he assignment: Multiculturalism and republicanism – draw
It’s a puzzle Melanie Adrian’s students at Carleton University are mulling over in small groups shortly after 5 p.m. on
an already dark, mid-fall afternoon. It could be classic snooze-button time for any student grinding through the final hour
of a three-hour lecture at the back end of term. Not here. The
room is full of chatter. Nobody looks quite sure what they’re
doing, yet there are smiles, laughter, debates, and pencils
scribbling on handouts featuring two differently sized circles,
Dr. Adrian, a law and legal studies professor, moves from one group
to another, leaning over to size up what each has so far. She isn’t totally
sure this exercise is going to work either. And she’s running out of time
“I’ve seen some fabulous diagrams,” she says, advising students to bring
their drawings to a subsequent class so they can carry on the discussion.
“Please think about it over the next two weeks. There’s no right or wrong
here. We’re contrasting them. They’re experiments.”
Experimenting and taking risks are natural territory for Dr. Adrian.
That’s probably not a bad thing for a surfing enthusiast who rides the
waves off the Californian and Mexican Pacific coast whenever possible
and who teaches and writes about the often touchy intersection between
religion and human rights. Today’s class – about limitations and restrictions
on people’s freedom of belief – includes a discussion about students’ experi-
ence of the fatal Oct. 22 shooting attack in Ottawa and its connections to
Islam that were later presented in the media.
Since Dr. Adrian started teaching at Carleton in 2010, she has brought
in local slam poets and used hip hop music from the Middle East and
Africa to help students connect more deeply with such fundamental
human-rights legal concepts as democracy and freedom. Last year the
pre-tenured professor raised eyebrows by allowing students taking her
third-year international human rights law course to spend the first three
weeks deciding what they would learn and how they would be assessed.
The United Nations-style setting was intended to get students grappling
with the fundamental practices they would be studying: negotiation, agree-
ment and the application of democratic principles. Students commented
at the end of term that being put in the driver’s seat of their own learning
pushed them to ask more questions, find out what really interested them
and fully engage with the topic.
“Melanie is a really great example of what happens when you take
student voices seriously,” says Samah Sabra, a coordinator in Carleton’s
Educational Development Centre who is researching the pedagogical outcomes of Dr. Adrian’s third-year course.
“Relentlessly innovative,” adds her law department colleague Vincent
Kazmierski. “She’s an incredibly passionate person and she brings that
passion to her teaching.”
Dr. Adrian’s student-centered style earned her a Carleton University
New Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014. At year end, she
learned she’d won one of the five distinguished Teaching Achievement
Awards that the university bestows annually.
For former student Carla Carbajal, who took Dr. Adrian’s first-year law
course four years ago, the assignment to present a hip hop song allowed
her to connect her past – she had emigrated as a teenager from a danger-
ous neighbourhood in El Salvador – to her studies in Canada where she
was still struggling to find her place. For a course project, she returned
to El Salvador to do research in a school for children with intellectual
disabilities and interview government officials about laws regarding child
protection. Dr. Adrian even helped her organize an in-class bake sale to
raise money for the school. Ms. Carbajal went far beyond what was need-
ed for a first-year course, but her classroom experience had lit a fire: “I
told other students, ‘Make sure you take a class with Dr. Melanie Adrian,
because she will change your life and she will show you what university
should be like.’”
A deliberate and creative approach to constructing meaningful learn-
ing – her own and others’ – has been standard practice for Dr. Adrian
throughout her academic career. She also has a gift for persuading others
to make allowances for the new trail she may need to blaze to get there – a
friend says she could sell a used tea bag if required. Her warm, energetic
personality, genuine interest in people and knack for making contacts
haven’t hurt either.