Dr. Jing Li on Transformative Pedagogy: Public Places as Educational Sites and Community Building

June 29, 2020

By Shaila Shams and Poh Tan

Dr. Jing Li has recently completed her PhD from the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include sociolinguistics, critical pedagogies, critical multiliteracies in (non)formal educative contexts, and community research in art, culture, and education. She has more than ten years of teaching experience in the higher education sector of China and Canada. In conversation with the Spotlight Series, Dr. Li shared her doctoral journey, her research interests and the projects she is currently involved in. Dr. Li conceptualizes learning not just as a cognitive object to be attained, but more of something that is emerging and indeterminate and that occurs in diverse sites and modalities. Focusing on non-/formal sites such as the community festivals and community writing workshops,  Dr. Li  explores the rich learning experience and different dimensions of pedagogy that these sites can offer. Through her research, Dr. Li contributes to the increasing scholarship of public/critical pedagogy that expands our gaze from conventional to out-of-school settings for education and learning.

Many congratulations on completing your PhD Dr. Li. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jing Li. I come from Kunming, China. I am a passionate dream chaser. I teach and do research in Vancouver, Canada and in China. As a student, a researcher, a teacher, and a human, I am constantly being taught, constantly learning, and constantly unlearning. I have always been fascinated by the complexity, contradictions and diversity of education and pedagogies, and how, where, and when learning occurs.

Please briefly share your research with us.

My research expertise involves using qualitative/ethnographic research methods to examine pedagogical issues in relation to equity, power relations, and social justice in both school and non-school settings. I have a lasting interest in understanding the concept of pedagogy in its many theoretical, practical, and social-political contexts.

My PhD dissertation – entitled Community in the Making: Weaving Places of Learning, Cultural Production, and Community Building within a Community Festival Space in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – draws on non-representational and sensory ethnography, community-based research, relational ontologies, and critical multiliteracies, to examine the interconnections between the community arts, embodied/sensuous learning, and community-building within an urban festival space.

This research largely challenges narrow conceptualizations of education and learning in mainstream educational discourses. With this research, I hope to make contributions to the greater understandings of the public pedagogical importance and roles of community festival – or public places of learning of similar sorts – in transformative pedagogies and embodied acts of resistance.

What drew you to explore community festivals as pedagogical spaces?

It was an organic, evolving process, and was tied to my research interests in critical pedagogy, multiliteracies, and social justice. My interest in the festival grew out of a serendipitous trip to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2013. Back then, I was doing my first graduate course in the program with Drs. Diane Dagenais and Suzanne Smythe. We were asked to do a small course project exploring the literacies and languages at the Festival in the DTES. The first festival event I attended was held in the Carnegie Learning Centre. Community Centre patrons and adult students shared with each other their struggles with mental illness, life stories as immigrants, and experiences of being homeless, etc. The experiences of that event and the various forms of literacy products and activities created by these people who are labelled as socially excluded or marginalized revealed a world to me that was previously hidden from my view.

My interest kept growing as I attended more festival events and received exposure to the intriguing educational and cultural experiences they offered. The longer I was involved in the Festival, the more I was convinced that the festival consists of dynamic performative spaces that are educational in many different ways.

What impact does this research have on current educational and pedagogical practices?

With this study, I hope to join in and make contribution to the larger, ongoing scholarly conversation on public/critical pedagogy. As mentioned above, this research challenges narrow conceptualizations of learning as a fixed, largely cognitive object to be attained. The central idea I intended to express, through the lens of sensuous and critical pedagogies, is that learning occurs in diverse sites and modalities, in ways that we may not consider as pedagogy. This research allows us to see what is happening through critical/multimodal cultural production in out-of-school educative settings, which in turn may enable us to see things that might be harder to recognize in a school setting and allow us to wonder what is being missed in our pedagogy and what it might mean to think of pedagogy as “knowledge in the making, ”- in the words of educator Elizabeth Ellsworth.

You performed a four-year ethnographic research for your study. Could you share some of your experiences and insights for our readers?

This ethnography may be about the DTES community and about a community festival; but it is about me too, about getting to know myself. It involved how I created reality and interacted with others in the realities they created with me. In many senses, this thesis is the result of a shared journey, in which I travelled and moved forward together in an entanglement with other fellow travellers-people whom I studied and learnt with and from. It was in this process that I myself learnt and grew.

Six years ago, when I set out to do this project as part of a coursework , I never knew I would do it for my doctoral research. I connected with people I never would have connected hadn’t I done this project. I made my research part of their experiences; at the same time, I am part of the shared experiences and practices too. When you have your research affect people and yourself in such a meaningful way, it is really beautiful!

It is indeed an intriguing experience. So, what is your plan for the next step?

I hope I can continue with the work that I have done with the festival and the community and bring my research back to the community to work together with community members for positive social changes. Speaking of engaging more with local communities, I am currently involved in a Mitacs Accelerate project, in which I am the intern/researcher. I am working closely with a local cultural organization. In this project, we use qualitative research methods to examine multicultural practices and experiences of immigrant women writers, with a goal to develop a framework of impacting factors that will contribute to the building of effective multicultural communities.

I must add that the research hub, specifically Dr. Cindy Xin  played a vital role in my successfully having been granted the Mitacs Accelerate award. I think it was because of my research work in and with local communities,  that I was contacted by the Research Hub last fall about a potential collaborative research opportunity between Culture Chats BC Association and SFU Faculty of Education. Culture Chats is a non-profit that organizes different cultural programs for community residents to engage with, experience, and enjoy literary arts and other form of arts. You can visit their website for more information at http://www.culturechats.org/. They wanted to do a community-based research project that would record stories of everyday life and multicultural practices/experiences in community through a multicultural lens and from a feminist perspective. I was very interested and felt honoured to join in this exciting project as an intern researcher. Dr. Suzanne Smythe from the Faculty of Education also joined us as the academic supervisor of this project. Then we applied for Mitacs Accelerate Grant and our research proposal was approved in January 2020. I greatly appreciate the assistance and expertise from Dr. Cindy Xin from Research Hub and Allison Brennan from Mitacs, who guided me through the application process.

Great to hear about your collaboration with MITACS.  We are nearing the end of the interview. What would you like to say to our aspiring graduates who are considering research in your field?

I am fortunate to have been able to follow my passion throughout my doctoral career because of the full support of my senior supervisor Dr. Daniele Moore. I would say having a passion in what you are doing and being able to follow that passion are key to successful research. Also, get ready to disrupt the established ways of knowing and seeing things, and to break rules and to feel, think, and write differently.