Learning Is Engagement

Kathleen Torrens
Professor, Communication Studies, and Assistant Director, Online Education

Winner of the 2020 URI Foundation and Alumni Engagement Excellence in Teaching Award, Torrens encourages her students to think critically and engage in civic life.

While working on her dissertation on the 19th-century dress reform movement, Kathleen Torrens developed a deeper appreciation of ways in which we communicate publicly. For example, clothing can function as political statement. The progressive 19th-century woman’s rejection of corsets—and petticoats, hoops, chemises, and bustles—intertwined with the public movements for suffrage, abolition, and temperance, Torrens notes.

“I want my students to ask and answer questions, to have an appreciation for education and for community. I want them to be citizen-participants.”
—Kathleen Torrens

“The 19th-century dress reform movement involved this intersection of all kinds of activism and the different ways that 19th-century women advocated for themselves,” says Torrens. “I have read reports of women who put down the corset and recounted how frightening it was to do so.

“It was clear that wearing bloomers was a form of protest, argument, and advocacy,” she says.

“I think my interest in social movements and discourse arose from that. I’ve worked that into my teaching,” Torrens continues. “People suffered so that we don’t have to wear things like corsets, which symbolize social control and oppression, and so that we can vote and own property.”

On Equity and Online Education

Torrens is one of the faculty at the forefront of URI’s online learning initiative. It is a democratic way to deliver a quality education, provided an institution ensures access, affordability, and equity for its students, she says. COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of online instruction at URI while also highlighting inequities.

“I’m hearing students say, ‘I work on my phone because the Wi-Fi in the house is bad,’ or, ‘My house is overcrowded.’ While the bulk of students at URI are privileged, there are a great number who are not.”

The responsibility for making online learning work must be shared by faculty and students, Torrens says. “Online learning is an amazing tool for getting students involved in their own education, but it requires training students to participate in a way that they’re not used to,” she explains. A group blog might replace classroom discussion. Oral presentations might require video. “Learning is engagement, and I feel it is incumbent on us as instructors to learn how to best engage our learners.”

On Educating an Informed Citizenry

Students in Torrens’ classes evaluate sources by looking critically at how they receive information. If their preferred outlet is Twitter, or even TikTok, they’ll get no pushback from Torrens. The goal is that students become aware of the rights, responsibilities, and power they have as citizens.

“My students explore their interests so that they exercise their power as critical consumers of culture and become aware that they are being bombarded every second of every day by people wanting to change their minds or behavior,” she says. “Over time, my teaching has become less about content and more about critical thinking, problem-solving, and enjoyment in learning.

“I want my students to ask and answer questions, to have an appreciation for education and for community,” Torrens explains. “I want them to be citizen-participants.

“If you learn to be a participant, you are more likely to be
an advocate.” •

—Marybeth Reilly-McGreen

Photo: Nora Lewis