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Graduate Student Profile - Maureen Elizabeth Shay (English)
UCLA Distinguished Teaching Assistant 2009-10

Maureen Elizabeth Shay For a show -and -tell exercise in Maureen Shay's class on Los Angeles, one student brought in 40 sports caps and displayed them by color across several desks. His peers said the caps evoked images of seasonal entertainment and camaraderie. His own lived experience, the young man explained, related the sports caps to gang affiliations in the neighborhood where he grew up and the violence often associated with them.

Although the exercise was intended to last five minutes, Maureen turned the remaining class time into an extended discussion of areas where common perceptions might differ considerably from actual realities. "The discussion," she says, "has absolutely challenged students to think critically about the city in which they live."

The incident is also an example of Maureen's pedagogical strategy—and some might say her gift—of allowing students to share the responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. In another class, students were supposed to relate literature they were reading about immigrant experiences with their assignments to service projects around Los Angeles. After a few weeks, Maureen found that 16 out of her 20 students had come to the United States after age 12, and class discussions were locked in emotionally charged confrontations over whose immigrant experience was most valid.

"I diffused the tension by insisting that as a class we have a pedagogical conversation about what we were trying to do in the course and whether it was working," Maureen says. The exercise "allowed the students to move beyond their personal experiences and consider formally the goals of their education."

Maureen's unusual teaching strategies have gained her the attention and respect of faculty in the Department of English and its cadre of teaching assistants. She was asked to co-teach an experimental team-teaching class with Professor Jenny Sharpe, "Postmodernism in Postcolonial Fiction," and not surprisingly, she also spoke at a seminar on difficult student situations. Observers talk about her empathy and compassion, which she believes she acquired in a series of early teaching experiences in disparate and difficult circumstances: a UNESCO project for women dropouts in the jungle of South India; a Peace and Reconciliation initiative bringing Basque and Spanish students together in northern Spain; and a tutoring project for unaccompanied minors who were refugees from Angola in Dublin, Ireland. Given her personal travels, it's not surprising that her dissertation looks at "Perpetual Refugees and the Unmaking of the Global World."

In her early teaching experiences, "I first understood that education is about various kinds of migration," she says. "Education is tantamount to a sustained political statement about the worth of every single mind in the classroom."

Published in Winter 2010, Graduate Quarterly