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Teaching Against the Stream

giant duckI help teach a university class on the historical and cultural geographies of London, leading an hourly discussion a week based around someone else’s lectures. Along with several hundred years of history, we cover some of the more important topics: colonialism and imperialism, racism, constructions of class and understandings of poverty. I do this in a context so removed from the popular education style we tried to practice in our community organising work in L.A. that it makes me feel positively schizophrenic sometimes.

It is so easy though, to stand in front of a group of students and explain things, especially as that is often what they want you to do given how much less work it is for them. Accompaniment is so key when thinking about starting from where students are and moving together through a process of learning, yet seemingly impossible to carry out fully within institutional and lecture boundaries, particularly when lectures and discussions are led by different people. So as I finish up another year, I’ve been thinking about how best to do this within the confines of the current structure, through the curriculum content, and given the expectations of my students.

I’ve particularly been thinking about where I’ve failed. Isn’t that always the way? I feel bad that I am not deeper into it, haven’t tried more things and made more of an effort to practice what I hold so dear. The below are just some early unfinished thoughts on how I might make a start in approaching it.

It seems to me now that the most important thing to do in terms of facilitating true learning is to help students understand their own assumptions, and help give them the tools to break those assumptions down – so the question is how much of this can be effectively done within this particular setting and in this particular time frame. The time frame is always the limit, both of the class, and your own workload. This is also a definite site of co-learning — when your own assumptions bump up against those of others you learn so much if you are at all self-reflective. While I work hard to make this reflection a part of my own practice, this is not something we teach well (if at all), and the smartest students can pretend a masterful level of critical thinking without ever questioning their actual belief system. This is even easier at elite institutions, where there are ever fewer people of different values, backgrounds and assumptions for wealthy students to bump into.  This is why diversity of race and class and gender are so vital in institutions of higher learning, and why it is so devastating that they are steadily being lost.

My teaching now stands in such stark contrast to when I was in a room with working and immigrant women of colour seeking to understand their oppression and fight it, coming together to name their reality so they could change it. Of course, they have their own assumptions that need to be understood. Their assumptions come from a lifetime of insults and discrimination and hard work that is never respected or properly rewarded. My students are on the opposite side of this relation, positively rewarded with their own privilege buttressed while also presented as normal – how could I not have realised that what they take for granted would be so much harder to challenge? Especially when almost all of their other classes operate within an ‘invisible’ and ‘objective’ neoliberal framework and claim a freedom from ideology. The biggest hurdle seems to be just unravelling this claim, making it possible to analyse prejudices and preconceptions.

This can’t be done haphazardly or a bit at a time, which is how I tried to do it. It needs to be set up from the beginning with a plan of how to provide continuity throughout the year. I’ve been thinking about how to do this, and thinking that a visualisation of how our assumptions work would be best. I’ve been reading bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins and June Jordan and thinking about Paolo Freire and Myles Horton and my past work and workshops I’ve attended in L.A., so these things are all kind of sloshing around my head as I think.

Sadly I won’t be teaching this class again as the lecturer has now left, but if I were, I would have us imagine that we walk around in… what, a suit of armour? A bubble? The metaphor of glasses or lenses is common, no? But hardly seems big enough to encompass everything that makes up our worldview. I was thinking perhaps a protective suit that mediates how we see the world. We don’t have time to analyse everything that happens around us, we respond instinctually, we make snap judgments according to the things and the frameworks we take for granted. Having a world view is necessary, as is taking some things for granted. But as intellectuals, we need to understand what those things are and the effect they have on our reading of other’s work and our understanding of events. Ideally they would be based on opinions we have actively chosen through learning and experience, not what was simply given to us. Ideally they are always open to challenge and reworking. I suppose I’m all right with someone choosing a neoliberal framework, as long as they know exactly what that means and the limits it imposes on them — even if I really hate watching people try to cram all problems into the box marked market failures.

So I would start with brainstorming the things that contribute to the way we see the world, having each student come up with their own list and then pooling them, creating something of a class portrait (which might be more diverse than I fear, given my own assumptions) and think about why most folks in the room share so many characteristics and what that means. And of course each student would have their own.  Some of the things that would have to be on that list would be: Parent’s worldviews, the neighbourhood you grow up in, the kids you grow up with, your teachers, the things you watch on television and hear on the radio, your religion and relationship to your church (or not having one), what is expected of you simply because of your gender, what is expected of you in the culture you were raised in, the diversity or lack of diversity surrounding you, your sexuality, encountering discrimination because of race or gender or class or religion, the newspapers/blogs/websites/twitter feeds etc that you read, and what you are taught in school.

We would have a period of reflection about how these things in particular have affected us, what particular views we hold and where the potential blind spots are. And then return to this list periodically as we go through the readings, trying to analyse the ways that critical work challenges our assumptions in different ways, and more importantly come to really understand that there is no framework that escapes being ideological, and objectivity cannot possibly exist through ignoring these issues of where you stand and how you explain things, but only after taking them into account. If true objectivity can exist at all.

Within our institutional context, there is little time for workshopping and scant respect for something so ‘personal’, especially as there is a set content that also has to be mastered. As it is, there isn’t enough time for discussion. But I’ve been thinking that framing everything well up front allows more of this analysis to take place. This would be a great how-to if I would be trying it out next year, but I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity. Hopefully in some point I will be able to start challenging these things. The personal – in the form of insulating privilege and experience – is so linked to the dominant neoliberal view of the world so prevalent in higher education, where poverty is the fault of the poor, all issues are defined in terms of market failure, things like the inconsistencies of small government and a growing prison population are invisible… Without delinking them on both a personal and an intellectual front I’m increasingly unsure if they can be broken down at all.

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