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Letting the Work Speak: April Dobbins, AIE'22

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Arts in Education reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
April Dobbins

April Dobbins

Photo: Courtesy of April Dobbins

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes graduating Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. April Dobbins will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for the Arts in Education (AIE) Program during HGSE's Convocation exercises on May 25.

Senior Lecturer Steve Seidel, faculty director of AIE, comments on Dobbins' selection: “When April Dobbins arrived (virtually, of course) at HGSE in the fall of 2020, she was already an accomplished filmmaker, writer, and teacher with deep roots in rural Alabama and 15 years working in higher education. But she came to learn from and with others in the AIE community and, in the process, taught all of us through her way of being in the classroom and in the world. Her curiosity, openness, and humility ground her as a learner. Her experience, wisdom, generosity, and humor are evident in every interaction. As one of her classmates said, April brings ‘her full self to the classroom, … openly discussing challenges and failures along with successes.’ Every conversation I’ve had with April has been a wonderful learning experience — for me!”

We spoke to Dobbins about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how online learning worked for her:

How does the above photo represent your time at HGSE?

The pandemic cured me of any desire to see my face on a screen, so finding a good photo was a challenge. I’m always very honest about my own failures and shortcomings. When I teach and advise, I model failing miserably, taking a moment to wallow in your feelings, and getting up so you can look back and find the lesson. I tell stories about how I have cried in the shower after rejection letters and all that, but I do it with a sense of humor. 

In August 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I designed and taught an in-person film class called Radical Black Cinema at the University of Miami (UM). I was terrified of being in the classroom but had very little say in the matter due to inflexible institutional policies. Several of my Black film students divulged that I was their first Black film teacher ever. That’s huge. It meant a lot to them to see me in that space. They appreciated my candid chronicles of failing, but they saw me laughing about those failures in the present. I think academia puts this pressure on folks to front like they’re perfect all the time, but that façade is damaging to students who are grappling with feelings of inadequacy and pressures to live up to expectations. In similar fashion, I brought my full self to my HGSE classes each day. I was honest about challenges, failures, and struggles, but I was also honest about joy and gratitude. I’ve found that people everywhere appreciate honesty, vulnerability, and a little levity.

What were your experiences with online learning? What are some of the ways you able to connect with your peers and instructors?

While attending HGSE, I was teaching my film class part-time while working full-time as the director of prestigious awards and fellowships at UM while freelancing for Miami New Times and Sugarcane Magazine while raising a whole child. The fact that I could come to classes after all that and leave feeling invigorated and inspired says it all. 

My peers are fabulous. We’ve arranged meetups and coffees all over the Eastern seaboard. I even had a friend visit me in Miami to see Bjork perform. My HGSE professors and their teaching teams were encouraging, enthusiastic, and understanding. Some of them were just learning to teach online in this capacity, but they were willing to experiment and take chances with new technologies. It was touching for me to see how much HGSE faculty and staff worked overtime in the second year to ensure that part-time and online students had access to ample courses. 

What surprised you about your time at HGSE?

Online learning diversified every single classroom in remarkable ways. Often my peers were on the other side of the globe, filling me in on everything from dance initiatives in the Philippines to education policies in South Africa or Nigeria to the current weather in Mumbai. It was really something to be connected to people inside their homes, inside their worlds, across time zones. I also think that weathering the pandemic together made us feel much closer as classmates than we would under normal circumstances. I have made many lifelong friends. 

"When I teach and advise, I model failing miserably, taking a moment to wallow in your feelings, and getting up so you can look back and find the lesson."

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

Professor Steve Seidel’s classes were always a safe space for creativity. I love how much Professor Seidel practices slow learning, listening, and thinking. He’s always so thoughtful about pausing and taking time to take in the readings or the moment. 

Professor Henry Louis Gates is not in the Ed School, but it was a lifelong dream of mine to study with him. I had to pinch myself every day in his African American Literary Traditions seminar. When the last class ended, I closed my computer and wept. I did not ever want to leave the literature. My therapist recently asked me where my happy place is. She asked me to think about a space where I feel most myself, where I am the best of who I am, and I told her it was that Gates seminar. If I could live in that seminar, I would. Heaven for me would be close readings of literature until the end of time. 

Last but certainly not least, I took the creative writing course Breaking Form with Professor Teju Cole. Professor Cole helped me overcome some major barriers in my own writing and introduced me to Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which is now one of my favorite books.  

What are your post-HGSE plans?

I’ve been invited to study Faroese at the Summer Language Institute at the University of the Faroe Islands in August. I’ve also been invited to study Icelandic for the 2022–2023 academic year at the University of Iceland. I’m hoping that funding is not an impediment to making these opportunities realities. It’s difficult to find places that teach Faroese, and I’ve been studying Icelandic on and off on my own for a couple of years, but I’m aiming for fluency. I also value the cultural and historical knowledge that one gains from studying a language in its place of origin. I’m taking a huge leap of faith to pursue these courses. Wish me luck!

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

There’s a banner in my office that reads “Let the Work Speak.” This is a guiding principle in my life. This year, I learned to call hustles when I see them. I’ve watched institutions weaponize the language of care for decades, using that language as a sort of shield, deflector, and stall tactic. These days, I am looking folks in the face and insisting on action that falls outside of the performative realm. 

Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for …

A very Miami answer: sun, cortaditos, and a good read.