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Department of Geography

Teaching Turned Upside Down

In the “City without Papers” project, geography students collaboratively investigate undocumented migrants’ precarious living conditions. This new type of teaching format is devoted to addressing current questions in urban studies research and in the process challenges traditional roles in science and teaching.


How do undocumented migrants live in Zurich? What problems do they face, for example when searching for housing? Students from UZH were hot on the trail of such questions in the 2023 Spring Semester.

The challenge

In the “City without Papers” project, teaching staff and students conduct research together with undocumented migrants and in cooperation with employees of the Zurich Information Office for Undocumented Migrants (Sans-Papiers Anlaufstelle Zürich (SPAZ)). “We don’t want to sit in an ivory tower. We want to shape and design research and teaching collaboratively,” urban researcher Julie Ren says. The challenge was to translate the principles of cooperative transdisciplinary research, tried and tested in urban studies, into teaching.

Making it happen

The research-based teaching format “City without Papers” was devised by the Züri Urban initiative being run by the Social Geography and Urban Studies unit of the UZH Department of Geography. Urban researcher Julie Ren and social geography professor Hanna Hilbrandt have already conducted the elective module with undocumented migrants and the Zurich Information Office for Undocumented Migrants two times. In this module, Master’s students experiment with innovative forms of collaborative knowledge production: they learn not just about undocumented migrants, but also learn together with them.

This new type of setting not only turns the traditional hierarchical roles of teachers and students upside down, but also challenges the classic compartmentalization of researchers and research subjects, raising question such as: Who is the actual expert on the situation facing undocumented migrants? Is it really the researchers, or aren’t the undocumented migrants themselves much more likely to be the true experts? The “City without Papers” project reexamines common assumptions regarding this subject and fills in current gaps in knowledge through collective research.

The solution

In research-based teaching formats, students actively participate in knowledge production and this way become acquainted with the process of conducting research, from defining the subject of inquiry to publishing the research findings. The active participatory work motivates and empowers students to solve research questions on their own. The “City without Papers” project also pursues this objective.

The collaborative work required a foundation of trust. This involved creating a protected setting in which all parties involved, including the undocumented migrants, openly and candidly discussed issues regarding roles, objectives, interests, and anonymity.

The research collective split up into three mixed groups and carefully examined what undocumented migrants face when searching for housing, managing everyday life, and dealing with legal contradictions. The participants had to get creative to come up with appropriate qualitative methods. Language barriers prevented them from relying exclusively on interviews and surveys. New methods such as multilingual research diaries provided a remedy.

Scientific communication was also part of the module. The students documented parts of their findings in the Züri Urban blog and in an article posted on the online platform Tsüri.

Our teaching community

Collaborative research-based teaching and learning sensitizes students to different views and perspectives and acquaints them with co-production of knowledge. Informal conversations, lunches together, and activities outside the project enabled everyone involved to break down barriers and prejudices and to face each other on an equal footing.

Working together with a vulnerable group of people like undocumented migrants increased the researchers’ awareness of aspects of collaborative teaching research, such as: How big of a security risk is posed by exchanging phone numbers? What IT infrastructure can undocumented migrants access? Does everyone involved have the same understanding of research in mind? And what does it mean to work together fairly and as equals?

Hilbrandt and Ren wrote down their experiences, findings and insights in a toolkit so that interested teaching staff do not have to start from scratch when planning, conducting and evaluating similar collaborative research-based teaching and learning projects. Their toolkit addresses potential difficulties and provides checklists and examples. “Reflection is central to developing teaching further,” Ren explains. “We make our experiences useful for others through the toolkit.”

Find out more here about the Future of Teaching at UZH initiative.

Title image: Collaboratively developing new forms of research-based teaching: urban researcher Julie Ren, Bea Schwager from the Zurich Information Office for Undocumented Migrants (Sans-Papiers Anlaufstelle Zürich (SPAZ)), project staff member Ifigeneia Dimitrakou, and social geography professor Hanna Hilbrandt (from left to right).

Stéphanie Hegelbach, UZH News

Weiterführende Informationen


Prof. Hanna Hilbrandt
Dr. Julie Ren
Dr. Ifigeneia Dimitrakou

Social Geography and Urban Studies

This article was published on 21.03.2024 on UZH News.

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