Gephardt News

From Theory to Practice: Professor Amy Cislo Discusses Community Engaged Teaching in Course on Feminist & Queer Youth Studies

Amy Cislo, Senior Lecturer in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Institute for Public Health Faculty Fellow

Students at Washington University engage in intense study of theoretical concepts and models. They read and discuss the foremost scholars in their field and learn to articulate their own opinions on issues, but the question often remains, how does theory apply to real life? Professor Amy Cislo‘s course on Feminist and Queer Youth Studies (L77 WGSS 3133) seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice through Community Engaged Teaching. Community Engaged Courses  integrate “academic work with community-based engagement within a framework of respect, reciprocity, relevance, and reflection” (Butin 2007).

Amy Cislo, Senior Lecturer in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Institute for Public Health Faculty Fellow, is deeply invested in providing her students with the tools and knowledge they need to use their academic experience to be agents of community change. This course, offered annually, looks at how scholars apply Feminist and Queer theory to the field of Youth Studies and how to implement Feminist and Queer practices in youth programming. The course partners with local organizations such as Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls ClubsGirls in the Know, and Missouri Institute for Mental Health where students spend four to five hours each week working, serving, and learning outside of the classroom.

Amy explains that the course aims to introduce students to the field of Girls’ Studies, a growing field in Feminist Scholarship, but because the community organizations are not limited in participation to just girls, she expanded the class to encompass feminist and queer youth studies. In the readings that she assigns, Amy chooses texts that apply feminist or queer theory to an analysis of how children’s gender, sexuality, and race is understood and how children think about these categories for themselves.

In the interview below, Amy shares more context on the course and the impact of Community Engaged Teaching on students. She also offers advice for other faculty members considering teaching a course with a community engaged component.

Course objectives:

  • Students should be able to explain how service-learning differs from traditional classroom-only instruction.
  • Students should learn about how the social construction of race, gender and sexuality influences children’s identity development.
  • Students should gain an understanding of how U.S. policy is guided by socially constructed ideas about childhood and children’s sexuality. 
  • At the end of the course, students should be able to “translate” scholarly research for people who are not engaged in academic study. 
  • Students should be able to recognize discourses of gender, sexuality and race within the organizations they observe and student should be able to recommend affirming and inclusive practices.

What are class meetings like? How do they supplement the community engaged component?

Amy: “Class meetings usually begin with people sharing observations from their community-based engagement. We typically spend time unpacking the scholarship to make sure that we understand the thesis and key points before we think about how the research may be applicable to the various  kinds of community engaged work students in the class do. It is a challenge because students’ work is so varied that sometimes assigned work is inapplicable to some organizations.”

Why is Community Engaged Teaching important at the undergraduate level?

Amy: “Many students report feeling more connected to the surrounding area and having a better understanding of St. Louis as a community after taking the course. Many students develop professional communication skills because I require them to develop their resumes, write cover letters, and send professional emails to their supervisors. The supervisors provide feedback on their level of professionalism at the midterm and final as part of the grade for the class. Many students have never had a job where they might have learned some of these skills. Finally, the most important aspect of Community Engaged Teaching for me is when students tell me they can finally see what it means to apply feminist and/or queer theory to the ‘real world.’  They learn how it is easy to offer critiques on paper, but much more difficult to implement.”

Have you seen students’ understanding of and engagement with St. Louis change through this course?

Amy: “They become more aware of the ‘Delmar divide.’ They begin to recognize the significance of the St. Louis question, ‘Where did you go to high school?’, and they realize how deeply divided the experiences of people in the region are based on where you live and where you go to school. They see with their own eyes how the city and county look different. Some students build up the courage to take the Metrolink for the first time. Several students stayed with their community organizations after the class ended. One student joined the board of TransParent and continues to work with the organization from afar after graduation. Two other students were hired by their community organization, Girls in the Know, after they graduated last spring.

What would you advise other faculty members to consider when adding a Community Engaged Teaching component to a course?

Amy: “Make sure you choose organizations that are willing to engage with the subject you are teaching. Further, I think it is important to develop a good relationship with at least one point person at your chosen community organization. I would recommend meeting in person to discuss the course objectives and what kind of experiences you hope your students have. Find out what your students will be doing in the community organization during their weekly work. Checking in with the students’ supervisors from time to time helps so that you can keep them posted on when students have projects due, making sure that students are upholding the partner agreement (make sure you use the Gephardt Institute forms). Students need guidance on how to communicate professionally and how to represent Washington University when they are working in the community. I would make sure you emphasize this on the first day, provide examples, and remind students throughout the semester.”

Classes like Feminist and Queer Youth Studies foster a deeper kind of learning, as students apply their knowledge in a community context and build meaningful connections outside of the classroom. Faculty members interested in added a community engaged component to their courses can reach out to Cassie Power, Associate Director for Faculty and Academic Engagement, at