Leslie McLees

Leslie Mclees


lmclees@uoregon.edu | 541-346-5709

Courses: GEOG 201: World Regional Geography; GEOG 399: Exploring Oregon; GEOG 419: The Professional Geographer

In my courses you will:

  • Make connections to lived experiences and real-world challenges.
  • Practice foundational, transferrable skills.

I was invited into the Teaching Academy because:

  • I participated in the UO Summer Teaching Institute.

What ways are you working to make your teaching inclusive?

My courses deliberately and explicitly address the stereotypes people hold about places: how stereotypes are formed and how they influence our interactions. Many of my in-class discussions and assignments focus on applying the concepts we discuss in other places (issues of gender, borders, climate change) to students’ own lives and places as a way to understand how these processes play out and impact people in different ways. When I chose pictures and videos to display in class, I prioritize materials developed by and representing people of marginalized backgrounds—it’s important to me that students see the race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability diversity of our field.

I practice inclusive teaching through personal reflection assignments in and out of class, providing students an opportunity to share those (sometimes anonymously) and setting ground rules for discussion of issues that might intimidate or exclude certain voices. I share examples from my own life about how my worldview has been challenged—in this way I hope to reduce mental barriers my students may have when they encounter different perspectives.

I have recently learned more about content accessibility, and am working to incorporate this into any materials I use for a course, from written documents to videos. When there are problems in the class, I work to be open and present them to the class, asking students’ opinions on how to proceed. I am open to multiple solutions if there is a population that needs different accommodations. My goal is that students learn, not to put up artificial hurdles and barriers.

What do you do in terms of professional engagement with the teaching and learning culture on campus or nationally?

My teaching has always been more effective when I spend time reflecting on how I can make it better. I attend workshops and conferences sponsored by my disciplinary association and I look on campus for opportunities to develop parts of my teaching in response to the changing needs of students. I learn from people inside and out of my discipline. My attendance at workshops and conferences has given me confidence that the experiments I try in class can work. I have learned how to tweak exercises to incorporate more students’ voices. I have expanded on some activities and discontinued others. I am very open to student feedback, whether anonymous or face to face.  I conduct a peer review of a course in my department each year and, in turn, one of my courses is also peer-reviewed. I was proud to receive a Williams Instructional Grant for my Exploring Oregon Course.

In what ways was your teaching in this course research-led—informed by research on how students learn and inflected by UO's research mission?

I incorporate cutting edge technology used in my discipline that provides both job-ready and critical thinking skills and allows students to understand and display data and ideas in new ways.

I use universal design for learning and backward design to create my course objectives and activities. I start with what I want students to learn (the objectives) and then design activities (lectures, mapping exercises, discussions, projects) to fulfill those goals. As a way of helping students plan for their post-graduate lives, I articulate job-ready skills that employers are looking for, and how students will develop those in the course. This includes being transparent about how they will develop transferrable skills like critical thinking, analysis, communication, and more. Increasingly, I use class time not to present new material, but to have students engage with it. I am also creating ways to ensure students have actually done the pre-class activities so that they are prepared for the in-class activities. Rubrics were initially a challenge for me, as I long felt that the material that is more subjective or qualitative, but once I realized how much they clarified expectations for students, I have developed them for almost all of my assignments. I divide students into small groups and ask for reflections and interactions after class, creating occasions for students to process and hear other perspectives.

What is your favorite TED Talk or podcast?

I show Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story" in every class I teach. To me, this talk embodies everything that inspires me to be a geographer. She is Nigerian author (and her novels are brilliant) who talks about the stories we create about people and places. She reflects on her experience coming to the United States and the ideas people had about her—how they had a single story about her, including thinking she couldn't use a stove, assuming the only music she listens to is “tribal,” and expressing surprise that she could speak English so well. She then reflects on her own experience with single stories about Mexicans as poor immigrants. When she traveled to Mexico, she realized that she, too, had developed her own single story about Mexicans from her exposure to the U.S. the media. The purpose of her talk is to advocate that we complicate the single stories put out by powerful storytellers who shape how we perceive people and places. This has long been my purpose in teaching in geography.

Who or what led you to this discipline?

I graduated college with a BS in Zoology and did some wildlife biology internships in California and Hawaii for a couple of years. During an internship on the Big Island, where I was camping in the backcountry waiting for sea turtles to hatch (it was a good life!), I realized I was more interested in the conflicts over the use of public beaches where turtles nest than the wildlife itself. Indigenous Hawaiians, the state, environmentalists, tourism agencies, and local residents all promoted a certain use of beaches and used the turtles to justify the claims that furthered their interests.

Trying to understand these conflicts over a place brought me to Geography, a discipline that specializes in understanding the human dynamics of environmental change. After earning my masters and teaching World Regional Geography, I became consumed by the ways that people continued to simplify places, continuing racist or gendered attitudes towards other areas of the world. This led me to conduct Ph.D. fieldwork in Tanzania. I worked with urban farmers to understand how cities that we often see as broken and poverty-ridden actually work and can be empowering and fulfilling places for people to live. This is not to say there are no problems in these cities, but that our comparison of cities in different places to cities in North America and Europe marginalizes the lives and processes of people in cities we continue to see as failed. This allows us to see that people do not just survive, but they can thrive in different urban environments. This provides a path to understand people and places on their own terms. This perspective continues to motivate and inspire my teaching.