When Prof. Funké Aladejebi began her Phd in the Department of History at York University, her focus was – as might be expected – on the past. Her dissertation examines 20th-century African-Canadian women educators and considers “the ways race and gender affected how black women educators taught, how the state reflected their concerns, the ways white womanhood was constructed and how black women may or may not have fit those models,” she explains.
These issues are still prominent in both her research and the teaching she does as a contract instructor at Trent’s Durham Campus in Oshawa. But she’s also merging her course content “more with pop culture and contemporary stuff – which is good, because it’s made me reassess my dissertation and consider the issues contemporary black women educators are still facing,” she says. “For example, at Trent: why are there so few women of colour teaching? How are these issues related to things I embody myself physically and things I do as part of my work?”
Photo credit Jenyo Aladejebi
Her work at Trent has involved teaching first- and second-year courses cross-listed in Women’s Studies, History, and Canadian Studies. In fall 2015, she taught Acting Up! Feminism and History in Canada, with about 40 students, and in winter 2016, Gender Matters: Issues and Contexts, with an enrollment of 108. In all of her courses, Prof. Aladejebi aims to create inclusive spaces for discussion, but she admits this can be hard in larger classes.
“I’ve been trying different strategies to connect with the students,” she says. “First, I broke the class into two sections to encourage more intimate discussions, then I tried several smaller discussion groups. Also, during their break, I make a conscious effort to walk around and get to know them. I’ve also made myself available to students who are more anxious about participating in large groups.”
“Connecting with students is one of my favourite things about teaching,” she states. “That, and being able to synthesize sources of complex information to make it fun and engaging for them.”
But there’s something else: “I really enjoy disrupting narratives and getting people to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable… though I’m not always so sure the students enjoy it!” she says with a laugh. “I want them to feel better about thinking about sensitive topics – often there’s a lot of guilt and shame” when students “come to realize various situations around race and gender. I want to see them reach a place where they see it’s normal to feel uncomfortable about these very difficult things.”
She uses certain readings to help make this happen, including “‘I Was Unable to Identify with Topsy’: Carrie M. Best’s Struggle against Racial Segregation in Nova Scotia, 1942” by Constance Backhouse, a lawyer and professor in the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University. The article is about the “fight to end segregated theatres in Nova Scotia,” Prof. Aladejebi explains. “The article helps disrupt the ways that students understand race and how it’s constructed in the Canadian context. They often know about racism in the United States, and think, ‘That’s bad’ – but Canada also had segregation, in particular communities. So it helps to disrupt students’ historical narrative about race and Canadian identity as multicultural or diverse. It’s sometimes difficult for them to accept.”
Inclusive discussion helps students work through it. In one class, students had polarized opinions around a topic. “A lot of misconceptions and stereotypes came out,” she says. “At one point, I let both sides know that their perspectives were okay – they weren’t all necessarily ‘right,’ but they were okay. Then I said, ‘Now let’s figure out the facts: how do these misconceptions become knowledge? What don’t we know?’ I find that the more I root things in data and facts, the easier it is for students not to take it personally, in terms of their perceptions and seeing how they’re sometimes off base.”
She’s happy to add that the learning is a two-way street: “Students always teach me things, to add to my teaching style and my teaching philosophy. It’s great, and it helps break up the monotony of research.” She notes that teaching a course as large as the one this winter can make it challenging to spend time on her own research. “But no matter what was going on, I set Wednesdays aside for writing,” she says.
Prof. Aladejebi lives in Scarborough and does the 20-minute commute to Oshawa once a week and occasionally comes to campus “to meet students if they can’t meet during my office hours.” On her Oshawa teaching day, she spends five or six hours at campus: “I like hanging out and doing work while I’m there.” She doesn’t often meet the full-time professors in her departments, “But I talk with the other contract faculty a lot. And members of the staff, administration and library communities are really welcoming and helpful, if I have a problem logging in or with photocopying. That’s one of the benefits of a smaller campus—people know you and do their best to help you.”
Aside from teaching and trying to get her dissertation finished, she volunteers by doing anti-oppression workshops “to create more equitable spaces” with Doctors for Doctors, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that offers funding opportunities for rural youth in Nicaragua: “They’re able to go to med school, and then go back to practice in their communities.” She’s also done workshops for Black History Month: “I have a lot of friends who are educators, so they ask me because of my research and training.”
“I’ve had a really good time teaching at Trent – it’s been really fun,” Prof. Aladejebi says. But she is aware of “the realities of the labour market, both for historians and academics overall.” After completing her PhD, she’d do a post-doctoral fellowship “if the opportunity comes up.” She adds, “I’ve always had an inclination to go back into the community to see how my research might influence policy. But my main goal is to continue teaching – that’s what I like.”