Justice: An interdisciplinary collaboration. Research. Text. Image.

UC Santa Barbara takes pride in its interdisciplinary culture, with many faculty members collaborating across disciplines on research projects, or holding joint appointments in different departments. Some courses are cross-listed between departments or can be taught by two or more professors, reflecting the range of their subject matter. During winter quarter 2012, however, the concept took on a new meaning when three professors – a sociologist, a photographer, and a writer/journalist – collaborated with close to 150 students in four different courses on the “Justice” project.

Using the basic concepts of Research. Text. Image. students in the four classes undertook written and photographic research on any aspect and definition of justice that interested them. They were encouraged to collaborate with students in the other classes, and about 20 were able to take three courses, combining sociological method, photography and writing in their projects. “A lot of schools talk about interdisciplinary work, but we really did it in a new way, with an issue-based class that allowed students to collaborate across different media,” says Richard Ross, a renowned photographer and professor of art who was one of the originators of the project.

“Justice” was conceived by Ross together with Victor Rios, professor of sociology, and Cissy Ross, a lecturer in the Writing Program, as an outgrowth of their individual research interests, all related in some way to the theme of justice.

Through his “Juvenile-in-Justice” series, for over five years Richard Ross has been documenting the placement and treatment of American juveniles in detention throughout the United States.  To date he has photographed over 1,000 juveniles and administrators in more than 200 facilities in 31 states.  “I am turning my lens towards the juvenile justice system … to create a body of work of compelling images to instigate policy reform. My medium is a conscience. My products are photographic and textual evidence of a system that houses, on any given day, over 90,000 kids,” he says.

Victor Rios, associate professor of sociology, is a self-described urban ethnographer who focuses on issues of social justice. He has followed the lives of delinquent young men, some in gangs, for close to 10 years, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and more recently in Santa Barbara. In his recent book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (NYU Press, 2011), Rios argues that by understanding the lives of the young men who are criminalized and pipelined through the criminal justice system, society can support them in their development and work to eliminate the culture of punishment that has become an overbearing part of their everyday lives.

Cissy Ross is an award-winning editor and journalist who now teaches in the Writing Program, focusing on journalism and writing for the social sciences. Her own research has explored student writing in Environmental Studies, SAT essay testing, and new media journalism sites.

Cissy and Richard Ross, who are married, are frequent collaborators, and when they were introduced by a student to Victor Rios, the idea for “Justice” began to coalesce. They decided that their courses for the winter quarter 2012  – Intermediate Photography, Studying People, Writing for the Social Sciences, and Journalism – would focus on the theme of justice, that they would take part in each other’s classes, and encourage their students to work together. Their goal was to widen the scope and enhance the curriculum of each course by offering a variety of perspectives. Using a grant from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts, they were able to bring guest speakers and artists to campus to talk about justice as reflected in their own work, and to design and publish a book featuring the best student writing and photography from the four courses.

“This is the most exciting class you will take in your college career,” said Richard Ross to his photography students on the first day of class, as the three professors explained the project. (They would repeat the presentation to the other classes later in the week.)  “This is new territory for us. You will be doing interdisciplinary work in a way that has not happened on this campus before, and we expect extraordinary things from you.”

The excitement building around the project was heightened by the arrival of a film crew from PBS NewsHour. Richard Ross had been contacted by the show’s producers after Harper’s Magazine printed a photo essay featuring the Juvenile-In-Justice photos in its October, 2011 issue. (The article later won a National Magazine Award.) After Ross explained the Justice project, the NewsHour sent a crew to campus for five days, and the program ran back-to-back segments featuring Ross and Rios as part of a series on education in the United States.

During the 10-week quarter, the students developed their individual projects, beginning with a definition of justice and then narrowing the focus of their research. “We tried to help them focus their research, for example not just the injustice of the death penalty, but how to narrow it down to something more specific,” said Richard Ross. “They  started with often simple ideas and through research they learned how complicated they can be.” ”For some students, the project became a case of ‘idealism meets realism’,” added Cissy Ross. “The experience taught them that they can do something about these issues even while they are still in school. They got one step closer to taking action by finding an issue they thought they knew the answer to.”

Using a class blog as a common forum, the students shared ideas with each other and with the three professors, who offered advice and suggestions for collaboration. They were offered different possibilities for collaborating: those working on a similar topic could propose that their work appear together in the magazine; writers could pair their work with that of photographers working on a related topic; students could share experiences like interviews or activities; or simply be inspired by the ideas of other photographers and writers.

At end of quarter, the three professors agreed that they had learned as much from the experience as their students. The writers had taken photos, the photographers had written essays, and some students had made videos. Richard Ross, recalling his advice on the first day of class, said it was the most important class he had taught in his 32-year career. Added Victor Rios, “I was impressed by the importance of imagery and aesthetics to the projects, and I would like to add this dimension to my own work. I also learned about different ways of looking at my own research as a social scientist. My students showed me new ways of laying out issues and problems and formulating research questions.” 

“In terms of subject matter, anything was game as long as it dealt with justice or fairness,” said Cissy Ross. “and from our students we learned about topics like gender, sexual identity, discrimination against bisexuals within the gay community, pan-sexuality, undocumented students, euthanasia of animals, and the slaughter of horses. One student studied the fairness of the national college football championships.” About one third of her students collaborated with others, but most at least “peeked over the fence” by looking at the course blog and the ongoing  photo projects.

With the largest of the four classes, with over 70 students, Rios had to approach the project a bit differently. The class – Studying People - is a methodological course required for sociology majors. Typically there is no theme, but he decided to assign the broad theme of justice as it applied to the study of people, and gave them the option of collaborating. Some students chose subjects that were very personal to them – a parent in prison, or a brother in the foster care system. Some were more systematic: one researched how hip hop music informs middle-class students (and concluded that it brings out a common sense of understanding the world). Other subjects included sex and “hooking up”, white privilege, guys with tattoos, and people who collect cans in Isla Vista for recycling money. That researcher found that these people, known as “beer fairies”, have a strong sense of dignity about what they do and consider themselves to be a different group than homeless people.

Amy Martinez, a junior sociology major who took three classes, said, ”I loved the project, especially the interdisciplinary aspect. For students were really serious, this was the series to take....to do something great.” Amy’s work in all three classes focused on “street life-oriented young men” in Santa Barbara. “I knew that Rios' class could make me a better scholar and teach me how to do ethnographic research, Richard could help me bring my research to life, and in her class on writing for the social sciences, Cissy edited my work and pushed me to think about my audience, ” she said. A novice photographer at the beginning of the course, Amy is thinking of adding a second major in art and one of her images was chosen for the cover of the book featuring some the courses’ best overall work.

For her project for Rios’ class, senior sociology and feminist studies major Brenda Martinez researched how Latina students build communities on campus that are “safe spaces” for their cultural identities while away from home. Because of work and study commitments, she was unable to collaborate with other students, “but that did not prevent me from gaining insight from them. Listening to their project presentations and reading their research descriptions on the website allowed me to recognize how students are truly dedicated to social justice, ” she says.

A student in the journalism class, Kalie Werts, saw her concept of justice evolve radically during the course of the project. “ I came in with a very narrow mindset and thought about prisons and the criminal justice system, until I heard about the other students’ projects, which opened me to wider ideas of justice,” she says. Kalie’s article, “But why are you white?”, which was printed in the class book, focused on the idea of "whiteness" and how white people view their own race. Her piece is illustrated with photos by Clare Bredenoord, who takes an ironic look at “white girl problems” in her photos but who also undertook a research project for Rios on “White Apathy and Social Distance at UCSB.” Rios was so impressed by Bredenoord’s research, methodology, and findings that he had her present it to his introductory sociology class in spring quarter.

Excerpts from the students’ work were displayed in a campus exhibition in March and published in the 135-page book funded by the UCIRA grant. The book, designed by Katy McCarthy (a UCSB graduate and photographer in her own right who is Richard Ross’s assistant), documents the quality and variety of the projects undertaken by the students. It also has a pedagogical purpose, says Cissy Ross, because student publications are a great teaching tool for writing classes.

The guest speakers were an important part of the project because they shared different perspectives on justice based on their own work. The line-up included David Inocencio, director and co-founder of The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from inside juvenile hall and beyond; Mauro Bedoni, photo editor, COLORS Magazine; Amos Kennedy, printmaker and activist; Bart Lubow, Director, Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Justice Strategy Group; and Dustin Olsen, Chief, UC Santa Barbra Police Department and Ray Vuillemainroy, Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office; and Karen Grau, documentary film producer (“Young Kids, Hard Time”).

“I was really interested in what these different people had to say about their work, life experiences, and craft. They were an inspiring group,” says Amy Martinez. Not all of the students were able to attend, however. The lectures were held in the evenings, outside of class hours, and many students had work and study commitments that kept them from taking part.

This is just one of the pedagogical lessons the three teachers have learned, which they hope to remedy as they look to the next iteration of the “Justice” project. They envision one extended class per week during which they can lecture together and invite guest speakers. “We need to work with the university to find a better way to structure the class, with teaching assistants to help us manage the workload,” says Rios. “The students saw the course as a seamless transition between three courses, but it was more complicated to organize.” The three faculty plan to discuss their experience and examine how the concept could translate to other disciplines during the International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, which will take place in Barcelona in June 2012.

The success of the project and the quality of the work done by their students have convinced the three professors of the importance of justice to their students. “This is a generation of students who care deeply about injustice, and our role was to help them explore, research, and articulate the best way for their actions to have meaning,” they say in the introduction to the students’ publication.

News Date: 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012