Put students at the heart of pedagogy

30 March 2017 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Robyn Walker.
​​​​​​​“For real transformation to happen, we need to position the student differently to the knowledge – they need to feel themselves 'in' the knowledge” − Distinguished Teacher Award winner Dr Janice McMillian of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching.
​​​​​​​“For real transformation to happen, we need to position the student differently to the knowledge – they need to feel themselves 'in' the knowledge” − Distinguished Teacher Award winner Dr Janice McMillian of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching.

Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens.

McMillan is a senior lecturer in the Curriculum and Course Design team in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) and convenes the Global Citizenship: Leading for Social Justice programme as well as community engaged­-learning programmes and university–community partnerships.

Your work falls under the umbrella of 'transformative teaching', which is focused on nurturing socially conscious citizens. How do you teach these things?

This is a difficult question, partly because I work in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) and so I work across departments and disciplines, but also because community engaged pedagogy is not widespread in higher education.

My sociology discipline is very helpful in thinking about issues of power and how this positions us all, particularly in pedagogical spaces. However, the more I understand my role and self as a teacher, the more I think about the relationship between my discipline and my humanity. In my teaching work, therefore, I engage my discipline through how I understand my humanity, through how I want to be in the world, rather than letting it shape how I engage my humanity. And so the work that I do in community engaged learning constantly asks of me to think about myself, my students and my community partners as citizens engaging the world, hopefully as active citizens.

I therefore see my students simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and citizens. This in turn gives students a sense of agency and an idea of themselves that is bigger than just who they are in their discipline. If we make visible the relationship between student agency and knowledge, students' agency is given space to develop.

Are there hallmarks of good teachers, across disciplines?

The issue of intentionality is very important as a teacher, and perhaps this is one of the hallmarks of a good teacher. I engage my students intentionally, taking cognisance of the relational aspects of teaching and learning. I think good teachers strive to engage their students intentionally and holistically – and in my case, not only as learners but as active citizens as well. I value their human being, their diversity and their voices.

For me, therefore, students, not knowledge, need to be central to the pedagogy. They need to be at the centre of our engagement and we need to learn from them. So often we start with the knowledge, neglecting to realise that students are not empty vessels when they enter our classrooms. We need to find ways to surface the knowledge they already come with.

Linked to this, transparency, honesty and humility are important.

What is the importance of this kind of recognition (the DTA) to you?

I have always loved teaching and I have often had good evaluations from students. However, because my practice does not tick the more traditional boxes with respect to discipline-based teaching at UCT, I was genuinely thrilled to have received the recognition. Perhaps more importantly, the award is not only about me. It is about the field of community engaged teaching, about the colleagues I've worked with on social responsiveness at UCT for more than a decade, about the students who believed in this different kind of teaching and learning, and the community partners who are willing to work with me and my students.

You were teaching during the height of student protest in 2016. Does this make the achievement more meaningful to you, given the challenges?

Transformation isn't inherent in any teaching and learning practice, and therefore not even in mine. The context of the protests and disruptions gave me an even deeper awareness of how teaching and learning relationships can alienate. I am aware of how often students talk about feeling alienated from the course they are doing, and alienated even from themselves. For me, the disruptions were important as disruptions in themselves. They asked that spaces, relationships, language and the university itself, felt these disruptions. In the classroom space, this becomes important and one needs to be more open to new ideas and challenges. This brings me back to the issues of transparency, honesty and humility, and being at all times, cognisant of my positionality in the pedagogical relationship.

Could you reflect on this time, from a teacher's perspective?

One of the debates in community engaged teaching is about knowledge – whose knowledge, what knowledge, is valued where and when. We try to give voice and space to community knowledge or knowledge that sits outside the university. We focus on 'knowledge co-production' a lot and what it feels like to teach and learn at the university–community nexus, at the boundary. I was very aware that the conversations during the disruptions of the past two years had a strong focus on questioning the kinds of knowledge relevant in the university. This is a big and contentious issue.

These were conversations students were having inside and outside the movements. As a teacher, I found that my students were thus not as threatened by the idea that communities have knowledge that is useful and important as I have at times experienced in my classes prior to the protests. Added to this was the awareness that while university and disciplinary knowledge is important, it is limited. This was particularly true for the engineering students I taught. They realised that the community leaders with whom they engaged in my classes would be the community members they will one day work with as engineers, and that these leaders have other kinds of knowledge eg of poverty and resilience, of coping with unresponsiveness governments, of legal systems that they are challenging.

So the disruptions were significant on many levels, and made me realise that community engagement can contribute to transformation of higher education – but only if done with intentionality linked to integrity and transparency in the pedagogical relationship.

What 'floats your boat' in your job?

Working with different students from all backgrounds and watching them engage with each other. My teaching involves very little lecturing and far more group work, so seeing students 'teach' each other, and then reading about it in their essays, is deeply gratifying.


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Distinguished Teacher Award


The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.



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