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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Solange Muñoz

Dr. Solange Muñoz, Associate Professor of Geography and Sustainability, started her teaching journey almost immediately after completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. She immediately found herself immersed in teaching, as she moved to Santiago, Chile and started to teach English to support herself. “I lived in Chile for six years,” she recalls, “and during that time I taught English in a number of different institutes, businesses, and privately.” Her career eventually brought her not only back to the states, but also her very own Alma Mater as she began her new role as a Spanish teacher at an intensive, semi-immersive program in the Residential College, a small liberal arts college within the University of Michigan. “I had been a student of that program years before, and at the time I was probably one of the weaker students, so I always told my students that if you had said to me that I would be teaching Spanish when I was a student, I never would have believed it,” she shares. The experience inspired Dr. Muñoz to continue her education, earning her Masters in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Geography from the University of Texas at Austin. While finishing her dissertation, Dr. Muñoz returned to the University of Michigan and continued to teach Spanish until she was hired at the University of Tennessee in 2015.  

It was here at UT where Dr. Muñoz began to pull inspiration for her teaching philosophy from her experience as an undergraduate student, her time living in Latin America, and her work as a language instructor in the Intensive Spanish program at the University of Michigan.  

“Language instruction relies on the participation, engagement, and commitment of students,” she explains. “If they do not constantly practice and use the information they are receiving, then they cannot improve their skills, but, at the same time, the philosophy of the intensive program was one in which students were required to read and know about the history and events happening in the Americas and the world. Here, it was important to engage with and develop one’s language skills by sharing your ideas and opinions about topics and events in Spanish through oral or written communication.” One of the main goals of this kind of instruction, according to Dr. Muñoz, was to “get students to engage with each other about these topics, and also to learn about Latin American countries, Spain, and the multitude of people and cultures that make up the Spanish-speaking world.”  

At the University of Tennessee, and as a geographer who focuses on urban development, housing, and culture, Dr. Muñoz’s expertise and course topics explore the various issues and events in the Americas and other areas of the world.  However, her teaching philosophy and pedagogy “still prioritize the active engagement of students through critical thinking, discussion, and debate of facts, ideas, and opinions.”   

In class, Dr. Muñoz will often teach about a particular topic and then ask her students to share their own ideas and opinions regarding that topic. She’ll wait for other students to join in by asking their own questions, sharing their thoughts, disagreeing with one another, or bringing in their own knowledge and information. “My broad goal for my classes is that students become comfortable discussing information, topics, ideas, and opinions with each other, even when they might not understand everything, or they are still formulating their ideas, even when they might not agree with me or others. I believe that by collectively engaging with the material in this way, students can develop critical thinking skills together, and they begin to recognize how social processes are often much more nuanced and complex, with multiple possible outcomes for different groups and people. In this way, I also believe that knowledge production is a collective endeavor.”   

Dr. Muñoz hopes in utilizing this philosophy for her teaching is that her students feel empowered by learning how to discuss their own knowledge, ideas, and opinions in a safe space, and in ways in which they feel they are both individually and collectively contributing to the production of knowledge. This idea is synthesized for her students in their final project where in which she instructs them to write a 5- to- 7-paged paper on a topic of their choosing, and present in class on their work. “Building on the dynamic of the course throughout the semester, I believe many of my students learn confidence to study what they find interesting, to develop their ideas and arguments, and to make independent decisions about what they want to research and present,” she explains. “In essence,” she says, “I hope and believe that my classes offer my students the confidence to begin to think critically and independently, and to actively engage with the information and topics discussed in class.”  

The results are impactful for Dr. Muñoz and her students. She shares that many students told her that they appreciated her style of teaching, being in her class, and discussing material with her; but what she finds to be truly remarkable and not “always discussed when we talk about teaching,” is how emotional of an endeavor learning is for her students. “It’s truly an experience that they tie to feelings and ideas about their worth, their abilities, and their sense of self.” Dr. Muñoz also reflects how no matter what setting she has taught in, be it Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Chile, Argentina, or Germany, her classrooms were never simply about the topic she may have been teaching that day; “but rather, they also contain students’ individual and collective experiences and narratives, their understandings about the world, and ways of seeing oneself and one’s country in a broader context.” For Dr. Muñoz, doing the good work involves keeping both of these ideas at the forefront of her mind when she teaches.  

Perhaps, then, it is this passion for the big picture and seeing oneself in a broader context that has made Dr. Muñoz “very concerned about the future of teaching, learning, and the freedom of faculty in higher education.” She explains that as higher education becomes increasingly more expensive and the culture becomes increasingly corporate, “the role of teaching and the meaning of knowledge is increasingly bound to a capitalist logic of material investment and return.” For Dr. Muñoz, there’s concern to be raised over how the business model of higher education reduces knowledge and education to commodities students can trade to become experts in a field, and thus financially productive people. “Personally, I have always seen education and knowledge as so much more than simply a means to a material end,” she states. “I value learning, knowledge, and its production because I believe it can be empowering, transforming, and potentially world changing in a myriad of ways. For these very things, higher education (and education in general) is now increasingly under attack. It is as if many leaders and politicians do not want us to empower our students, or in other words, they do not want us to teach our students to think critically and freely.” Where does this leave teachers? Dr. Muñoz offers this final thought: “I think many of us in higher education and academia will continue to struggle against these trends; I just hope it is not a losing battle.”