will have certain opportunities which are denied to those of lower economic class, those who are more often than not students of color residing on the margins of society.
Far from being an objective neutral educational system, students who attend (class)rooms can either be conditioned for domestication by, or liberation from, the existing social structures. All too often, the educational system serves to normalize these power structures as legitimate. My task as an educator, specifically as one who calls himself a liberationist, is to cultivate the student’s ability to find his or her own voice by creating an environment in which individual and collective consciousness-raising can occur.
As a scholar-activist, unapologetically grounded in a Latinx social context, I create an environment within the “room of class” that attempts to perceive Divinity from within the social location of marginalized people – that is, those who are usually unable to participate in the (class)room where I teach. Such a process analyzes their reality, a reality tied to perspectives which demands a socio-political response to oppression. A relationship develops between the disenfranchised and intellectuals aware of the structural crises people of color face in the United States.
The pedagogy I employ in my constructed room of class seeks to un(cover) social ethics through the rich diversity found among those who are usually excluded – those who are part of a multiracial and multicultural people. Succinctly stated, what occurs in my room of class is the construction of a collaborative ethics, and the study of its impact upon the reflection of marginalized people who struggle in understanding their faith and vocation as it is contextualized in their lives and circumstances.
How do you continue to develop as a teacher?
I am a scholar-activist, not an activist-scholar. In other words, the emphasis is on my scholarship which is informed by my activism. Hence, as important as it is to be working toward the transformation of society, it is just as important to remain current concerning cutting-edge scholarship. The introductory ethics course I teach, “Analysis and Advocacy,” attempts to model how I personally continue to develop as a teacher.
Specifically, I continue wrestling with scholarship in two manners. First, for the past five years, I participate in a monthly book reading group with my PhD students. They select a scholarly book on ethics which we then analyze during our four hour gathering. The second way which I continue to develop as a teacher is by helping others become successful in the academy. As effective teachers will testify, those who usually lead discussions on how to be a more effective scholar-teacher are the ones that usually walk away from the session learning the most. I found this to be true when I edited a book for the AAR titled Career Guide for Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession; in the two AAR pre-conference chaired workshops I participated in; the yearly Iliff class I teach PhD students titled Professional Development; and in the 2011-12 workshop I am co-designing and leading for pre-tenure Latinx scholars for Wabash.
What advice would you give a new teacher?
The danger faced by new teachers is that they can become an intellectual elite disconnected from the everyday struggle of people (especially the marginalized), and thus have little if any impact upon society. Scholars attempting to overcome this danger advocate connecting the social work done by community activists, and/or the pastoral work done by ministers who serve disenfranchised communities, with the academic work done by intellectuals. These activists, ministers, and scholars attempt to learn from the disenfranchised while serving them as (to borrow a term from Antonio Gramsci) organic intellectuals, that is, intellectuals grounded in the social reality of society, and acting in the consciousness-raising process.
 I am indebted to one of my mentors, John Raines, who would constantly remind me of this fact during my doctoral studies.