DONNA MEJIA: MY PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING

I utilize dance to model integrative learning and expression at its fullest capacity. Every course syllabus I’ve authored contains the following pledge:

How to Get the Most Out of this Class

Speak up with your observations, ask questions and stay involved.  Within reason please permit, uninterrupted, all opinions and perspectives offered in class.  Remember that impatience, anxiety, frustration, withdrawal and self-persecution will get you nowhere fast.  Promise yourself to have fun and find the humor in awkward moments. Facilitate the building of community and look for ways to uplift and support classmates as they strive to improve their understanding of the issues at hand.  Remember that everyone has an off-day now and then, so offer understanding and restrain from making judgments about individuals.  Instead of forcing social hierarchies in class, make as many connections as possible.  As the instructor, I reserve the right to pursue a student’s expulsion from the course for any display of uncivil, disrespectful, and aggressive behavior.  Whenever possible, if you foresee any interference or difficulty fulfilling our stated activities and goals, please communicate with me as soon as you are able to. 

My Pledge to You

I will be encouraging and humorous in my comments with individuals and the group. I will keep class moving, alive and well-paced. I will explain and demonstrate carefully and clearly. I will ensure an open and inviting environment whereby counterpoint opinions and ideas will be welcomed. I intend to give you tools to improve your understanding of and thinking in dance, increase your confidence, expand your boundaries and nurture independence.  I will respect our differences in and out of the classrooms. Your dignity and comfort are important to me, and in return I ask for your courage and open-minded thinking. I will hold myself accountable to the same caliber and standards I am requesting of you. I hope to inspire you to enjoy dance, in whatever way it speaks to you, as much as I do.

My striving for teaching excellence is entirely self-motivated and self-serving.  My loyalty to self and my Creole lineage serve as my first touchstone:  I am the descendant of slaves.  I was fortified by the stories of my family ancestors and their endowment was absolutely clear:  education was our deliverance from a trajectory of manipulation and suffering.

My second touchstone is the advancement of women in all aspects of intellectual, public, political and creative life, until a balance of power has been achieved.  My Creole grandmother was always quick to always remind me that in her day women were not expected to pursue higher education and few institutions permitted their admission.  My time teaching and studying at two historic colleges for women (Smith College and Mount Holyoke College) cemented my understanding of how crucial women’s perspectives are in problem solving.  My personal experience of subjugation, devaluation, trivialization and manipulation remains ever-fresh, serving to fuel my insistence that students of all gender expressions never settle for mediocrity when their minds are what is at stake.

My third touchstone is a private one:  all that I have learned has monumentally transformed my inner life, and I am grateful for the privilege of access to education. Several educators underestimated me.  Once I was accused of cheating on a high school paper because the teacher presumed a Black girl (no-less a dancer) didn’t have the cognitive muscle to write with sophistication and analytical rigor.  At another time my scholarship-winning essay was considered a fluke, and I was denied admission to honors writing courses.  Unlike those teachers, I want to be truly generous and encouraging, always checking my assumptions about young people.  I now vicariously thrill in the growth of the students in my care…it keeps me young at heart and in love with my work to witness their epiphanies and insights.

I consistently teach two front-line courses that actively dismantle racism and perceptions of what dance and cultural expression “should be.”   I was deeply challenged when student papers evidenced skewed, Eurocentric ideas such as how Africa was a “primitive country with savage movements,” or any use of the pelvis in dance interpreted as unilaterally “vulgar.”  Through these experiences, I am perpetually reminded that it is crucial to patiently but firmly help young people evolve beyond a single reference point in their worldview. I am presently teaching an ethics course designed to demonstrate the value of multiple perspectives, relational analysis and situational considerations.

My consistent opportunities in the commercial arena could sustain me, but I have chosen to be an educator because I observe dance to be an immensely powerful tool for critical thinking.  The intrinsic value of art in society is lauded as having a non-descript enriching social component; as if the development of poise, grace, social skills, confidence and expression were all it had to offer.  Beyond these generalities, I hold the true role of dance education to be problem-solving through the cultivation of multiple intelligences. For those drawn to dance, the ability to “think” in images, sensation and movement is equivalent to the skill set of thinking in words.

Most importantly, dance is ubiquitously present in all human cultures, regardless of efforts to legislate or limit its public expression.  The study of dance allows us a view into how we code meaning and signification into our identity presentation and social organization.  The lens of dance is a compelling and entertaining path for students to begin thinking critically about themselves and the world around them.

Many people have strong attachments, projections, misgivings and compromised views about their physical reflection in the mirror.  So the teaching of movement in tandem with critical thinking requires me to design my pedagogical choices to encourage and enable an unfolding of confidence and adventurousness in both physical skill and thoughtful analysis.  Of course, no single approach works universally, and designing a continuum of responsive classroom approaches informs my practice.   Creating an environment for personal insight and explorational safety is the center in my pedagogical considerations.

The management of personal chronic illness, cancer and congenitally disruptive conditions has profoundly informed my choices as a mover, my practices as an educator, and my passion for the craft of dance.  Dance has provided pain management, stress release, philosophical inquiry and restorative range through rehabilitative movement.  I have used each medical interruption as a springboard for deepening my nuanced understanding of bodily process, alignment, and somatic intelligence.  My personal investigations have paralleled private study in a variety of somatic training systems:  yoga, Gyrokenisis, Pilates, BodyMind Centering ™, contact improvisational dance, and contemplative practices.

My priority to create conditions for integrative learning and experiential, critical research has fueled the following classroom strategies:

  • I stress the importance of thorough research, acknowledging that multiple truths may exist for any topic. I encourage and reward methodical depth and detail, moving beyond superficial scanning of the most salient information, or production of movement via minimalist effort.  At times I will assign multiple readings from a variety of authors on one topic, as this allows students to practice discernment and examine their own perceptual filters.

  • Accounting for differences in temperament and learning styles, I value varied methods for students to participate meaningfully: classroom conversation, online discourse through educational platforms, small discussion groups, a variety of test and evaluation models, feedback sessions on draft submissions, and collaborative projects.

  • I validate strong and deep “listening” and receptivity, whether through literary study, communal discourse, or physical investigation of movement capacities. Allowing students to take time with emerging perspectives means I gradually increase the weight and importance of evaluative assignments over time.  Later assignments request stronger personal insights and comparative analysis.  To ease the stress of this increasing demand, I will read multiple drafts of student works, providing both copy-editing and conceptual feedback before their final project is due.

  • I validate the relevance of literary/video materials, movements and music beyond mainstream sources, and outside of the classical cannon of a given subject. Viewings include novel, viral video performances, and exposure to movement traditions uncommon in our part of the globe.  These forms are given equal importance with the Western cannon of ballet and contemporary modern dance in my classes. By the end of each semester, I am awash with links and referrals from students who find exciting sonic or visual treasures inspired by our class time together. Igniting hunger and curiosity is the goal of these strategies, and the results never disappoint.

  • I do not conceal my own vulnerabilities, questions, or current gaps of movement skill or knowledge. I aim to demonstrate that these missing links can be infinitely rewarding to plunge into.  The employment of large doses of humor is applied to approaching to the unfamiliar, because these skills extend beyond class time.  I laugh frequently, high-five, poke fun at my own genre of dance and remind students that nothing is sacred when formulating good questions.

  • Students are occasionally invited to try different and non-western modalities of learning. At times I request that all questions be suspended for 15 minutes while new movements are introduced so students’ powers of observation can grow more salient.

  • I do not insist students “convert” to my views or demonstrate investment in my inspirations. I emphatically believe that their individualism should be dignified and given room.  I task them with examining and communicating their thinking, to encourage their diplomacy skills when experiencing disparate perceptions.

  • I strive to communicate clearly and early regarding expectations. I remind students of our mutual agreements, and ask them to thoughtfully consider why exceptions to our agreements might be warranted.  I work to model excellence through organization, consistency, rigorous questioning, and a willingness to welcome counterpoint views

For some, appreciating dance is an acquired taste and participating in it is unthinkable.   Acknowledging this, I have a distinct goal for dance scholarship in the broader educational community. Everyone has observed some kind of dance and experienced a personal response.  My pedagogical objective is to enable that first layer of response as useful and informative in building self-awareness, sociological analysis, and bodily comfort.  I want my students to believe that they absolutely do not need to be formally “trained” in dance for it to be a valid and functional part of their critical thinking.  I hope to continue teaching many non-majors, and transform the way dance is situated in the human intellectual experience.  Formulating the pedagogy of this emerging form will keep me on my toes for years to come.  It’s both a challenge and a historical privilege I will never take for granted.

Posted on March 3, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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