One on One with Prof. Jorge Mena-Ali
How did the module system affect you as a teacher, and how did you see it affect students in your virtual classrooms and on F&M’s campus?
I think that the module model inherently brought a lot of stress and anxiety to everyone involved. Having to deal with the adjustments and generate the necessary content in a short window of time was very taxing, mentally and emotionally. The silver lining of it (if anything) is that it made instructors re-evaluate content and structure of the courses as well as explore alternative ways to cover, address, and assess the various elements of the class. The dominant mantra for many became "less is more": as instructor, I had to distill content down to the foundational, essential topics, which allowed the class to dig deeper and explore connections in more detail. Despite this, many students were still overwhelmed and stressed - not because of the amount of work, but due to the very fast pace.
As an instructor, it was very important to me that I could provide as much support, guidance, and reassurance to students about how to "do" the course. It was a re-adjustment process for everyone, and we needed to support one another as a learning community.
How do you stay active in diversity, equity and inclusion campaigns as a STEM professor during this pandemic? Before the pandemic?
During my time at F&M, I have increasingly become more directly involved in DEI issues on campus, especially in STEM: it is no secret that our faculty composition is lagging behind in terms of greater representation across demographics and identities, and typically, DEI-related topics like racial and social justice have a hard time finding their way into science courses. Last summer, I was part of a group of STEM faculty that created and made available a repository of teaching and background resources aimed at facilitating that process. It also acts as an institutional networking system, so that instructors interested in engaging in some of these conversations in their classes are able to reach out and contact other faculty that has done some work already.
In addition, I co-chaired the working group that the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) created this summer in response to the increased calls of action (from demonstrations nationwide as well as from our students) following the multiple murders of and other instances of violence against Black individuals. The focus of this group has been to move towards a critical reexamination of our curricular structure and content to center racial and social justice and and anti-Blackness racism. It is an ongoing process, but one that is overdue.
What department do you teach and what research do you do/have you done in the past? Are there opportunities for students to get involved?
I teach in the Biology department; my research is centered on examining the evolutionary ecology of plant mating strategies under an integrative approach: from the genetic aspects affecting the relative success of individuals to mate to the population and community interactions with pathogens and other organisms. I have an ongoing research plan (partly on hold due to the pandemic) that has opportunities for students with very diverse interests to get involved (from wet lab work, to field and greenhouse work, to statistical and bioinformatics work).
How can faculty support students and activists alike for a more just and equitable community? What does this look like at Franklin & Marshall College?
I think one way to support the work towards increased equity and social justice on campus is for instructors to validate the importance and impact of these issues in everyone's lives - sometimes faculty want to set barriers between academic work and personal lives, but these tend to have detrimental effects on developing connections and a sense of belonging for students. This means, among many things, acknowledging the expertise and value of lived-in experiences and the inclusion of underrepresented and marginalized voices both in the classes we teach and in the conversations we have. It includes challenging the hierarchical nature of academia to create spaces and opportunities where we all can learn from each other. And it requires an honest, committed, and sustained support to the activities and curricular changes that center those points.
I think that in higher education in general, and at F&M more specifically, it requires a critical re-examination of the systemic and structural blocks to DEI-work in academia: from admissions and hiring, to curricular content, to physical infrastructure, to the very definition of what a liberal arts education entails.