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Social Justice Documentary and the Collaborative Classroom

Social Justice Documentary and the Collaborative Classroom

This year at the Latina/o Studies Association Conference 2016 I participated in the roundtable discussion, "Digital Pedagogies and the Possibilities of Undisciplinarity in the Latina/o Studies Classroom." As fall semester classes commence, I'd like to continue this conversation with all you digital humanties and social justice scholars out there interested in community-based knowledge production, connected learning, and digital story telling. Below is an edited version of my presentation and discussion topics. I hope that people will find the resources useful in the design of future courses, as well as helpful in providing considerations for how to improve upon this existing course model. My goal is to continue to develop this course with the ever-changing intellectual and pedagogical landscape of the university. Here's what I'm thinking about more critically as I write this post: How do we as educators encourage our students to engage in learning outside of the classroom with a purpose beyond "knowledge for the sake of knowledge"? How do digital literacies expand, yet also restrict access to the production of knowledge? How can we balance our responsibility as educators with our commitment to reciprocity in our community partnerships? I'm open to any and all avenues of inquiry that will help me grow and contain the massive undertaking of this course. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


My goal as an educator is to engage students with a critical ethnic studies curriculum, each other, and their community. I believe this should be done both in and outside the classroom. Community engagement is critical to my work as a scholar and documentarian, as well as the vision I have for my classroom.  Since my own scholarship looks at local issues of historical marginalization at the local level, I wanted to give students the same opportunity to participate in critical conversations about the city of Austin, TX where they live. Additionally, I often include a documentary film component in an effort to make my work more accessible to communities beyond the walls of the university. In designing the course, "Social Justice Documentary: East Austin Voices and Beyond," I sought resources on my campus to develop and structure a course that would allow me to implement my unique interests and skill sets in an educational setting, while giving students the opportunity to collaborate on a documentary project with a community organization dedicated to social justice.

Not knowing where to start, I attended workshops for graduate student instructors offered by The Longhorn Center for Community Engagement at UT. Their website offers a complete list of resources for instructors, community partners, and students at various stages of the service learning course process. All documents are available to the general public. I found the Instructor Needs Assessment very useful during the initial planning stages, as well as the Community Partner Needs Assessment. This last document comprised the foundation of my course design in terms of how student groups should approach working with their community organization, and the questions they should ask in order to develop a collaborative relationship built on the core value of reciprocity.

After completing the course design, I ended up with a hybrid ethnic studies, social justice documentary, and collaborative community partnership course. The following is an excerpt from the course description, which I think best reflects the intention of the class:

  • The first half of the course students will gain a theoretical understanding of community activism, social justice, documentary/digital story-telling, and media production.  The second half of the course will provide students the opportunity for a “real world”, hands-on application of those theories through pre-production, production, and post-production processes. Students will learn industry standard techniques and approaches, resulting in a three- to five-minute short documentary to be delivered to their organization at the end of the semester.

I introduced students to basic understandings of social inequities specific to Austin, such as the city's historical segregation and contemporary displacement of communities of color, and how the city is an example of larger national patterns and trends in urban planning and development. We also looked at issues affecting marginalized groups in the state of Texas, such women's access to healthcare and transgender rights and representations. In the second half of the course, student groups formed based on an individual student skills assessment and social justice topic of interest. Groups consisted of three to five students who collaborated with their community organization to produce a short documentary or interactive digital media project that foregrounded their community partner’s commitment to social justice. The following are two of the key course objectives that grounded the second half of the class:

  • To understand our responsibility as social justice media producers and the importance of reciprocity in our work with historically marginalized communities and/or groups who often times do not have the power and autonomy of self-representation within dominant culture.
  • To gain hands-on, real-world experience with community engagement, project management, and documentary production.

The class engaged in critical inquiries about what social justice meant to each of us, as well as what it meant in the larger conversation of social change. During the first half of the semester, we discussed at length the ways in which we as media producers could best maintain the integrity of our subjects’ voices in our fulfillment as project collaborators. We also identified the importance of maintaining their role as students who were present to learn from the partner organization through community-based knowledge production. In the second half of the semester, I wanted to impart on my students the importance of applicable skills and industry standard best practices that would allow them to put critical theory they learned into practice. This included individual research requirements, project management tracking, group presentations, and effective written/oral communication, along with documentary production training. One of my goals was to help students develop multiple skills and forms of professionalization that future employers might find desirable and of value.

The second half of the class was split into three phases: pre-production, production, and post-production. I required each student to maintain a process-production journal that documented his or her learning experience, as well as their group’s progress. Pre-production consisted of student skills assessment, topics of interest workshops, group cohesion workshops, practice interviews, and topic research. Production involved skills training with camera equipment, practice with industry standard production techniques, onsite fieldwork, and filming with community partners. For post-production we were fortunate to have access to the Texas Advanced Computing Center Visualization Laboratory (TACC VisLab), a state-of-the-art facility on campus available to the public and utilized by researchers and scholars from around the world. Students completed editing tutorials from while working directly with the VisLab equipment and staff. This gave students access to group workstations, industry standard editing software/techniques with Adobe PremierePro, and visualization technology for enhancing viewer interactivity.

The VisLab hosted our end-of-semester project presentations and each student production team was encouraged to invite their community collaborators, as well as peers, family, and friends to a public screening of their work. We ended up with four groups that chose to collaborate with community partners on a range of social justice issues. Abigail Borah, Alyssa Hollander, and Lilian Smith produced one of the most notable documentary projects from the semester. Their short documentary, Creating Community profiled Casa Marianella, a housing and resource center for displaced immigrants and refugees to reside during their transition to the U.S. The group chose to explore the intersection of social justice and art as community building. After their screening, students invited audience members to view a digital mural (featured image above) they composed from the various works of art Casa Marianella residents have created over the years.

Student feedback at the end of the semester was mostly positive, but revealed the majority of students wished they had more time to work with their community organization on the collaboration and final project. I received resounding feedback that they learned valuable skills and were grateful for the opportunity to work with the Austni community in a way no class they’d taken before at UT had allowed. Teaching this course was a valuable learning experience for me as an educator, documentary filmmaker, and activist scholar. Ultimately, it's provided me the opportunity to consider different ways to better serve future students and classes, as well as their community partners. I appreciate any feedback and/or suggestions the HASTAC community may have for the next time I teach this course. 


Photograph - José Centeno-Meléndez, Doctoral Student in American Studies at UT-Austin


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