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Q&A: How Paige Andersson is keeping students engaged

Hispanic studies professor Paige Andersson talks about why her classroom is more collaborative than ever.

How do you keep remote students engaged in a way that feels like a DePauw experience?

To make sure that students feel like they have that engagement that they would have had here on campus, I think the key thing is community-building. Are they still engaging each other? As much as we like to think of ourselves as running the show, it's also about what they can do with each other, and how they feel like they're still forming friendships and relationships that then feed into the whole learning process.

That's also been a learning curve for me – how can I best utilize something like a discussion board to keep a rolling conversation going so students know there’s an online community they can always tap into?

Was it challenging for you, personally, to learn how to teach virtually?

I think I did feel a little uncomfortable being on screen all the time because it's strange. But then I started opening up a little bit more, I think. For one of my classes, I actually gave them a tour of my house because, in the typical Spanish class, you learn the different rooms of the house or things about your kitchen or how to make food. And so I ended up doing a lot of cleaning that weekend before I did it, but then I was really excited to actually let them into my life that way: This is my house, this is my bathroom, this is the living room, this is my son's messy room. I think that that actually generated some excitement for me about what's possible, doing things I never would have done before and seeing it as an opportunity.

You’re teaching a course this semester that touches on the national discourse and topics such as immigration. Can you tell us about how that connects to learning a language?

I teach a course on migration from Mexico and Central America, and we are just starting to make it into a more topics-based approach. Each instructor continues to work on intermediate Spanish skills while also giving it a topic of the larger, Spanish-speaking world. But I really wanted to approach it by addressing the things that you hear now from different activist groups like “abolish ICE” or “abolish the border.” What do people mean when they say that? What are those different perspectives, and how do they tie in with the issues that we're seeing here around police violence and Black Lives Matter? Those movements do have a lot of cross-pollination, and they have similar histories in some cases.

When we can make that connection, I think that can help make students feel a greater connection to why they are studying Spanish. For me, it's been an interesting way to connect with current events, and it brings that meaning that I think a liberal arts education should have.

DePauw professors are expected to be more engaged in the lives of students, and you talked about how you're bringing some of these big issues that are on everyone's minds into the curriculum. Does that change how you run a classroom?

Absolutely. I think it has to. The first thing is, obviously, just to be aware that students are working with those different issues, and it ties in to some of the basics of language teaching. One of the first ways a person starts to acquire a language is through talking about themselves. So there are a lot of “I” statements or descriptions about their background. There's a lot of space for that to go wrong – and historically it has. If you look at your standard textbooks, they're very heteronormative; they're very white; they don't tend to offer a kind of natural diversity, even of class. If you look at vocabulary for professions, they tend to be very white collar. That might not reflect the experience of our students. So we need to be aware of those issues and either provide supplemental vocabulary or look elsewhere to help our students learn.

One thing I really like about DePauw students is they will tell you what they think, what's working about the class and what's not. And so I really look forward to opening up that line of trust and hearing from them, “I really liked this” or “I think we could have done this better.” Learning together in some ways is maybe the only answer for some of these questions.

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