Three CSSW instructors successfully competed for educational grants that will engage MSW students and the entire School more deeply in addressing issues of power, racism, oppression, and privilege.

Columbia University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Innovation and the Center for Teaching and Learning have announced awards for proposals made by three educators who have been at the forefront of the School of Social Work’s efforts to center the social work curriculum around the need to grapple with anti-Black racism and white supremacy. They are Associate Professor Courtney Cogburn, Associate Director of Field Education Ovita Williams, and Professor Susan Witte.

In response to the demands of student advocates, Cogburn and Williams worked hand in hand with students, administrators and faculty colleagues to develop two foundation-level courses for entering MSW students that incorporate issues of power, race, oppression, and privilege, known as PROP, into the traditional social work curriculum. Witte taught one of those courses and has been an ongoing advocate for suffusing the work throughout the curriculum.

And now, with the help of the Provost’s grants, these three instructors will be furthering this initiative through innovative educational methods and technologies.

As noted in her letter of support accompanying the instructors’ proposals, Dean Melissa Begg said, “These proposals represent a coordinated effort to suffuse a PROP lens throughout our curriculum and School more broadly, and to advance the integration of PROP into the research and practice of social work.”

Cogburn has received an Emerging Technology Grant for “XR for Good: Exploring Extended Reality + Social Work + Social Justice,” a course she proposes to offer to MSW students who sign up for the School’s new minor in Emerging Technology, Media, and Society. As a first assignment, she will ask her students to critique existing extended reality (XR) platforms—many of which, she says, “carry possibilities of socioemotional harm” because, though ostensibly created for the social good, they lack the anti-oppressive lens found in social work. Following this survey of the field, students will be required to produce a white paper and pitch an XR project of their own. To cover the technical aspect of these assignments, social work students will work in collaboration with their counterparts in computer engineering who are taking a course in XR under Professor Steven Feiner, who runs Columbia’s Computer Graphics and User Interface Lab. Cogburn, who created the virtual reality racism experience 1000 Cut Journey and is affiliated with Silicon Harlem and other technology ventures, plans to bring in leading XR experts to provide lectures and feedback on student projects. She will teach the course on a virtual reality platform and evaluate the utility of the platform in conjunction with the Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides support to instructors across the university.

Williams has received an award in Innovative Course Design in support of her proposal to develop the course Five Sessions: Practice Dynamics of Power, Race, Oppression, and Privilege through Simulation-Based Learning,” which she wrote in collaboration with two other CSSW instructors, Jaime Estades and Ericka Echavarria. The “Five Sessions” of the course title refers to a play of that name that Estades wrote, depicting a fictional white woman social worker providing clinical services to a Latino man. Students will watch the play in class while “employing a PROP lens in their critique and analysis of the character interactions, which highlight factors of racism, classism, genderism and other ‘isms’ in the therapeutic alliance,” as stated in the proposal. The award will also support the filming of Estades’ play for classroom use in collaboration with directors and student actors from the Columbia School of the Arts. Faculty will receive special training to teach the course, which will be offered January 2021 to second-year masters students. The course will utilize the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) textbook Williams co-authored, Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn: A Guide for Social Work Field Education.

Titled “Suffusing a Power, Race, Oppression and Privilege Lens throughout the CSSW Curriculum,” Witte’s proposal was developed as a collaboration with colleagues from Academic Affairs, the Office of the Dean for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and foundational course instructors including Courtney Cogburn, Jalana Harris, Zuleka Henderson, Monique Jethwani, Karma Lowe, Desmond Patton and Ovita Williams. It received a Large-Scale Teaching and Learning Grant for targeted workshops and initiatives aspiring to shift the culture of our community and institution, towards more anti-oppressive practices. This includes faculty training to interrogate the most fundamental assumptions of the academy, asking even “What is scholarship?” During the past academic year, Witte was appointed to CTL’s inaugural group of Senior Faculty Teaching Scholars in recognition for her work in supporting the development of critical pedagogy and curricula responsive to anti-oppressive practice. Writing in support of her application for the large-scale grant, she said:

Social work education is steeped in an academic culture largely reflective of white supremacy. Curricula and central texts have been written primarily by and for white people, lacking integration and representation of marginalized voices, narratives, and experiences.

Witte’s award supports expanding PROP training to include all faculty and staff, providing ongoing faculty supervision, faculty affinity group opportunities, more classroom observation, and a digital repository for PROP-related resources.

The Office of the Provost provides funding opportunities for faculty looking to integrate new educational methods and technologies into their classrooms and learning environments. The goals of the teaching and learning grants are to measure the impact and effectiveness of these designs, pedagogies, and learning strategies, to improve teaching (both online and face to face), and to enhance the learning outcomes of Columbia University students from all disciplines.


This post originally appeared on the Columbia School of Social Work’s website at this link on July 29, 2020.