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Faculty in focus: Katherine Lyon on the partnership between Vantage and Sociology

How long have you been working in Vantage College and what motivated you to join the program?

I decided in 2014, midway through my PhD, that I really wanted to make teaching a central part of my professional identity. I sought opportunities to get myself into the classroom, actually into as many different types of classrooms as I could. When my position became available in 2015, I was so excited at the prospect of joining this team. Vantage was only in its second year, so I had the opportunity early in my career to learn about and contribute to program development while forwarding the partnership between Vantage and Sociology. I approached, and continue to approach, Vantage as a hub for pedagogical interchange. Teaching sociology in the Vantage context allows me to identify and reflect on classroom needs, research educational possibilities, and cultivate partnerships to develop innovative learning opportunities for an increasingly diverse student body. The potential to augment sociological teaching through intercampus collaboration is a key reason why I joined a teaching-focused program like Vantage One at a large research university like UBC.

Tell us a little bit about one of your approaches used in your teaching at Vantage

Vantage One courses incorporate several innovative pedagogical strategies, but the one I was most excited by this year was introducing experiential learning opportunities into my Inequality and Social Change (SOCI 102) course. By developing a relationship with staff from UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL), I incorporated the option for Vantage Arts students to engage in service-learning over Reading Week. A quarter of our students completed a 23-hour service placement with several different community partners. One partner was the Vancouver Second Mile Society (VSMS), whose mandate is to improve the lives of seniors living in single room accommodation units in Vancouver’s urban core by establishing social support systems. Students worked with two long-time VSMS volunteers (who were also UBC Alumni) as well as UBC Student Leaders to create video interviews with seniors from the community. This was an excellent experience for both the students and for the community partner. The project helped VSMS a) share the stories and experiences of elder community members, b) increase people’s awareness of the isolated seniors in the community, and c) spread knowledge of the impact that VSMS has created in the community. During and after their placement, SOCI 102 students drew on course material to reflect on their experiences, the needs and institutional positioning of the community partner, the framing of support services as a state or non-profit responsibility, and the structural, intersecting roots of elder marginalization.

What motivated your approach?

I treat the complexity of educational contexts and interactions (within and beyond the classroom) as entry points for thinking, speaking, reading, and writing sociologically. Service-learning is a high-impact educational practice (Kuh, 2008) that incites students’ active development of a sociological imagination (Coulson & Harvey, 2013). I pursued this experiential pedagogy because of its potential to help students apply and reinterpret course concepts while working collaboratively on projects directed by community partner priorities (Mooney and Edwards, 2001). For international students in particular, working with a local organization can cultivate shared reference points among students with diverse life experiences. It can also influence how new international students relate to and navigate their host city. I am hopeful that service-learning in SOCI 102 will provide an avenue for reimagining the nature and purpose of post-secondary education, including the role of the student, instructor, university and community. This interactive experience also offers students who have English as an additional language (EAL) the opportunity to utilize English (and potentially the other languages they speak) in varied community settings.

Are there any outcomes you would highlight?

Reports from students, community-partners, and the Centre for Community Engaged Learning about service-learning in SOCI 102 have been overwhelmingly positive. Core themes from Vantage Arts students on their learning experience this year included greater understanding of sociological concepts, confidence speaking English, and awareness of one’s own learning processes. Students also reported an enhanced sense of belonging and relationship to Vancouver. Below is a sample of the comments from students placed with Queen Alexandra Elementary School and the Vancouver Second Mile Society (printed here with permission):

“Not only can you contribute to the community, but you actually see elements of sociology in the way children interact with you, in their way of thinking, in the teacher’s use of language…. It motivated me to question how education influences a person and how different education feels in Canada versus Ecuador.”  - Karina Ontaneda, international student from Ecuador

“Amazing opportunity to reflect on the social value different societies and cultures assign to seniors…. The ability to apply the concepts we study helps a lot with real understanding.” – Maryo Wahba, international student from Egypt

“It was helpful to work in a group… students can discover abilities they did not know they have…. If you are shy to speak, or struggling with interacting with native speakers, then this is the perfect place.” – Basheer Amin, international student from Syria

“When I was volunteering in the school and helping kids with their work, I felt like I was an adult and part of the society.” – Kristy Liu, international student from China

Are there any challenges you would highlight?

With CCEL staff, I took steps to design this course-based service-learning experience in a way that would be useful for both the students and community partners. Because service-learning is a reflective process that relies on student motivation, we made it an optional course component. Interested students completed an application process with me where they reflected on their goals and commitments and identified the organization they were most interested in working with. I developed unique pre- and post-assignments with Jay Penner (CCEL Community Engaged Learning Officer) and SOCI 102 students co-constructed their assessment criteria.

Despite its many benefits, service-learning can be administratively and logistically taxing for non-profit organizations (Tryon & Stoecher, 2008). CCEL staff were able to address some of these challenges by situating my course within their long-term relationships with community partners. For example, the SOCI 102 experience was project-based (Draper, 2004), with clearly defined outputs in order to fill specific needs that organizations do not have capacity for (such as video development). This video is one such output SOCI 102 students co-created during their placement with the Vancouver Second Mile Society. This project was directed by the non-profit’s priorities, yet was minimally disruptive to the organization’s routines. CCEL also reduced the need for the community partners to dedicate onerous amounts of staff time to training and supervising students. Along with her colleagues, Krista Knechtle (CCEL Student Engagement Coordinator) trained and oversaw the UBC Project Leaders and Student Leaders who supported SOCI 102 students in this placement (in line with the “student intermediary model,” shown to be particularly effective for low-resourced community organizations (Tryon et al., 2008, p. 22)).

What are your next steps?

Next year I plan to further embed pre- and post-placement activities into SOCI 101 and SOCI 102 throughout the term, linking the needs of community partners to course themes regarding the structure of institutions and intersecting systems of inequality. I am working with CCEL to develop these integrated assessments. For students placed with the Vancouver Second Mile Society next spring, activities could include writing mock grants for municipal, provincial or federal funding, mapping community resources by neighbourhood, and tracing seniors’ low-income rates over time.

In what ways has your approach benefited the greater UBC community and beyond?

This collaborative project helps expand and formalize course-based experiential learning opportunities in medium and large UBC Arts classes where logistics tend to be prohibitive. The careful planning of CCEL staff has also helped ensure community partners can maximize the benefits of this service-learning in line with their organizational priorities. In addition, this project contributes to research on pedagogy. Through collaborative research with Kerry Greer and Thomas Kemple (UBC Sociology) and Susan Grossman (CCEL), I am documenting students’ experiences with course-based service-learning in comparison to other active learning pedagogies often used in sociology through a SoTL Seeds Grant. The next project phase will develop resources for sociology instructors integrating service-learning into their courses.

Works cited

Coulson, D., & Harvey, M. (2013). Scaffolding student reflection for experience-based learning: A

framework. Teaching in Higher Education18(4), 401-413.

Draper, A. J. (2004). Integrating project-based service-learning into an advanced environmental chemistry

course. Journal of Chemical Education, 81(2), 221-224.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2015). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your

classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mooney, L. A., & Edwards, B. (2001). Experiential learning in sociology: Service learning and other

community-based learning initiatives. Teaching Sociology, 29(2), 181-194.

Tryon, E., Stoecker, R., Martin, A., Seblonka, K., Hilgendorf, A., & Nellis, M. (2008). The challenge of

short-term service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning14(2), 16-26.

Wright, M. C. (2000). Getting more out of less: The benefits of short-term experiential learning in

undergraduate sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 28(2), 116-126.