Learning as an Emancipatory Practice

November 30, 2018
Dr. Karina Vazquez expands student perspectives through community engagement

Dr. Karina Vazquez, director of the Spanish community-based learning program, and students in her "Narratives of Abnormalities" class arrive at the Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences on the campus of VCU Medical Center.

Historical medical books and tools, laid out by archivist Margaret Kidd, lead to dialogue and inquiry in Spanish.

"There are so many hidden treasures across Richmond," Vazquez said.

The library visit is one of many community-based learning experiences that Vazquez has organized in recent years with support from the Department of Latin American, Latino, & Iberian Studies (LALIS) and Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).

Vazquez’s classes integrate community-based learning in several ways. Students volunteer weekly with an organization throughout the semester, collaborate on a specific project co-designed with a community partner, and learn through field trips and guest speakers.

"The humanities in general, and the pedagogical field in particular, have been enriched by the epistemic shifts (the linguistic shift, the visual shift, and now the sensorial shift) that allow educators and researchers to move across disciplines as well as to see the classroom and the community as permeable spaces for mutual cooperation," Vazquez said. "Community-based learning brings to the classroom the opportunity to rethink what it means to be intellectually emancipated."

This semester, LALIS students have served as mentors and tutors in Spanish and English, created programming in Spanish at area community centers, or volunteered as interpreters at health centers or clinics.

"Knowledge is the result of an embodied learning that happens when students encounter and face different situations that require them to become flexible and sensitive in the interaction with others," Vazquez said.

Several LALIS classes have also collaborated with the Library of Virginia to contribute Spanish entries about different objects and texts for their Document Bank of Virginia, designed for educators and students statewide.

"When these projects become public educational resources, in the way of online collections, performances, workshops, or exhibitions, they become a contribution at the instructional level that opens the door for more diversity and inclusion," Vazquez said.

Community-based learning, for Vazquez, requires layers of attention, but its benefits for the community and student learning are many.

"Connecting content with experience can be at times intellectually challenging as it evolves from students' own experiences within the community," Vazquez said. "But at the same time, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of community-based learning: its potential to invigorate critical thought through new perspectives that result from learning as an emancipatory practice."

This spring, Vazquez will teach two "Spanish in the Community" courses and continue her work to expand student perspectives through community-based learning.