TLEF snapshot: First-year Arts students learn with legal nonprofit

By Heather McCabe posted on December 21st, 2017

Heather Latimer is a lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice and in the Coordinated Arts Program (CAP) at UBC. She discussed with us how her Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) project which received funding in 2017 will help integrate community-based experiential learning into CAP’s Law and Society stream by having students work with a legal nonprofit organization.

How did the idea for this project emerge?

Heather Latimer: Sure, I teach in the Coordinated Arts Program, which is a first-year program. They call it a gateway program. It means that it helps bridge students into university. And students take separate, but they’re linked, multi-disciplinary classes in the Coordinated Arts Program, which is CAP. I teach in the Law and Society stream, which means all the students that come in are interested, or sign up for anyways, a program that talks about the relationship between law and society from different disciplinary perspectives. And so a lot of them want to be lawyers, and a lot of them are interested in the legal profession. If you polled them the first day and asked them, “How many of you want to be a lawyer?” I would say 90 percent of them put their hands up, and then the other 10 percent say, “Something to do with legal work.”

And so that really was the beginning of thinking about these students who seem to come into the university with a really focused idea about what they might want to do and are already community oriented. They sign up for CAP because they’re interested, obviously, in some sort of communal learning experience. And I started thinking about those two things together and thought perhaps it would be interesting to bring the community into the classroom, and them into the community, and do some sort of community-based experiential learning with them.

So this year—this is what I got the funding for from the TLEF—they’re working with Pivot Legal, which is a Vancouver based legal advocacy group that focuses around issues to do with human rights. And so the students are getting an experience where they can start thinking about themselves in relation to, specifically in this case, the legal non-profit sector and what kind of skills they might need and why, for instance, because I teach the course in the law and society program that has to do with academic writing in English. So why it is that evaluating a source, or learning how to do a literature review, or thinking about how to do library research are actual skills that they will need and that will carry them through into something like what kind of work Pivot does.

The idea is that they can start thinking of themselves partly as what they’re doing here is part of a larger, maybe current trajectory. But also that the skills they’re learning here are ones that are valued highly in legal professions in the larger community. And so it really came from the specific needs of these students in this program and them saying to me, “I want to be a lawyer.” And so I thought, “Okay, great. Why don’t you meet some? And we’ll take it from there.”

How will the project help enrich student learning and how will it impact teaching?

HL: My goal in my team student learning is I think they’ll be able to make links between what they’re doing in the classroom as related to the legal profession’s and to the community’s needs. For instance, because I teach the academic writing component of the Law and Society stream, they learn a different variety of genres. They learn how to do an academic summary, and they learn how to do a literature review, and a close reading, and a research paper. But this year, they’re also going to learn about legal advocacy writing. So they’re going to do an assignment that’s directly related to the needs of the community partner, to Pivot.

And so they’re going to be able to write a letter to the MLA or an op-ed. So their learning is going to be enriched in this way that’s really practical, but also hopefully will teach them something, teach them the skills that the course already is designed to do. It’s just that it will have this really practical application now. So I think that their experience will be enriched through that. And then also I think it’s going to be enriched greatly through the critical reflection in the time that they’re spending thinking about their experiences with the community partner. So they have opportunities to do service work for Pivot. Pivot’s coming here to talk to them. Pivot’s going to look through some of these letters to the MLAs and op-eds that they’re writing. Pivot has suggested that they might be able to help some of the most exemplary ones get published, maybe with Rabble, which is an online alternative news site.

And so there are these really profound and interesting ways that the students will be able to see themselves as making public scholarship and contributing to a communal or community or public idea of knowledge production that I think most first-year students are not exposed to. That might be something that you might think about if you sign up for Trek or went into your third or fourth year and you start to make some of these links. But I think this will be, I think it is actually the only community-based experiential learning unit for first years across the campus that might be happening at least in Arts in CAP. And it’s partly because they’re in this yearlong program that allows for them to have these more enriched, active learning experiences.

As far as for me, it’s really interesting in that it’s enriched my teaching experience in that I’ve never done this before. I’ve never worked with a community partner and had to accommodate my classes to their needs, thought about how I design or scaffold assignments to get the students to a point where they can do an op-ed in a way that will reflect Pivot’s interests, as well, and meet what they are hoping to achieve out of this experience. It’s given me a sense of thinking about how what I do in the classroom is not, and I mean I already knew this, but it’s really driving it home, that I don’t just assign assignments for assignment’s sake, that students should have learning objectives and outcomes that really are designed specifically for what I’m hoping they’ll achieve in class.

So putting this extra group of people who also have needs and figuring out ways to have conversations with the students and with the community partner and all these moving parts at once has really pushed me towards thinking about active learning and why the students, for instance, need extra time for reflection this year to get their heads around what they’re doing, everything from just the logistics of how do you get people into the community. There are 100 students in our CAP stream. Are we all taking the bus? What will that look like? How do I make space in my syllabus? How do I measure all this? How do I know if it’s been a success? How will I design the course in a way that allows me to get an understanding of what the community partner got out of this, what the students got out of it? So yeah, it’s been really exciting for me, as well, and enriched my teaching a lot.

Is the project starting this year?

HL: Yes, so it started in September. I’m lucky in that I have my students in CAP for six credits, for the whole eight months. And so, Pivot is coming in next week to do a lecture for them, and the majority of their service work is actually next term. But because I’ve had these extra four months, it was really mandatory, actually necessary, to start a lot of this legwork first. I mean first-year students come in to the university—it’s been a long time since I was a first-year student—but first-year students come in and it’s very overwhelming. You maybe have never seen a syllabus before. Some students have never lived anywhere else. They’re figuring out time management for the first time. They’re dealing with a whole new set of expectations and learning all these new ways or genres of writing and of research and learning how to do a whole set of new skills. And so I think having the first semester to prep them to talk about what’s the point of CBEL [community-based experiential learning], what are we going to get out of it, why are we doing this, what are your fears about this, what are you excited about, and to reflect on that and get ready has been really important. I don’t know if it would have gone the same if, for instance, they were asked to do something with a community partner within the first three weeks of September. I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to do this is because I have them for eight months. So it’s a yearlong project.

What are your main goals with this project?

HL: Main goals? That the students will make concrete links between what they’re doing in the class and how that is related to potential career paths, to start to see themselves as engaging or thinking about these things from the beginning of university, also that students will have a more concrete understanding of the ways that the university and the community are already enmeshed. I think sometimes people think, “Oh, you’re the university, and the community is out there.” But I would like to break down that divide a bit for the students so they can see themselves as part of the larger community, as members, as contributors to, as shaped by what’s happening around them, that it’s not just at UBC, but also the larger community of Vancouver. And then also to really have the students think about the fact that they’re in the program, about the relationship between law and society. They approach it from different disciplinary perspectives, but to understand that there is both the knowledge that we produce in the institution and then what people do with that outside of the institution, the ability to understand that say, Pivot works with homelessness. It’s one of the major areas they focus on. And they might rely on some of the research that intellectuals and academics do here around policy in a really concrete and everyday way when they go to court.

And so the students, I think, through this will have the ability to see that what people do here when they produce research actually forms policies, and that is has real world applications, that people are in relationship with the kind of intellectual inquiry we’re doing here. And I’m hoping that will be something that not only happens first year, but will follow them through the next four years or more that they are at UBC.