Creating discourse, not debate.

The following is a response to itinerantink‘s reflections on the role of a peer mentor. According to her, although teachers and mentors should encourage genunine learning, contemporary educational institutions encourage students to “compete and perform” to promote the school’s reputation and provide workers to industry. She argues that the latter objective constraints teachers, creating classroom settings that discourage intellectual curiosity and produce anxiety and fear of failure among students. This resonates with feminist concerns about “othered” groups who are “silenced” within mainstream discourses and institutions, including academia, so I explored the parallels in a response to her post, which I am reproducing here.

“Random Thoughts” (the blog of Louis Schmier, cited by Itinerantink) reminds me of an article I’ve read in Women’s Studies, called “Negotiating Power Within the Classroom: The Example of Group Work” by Linda Briskin. She claims power dynamics exist within the classroom because teachers and students come into the classroom with particular experiences based on their gender/racial/ethnic/national/sexual identity, and have various levels of physical and intellectual abilities. These characteristics shape how and what they were taught, and how they interact with members of uniquely-identified classmates. Although conventional educational models fail to recognize these differences in order to promote “equality” within the classroom, she argues that this approach re-enforces privilege instead. Although Shmier doesn’t claim that students become different from one another because they are situated within various systems of oppression, he arrives at a similar conclusion: in order to create a classroom in which students feel valued and free to share ideas without fear, they need to be treated as individual human beings, with life histories, personalities, talents, and limitations.

Briskin also develops a couple of strategies to promote a “safe” classroom, advising teachers to “name” power dynamics when they occur. Not only should teachers discourage sexist/racist language and encourage silent students to speak, but the class in general – and the “louder” students in particular – needs to engage in discussion and reflection in order to determine why some students feel a entitled to dominate the discussion, and others do not. She also suggests that teachers should allow students to work in same-sex groups, arguing that female students tend to develop more confidence and take more risks when they work this way (she supports this with empirical research). She doesn’t say that everyone within these groups will get along; it often happens that the differences in power along other lines become more apparent. But once these differences are recognized and students actually get a chance to see how they play out, students can begin to reflect critically on who they are and begin to question what they’d taken for granted. When students understand that everyone else is not the same as they are (and nor should they be) they can ideally engage in constructive, creative discourse.

My experience in Women’s Studies classrooms resonates with her analysis. I’ve grown far more as a researcher, critical thinker, and become more creative since I’ve changed my major and worked in classes dominated by female students. Although that’s likely part of a “growing up” process that would have occurred anyways, I attribute a lot of that growth to the safety, encouragement and sense of belonging I’ve found in Women’s Studies classes. The space Shmier describes exists in these settings. There is a unspoken agreement within these classes that all students should be respected, and individual voices matter. There’s an understanding that competition/debate does not facilitate intellectual curiosity, but turn classrooms into a contest in which the only people who speak are the confident/charismatic – which in our culture, tends to be men/majority races or the disproportionately smaller number of women who were socialized to be this way. I find it unfortunate that I have never enjoyed this space to really be myself and find my “academic voice” within a classroom, and therefore agree with Shmier’s point – there is no reason this environment couldn’t exist within classrooms that teach more “conventional” subjects.

However, the experiences of the sessional instructors I’ve known suggests that there isn’t much room within the academy for the critical pedagogue. Like Shmier, Briskin addresses the institutional factors contributing to silence/lack of safety within the classroom. She argues for policy changes to address discrimination and what would probably be diversity/sensitivity training/instructions in critical pedagogy for teachers.

This purpose of this comment isn’t to review my text material, but draw parallels between oft-maligned (not by you, but by many others!) feminist thought and ideas that do not explicitly employ a critical perspective but arrive at similar conclusions. Her points about the merit of same-sex groups and naming suggest practical ways to develop “substantive” equality within the classroom. It’s notable that these ideas contradict a lot of the practices we experienced in the classroom; in the interest of treating everyone the same, many talented and troubled students were overlooked in order to get them off to the next grade to become another teacher’s problem. The practices are disappointing, because arguably, that’s how many students come to see themselves: as inconveniences. I see this in you and I, and the many students who are afraid to speak up in class, apologize before making a comment, and become quietly disillusioned with a university education that promised far more than it delivered.

You expressed interest in becoming a teacher here, and I’ve considered the idea as well; but you’ve likely also wondered how much difference one teacher can make within an institutional framework that encourages grade-grubbing, has little time for critical thinking activities, and awards degrees to those who enter the institution with privilege more frequently than those who do not. At the same time, there is an idealistic side of me that sees the potential in teaching, and would be happy to become a “Dr. Dube” to students who may otherwise fail to see why their education matters. It’s a position that asks one to challenge their own beliefs about who they are, what change they can affect, and what their responsibilities to other people should be within a world that honors uniqueness and creativity. I think it would be exciting to become that person who offers the space for “deep learning” that our experiences largely failed to provide. Now that I have a greater appreciation for where you and I once were, and what we’ve managed to achieve, I’m know I want to validate that understanding within the work that I do; teaching (with a critical perspective) would provide a means of doing so. If I can resist the urge to run off and join the circus or become a dirty traveling hippie instead, teaching is a viable option – institutional constraints be damned.

My final point is this: speaking of dirty traveling hippies, have you noticed a co-relation between “being an awesome teacher” and “having a history as some sort of social misfit”? I can probably think of ten Robin Williams movies based on that premise alone, so that association must have something to it (and like any Comms student worth their student loan, I know that if any sort of social phenomena shows up in popular culture, it must be significant)!