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Jen Marchbank’s community activism guides teaching philosophy

March 05, 2020
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Jen Marchbank’s stellar teaching record has earned the professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies a 2019 SFU Excellence in Teaching Award.

Marchbank considers teaching to be a privilege and wants her students to leave her classroom informed, excited, and enthusiastic to learn more.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate that an academic’s job is to teach, because if we don’t teach, we don’t have students and we don’t have revenue, so there’s no place for us to conduct our research,” she says. “I’m also a strong advocate for putting our most talented teachers in the early classes so that students get a sound grounding across the board.”

One student’s comments sum up the general tenor of responses to Marchbank’s approach to teaching, describing her as “patient, understanding, enthusiastic, accessible—one of the best profs I’ve ever had.”

Rather than separating teaching, research and community activism into silos, Marchbank intertwines the three. Her own community-based research into the politics of care, gendered violence, refugee settlement, LGBTQ history and gender variant youth informs her teaching and helps her students to realize the potential of experiential learning and action for social justice.

For example, graduate students in one of her courses conducted a commissioned research project that resulted in the commissioning agency, DIVERSEcity, receiving funds to create a new service for LGBTQ refugees in Surrey, B.C.

She has also involved her graduate students in a series of LGBTQ oral history exhibits that she spearheaded for Surrey City Hall. And as director of She Talks, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young women, she asks her students to help with programming for a weekly radio talk show she produces.

Marchbank is always seeking ways her students can demonstrate successes beyond just exams and essays.

“If I can get students to engage, that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “I’m not about students rote learning. I try to devise my courses and assignments in ways that students can show off what they do understand.”

Her creative course content and assignment options include film analysis, short-answer final exams, art work, poetry and zines—even videos of interpretive dance. Given that students live in a multi-media world, she uses a range of media to enhance their learning. One innovative method saw her send lecture slides to classes in advance via Twitter so students could listen to her rather than take notes.

“It was my attempt to get my lecture material into their phones so when they’re looking at their phones they might actually one day also look at my lecture materials,” she jokes.