Enhancing Student Engagement: Connecting Course Content to our Current Political Moment

Featured Faculty


Jallicia A. Jolly    Jallicia Jolly

In Spring 2020, I taught “Black Women and Reproductive Justice in the African Diaspora,” which explores the transnational politics of race, gender, sexuality, and health from interdisciplinary perspectives. It employs a range of texts and methodologies to engage the main debates in reproductive justice around key issues, including sexual and reproductive health and rights; HIV/AIDS; sexual autonomy and choice; sterilization; police brutality; the right to bear children; and abortion, drawing on examples from Africa and the African diaspora (U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America). The course also introduces students to theories about health and illness, embodiment and subjectivity, critical race theory, ethnography, black feminist theory, and postcolonial health science studies.

The course is also designed to include class field trips to reproductive justice organizations in order to ground our inquiries. We were fortunate before the shift to remote teaching this Spring to have been able to visit Smith College’s Reproductive Justice archives, where students were exposed to documents of movement building. Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive justice framework and Visiting Associate Professor of the Study of Women & Gender at Smith College, helped students to see the living breathing practice of integrating intellectual and lived experiences, of applying what they were learning.  

When we moved to remote teaching in March, the class already felt like a community; it really helped that we had had seven weeks in which to build connections and get to know one another. It is important to me to see and attend to the whole person, so I started every class meeting with a personal check-in. Low energy and the difficulty of having collaborative engagement  were challenges in the remote environment. It was clear that some students were living the realities of health inequality and dealing with people they knew who were infected with COVID-19. Also, many students had new obligations once they moved off campus and closer to family. One student of the 14 in the class was unable to attend the synchronous sessions due to the need to meet basic daily survival needs.

In addition to prioritizing daily check-ins with my students, there were several other approaches I employed once we changed to a remote learning environment. First, I foregrounded transparency in my goals for the classes while also acknowledging the difficulties of the process of remote learning. I tried to help students not feel obliged to be at their peak at all times. I let them know that I knew they could do better than the circumstances might allow, and it helped with energy and motivation when students felt I was not being judgmental. An additional aspect of transparency came through the asynchronous class components. I sent weekly announcements, designed to touch base, recap the previous week’s work, and gesture to upcoming weeks. They included quotes to chart connections between course material and the present moment, in which questions of police brutality, anti-black racism, and health disparities were at the forefront.

Second, I wanted to encourage students to use this moment to take ownership of their learning and to rethink the relevant connections of the course to our current political moment. In our last in-person meeting this spring, we created a GoogleDoc of topics the students wanted to engage in the remaining weeks of the semester and to brainstorm final project ideas that were engaged and applicable. I encouraged them to think about the relationship between the work of the class, which combined discussions of theory, case studies from across the African diaspora, and exposure to reproductive justice advocacy and coalition building in communities.

Third, I used several technological tools to facilitate engagement and learning. In Zoom, breakout rooms were really helpful for keeping students engaged collaboratively in discussion and helping them experience a sense of agency. In the full-group meeting I’m framed as an authority; breakouts give students opportunities to connect with each other more intimately while reflecting on how the readings and theory relate to their own lived experiences. Further, we used Moodle forums to link readings to the synchronous discussions. I asked students to contribute one question and one insight about the week’s readings; this became a required component of the course. Two students had to provide reading responses each week; other students needed to synthesize a response to their peers’ reading responses. This provided an opportunity for students to work collaboratively outside of the class meetings.

Finally, I replaced an assignment with a film responses and expanded choices for the final project, providing options beyond a traditional 1000-word paper, to offer two other options: a five to seven-minute video, or a creative project, both accompanied by a 500-word response that nurtures in-depth reflection on the class, honing on a lesson, concept or argument that impacted students’ future learning and experiences.   It was clear that a lot of the students wanted to think rigorously and express their insights beyond what was possible in a traditional paper. Providing options also offered flexibility to help students manage their changed life circumstances—and an opportunity to incorporate what was happening in their home and communities. Students had the chance to explore intellectual questions and urgent social issues, often as they unfolded around them. Student projects included spoken-word poetry, photo sequences with accompanying reflective text, and a body-map of visual stories of reproductive health experiences and advocacy. Through this work, students came to understand how we embody marginalization and that health is not just the absence of illness, but also the ways that power and privilege shape life and death.

As we move into the fall semester, I plan to continue the practice of checking in. It matters to me that we know who is in the room, so we will foreground getting to know one another in this space. We will have very intentional, informed discussions that include the application of theory to the urgency of the current political moment. A collective learning environment is not just an intellectual community, it is a relational community invested in social transformation.