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KB Dennis Meade

Winter 2024 Interview

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies with a courtesy appointment in the Department of African American Studies.

KB Dennis Meade
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
with a courtesy appointment in the
Department of African American Studies

What sparked your interest in teaching and learning?

Over the years, I realized that my experience as a learner has really informed how I think about assessment and evaluating student work. I attended school in the age of No Child Left Behind. The high school I went to was a new charter school in Manhattan. I was a B+ student in high school because I was involved in too many activities! I was always overextended, and my schedule was absurd having to commute from Rosedale, Queens to Manhattan on the subway and buses.

My interest in teaching and learning also stemmed from growing up in a religious household. At home, we read the Bible as a family. Having a father who was a pastor meant that we always talked about the scripture. It was my earliest lesson on how to engage with written content to then reflect on what I do and how I live in the larger world. My mother taught special education in an inner-city school in Kingston for many years before we migrated to the US. She often shares stories about teaching literacy skills using familiar concepts and objects from their environment to help students learn. My mom is a model for me in this regard.

Once I got to college, I realized that as a learner I needed to always make connections with what was going on in the world around me. What was happening in the classroom needed to connect with lived experience. In my sophomore year took classes in Religious Studies and African American Studies. It was in those classes I experienced the process of learning and reflection that was not present in my other humanities courses.

Over time I’ve learned that I am a process-oriented learner rather than an outcome-oriented one. I recognized that the most fulfilling classes I had were those classes where I could analyze ideas from multiple perspectives and formulate questions rather than fixating on getting the right answers all of the time. I learned how to navigate the world of theory. I fell in love with the life of the mind. For me, it was a different way of learning.

I spent a year living in South Africa doing community work in the Langa township, research at the Robben Island Museum, and apprenticing with an all-women’s local dance group. I learned so much about the interconnectedness among community arts, performance, entrepreneurship, and tourism. I wanted to continue this work; the universe had other plans.

Senior year came and many of my peers were planning to go into consulting, finance, or graduate school. As for me, I remember saying to myself that I am not going into a profession where I’m pressured to relax my hair or present myself in a way that did not feel authentic to me! I wasn't interested.  In retrospect, my decision about a career was based on something as petty and just as important as my hair!

After college, I returned to work for the college prep program I attended in high school. It was an Upward Bound/TRIO program at Pace University. My goodness, that's where I also learned so much about the college application process! It was at the point in my career that had my first opportunity to create my own course on writing the college essay. I decided this wasn’t going to be a nuts-and-bolts class. Instead, I wanted high school juniors to learn the importance of constructing a personal narrative from a place of empowerment in the tradition of Black feminist writers I read during college. I turned it into a class that helped students think critically about the college application essay as opposed to readily adopting the existing model already laid out for them. I wanted them to learn to see themselves and be able to narrate who they were at 18 years old ready to transition to this new chapter in life. This was my first experience as a professional wherein things really started to coalesce around learning experientially and learning through process.

I continued to explore my interest in teaching and learning in my MA program at Teachers College Columbia University. I took classes on education for social change, international educational development, and adult learning. I met so many wonderful pedagogues who became lifelong colleagues. For my thesis, I created a curriculum for teaching the verbal section of the SAT. My ambition for students was that they not only learn HOW to take the test, but also empowered them with the information about the context and use of the test. I was not a good test-taker but did fairly well on the SAT because someone taught me how approach the exam and gave me the critical tools to do so. And essentially, I came out of these experiences with a deep appreciation, skillset, and knowledge around education for social change.

How do you stay current in this field?

I read books about teaching. I save cool articles I find online and tag them “teaching” to access them quickly.  I attend workshops offered by the institution on teaching and learning. I completed an extensive training on remote learning strategies during the pandemic. And I follow scholars on social media who are interested in pedagogy. I also return to my lodestars: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress.

Every year, right before the start of the academic year, I read a book or a few articles about teaching and learning. The last book I read was Radical Hope by Kevin Gannon, a teaching manifesto. I am constantly learning how to be a more organized (!), compassionate, and inspired teacher.

What are your main goals as an educator related to student learning?

I would say that my main goal in the classroom is understanding and appreciating the process of learning as opposed overly fixating on the outcomes. I prioritize the journey. I think the other goal for my teaching has been to lead with trust; for students to trust in their own abilities to take risks, and for me to trust that that they want to be responsive to what I'm offering. This is something that I've developed as of late because I think a lot of how we are trained as academics, and because the public school education system is hierarchical in the way that it is. It is very top down. The dynamic repeats in higher education. The relationship between students and teachers is structured to be antagonistic one because the system is also based on the capitalist model that encourages and promotes competition and the student as a consumer.

I want my classrooms to be a space where students experience that learning is not a zero-sum game. A low grade on an assignment does not mean failure. And that grades are what they earn. I know the function of grades within our educational system. But over the years I’ve begun to ask myself if grades are inherently good? What is their virtue? For me, learning is about cultivating curiosity, patience, and risk-taking. Those are virtues. I think that results in a process-oriented approach to learning that is also experimental.

So what does this all mean for me as an educator and how does all of this translate to student learning goals? I’m still sorting this out. But the first step is understanding who I am as a learner and teacher. I recognize that this is my second year at Northwestern. I’ve learned and mainly taught in small predominantly white liberal arts institutions. I graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine. I taught writing at Princeton University after I graduated with my PhD. I’ve also taught at Rhodes College, a liberal arts school in Memphis.  I believe in the liberal arts model. I’m learning that teaching at a R1 institution is different. But my commitment to myself as a learner and as a teacher is that I do my best to be self-aware of when I become fixated on measurable outcomes too much, where I become enamored with the systems that diminish the value of process-oriented learning. I need to remain reflective about how I am either contributing to or challenging the system.

Why did you decide to co-create rubrics with students? How is it going?

I think once I leaned into trusting my students, it became less about me giving students a grade and more about how to get students to reflect and contribute to their learning. This has been a gradual shift but is more pronounced of late because of how I'm growing as an educator.  Maybe five years down the line, I might forget it. I am at a place where I’m skeptical about top-down approaches. That student assessment reflects the shortcuts we have to make for the sake of efficiency, for the sake of numbers and data collection. And this obscures the experience of the person sitting in front me in the classroom.

I am committed to a certain kind of truth telling around learning. I draw on all my black feminist ancestors about this kind of truth telling and pulling the veil back from the systems that we've become so indoctrinated in that force us into these small containers about who we are.

Creating rubrics is one way to kind of pull the screen back. Essentially, we are coming up with a common language for how we want to talk about and understand their work. It’s a mutually agreed upon language. And it's something that I'm still working through. I continue to read the rich existing literature about rubrics and ungrading. So, when I say that rubrics are co-created, it’s within a larger framework of students co-creating their learning experience with me.

There is this kind of tension between what's mandatory and what's student choice. I want to know how they are doing. I had one student who said to me, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “You know rubrics are important. I'm having a hard time in the class because I'm being asked to write discussion posts, and I'm not responding to a specific prompt.” My response “But you are because I have asked you identify what you found interesting, confounding, and a question you have about the material. You are the prompt. You are identifying these things, and so, just tell me what stands out for you.” And then, that’s where light bulb went off. I think students have a hard time because they think that discussions is where you need to show your brilliance to your peers; that discussion posts are where they show the teacher that they know. And, I'm saying to them, discussion posts are where you can be messy. It’s getting students to tell me what they thought they knew or getting students to say I came in with these assumptions. The equity issue here is that there's an implicit acknowledgement that we're all learners.

This is the environment that I try to develop in which we co-create rubrics. This process takes a lot of time and I’m continuing to refine it. I let students know that I’m still learning and ask for feedback. This is a more humane teaching method for me, and more fulfilling.

Tell us about something you are working on that really excites you!

I am so excited about working more intentionally with the visual arts as part of my research methods. I am in the process of developing a project about death and grief within Afro-Caribbean communities, which I have been working on for some time. I recently returned from a trip to collect footage and images. In addition, I’m in the early stages of research to piece together stories about the lives of enslaved Africans who lived and worked in the households of Jewish slavers in Jamaica during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I'm also excited about my current book project that is an ethnography of a small Holiness/Pentecostal community in Kingston, Jamaica to think about of race, class, and religious placemaking within everyday life.

I recently learned that my human design profile is a manifesting-generator. So, I’m leaning into my superpowers which are creating spaces of experimentation and exploring intellectual affinities. It's this murky but exciting place. It feels great to bring all these pieces of myself into my research in a way that I had to kind of bracket in the past. But now, I'm unfolding into the kind of big thinking, process-oriented, community creator aspects of my personality. And also being able to share that with others and get others to think about that; what that looks like for themselves.

The outcome is to have a good life, or whatever that looks like for us. To be able to love and take care of our people in the ways we are able to. But the path to that outcome doesn’t have to be linear, right? I’m finding myself as a teacher, writer, and researcher and I’m so grateful for our feminist foremothers who modeled and showed us that it was possible to build a beautiful life in hardship; where we are having to be on a linear or forced into a linear path. I'm only now understanding the kind of creativity that I have developed over the years and that I can apply it in this point of my life. I'm always unfolding. We get to choose. And that’s the hard lesson I’ve learned. We get to fail, whatever fail looks like. And I recognize that a lot of the language around failure and linearity is similar because prioritizes measurable outcomes and efficiency at the lowest risk. But we get to choose our paths to those outcomes---whether its learning, teaching, or any aspect of life. So, let’s take the scenic route.

How do you manage the balance between academic responsibilities and personal self-care?

I give myself the time and space to luxuriate in my own experimentations. I need that time. That's what my survival is built on. I cannot survive otherwise, and I have learned that the hard way. I need a space to imagine, create, and dream. Self-care, for me, is practicing good spiritual hygiene. It’s about being in community, re-energizing with people I love, reflecting on what’s next.