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  • Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education ed. by Ajay Heble
  • Julia A. Boyd (bio)
Ajay Heble, ed. Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education. University of Toronto Press. xii, 238. $26.95

Experiential and community-based education is burgeoning in popularity across undergraduate and graduate course calendars. But the post-secondary humanities remain slow to adopt the new trend. In literature classes especially, curricular emphasis on traditional texts and essay writing sometimes means that social justice efforts focus exclusively on course reading lists, viewing "attention to matters of race, gender, class, sexuality and diversity in texts" as total programs for social justice in and of themselves. It is this gap that Ajay Heble and contributors aim to fill. Heble is director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation and a professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. His interdisciplinary courses on pedagogy, literature, and "social change" frequently culminate in a group assignment asking students to link research and activism by "mak[ing] interventions in the broader community." This collection pairs a critical introduction and coda with five chapters by Heble's current and former students reflecting on these "community-facing" projects, examining their pedagogical value, logistical and ethical challenges, and potential as self-sustaining, long-term community projects.

As a concept, "classroom action" encapsulates Heble's "central argument": post-secondary literature educators must undertake a "radical rethinking of our pedagogical practices and priorities" by creating "opportunities" for students "not only to reflect, but also to act." Syllabi and assessments should encourage students to extend their learning within the university into "socially responsible" citizenship. The collection thus has two key goals. First, it "advance[s] an argument and an agenda" for ethically committed and action-oriented literature education, grounded in critical pedagogy, and the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. Second, its case studies provide a roadmap for humanities "pedagogy … grounded in the struggle for human rights and social justice."

Contributors draw significantly on Heble's course texts, especially Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, bell hooks's Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, and Thomas King's The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. The introduction and contributions situate these engagements within the broader community of critical pedagogy scholars such as Henry Giroux. Elizabeth Jackson and Ingrid Mündel explore Access Interventions, a one-day symposium on institutional, economic, and physical barriers to university education, which expanded into a follow-up conference and special journal issue. By expanding Freire's "pedagogy of the oppressed" into what they term a "pedagogy of the privileged," the class and symposium prompted students to interrogate "community engagement" initiatives that treat community members themselves in "dehumanizing, condescending, disempowering way[s]."

This self-reflexive analysis weaves throughout subsequent chapters. Brendan Arnott fleshes out the complexities of "community" implicit in experiential [End Page 196] learning through one group's theatre adaptation. Gregory Fenton interrogates "citizenship['s]" empowering potentials by exploring another's photography project, building on parallel themes in Ashlee Cunsolo, Paul Danyluk, and Robert Zacharias's chapter on the Guelph Speaks! Re-Storying the City anthology. Majdi Bou-Matar and co-authors collaborated with a community-based research centre and the MT Space theatre company, developing a play about "the difficulties immigrants" confront when "navigating the Canadian mental health system." In addition to subsequent performances and a tour, the piece also sparked a Theater for Social Change program at MT Space, created to facilitate organizational partnerships for issue-focused short plays.

As a collection of case studies growing from a single professor's teaching, Classroom Action does not aim to produce a broader comparative assessment of community-facing literature education. This occasionally creates repetition; some key insights appear near verbatim across chapters. But, as a whole, the collection offers a thought-provoking challenge to community-engaged learning practitioners, social justice education scholars, literature instructors, and any university educators who want to translate critical pedagogy's "inspirational" claims into real-world syllabus change. Instructors will find the sample course syllabus and extensive webography of social justice and human rights education resources helpful. Education scholars will appreciate...


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pp. 196-197
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