feeling trouble not troubled in the classroom, part three

I’m continuing to work on my troublemaking pedagogy and the value of feeling trouble. And continuing to be in denial about the looming due date for my manuscript–sept 1. how much have I actually written? not much. how much time do I have to actually work on the manuscript considering my 5 yr old doesn’t start kindergarten until Wednesday? not much. I had a breakthrough last night; with a slight change in my title, I’m able to focus my project. Instead of “Feeling Trouble and Troubled in the Classroom,” I’m calling my essay, “Feeling Trouble not Troubled in the Classroom.” Why? Because I’m interested in exploring the positive effects/affects of making and staying in trouble in the classroom. While I don’t want to discount the discomfort/trauma that trouble (in the form of being uncertain, disrupting the status quo and challenging one’s own deeply held beliefs) can generate, feeling trouble can also generate “good feelings” (of openness, generosity, curiosity, wonder).

Envisioning trouble only as crisis suggests that making trouble (critiquing, challenging, disrupting, unsettling) is a necessary but unfortunate part of the process of coming to awareness. In other words, we may not like making/being in/staying in trouble and the discomfort and uncertainty it causes, but we have to struggle through it in order to learn and gain a better awareness of the world. But, what if feeling trouble didn’t make us feel troubled? What if didn’t always lead to crisis and result in trauma? What if we valued feeling trouble and imagined it as a goal instead of merely an unfortunate byproduct of our efforts to engage? Within queer theory and pedagogy, trouble is valued. Challenging, disrupting, critiquing, subverting knowledge/ideas/authors are central to queer engagements. But this value is most frequently read negatively (as being against) and can, as Eve Sedgwick suggests in her chapter, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This is Essay is About You,” result in an overemphasis on and valorizing of suspicion and paranoia.

In this essay, I want to position my practicing and theorizing about making and staying in trouble beside but not in opposition to pedagogical theories/practices about trouble, coming out of critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, queer pedagogy and anti-oppressive pedagogy. I want to make space for imagining a classroom that embraces staying in trouble as productive and as central to engagement and critical and creative awareness. And I want to describe the strategies I use in my classes to feel trouble as curiosity, wonder and (sometimes?) joy.

Okay, that’s all I have time for now. I want to take RJP to the park on this beautiful day!

2.5 hours later: We’re back from our hike by the Mississippi. Fabulous!


what does it mean to engage, part two: even more questions

In part one of this series, I provided one framework for engaging with an author/idea/reading: appreciation, critique and construction. I have found this framework to be very useful for students, particularly because it is concrete and logical and because it requires that students spend time really thinking through what the author is attempting to argue before moving on to critique it (this is what grad students love to do first) and/or discuss why it is/isn’t relevant to their lives (this is what undergrad students love to do first). But, even as I find this framework to be useful, I can’t help but wonder, particularly from the perspective of someone who draws upon queer and feminist pedagogy, about the aspects of engagement that it might be leaving out. The three part framework of appreciating, critiquing and constructing seems too rational; it is based on the goal of knowing an idea/author’s argument and being able to effectively describe, critique and apply it. But, what if knowing isn’t the primary goal? Or if it is only one part of what I am trying to get my students to do when they engage? Or if it can sometimes come at the expense of other, important aspects of engaging (and developing a connection) with ideas?

In posing these questions, I am thinking about the frequent need to emphasize feeling/experiencing over knowing and unlearning (as in, breaking down bad habits, busting binaries, challenging assumptions, reworking master narratives) over learning. And I am thinking about the various passages from feminist and queer pedagogues that I posted in a recent entry. What sort of framework is needed for getting students to feel the effects of ideas (Kumashiro) or to experience the force of the questions posed by/in a reading (Freire) or to process how they are implicated in a theory (Luhmann) or even to commit to bringing their full (personal, intellectual, spiritual, embodied) selves into spaces of engagement (hooks in Teaching to Transgress)? What sort of strategies are necessary for encouraging students to unlearn their assumptions (about ideas, about how to read, and about even how to be/act in spaces of engagement)?

In many ways, these questions have inspired how I am shaping a class that I’m teaching this fall (and that I have taught four times already). In my next post, I want to talk more about how I’m emphasizing troubling/troublemaking–partly in the form of feminist curiosity–in my readings and assignments. For now, check out the course blog (still in progress) for it: feminist debates: fall 2011. I love my design for it, especially the header. It visually reflects how I’m trying to integrate our blog and twitter (via the course hashtag, #femd2011).

What does it mean to engage? part one

Quite frequently I require my students to “engage” with readings, authors, and concepts from class. I prefer this term over other options, like critically assess, analyze, critique, or even describe. But, what does it mean to engage? Last semester in my big class, one of the TAs had to devote about 30 minutes of her 50 minute discussion section to explaining the term “engage.” At first, when she told me that the students had required that she spend so much time discussing how to engage I was incredulous. Really? I wondered. How can students come to college and not know what engage means? However now, as I think through some of the readings that I’m using for my feminist pedagogy article, I’m reassessing my reaction. Maybe understanding what it means to engage is not as easy (or obvious) as I thought. Maybe I need to spend some time unpacking the term (ugh….I don’t really like using the term “unpack,” but it seems to fit here)? Maybe I also need to think through why students wouldn’t necessarily understand what it means to engage. Or what resistances they might have to engaging in the first place. In (hopefully) a series of posts, “What does it mean to engage?”, I want to spend some time and space engaging with the term “engage.”

So, again, what does it mean to engage? Maybe a good place to start is the dictionary; I’ll use the one on my computer dashboard. While not all of these fit, I do find that several of the definitions can help to clarify what I mean when I ask students to engage. To engage with an author or an idea or a conversation or a reading is to do more than just read or attempt to comprehend what someone believes or what they assert in an essay. To engage is to participate/become involved (def. 2.1) with those ideas, to establish meaningful connections with them (def 2.2) in ways that require thinking about not only what they mean but what they do and what they do to us. In other words, when I ask students to “engage with an essay,” I want them to do more than read the essay, I want them to really try to understand what the author is claiming and then think about how that claim affects how they see/experience/feel the world. To engage is also to critique a reading/idea/author, not by dismissing it immediately as wrong, but by working through it, exploring its limits and possibilities and by debating it (def 2.6). Perhaps the biggest key to engaging is to be an active, involved, serious participant in the process of learning/thinking/feeling about an idea/author/reading.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors provided me with a helpful framework for engaging with an author/text. I use this framework to think through my own writing and as I develop assignments for my classes. Here’s an example of how I used it in a class last fall. It involves three key elements: appreciation, critique and construction:

APPRECIATION involves figuring out what the author is saying and demonstrating a clear understanding of their argument and how they develop and defend it. Appreciation does not require that you agree with the reading. Instead, it requires that you clearly state the author’s argument. What is their main argument? What is the purpose of that argument? How do they defend it? This element of engagement is crucial; you can’t have a critical conversation about (or with) an author until you spend some time really thinking about what they are claiming.

CRITIQUE involves assessing what the author is saying. Critique should not involve a total rejection of dismissal of the reading. Instead, it could involve raising some critical or questions and/or exploring the benefits or limitations of the argument. An important thing to note here: critique does not mean trash (or reject or dismiss). Critique involves entering into a critical conversation or debate with the argument; it’s hard, if not impossible, to do that if you enter the conversation with the intractable position, “this author is absolutely wrong!”

CONSTRUCTION involves applying the concepts from the reading to your own thoughts, areas of interest and research or experiences. It could also involve applying the reading to the topics/discussions of our class. This element is especially important for engaging. Construction is about doing something with the author’s argument: applying it, translating it, re-working it to function in unexpected ways, taking it in new directions. 

But, this isn’t all that engagement is, especially engagement from a queering feminist perspective. To engage with ideas is to resist them: to refuse to merely accept them as the truth, to push back and talk back at them, to trouble and disrupt them. It is also to be generous with them: to be open to taking them seriously and to allowing them to disrupt your worldview. I have a lot more to write on engagement, especially in relation to both my own troublemaking pedagogy and bell hooks’ notion of engaged pedagogy. But that will have to wait for part two of this series.

Sample Assignment on tweet/blog

As usual, I am experimenting with new assignments for class. This fall, I want to try some twitter/blog combo assignments that are designed to help students with their writing (my class is writing intensive). Since I like to try out assignments before using them and I like to provide students with examples, I thought I’d test out my “feminist example twitter/blog assignment” as I worked on my essay about my troublemaking pedagogy. First, here’s a description of the assignment:

1 Reading example posted on twitter/blog     25 points

You are required to tweet one example from the readings that supports/clarifies your definition/understanding of feminism. You are also required to expand on this example in a blog post.

Here’s the passage that I am using as an example; it’s from Kevin Kumashiro’s Troubling Education:

Critical pedagogy needs to move away from saying that students need this or my critical perspective since such an approach merely replaces one (socially hegemonic) framework for seeing the world with another (academically hegemonic) one. Rather than aim for understanding of some critical perspective, antioppressive pedagogy should aim for effect by having students engage with relevant aspects of critical theory and extend its terms of analysis to their own lives, but then critique it for what it overlooks or forecloses (49).

tweet: students must experience and engage w/perspectives, not just comprehend/understand/accept them; teachers are guides, not experts #femd2011 (138 characters)

blog expansion of tweet: In Troubling Education, Kumashiro argues that teachers need to develop pedagogies that encourage students to actively (and critically and creatively) engage with a variety of perspectives. This engagement necessarily requires that students do more than just comprehend or develop an understanding of any one perspective as the answer. Instead, they need to be guided by teachers on how to negotiate a wide range of perspectives and critically assess them in terms of their own lives.

In thinking about my own troublemaking pedagogy, I find this passage helpful because of Kumashiro’s emphasis on experience and engagement as opposed to comprehension. While understanding a term or concept is important, students (and teachers/scholars/readers) need to do more in order to not passively accept it as the truth; students need to think critically about the perspective, how it is/isn’t relevant and what it ignores or actively suppresses. In critically assessing a concept, students learn to challenge ideas and also that engagement with ideas requires active learning, thinking, and experiencing of a concept. This emphasis on engagement shifts the dynamic between teacher and student. In a typical class, the teacher stands in front of the class and lectures as the expert, providing passive students with the answers. The focus: the transmission of ideas from teacher to student. In contrast, in Kumashiro’s classroom, passive students aren’t given answers by an expert/Teacher. Instead, they actively engage with their teacher and other students, critically and creatively determining how the concept works and fails to work within their own lives.

Note: I like this exercise. It’s helpful to spend some time really focusing in on what’s important and then expanding on that focused articulation (the tweet) in a blog entry. Since I’m not completely satisfied with my blog explanation, I want to practice this assignment some more. 

feeling trouble and troubled in the classroom, part two

How should one feel when they are taking or teaching a class? What does it mean to be feeling trouble and feeling troubled? Here are some passages that I want to consider as I continue to think through my own responses to these questions:

Kevin Kumashiro’s Troubling Education:

Critical pedagogy needs to move away from saying that students need this or my critical perspective since such an approach merely replaces one (socially hegemonic) framework for seeing the world with another (academically hegemonic) one. Rather than aim for understanding of some critical perspective, antioppressive pedagogy should aim for effect by having students engage with relevant aspects of critical theory and extend its terms of analysis to their own lives, but then critique it for what it overlooks or forecloses (49).

Learning that the very ways in which we think and do things is not only partial but oppressive involves troubling or “unlearning” (Britzman) what we have already learned, and this can be quite an emotionally discomforting process, a form of “crisis” (Felman). In particular, it can lead students into what I call a paradoxical condition of learning and unlearning* in which students are both unstuck (i.e., distanced from the ways they have always thought, no longer so complicit with oppression) and stuck (i.e., intellectually paralyzed and needing to work through their emotions and thoughts before moving on with the more academic part of the lesson). Such a paradoxical, discomforting condition can lead students to resist further learning and unlearning and therefore may be seen by educators as something to avoid. Yet education is not something that involves comfortable repeating what we already learned or affirming what we already know. Rather, education involves learning something that disrupts our commonsense view of the world (63).

*This idea of learning and unlearning comes up a lot in a book I’m currently reading (and really enjoying): Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. Davidson frequently emphasizes 21st century education as involving learning, unlearning and relearning.

Can we imagine an assignment in which teachers ask students to write in ways that trouble familiar stories? Can we imagine an assignment in which the product is less important than the process (66)?

themes: effect not understanding/engagement not comprehension; process not product, learning and unlearning; unsettling/disruptive/uncomfortable; emphasis on troubling stories/understandings; teachers as guides, not experts.

Megan Boler’s “The Pedagogy of Discomfort” in Feeling Power:

The aim of discomfort is for each person, myself included, to explore beliefs and values; to examine when visual “habits” and emotional selectivity have become rigid and immune to flexibility; and to identify when and how our habits harm ourselves and others (185-186).

The first sign of the success of a pedagogy of discomfort is, quite simply, the ability to recognize what it is that one doesn’t want to know, and how one has developed emotional investments to protect oneself from that knowing. This process may require facing the “tragic loss” inherent to educational inquiry; facing demons and a precarious sense of self. But in so doing one gains a new sense of interconnection with others. Ideally, a pedagogy of discomfort represents an engaged and mutual exchange, a historicized exploration of emotional investments. Through education we invite one another to risk “living at the edge of our skin,” where we find the greatest hope of revisioning ourselves (200).

themes: critically assessing habits and breaking bad ones; reflecting on emotional investments in not knowing/refusing to know; developing new connections, understandings, sense of self as flexible/precarious/open; valuing risk

Susanne Luhmann’s “Queering and querying pedagogy”:

Instead of focusing on the common concerns of teaching, such as what should be learned and how to teach this knowledge, pedagogy might begin with the question of how we come to know and how knowledge is produced in the interaction between teacher/text and student (6).

As an alternative to the worry over strategies for effective knowledge transmission that reduce knowledge to mere information and students to rational but passive beings untroubled by the material studied, pedagogy might be posed as a question (as opposed to the answer) of knowledge: What does being taught, what does knowledge do to students (7)?

Alice Pitt (1995) points out: “Learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it. In other words . . . learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” [p. 298](8).

themes: focus on how we come to know/not know, not what we know; exploring what knowledge does to us and how we are implicated in it; effects of knowledge on us, learning/engaging as messy

Paulo Freire’s Learning to Question:

 …the point of a question is not to turn the question, “What does it mean to ask questions?” into an intellectual game, but to experience the force of the question, experience the challenge it offers, experience curiosity, and demonstrate it to the students. The problem which the teacher is really faced with is how in practice progressively to create with the students the habit, the virtue, of asking questions, of being surprised (37).

themes: asking questions, developing habits/virtue of curiosity and being surprised, feeling/experiencing the force of questions

One more source to consider: Will the Internet Destroy Academic Freedom? This blog post for Wired Campus on The Chronicle has some great comments (and some very problematic ones too) about what the goal of teaching is/isn’t. As an aside, the title also offers up an effective example of a leading question–the type of question that does not usually encourage troublemaking, creativity, critical thinking or curiosity and that is often posed by professors who already know the answer (or at least know the answer that they want/expect/demand).