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Faculty Spotlight – Meena Selvakumar

This post is part of the Museology Faculty spotlight series, which consists of short interviews with our faculty to discuss and reflect on inclusive teaching, their learning outcomes, some of their course highlights, and what they’ve learned adjusting to teaching online through the pandemic. Our next spotlight is with Meena Selvakumar, who teaches the community engagement, grant writing, and careers and social capital courses, along with being one of the four thesis advisors of the masters program. Her responses are below:  


Our program is grounded in the belief that museums can make the world a better place and that we must center equity in all of our work. We are all committed to inclusiveImage of Meena Selvakumar teaching. Can you give me an example of what that looks like in your class? 


I want to make sure that all students feel comfortable contributing their perspectives and experiences.. I try to incorporate this by having a space where we can have open dialogue, challenge each other in a respectful way. It also means that I am aware of and able to incorporate multiple viewpoints into my teaching from people with a diversity of perspectives. That could mean I’m expanding on who we’re focusing on in terms of authors or experts in the field, or by broadening the examples that we use in class. That’s as far as content goes but it goes beyond that. I am aware that students themselves have different learning styles and I don’t want to just accommodate them but integrate it in ways that make our classroom experience richer.


The makeup of the student cohort has changed over the past two years. How has your teaching changed in response to this shift? Can you give me an example of one thing you do differently? 


I think I’ve been trying to be really conscious of the examples we use and the authors we cite and the guest experts we bring in. There are many experts who are passionate and talented in the field and we need to take away our blinders of reaching for the same old, same old. We need to make the effort to integrate these resources because they have always been there, we just haven’t done our work. For example in my class on community engagement, previously I used to use the Wing Luke museum as an example of exemplary practice. This year, while I still do the same, I’ve also integrated a full class on discussing how culturally-specific museums, such as the Wing, are at the leading edge of the field. Scholars and practitioners of color have been pivotal in many aspects of moving community engagement forward and I showcase that more and more.


What do you think is your most important learning outcome? What does that mean in practice? 


I think that the most important learning outcome is for students to know that museums are places of change and that museums are now really firmly establishing themselves as a place where we can contribute to the social well being of our communities. There are many ways that museums can contribute to social well being. It could be health, education, economic or political and there are many examples of museums doing that work out there. I also think that you have to separate the way we’ve always done work and the way we measured success in terms of short term ROI (return on investment) and shift our ways of thinking of what we mean by success. Eventually that ROI will come, but I think we need to just take a longer, broader, bigger view of how museums are positioned in our communities.


Our faculty are all committed to training museum professionals as well as contributing to the field. What do you see as the main way that you contribute to the field? 


I think the Access ISL Grant is a really cool example, It demonstrates how we’re working across the campus as well as working across the community and ultimately to the field to ensure that we are ensuring access for people with disabilities. The grant is an example of how we have integrated inclusive practices into our curriculum, both in the types of examples we use as well as in our methodology where we’re ensuring that our students are actually a part of this and that we are training the next generation of students.


What do you think are some of the most important lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic as we’ve shifted to remote learning? 


Ensuring that we use our time with the students to have a lot more active learning than lecturing. Keeping your mind and your eye on that. When I realized we were moving to this online mode, we’re not just taking what we do in person and then delivering the same thing online, we’re really thinking about our approach as a teacher and learner. What do you need and planning from that end. A lot more short breaks, more discussions, mixing reading with videos and audios. It’s tough for students to be on screen all the time and it’s tough to create community when we are online. So finding ways to circumvent those challenges is important. 


Can you share with us what you are reading these days? 


Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen

It’s so interesting because there are many things that are similar to my own experience. She came from India and she grew up during the same decade and times that I did. She’s just a year or two older than me.  Aside from regional differences, many of her broader experiences in India were similar. And then she came here in the early 80s when she was 12 and my family moved here for the first time when I was the same age. Her description of what that felt like was strikingly similar – that feeling of familiarity that people around the world have of the US but also that disconnect of being a foreigner, especially a non-European one. My family eventually returned to India after three years but then I came back when I was 22. But it was interesting to read her journey and reflect on ways in which you try to assimilate because how could you not as a teenager. But in the process you end up shedding and even distancing yourself from some of your identity. And older now, you realize, that it’s also because you’ve been conditioned to assimilate to a certain dominant culture. I loved how she wrote that this isn’t an irreversible process and how she found ways to express all these identities. That was something I identified with especially because I do see myself as having multiple cultural, professional, and relational identities.