Do the Work

Do the Work

As the end of the semester nears and the rush begins, I found it quite refreshing to read Parker Palmer’s “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” as it reminds me of the purpose behind the work I do in student affairs.  Working with students outside the classroom, it is my hope that my interactions with students and initiatives on which I work prepare students to succeed as professionals.  While I assume their academic pursuits give them competence in their field, it is my hope that students are learning outside the classroom to live out their values and truly care about the work they do.

However, as I began reading Palmer’s five proposal for educating the new professional, I saw some irony.  While I hope to aid students in avoiding externalizing institutions, focusing on emotional intelligence, engaging with community, and working toward an undivided life, I often forget these practices myself when the stress of graduate school arises.  At different points in my experience, I have blamed an organization of which I was a member for problems and saw myself as unaccountable and powerless to fix them, ignored my own emotional needs, withdrawn from community, and attempted to compartmentalize my life.  Yet, these are these are practices I advise students against.

In light of this irony, I find myself thinking about words of wisdom I have heard from Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs, Dr. Patty Perillo, in various presentations she has given: “You cannot take students farther than you have taken yourself.  Do the work.”  Though I have heard Dr. Perillo say this multiple times, each time I find myself inspired to consider how I operate as a professional.  How is my work-life balance?  Am I doing the work that I truly value or just checking boxes?  Am I attune to all aspects of my wellness, including my emotional wellness?  Am I living an undivided life?  Depending on when I ask myself these questions, answers differ.  However, I acknowledge there is always room for improvement, particularly in stressful times, and in my current position, there is no shortage of such time.

While my own opportunities for growth as a professional are ample, I don’t believe they compromise my ability to aid students in their development as professionals.  While I may not be able to take students farter than I have gone myself, I believe my own struggle to achieve the standards of Palmer’s “new professional” simply provide me insight into what can make this difficult for students.  My acknowledgment that my experience is limited also allows me to engage in learning partnerships with students.  I cannot teach them how to be the ideal professional, but we can certainly learn from each other on that path.

Though there is no one answer to progress, I know it is important moving forward to regularly consider how I can be a better professional and live out my values as they relate to my work in student affairs.  How can I ensure that, in my average workday, I am helping students clarify their own values and author their own narrative, the sort of work that drew me to the profession?  Admittedly, it can be hard to find this time when there are so many external pressures to get more done, but taking this time is not just gratuitous and self-indulgent.  This sort of reflection ensures that I am modeling the way and remain able to help students reflect in the same way.  Even when times get busy and my to-do list seems empty, finding time to reflect on my own professional life is necessary to help students work toward there’s.  Simply put, I can’t be too busy to do the work myself.

An Interdisciplinary Conceptualization of Critical Pedagogy

This time, something a little different: a blog posted co-created by myself and some colleagues with different academic backgrounds.


In our contemporary pedagogy class, we were challenged to consider critical pedagogy in groups of peers from different academic disciplines.  Heading into discussion, we each had the context of a separate reading, either by Paulo Freire or bell hooks, and the background that comes with our fields: communication, environmental engineering, higher education, rhetoric and writing, food science, and civil engineering.  Additionally, we had a common background as presented by Shelli Fowler.  To summarize our experience, we opted to compile our notes on critical pedagogy and create a group definition. We then discussed how critical pedagogy could be applied in education in our own disciplines.

Freire and hooks
Freire suggested that education could either control and contain students, or it could empower “students to be critically engaged and active participants in society” (Fowler).  Accordingly, Freire’s critical pedagogy, stemming from the emancipatory and participatory aims he saw for education, “involves not only reading the word, but also reading the world‘ as students think through and examine the structural dynamics and political components as well as the cultures surrounding them. Critical pedagogy has manifested in the U.S. higher education system within classrooms that connect “content with social issues,” eliminate “conventional power relations,” and acknowledge “the personal and political in teaching, learning and constructing knowledge” (Fowler).

In her Introduction to Teaching Critical Thinking, bell hooks reflects on her own early education, where she learned from her teachers that a “good education” “was not just one that would give” students “knowledge and prepare” them “for a vocation,” but instead it was also “an education that would encourage an ongoing commitment to social justice, particularly to the struggle for racial equality” (1).  As a student Stanford, hooks encountered a wide range of teachers — from overtly racist white supremacist patriarchal authoritarian types, to exceptional progressive teachers. hooks writes that progressive teachers “educated for the practice of freedom” and although they were rare, “their presence inspired” hooks, and she set out “to follow their example and become a teacher who would help students become self-directed learners” (3). In the following section, we have offered ways in which we understand critical pedagogy, what our own definition of critical pedagogy may look like, and how, specifically, we aim to incorporate critical pedagogy into our own field / classrooms.

Our collaborative definition of critical pedagogy:

Critical Pedagogy:

  • Uses a teacher as a facilitator, not a total authority on the knowledge – a guide instead of a bank of knowledge.  
  • Encourages questions.
  • Roots the knowledge in the experience of the the learner–being able to answer “so what?”
  • Recognizes learning is inherently a part of teaching, and teachers must be aware of and respect the knowledge and experiences of learners.
  • Takes place in an engaged classroom, where students and teachers work together to cultivate new knowledge, as intelligence and curiosity drive inquiry.
  • Involves facilitating the process of co-constructing new knowledge with students in the context of their own lived experiences; the goal is not for students to learn dominant narratives but achieve the capacity to critically evaluate ideas and create new knowledge.
  • Is an opportunity for a teacher to recognize the power and serve as a facilitator to students while having respect for their knowledge and experiences, encouraging questions and varying perspectives to challenge authority and traditional ways of thinking.
  • Is an approach, a way of doing things differently in order to allow connection  learning with social issues, eliminate conventional ways of exercising authority but also acknowledge the personal and political in teaching , learning and constructing knowledge.
  • Means the teacher is not just a teacher. It’s political, philosophical, critical work. Students are not just recipients, but they are part of the learning process, and thus they should be looking at the big picture and reflect accordingly in class.

Field-Specific Examples of Critical Pedagogy

Rhetoric & Writing, SPM:

In my writing classroom, I engage in critical pedagogy by helping students examine the ways in which texts and images represent the movement of power through discourse. Specifically, I help students think about the ways in which archives, in their organization, structure, and public access, are indicative of and influenced by western, capitalist, patriarchal systems of power. In response, I ask students to write about the ways in which the archive limits or directs their own research. Additionally, I write along with students, for any in-class writing prompt I assign, as hooks suggests in her piece “Engaged Pedagogy.” By writing alongside students, I am able to more fairly and successfully encourage students to share their work, as I demonstrate my willingness to engage in a dialogue about the course material and to think critically through it.

Higher Education, Jake : In my work in higher education, I work with students outside of the classroom, which offers plenty of opportunity to root the learning in their own experiences.  In creating programs for a residence hall, I avoid a prescriptive approach with the goal of co-creating programs with student staff and students. The hope is to engage students in difficult conversations about topics that matter to them.  It is not my own perspective that will help students learn but the process of engaging with a variety of perspectives that students from different backgrounds bring into the room. My hope is that students learn the skills involved in engaging in dialogue and develop their own perspectives that transcend the narratives they held when the entered college.  The primary example of this has been engaging students in all-male residence halls in conversations about masculinity. The topics are loose and can be guided by the students, and staff members merely serve as facilitators so that we may all learn with and from each other.

Communication, M.K. : Combining a variety of perspectives is encouraged and, at times, even expected within communication studies. Freire and Hooks offered expertise that placed an emphasis on encouraging questions, challenging authority, and not being afraid to think outside of the box. In a public speaking class, students come to theirs desks with a certain trepidation, anxious about speaking in front of their peers. Naturally, they start to “group up” with people they feel comfortable with- people like them. To combat this, the instructor breaks up the class into small sections, called “Critique Groups”, which act as their group for the semester. When I split my students up, I try to be intentional about grouping students that may not have communicated with one another previously. My hope is that they will be able to engage and offer their own backgrounds to the conversation.

Here, I feel the need to bring up one of my favorite things, the “Love Language” test. Love languages is a quiz that identifies one of five “languages” with which an individual likes to receive love: quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts. Since everybody has a different background and personality, it stands to reason that people will express and receive love in different ways. Keeping this in mind, I would like to propose the idea of “learning languages”, in which we are able to clearly identify our students’ preferred way of learning within the classroom. In my classroom, I feel like having an understanding of which of my students are visual learners vs. auditory learners, or even people who learn by doing, I believe that instructors can have more respect for the knowledge our students already have. In this way, I feel I could incorporate a more critical approach to teaching, and hopefully learn a thing or two myself.

Food Science and Technology, Oumoule: Food product development stages can be long arduous, it is about creating new product and should be done in order to end up with a standardized recipe. It addresses issues such as : safety, quality and regulatory requirements.

Considering that Critical pedagogy involves facilitating the process of co-constructing new knowledge with students in the context of their own lived experiences, incorporating this way of teaching through activities in a Food science class might be beneficial for students. In industries, scientists come up with new food products that people can go and buy from stores. Such an approach will consist of making students work in group and go through the whole processes of creating a new food product. The main steps they will have to undergo involve ideation (brainstorming new food idea), development stage, consumer, testing stage, packaging stage, shelf-life testing stage, final production stage, test marketing stage and commercialization stage.

Environmental Engineering, AamayaToday, my colleague explained to me that he wanted to go into industry to make good money then come back to teach. He said this because his favorite professor as undergraduate in environmental engineering was a man who worked in industry for 30 years as a design engineer in wastewater treatment. My colleague said that he admired that he would filter through the “bs” for them (i.e., not focusing on topics that were not relevant in the industry he had just spent 30 years in). When thinking about critical pedagogy, I can see how this particular professor could have an authority on knowledge. Transferring his own understanding of what is and what is not important on his students. I wonder how instructors teaching fundamental concepts in water and wastewater design can serve as more of a facilitator. One way I can see this in my classroom is asking students what they think important considerations of designing a treatment process, digging deeper by asking what potential impacts a plant could have on a given community. Hopefully leading them to think about what a local wastewater treatment plant, for instance, could do to the value of homes nearby or recreational swimming downstream.


A special thanks to my colleagues!  This was a post that could not have been written without their contributions.  Note that their blogs are linked in their names in the field-specific examples!