Featured Faculty and CTL Student Pedagogical Partners

Mona Oraby    Mona Oraby

Sophia Friedman image      Sophia Friedman '21


ost students who enroll in my courses have never studied law beyond the North American or Western European contexts. I mean that both in terms of where the students are located when they study law as well as where the law they study lives. They come to my classes eager for a more expansive understanding of law—its history, practice, and meaning. Islamic Constitutionalism (LJST/ASLC 277) introduces students to constitutionalism as a global phenomenon. We examine its history, practice, and meaning as an outcome of normative encounters: where and when at least two legal traditions are combined to create a hybrid constitutional order. Contemporary Muslim-majority societies are an important lens into the question of hybridity because many have recently institutionalized Islam as a source of law in their constitutional frameworks. Students contend with what it means for a religious tradition to be a source of law, which opens up to discussions that decenter modernity in their conceptions of what law is. The comparative approach employed in the class also challenges their assumptions about Islam and Muslims. The tight association of Islam with Arabs that is common in the United States is challenged in this class. The course is organized around issue areas, like sexuality and religious liberty, and how these issues are addressed where Muslims live globally—in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Middle East.

To meet the full range of course objectives, from skill acquisition and development to self-reflection, I aim to foster a sense of community from the start. I know from the first day of class that the material is not only unfamiliar to students, but also that much of what they know is based in misconceptions about people and cultures they understand little about. The work of learning together requires that they feel comfortable early and often to communicate uncertainty—in the classroom and during office hours. By giving them ample space to speak and engage one another, they find their voice. They come to see discussion as a central part of the learning process. They learn to value one another’s perspectives and build community outside of class.

In Spring 2020, I worked with Sophia Friedman ’21 through the Center for Teaching and Learning Student Pedagogical Fellows Program to further hone strategies for inclusive pedagogy. Sophia is my departmental advisee and has taken two courses with me. She was remarkably committed to our collaborative work, even after the switch to remote learning. Through her weekly observation of my teaching and the classroom environment, we came to understand better the learning styles of students enrolled in the course. We developed a range of strategies for different students that would encourage each one to contribute more actively and substantively to classroom discussion. I tested these strategies every week and adjusted as needed, often in conversation with Sophia and based on feedback from enrolled students.

The process of strategy experimentation that Sophia describes in her reflection had an overall positive effect on students’ learning experience. They attest in their end of semester evaluations to the acquisition and development of various skills that are transferrable to other learning contexts. One student writes: “Discussions had a big impact on my understanding of the course material. As someone who participated a lot, I felt comfortable asking questions and contributing to the discussion. My verbal engagement with the material in class was what helped me understand the course material.” Another student describes how the discussion models we followed in class prompted collaboration outside of class: “Discussions were a major component to this course and were how I learned the most. Working through questions with the professor and my peers made the material much more engaging and helped me get much more out of this course than just a simple lecture. She often posed questions that stuck with me after I left class, and learning from my peers was really helpful and made me want to make study groups outside of class, which many of us did, because we had seen how helpful it was to learn from each other.”

The end of semester evaluations also affirm the complementarity of the skill-based learning objectives and those intended to challenge students’ understanding of cultures different from their own. One student writes: “In terms of skills, I think that I have grown in my approach to reading. Our class discussions and Moodle posts drilled into me the importance of finding the argument and where to look within the reading for the argument. Instead of diving into an article blindly, we would break down the framework of the piece to get a better idea of the argument that would be presented. More generally, I had never really studied how law operates in a non-Western context. I had never learned anything about the Islamic legal tradition. Being able to learn more about the history (cultural, political, and legal) of Muslim-majority societies has been very meaningful and eye-opening for me.” Students by the end of the course also felt empowered to think differently about their positionality and equipped to converse with others on topics that were once unfamiliar. One student writes:  “Professor Oraby pushed my imagination and intellectual interests by providing perspectives I had never considered before, such as how my idea of feminism is limited to my experience of living in a western society, and that there are many versions of feminism that are influenced by factors such as one's religion. I did not know much about life or law in Muslim-majority societies prior to taking this course, and I feel like I have a much better understanding of both and can engage in conversations about Islamic law with others in a very meaningful way.”

Reflections from Sophia (CTL Student Pedagogical Partner)

In this course, Sophia worked with Professor Oraby to develop strategies for how to actively involve all students in discussion, both with each other and with the professor. She writes, “One of the issues and challenges that Professor Oraby and I wanted to tackle was how to bring in voices who were less inclined to participate first and take that risk. We would talk during our meetings about specific solutions for specific students. One idea that had come out of a CTL cohort meeting was to intentionally announce a spokesperson for each small breakout group so that that person would feel prepared and confident to report out to the larger group. It was so fulfilling and rewarding when we would see that student take hold onto the tactic we had employed and not only speak in class, but also critically engage. I feel as though this visual example (below) really highlights how we were able to do a bit of trial and error and eventually find solutions that helped students achieve these goals.”

Below are anonymized discussion maps that Sophia created during the class discussions on March 24th (prior to implementation of breakout groups with an identified spokesperson role) and on April 30th (after implementation of this approach to discussions). These maps demonstrate in increase in the number of different discussion threads and contributors to the discussion, as well as the involvement of a student in discussion who was inactive in discussion prior to the pedagogical changes described.

March 24th discussion map

  March discussion map

April 30th discussion map

April discussion map

Sophia reflected on this partnership process, saying, “I think that this work challenged my sense of myself as a learner because it made me realize, on a deeper level, just how each and every assignment, activity, and thing that happens in a class is intentional and designed not just to achieve the course objectives but to improve student learning. Being on the other side of this work as a consultant to Professor Oraby gave me new insight into just how difficult and yet important that work is. I also realized that student learning can take on many different forms and one tactic that may work for one student will not necessarily work for another. This work also revealed to me how important office hours and student feedback are because that feedback is sought and wanted in order for us to create effective changes to improve student learning. In terms of collaborative work, this partnership helped me to think about how to solve issues by stepping into the shoes or perspective of both those with whom I’m collaborating and also those for whom I’m collaborating.”