Course art exhibition teaches expression about social justice

The ways instructors present social justice topics in the classroom provide a roadmap for how others see the world. Cornell’s Spanish courses have always focused on social and cultural issues, which are central to learning a language.

Having taught about migration before and taking inspiration from Cornell’s Grand Global Challenges and the Migrations initiative, Emilia Illana Mahiques and Macarena Tejada López, lecturers in Romance Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, wanted to explore more about this issue in Continuing Spanish (SPAN 1230).

Through a faculty micro-grant from the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI), Mahiques developed a new module exploring migration more comprehensively in the course. She piloted the materials over the summer, and other instructors continue improving the original materials.

The new module grounded discussion in human rights and a broad conception of borders. The instructors also expanded the assignment, asking students to explore any social justice topic. Their goal was to present alternative stories and understandings of a range of issues expanding upon typical discussions of migration.

Tejada López and Mahiques organized a final art exhibition to help students connect more personally with migration issues. This was also a way to share alternative stories about social justice and migration.

Alyssa Nowicki ’23, appreciated the open assignment and said, “I liked being able to express ideas in a course that is not synonymous with my field of study.”

“We also wanted this to be a sensory experience,” said Mahiques. “We decided that an art exhibition would be a much more complete experience than simply having students write or speak in Spanish about their topic.”

Students worked on their art projects for a month, either individually or in groups, and then presented their work to their classmates.

Four students in a line, looking at a table
Serge Petchenyi/Cornell University Students in SPAN 1230 analyze artwork created by their peers to learn about expressing ideas on social justice.

To engage students with additional topics, Mahiques and Tejada López received a grant from the Language Resource Center (LRC) to exhibit the works from all course sections in Willard Straight Hall on December 7, the last day of class.

“[The exhibit will help others] see how learning a language can integrate learning about social justice,” said Angelika Kraemer, LRC director. “The project supports development of intercultural skills and community engagement, and it facilitates student self-expression.”

Kraemer especially liked the collaborative nature of the project and its connection to other disciplines and faculty.

Students in the course, most of whom are not Spanish majors, agreed with Kraemer.

Both Daniela Arana ’25 and Ash Pagedemarry ’25 liked the range of topics and types of art they experienced at the exhibit. Pagedemarry said, “Many [classmates] stepped out of their comfort zone to take on challenging art projects.” The projects ranged from posters and three-dimensional dioramas to digital art, podcasts, and paintings.

“Students were also very excited to show their work and explain how they developed it,” said Tejada López. “It was a unique opportunity to spend time in class and speak on very different topics, and it kept students highly engaged.”

Tori Varlack ’22 used the assignment to further explore the consequences of gang violence that she had worked on in a previous trip to Honduras and link them to migration and educational barriers in Latin America. She found bringing her own experiences and perspectives to the assignment to be fulfilling.

Mahiques and Tejada López acknowledged the challenge of planning and developing the exhibition, but they hope to continue the assignment because of the high level of student engagement. Tejada López said, “Students get to talk about an issue in their own way, and that gives them a lot of freedom.”

Mahiques said engaging through art helped create a safe space for exploring controversial topics and an opportunity for students to learn to express themselves about social justice.

Contact the CTI for more information about the faculty micro-grant program. Contact the LRC for details on LRC Grants.

Dave Winterstein is a communication specialist at the Center for Teaching Innovation.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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