Transformative Justice

Collaborative Project Crosses Boundaries to Expand Concepts of Teaching and Learning

By Elizabeth Werhane ’00

The photos of the young men were not complete. Third-year Sociology major Amy Martinez had carefully cut out the men’s tattoos, leaving holes in the images. She wanted to challenge assumptions people make about street youth based on their body art.

She was simultaneously challenging assumptions about what form sociology research should take.

Martinez was one of a few dozen students from the interdisciplinary Justice project who exhibited their work at an evening reception on campus at the end of Winter Quarter.

The exhibit was also the culmination of the work of three UC Santa Barbara professors, who collaborated on the Justice program — an interdisciplinary curriculum that challenged traditional department silos and attracted attention from students and even national media.

New way of learning

justice8 Dr. Victor Rios, Dr. Richard Ross and Dr. Cissy Ross created the 10-week Justice program, a collaboration that spanned four courses and a six-lecture series.

Photography students learned to tell stories with words, not just images. Writing students learned to research and think like sociologists. Sociology students learned to see the world as artists.

Students were encouraged to explore an area of justice that interested them. “They’re trying to understand inequality, trying to understand how people experience the negative things in the world that happen to them and how they respond to them,” Rios said.

The collaboration between Rios and Richard Ross was a natural fit. Both have in-depth experience with the topic of juvenile justice. In 2011, Rios, a sociology professor, published Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. Richard Ross created Juvenile-In-Justice, a photo collection documenting juveniles in detention centers across 30 states. The husband-and-wife team of Richard Ross and Cissy Ross, Ph.D. ’08, had previously partnered for writing and photography collaborations.

“In the social sciences and humanities, we don’t necessarily cross department boundaries and teach with each other,” Rios said. “It’s a new way of learning.”

‘Let’s make teaching as stellar as research’

In addition to their normal commitments, the professors aligned their schedules, committed to lecturing in their colleagues’ classes, adjusted their curriculum, worked with students from all four classes, and recruited and received the guest lecturers.

A grant from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts Open Classroom Challenge funded the lecture series. It included guests like COLORS Photo Editor Mauro Bedoni and Calamari Productions President Karen Grau.

Rios said UC Santa Barbara is a research institution, where professors are expected to publish. “I don’t think world-class research is exclusive to world-class teaching, so I’m trying to crack that code,” he said. “Let’s make teaching as stellar as research.”

Cissy Ross said that adding the photography and sociology elements to her writing classes elevated the students’ work. “This is not who/what/when/where journalism,” said Cissy Ross, who worked as a journalist and editor before getting her doctorate in writing education at UC Santa Barbara. “This is journalism that requires them to do research and be familiar with some prior scholarship about a topic. It’s a very different way of teaching journalism.”

It was a different way to teach any course, Rios said. “It’s a risk to let another professor come into your class and teach your students,” Rios said. “It paid off with huge rewards.”

The payoff

justice10 At the March 13 exhibit, the photographers, writers and sociologists viewed each other’s work, discussing injustice and nibbling on sushi and muffins. The walls reflected the interests of a diverse group of students, showcasing photos, artwork, a video, the opening lines of essays and articles, and even sociological analysis represented with printouts of slide presentations. The pieces reflected on workers’ rights to good conditions, animals’ rights to life, women’s rights to orgasm, and everyone’s rights to not be judged for their race, gender or sexual preference.

“Students have taken on topics that really challenge me as teacher,” Cissy Ross said. “You get into talking about topics that are not easy to talk about sometimes.”

Richard Ross, with his camera slung over his shoulder, explained that selections of the students’ work have been compiled in a book. The students can have a tangible reminder of the Justice program and a nice addition, or start, to their portfolios.

Martinez, who took three of the program’s courses during the quarter, called the Justice program amazing and valuable.

The collaboration elevated the professors’ reputations, too. The project caught the attention of PBS Newshour, which ran segments on both Rios and Richard Ross, giving UC Santa Barbara national exposure. Having completed the requirements for her sociology degree, Martinez is eager to use some of her remaining time at UC Santa Barbara to explore more art classes. “If someone doesn’t want to read a 25-page article, I can show them photos and talk about it,” she said. “I feel like I’ve grown as a scholar and a person.”

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