Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Meritxell Martín-i-Pardo, IES Abroad Barcelona

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study in BarcelonaDr. Meritxell “Txell” Martín-i-Pardo has been teaching at IES Abroad Barcelona since 2008. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, and received both her M.A. and Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of Virginia. Dr. Martin-i-Pardo was the recipient of IES Abroad’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013-14, and has taught at Arcadia University in Barcelona, the University of the South, and the University of Virginia. She is well-published, has been awarded multiple prestigious travel grants, and has presented at more than 15 conferences and events.


IES Abroad: What courses can IES Abroad students take with you in Barcelona?

Dr. Meritxell Martín-i-Pardo: I teach courses in the disciplines of Art History, History, Hispanic Studies, Religious Studies, and Sociology. My courses focus on Church/State relations in Spain, gypsies, Islamic art, and culture.

study abroad in spainIES Abroad: What makes Barcelona, Spain such a great place to study religion?

MM: The story of separation between Church and State in Barcelona and, by extension Spain, is quite recent (in historical terms, of course). Like most stories of separation, there are several ways to explain how this separation was reached, how people lived through it, and why it happened. It’s exciting to study the relationship between Church and State in a country where the lines still shift considerably depending on which party is in power in Madrid and where the discourse of secularism is, to put it softly, somewhat vulnerable.

IES Abroad: What has been the most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student? What was your response?

MM: Any question a student asks based on anything they have seen out on the street, read in the paper, or come to by looking at people in a café is fascinating because it means that what we discuss in the classroom sheds light on their experiences. It makes it relevant. It means that what we do in the classroom is not just in a book, a statistic, or what a scholar in their ivory tower decided to call it, but it’s about breaking assumptions and making connections. It’s about understanding what surrounds us, about granting it logic not just because, but seeing how it makes sense. 

I make every effort to respond to a question with another.

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IES Abroad: You designed the Church and State course to incorporate field research, which has motivated several students to pursue original research related to the course. What is surfacing from the field work research?

MM: In this course, students have to conduct two interviews about people’s perceptions of the role of religion in Spanish society. While it is trying for many, as their Spanish isn’t necessarily advanced, they end up finding it rewarding and fascinating, as some interviewees depict themselves both as atheists and Catholic in the same moment of their life! After getting past the initial stress, these nuances or contradictions are fun to wrestle with as a scholar. To find ways not to simply dismiss what the interviewees are saying as silly or dumb, but actually sifting through the details to finally gather meaning. That’s real research. I’ve had some students get quite hooked. I believe about four students have used this first research paper as the stepping ground to their senior theses. 

IES Abroad: You modified Barcelona’s Food as an Expression of Culture course to include service learning and volunteering in social initiatives like food drives and soup kitchens. Why do you feel it is important that students value the meaning of food through the different social strata?

MM: There are three reasons to introduce social initiatives in a course like as Food as an Expression of Culture.

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Barcelona was host of the Olympic Games in 1992, a brand and experience we are all familiar with. But, did you know that, in 2009, Barcelona was a city with 2,500 malnourished children? Most would say, no way. Yes, way! The first reason I introduced the service learning requirement to the course was my desire to challenge my students’ assumptions about the city they had chosen to live abroad in. The city wasn’t just Passeig de Gràcia and Las Ramblas, there were citizens struggling to make do beyond the tourist hubbub.

The second and third reasons are pedagogical. Learning becomes naturally meaningful when it is made relevant. The most efficient way I know to succeed at that is to move students away from the realm of abstract theory into the realm of practice. Once a student feels or has to figure things out, learning comes from within instead of from the outside.

Finally, when one engages in the realm of practice, one accepts herself as making a difference. Then, one engages, becomes present, is willing to take risks and agrees to lead, and, thereby, becomes a contribution. That’s the third reason. Beyond the content in any of my classes, as rigorous as I might be, I am even more committed to having my students view themselves as having the capacity to make an impact in the world by the end of any course. 

IES Abroad: Our Barcelona Center Director Dr. Cèsar Alegre Alsina describes you as a “classical teacher and mentor”, taking the time to commit to all of your students both in their growth as scholars and as people. How do you go about doing this inside and outside of the classroom?

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MM: Inside the classroom, I frame the classroom as an opportunity for growth, both personal and collective. I give students every assurance that it is ok to get something wrong. I assure them that I care little about the right answer and very much about the process. That is, when I continue to press on with a question, pressing more and more, showing them that what they said wasn’t sufficient, they shouldn’t see that as meaning it is time for them to be quiet and let the professor lecture them, but rather view it as a game—a learning one. That doesn’t mean that I let them go on believing that assumptions they have are valid or incorrect dates are the correct ones. Rigor, always. But, once students understand that what happens after they don’t give up is learning, we are ready to pursue knowledge. Many students, however, get frustrated with my style because they inhabit a world in which only measured achievement matters. And, they feel that because I’m a foreigner, I do not understand. So, it isn’t easy. But, no one said it had to be. And, I owe it to them and myself.

Outside the classroom, I keep in touch. I keep the conversation going. For example, a student once shared in discussion she felt embarrassed about her privilege. In class, I didn’t pretend not to hear her feelings. I acknowledged them. And then, I continued the “academic” discussion. Once class was over, I began a conversation via email with her. I admired her courage. I told her I loved that she took the risk of voicing her sense of place and privilege. If I feel a student feels they messed up or leaves the classroom dragging his/her feet, I email as well. I always praise students because no matter what, praise gets the best out of them. I’ve trained myself at praise. At first, I memorized appropriate words from the thesaurus, and slowly they became part of my nature. Now I can say, “Marvelous!” and sound like I mean it!barcelona study abroad

I make every effort to get to know each student individually and let them get to know me too. 

IES Abroad: What is the most important takeaway you hope students studying abroad in Barcelona leave their experience with?

MM: There is no student that is like another. They all come to Barcelona with different expectations, assumptions, fears, and hopes. If the study abroad experience makes an impact, however, small, I’m delighted because isn’t that the point? To not return the way you were, but slightly different.

IES Abroad: You’ve received some pretty incredible reviews from students, including this one:

“Txell is the reason why I decided to declare a Religion major back at my university in the United States. She was one of those exceptional teachers a student will never forget. She does her job with such precision and care, being mindful of the somewhat controversial nature of some of her subject matter, and does all of this without the want for recognition. I took both classes Txell offered at the IES [Abroad] Barcelona facility. I spent almost my entire day every Tuesday and Thursday with her, and even still she always offered to stay after and provide extra help and guidance when necessary. She was able to connect with every student in her classes, and subsequently, my classmates and I grew to really respect her. I would have an entirely different view of my time abroad had Txell not been an amazing professor and mentor while I was in Barcelona.”

study abroad in BarcelonaWhat has been your proudest teaching moment or career achievement?

MM: The least quantifiable teaching moments, I believe, are the ones I cherish the most. An aha moment: the flash of understanding that passes swiftly in a student’s eyes, that’s the happiest teaching moment. That’s the best. Because, in that passing fraction of a second, I know I am making a real contribution, that I am relevant, that what I do matters, and that what I love makes a difference. When a student realizes something and understands, that sense of personal achievement, nothing beats that. I do not mean to say that I’m not flattered or proud by the teaching awards I have received. Of course, I am, very much so. However, those awards are simply extraordinary moments, almost unreal, and as citizen of the ordinary my teaching hunger feeds on the day-to-day reality, such as that light of understanding I love to see in a student’s eyes.

Study abroad in Barcelona and take one of the challenging and inspiring courses offered by Dr. Martin-i-Pardo!

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