A transformative experience
Frances Cachon believes education has transformative potential. It transformed her and she hopes to have some influence on others to transform them to create positive social change.
She was born in Mexico. Her mother, Nancy, was an exchange student in Costa Rica who then went on a vacation from her exchange to Mexico, where she met and married her first husband, Antonio. Frances lived in Mexico until she was six, when her parents divorced. She moved many times in the US and Canada before eventually settling on Pelee Island late into her Grade 6 school year.
“I’ll never forget it because we moved to Pelee Island on April Fool’s Day. I went from a school that had two grade eight classes to a school that had 30 students total,” Cachon said.
Pelee Island would become the place where she feels most at home, mostly due to a lifelong connection to the island thanks to her mom who brought her there to visit. “Pelee Island is a place I’ve always known. We would go there a lot during summers starting when we were babies.”
The island didn’t have a high school, so she would board with a family during the week and go home on weekends. “It required me to mature early in many ways because it was like you were leaving for university in Grade 9,” she said. “I was lucky, I always had really nice families that I boarded with, but It was hard being away from my family.”
From there she did her undergrad at Western University, initially thinking about becoming a psychologist. “I took a sociology course and from the very first class, I fell in love with the discipline. I realized this is for me.”
She said what resonated with her was the ways in which sociology questioned the status quo and positioned knowledge in service of advancing public conversations that mattered. “I found it was engaging and relevant. It had this immediacy to the world around me. I loved the way it caused me to question things I had previously taken for granted.”
She was unsure of what she wanted to do but wasn’t too concerned about it at the time. “I remember being enamored with my readings. I would have my muffin, and my coffee, and my stack of readings, and I really treasured that time to focus on learning and to really immerse myself in the readings. To this day when I hear people say, ‘what are you going to do with this or that degree’, I still hold fast to a very romantic vision of education as having a transformative potential. Post-secondary education transformed my worldview. It transformed my sense of who I was in the world and what I was capable of, and I find that you can’t quantify that kind of transformative experience. I became passionate about and determined to be successful in what I was studying, but it also changed me and oriented me to the world differently.”
Her passion for sociology translated to a commitment and focus on pursuing it further. “I continued to trust that if I loved what I was doing and if I was finding so much inspiration and purpose in what I was doing that it that would lead me to where I wanted to go.”
Cachon went on to do a Masters in Sociology at Western where she said the university’s “amazing” mentorship program helped her begin to consider that a career in academia was something she wanted to pursue. As a TA, she would meet with the course professor and senior graduate students to go over what did and didn’t work in her tutorials every week. “It helped me embrace the art of teaching,” she said.
To get a sense of whether she should pursue a career as a professor, Cachon taught sessionally at Western for a year after completing her Masters. “I thought I’ll try it for a year and if I love it then I’ll apply for a PhD. It was that year that I solidified that being a professor was definitely something that I wanted to do, so I applied for a PhD in Sociology at Windsor and started teaching sessionally while I was a graduate student.”
Looking back, she said it was an enormous amount of work. “It was a balancing act. Trying to balance being both actively involved in teaching and completing my dissertation. I also had two children while I was doing my doctorate so that added a whole other balancing act.” The challenge of balancing the demands of family and work is something she is confident many of her colleagues can relate to.
“It did get to a point where I realized I needed to have laser focus on just the dissertation if I wanted to finish it. I did get to that point,” she said. “However, I don’t regret my path. Those years of sessional teaching were some of the most amazing teaching opportunities for me in terms of refining my own pedagogy and teaching what’s thrown at you. Sometimes it’s last-minute course appointments and you’re literally two steps in front of the students, and that is not an ideal circumstance to develop your craft, but it taught me a lot about taking risks, adjusting as you go, and being open to the fact that to be an effective teacher you must always be learning.”
She recalled one time arriving two hours early for a morning social theory class and spending the early hours mapping out complex ideas onto a chalkboard so that students could understand the material better. “I stepped back and realized I had made an enormous and confusing mess of notes on the chalkboard. It was literally as the students were walking into the classroom that I realized my lesson plan wasn’t going to work out as I had hoped. I love laughing about that now because I learned so much from that experience.”
Even to this day, things still don’t necessarily work as planned at times. She recently introduced a “book club” into her practicum class. Students were required to read a book and discuss it in class, but she found that the discussion lacked the dynamic exchange of ideas and depth of analysis she was hoping for. Rather than scrap the idea, she reconstructed the entire exercise, and it was better received and much more successful the next time she tried it. “It was exactly what I had hoped it would be. This time I structured it much better, and we also spent a lot of time intentionally building community, so the student felt more comfortable. It was quite amazing, students took risks, they shared, they provided amazing insights, and they learned from one another.”
One strategy she employs in the classroom is putting into practice the notion of self-care. “Working in the area of campus sexual violence prevention is hard and heavy and it’s not enough for us to simply say take care of yourself.” She said she wants students to feel comfortable to be able to approach her to tell her they will not be able to meet deadlines. “We have an ethic of care that’s built into the curriculum whereby I don’t want students to stay up all night to finish an assignment knowing that they’re struggling.” She said she wants students to hand in something they are proud of in a way that doesn’t affect their well-being, and extending their deadline is a method that works. “It’s never failed. It’s always arrived on time. It’s always been good quality work.”
She said this approach may not work for everyone, especially those with large classes. However, she did offer the idea of a rolling deadline to a professor who taught a large intro course. This works by having a deadline where something is due on a specific date, but it could also be handed in a certain amount of time later without penalty or requesting special accommodation, she said. She ran into the professor later and was told it made a drastic difference, and she was grateful. “I do think there’s room for practicing universal design and integrating an ethic of care that helps alleviate some of the tension around an antiquated disciplinary model of education.”
Cachon said she sees students as dynamic human beings who may be parents, or working, or responsible for family members. She is there to help bring out the best of them. “My greatest goal in teaching is to get students to realize the brightest version of themselves. To grow their self-confidence, to know that they’re capable of effectively navigating difficult conversations, that they can do hard things, to dream bigger dreams for themselves, all of it, which again sounds romantic, but it’s the truth.”
Teaching for Social Change
One of the reasons Cachon chose to do her PhD at Windsor was because of its emphasis on social justice. After teaching sessionally for years, she eventually worked her way to becoming a Learning Specialist and the Coordinator of the University of Windsor’s Bystander Initiative. She now teaches students how to become sexual violence prevention educators. “One of the things that I absolutely love about my current role with the Bystander Initiative is that we focus on capacity building for social change,” she said.
The Bystander Initiative is a comprehensive, campus-wide approach to sexual violence prevention. Unique in Canada, the initiative’s goal is to shift the campus climate over time and build a community that looks out for one another and does not tolerate sexual violence.
Students sign up for a 2.5-hour Bringing in the Bystander® Workshop to learn how to intervene in both small and big ways by gaining the tools needed to recognize harm and respond safely and effectively to a situation where someone may be victimized. As an incentive for participating in a workshop, UWindsor students receive additional courses credit within integrated undergraduate classes.
Cachon said the cofounders of the Bystander Initiative, Anne Forrest and Charlene Senn created an institutional structure that ensures it runs in a way that is sustainable and enriching and enhances the undergraduate experience.
According to the Bystander Initiative website, the goal of the workshop is to train 10-15% of the student body each year through prevention programming that reflects the diversity on our campus. These students will constitute the “tipping point” needed to change campus attitudes and behaviours.
“We’ve all been socialized to think about sexual violence in problematic ways. We’re trying to cultivate social change by unlearning myths about sexual violence and changing social norms. These can be difficult conversations. Campus sexual violence remains a taboo subject. We’re creating a space where campus members gain skills to address and prevent sexual violence because we know we cannot change what we do not acknowledge.”
The program has evolved over the years based on developments in the field of prevention and feedback from campus stakeholders, particularly students who attend the workshops. Overall, the programming is very well-received. “I read the survey results and students say this program is so important. I learned so much. Everyone should take this workshop. Thank you for doing this work, etc., It’s notable and affirming” Cachon said.
The workshop is led by students who are taught and mentored by Cachon in two undergraduate courses. She said the courses are cross-listed and meet the degree requirements for a wide range of programs. “We focus on building leadership capacity among the students who facilitate our prevention workshops, they are social change agents on campus and beyond.”
She said she draws upon her experiences of teaching new courses and embracing teaching and learning as an ongoing process of refining her skills to guide her in mentoring students to become effective Bringing in the Bystander™ facilitators. “One of my core objectives is to create an environment where students feel safe to take risks, where they feel supported in practicing something that they’re not excellent at, where they embrace experiential learning as the learning in the doing. I feel my professional journey guided me to a place that I can not only talk theoretically about the benefits of that, but I can model that myself and share what I have learned about effective teaching in the doing. I embrace the fact that I am a facilitator of knowledge in a collaborative learning community. I’m there to learn as well and I will continue to learn from my students, and from each class that I teach.”
Cachon started off with a love of and passion for Sociology unsure of where her journey would take her. She’s grateful to be where she is now, doing work she loves. “You can’t plan these things. If you would have told me that I would end up being a prevention specialist and working in the area of sexual violence, I wouldn’t have seen that for myself.”
For someone who has experienced the transformative power of education, it’s a good place for her to be, in a position to make a difference and transform other lives and change the culture around sexual violence slowly but surely.
Peter provides expertise in the area of multimedia in support of CTL programs, website design, and special events. He has been doing graphic and web design for about 20 years. He is a graduate of Print Journalism and Digital Media from Conestoga College, and Communication, Media and Film from the University of Windsor.