Fostering critical thinking in and out of the classroom
Dr. Summers teaches students how to have difficult conversations
By Jena K. Gray
Dr. Summers laughs and, with an added light to her eyes, she describes her young daughter,
“She – She’s remarkable…The way her mind works is just so very interesting. She loves making a mess. I say that to say, she’s very creative. Where I’m very organized and I like things to be where they’re supposed to be – she’s the exact opposite. You give her a toy and she wants to pull it apart and put it on another toy or change the clothes on one doll and put them on a different doll.”
Dr. Summers reflects on the deep joy she has had in watching her daughter grow. She shares, “I didn’t realize I had the capacity to love as deeply or as intensely until I had her.”
While there are certainly elements of tension present whenever there are differences, whenever people process life differently, Dr. Summers has experienced the power that love has to warrant empathy and understanding; to foster the willingness to work through differences in order to attain a deeply impactful and beautiful relationship.
Dr. Brandi T. Summers is the associate director for iCubed as well as a member of iCubed’s Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Transdisciplinary Core team. She teaches several courses as an assistant professor in VCU’s Department of African American Studies.
Though many feel the need to drive a staunch barrier between work life and personal life, Dr. Summers embraces the wholeness of life as interconnected, where instances can simultaneously influence her person as a professor and as a mom along with other social positions she may identify with.
Drawing on life lessons from her time working at an esteemed investment firm, personal losses at a young age, a brief stint in the world of political science, her time in academia as well as her time as a mother, Dr. Summers understands that students have a variety of backgrounds and have experienced many circumstances that may have lasting effects beneath the skin.
Dr. Summers teaches several courses that intersect race, urban aesthetics, media and culture including the representation of blackness and the variety of meanings ascribed to black bodies in an urban setting. Oftentimes her classes cover sensitive and challenging material that relate with ongoing social issues; things happening in the here and the now.
She explains, “It’s important to create this enriching environment and to be able to train and teach people how to think but not tell them what to do, just give them the opportunity to think for themselves…I’m teaching them how to have these difficult conversations.”
It is essential to Dr. Summers that students learn to critically think about and engage with their world. “When I started teaching,” Dr. Summers remembers, “I realized the impact of how students have been learning for the past decade – teaching to the test, where there’s a right answer to everything and there hasn’t been this opportunity to have creative processing.”
“These students are amazing. They have wonderful ideas and ways to see the world. They just have been told over and over again, ‘You can’t do it this way.’ ‘You need to focus on that.’ And I prefer that [my students] demonstrate their value and their learning through whatever mechanism they’re able to.”
Dr. Summers allows her students to present information in her classes through a variety of means as long as they use the books, media, articles and other materials provided. She says grades vary but she receives far more meaningful responses and has better engagement in the classroom. The goals of her courses go well beyond the students’ retention of information; she says, “critical engagement and critical thinking are the most important things.”
She aims to foster engaged citizens in the classroom so that once they exit the classroom, they are equipped to engage in difficult conversations, to relate with others in the workplace and on the streets, and to shape the current and future climate of human interaction.
Being uniquely situated at a public urban research university like Virginia Commonwealth University, combined with Dr. Summers’ real-life and present-day course content, students encounter a fuller narrative that propels them to think and engage beyond the classroom context and within the city.
Dr. Summers’ students can immediately apply the lessons of urban aesthetics and the representation of blackness that has been present historically and is historically present within the city of Richmond, offering integration of lessons into life.
Perhaps this blurred edge between campus and community offers a clearer vision of what it could look like for this next generation of scholars, student and faculty, at Virginia Commonwealth University to authentically engage within our local contexts.
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iCubed at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is a cutting edge institute focused on catalyzing collaborative connections between the university and the community at large through innovative academic and research programs. Our transdisciplinary core teams collaborate with key community members in order to develop holistic solutions to 21st century urban challenges within the Commonwealth. For more information about iCubed or to apply to one of the transdisciplinary core teams, please visit: icubed.vcu.edu.