Friday, December 18, 2015

Pedagogy is and isn't Practice

Praxis

or the relationship between what one thinks and tries and what happens in a classroom or in teaching in more general terms. I just made up this particular version of definition but I'm using it, for now. 

In the middle of this semester that is now nearly completely finished, I thought I was totally failing. Failing at teaching. In a way it was both a usual and unusual feeling. Usually there is a stretch of time, after the excitement of the beginning of the semester, when everything gets hard. Students stop doing the reading, become more quiet, slack on assignments. This happens to greater and lesser degrees depending on the makeup of the class, and which school I am teaching at (I teach at 2-3 in any given semester). At one school, this 4-weeks-into-the-semester-slump is hugely apparent every time, and now that I can see it coming, I try to plan accordingly with activities and whatnot. At the other schools, it is less apparent but still visible, and if I don't pay attention, students get distracted away. But this semester was challenging in other ways because I also considerably revised all of my syllabi just before the school year started. So in the middle of the semester, I was overwhelmed with keeping up with each class in ways I hadn't exactly done before, and also wondering if it was all totally failing. Ironically, I was getting in more student work so should have had a gauge about how students were doing. But in the middle of everything happening, it is hard to see anything clearly. After the beginning, everything felt like a disaster most of the time. This feeling though was mostly internal on my part. The classes probably went as smoothly as any other classes have gone in the past. One class that usually loses more students (they stop coming altogether, or miss a lot and then come back now and then) seemed to lose fewer than in the past. The issue was more about my own getting used to the new ways of planning and implementation that I had designed into the syllabi that I had to continuously keep up with.

But I think in the end, mostly I've actually been successful, almost to my surprise. And the other day, when I was reading through final portfolios, I came across one, at the bottom of the list of links (online portfolios) for one class, and I read it and cried. This student had been one to nearly drop out. She missed a couple of classes. She didn't turn in the first portfolio. She was a shy student with some kinds of anxiety maybe directly related to school, maybe related to social situations in general. She was from Uganda and had been in the U.S. for school once or twice before, but I didn't otherwise know much about her story. She also sat in the back of the room, and I couldn't really read her very well in terms of how she was participating or what I might be able to do or not do. Teaching is challenging  in so many ways. Students participate in all sorts of different ways in a class, whether or not they sit in front and/or talk out loud. And approaching students to talk about what they need can be tricky too depending on how they are likely to respond. I also tend to have a more hands-off approach because that is the kind of student I always was; I didn't want teachers unnecessarily in my business, though I was also a student who participated and enjoyed being involved in conversations. In any case, I like to respect students' autonomy and also make sure they know that I am available to help if they need me. One day after class, a couple of weeks after the portfolio was due and I had only received a kind of short and unclear email about her having not turned it in, I talked to her  and asked if she'd still like to turn in the portfolio, late, for a reduced grade. She excitedly responded, yes! and the next week gave me the work. After that, she may have still missed another class but overall became more involved and once or twice even participated in the class discussion. She seemed to become more comfortable in general and did a good job with the rest of the work. I was glad that I hadn't lost her and she was able to finish the semester in generally good standing. But I didn't think much more about it until I read her reflection on the semester in her portfolio, which included this:

I’ve never really had a writing process; I’ve never really been interested in writing. Reading, though was another matter. For a while when I was a child, my mother worked in a neighborhood library; I like to tell people I love reading because I grew up in a library. On a day when I have absolutely nothing else to do I can devour three good sized books, one after the other, like pints of ice cream. We lived in the Ugandan version of the countryside and all my friends lived in the capital city. So I spent many hours living inside my head with the people in my books and loving every second.

Being in this class has prompted two major epiphanies. The first one was my suddenly deciding to major in English. This was dismaying since I’ve never considered English a “real” major. One of my favorite arguments against it was pointing out that my heap of student debt had not been incurred so I could sit in a classroom reading books and talking about my feelings, which is what I thought English majors did. Sure, I loved reading. Sure, I had penned a bad poem or two in my time. And sure, every time I passed by the English department or looked at the first blank page in a notebook I felt the shiver of excitement in my stomach. But shivers are not a good enough reason to switch to a major that meant looking forward to a long, fulfilling career in food service.

The things I loved most about the class was that it was the first place in this country that a group of people sat down and talked about things that I cared about. Racism. Poverty. Marginalization. Depression. Self-hatred. Death. Loneliness. The ugly sides of life that never came up in discussion in math classes or political classes. The financial, social and maybe psychological sides of these issues would maybe enter the debate. But English 223 is the first class I can remember where we sat down and talked about the feelings behind these issues. Being a person who regularly drowns in feelings at least a hundred times a day, this was an eye opener. I didn’t realize I could major in a subject where I could talk about my feelings and think about my feelings and write them down and someone would actually listen. I didn’t know things like writing Creative Essays allowed you to do that without the fear of the reaction I’ve become used to all my life and yet still hate, “Why do you always overreact to everything?” Writing allows me to overreact to my heart’s content and yet manage to come to a calm conclusion at the end of it.


And I realized that sometimes, what I do and how I lead a class can have huge impacts on students. Part of it is me and a larger part of it is a process that a student may already be going through and the class may help to support that. Sometimes I think creative writing opens this kind of possibility more because students have a lot more freedom to write on their own terms during the semester. But I am starting to see this kind of personal reflection in other writing classes too. I have been practicing giving students more space and possibility for writing on their own terms so that they can relate and allow writing to be a space of discovery, both about what they want to express to an audience and what they want to learn about themselves. And at the end of the semester, students talk about how they have improved as writers and some of them even stop on their way out and say thank you.

I get so frustrated. I often have felt that teaching is the only thing that I actually am good at. And every semester, I am challenged by feeling like I am failing to some degree as a teacher. I apply for full-time teaching jobs and no one hiring recognizes my many years of experience as important to my credentials and so people with far less experience get hired instead. I often feel disrespected by people and institutions because I am only a contingent worker and not valued for my teaching experience or ability to continually interrogate my pedagogy in practice and always try and do better. Some people may be naturally better teachers, and have to work less hard to improve. When I read about other teaching practices or talk to other teachers, I often feel like I am not doing enough or am not doing a good enough job. But maybe that also continues to help me improve because it is something I am thinking about all of the time. And when I read students' writing, their assignments and reflections, I am often amazed. This last week of the semester I have been really amazed at what my students have done. And that's why it's hard to think about doing something different, some other kind of job, because I can see that what I do affects people and often gives them tools and resources to learn about and help themselves. Just because hiring committees don't recognize that, doesn't mean it doesn't matter. 


...to see the beginning of this pedagogy project go to: http://jdnotes.blogspot.com/2015/08/critical-digital-pedagogy.html  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

something from the past present

from


A Flight of Petals

a response to K. Prevallet’s perturbation, my sister




Trumpets and clarinets grow in follicles from the crevices of his thought, and blaze the world vermilion within the terror of the night.


I have seen a series of pictures. The world. Various beginnings and endings. Like walking through woods and brush in the dark. Insects will find your legs but you can keep walking. Eventually light will fall on the lake there may be a path on the other side. Terror is always possible. You are terrified of your own changing landscape. Someone tells you ‘don’t go. Stay with me. I am here to help you. If you stay.’ But you cannot stay. Your move is past due. The trail has disappeared from overuse. The simple feel of grass becomes complicated. If you look up, you will know better how to start walking east, and you will compose this piece for various instruments to play simultaneously.

thinking about BlackLivesMatter and teaching

... a part of a larger reflection





The counter-slogan “All Lives Matter” is a rhetorical signal of a threatened position that minimizes the larger social situation of this violence and the historical perpetuation of oppression that resonates in the present. 

As George Yancy states, “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.” (Yancy)
Alternatively, “All Lives Matter” as a reactive “slogan” actually functions as a rhetorical strategy of maintenancing the status quo, generally on behalf of whites, to put African Americans back into a silenced position of non-agential submission. Disallowing space for voiced black subject positions resonates a perceived threat since times of slavery. There were reasons, important to social and economic control, that slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. Through writing, for example, one can have a voice which is less easily dismissed than silence. One need only turn to Frederick Douglass to see the continuum from basic literacy, to critical literacy and acquisition of knowledge, to social action and change. Or as MLK argued in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, the silent apathetic majority, made of whites and blacks, is more dangerous than extremist groups because no action toward change happens in such a climate of immobility. But when we read Douglass and King with our students, we often forget to bring them with us into the present moment, to comment on our continuing social issues in regard to race relations and how we can continue to work for change. We talk about the great things MLK and Douglass did and then spend time arguing about the language of the chant or slogan and dismissing responsibility for more thoughtful engagement.

In her interview with George Yancy, Judith Butler speaks to the problem of the deployment of All Lives Matter as a counter slogan by contextualizing what BLM is within a historical continuum. All Lives Matter as a rhetorical strategy of disempowerment functions best when recipients have little knowledge of proper historical and contemporary context and a lack of understanding of the need for a movement such as BLM:
What is implied by this statement, a statement that should be obviously true, but apparently is not? If black lives do not matter, then they are not really regarded as lives, since a life is supposed to matter. So what we see is that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, that is regarded as the way it is supposed to be. The callous killing of Tamir Rice and the abandonment of his body on the street is an astonishing example of the police murdering someone considered disposable and fundamentally ungrievable.

When we are taking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat. (Butler)

This, in many ways, echoes what Alicia Garza articulates in her article “A Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter.  All Lives Matter as a reactive slogan ignores/silences history and context, dismissing singular acts of violence as isolated and not connected to a historical continuum of state sanctioned inequality still active symbolically and literally in the examples of police violence which accelerated this movement. Garza explains:
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that  500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence;.the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence.  And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.

When Black people get free, everybody gets free

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.   When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free.  When Black people get free, everybody gets free.  This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways.  We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined. (Herstory)

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” But we have to wonder how we are still  making the same arguments and doing the same work for justice so  many years later.

...



Black Lives Matter also calls attention to identity and ways that young people in general and African Americans in particular negotiate identity and means of identification from perspectives of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender in the world and online. Although we may not find resolutions to some of these issues and conflicts, bringing the conversations into the classroom can offer students various means of negotiating these as personal and social conflicts and points of engagement on their own terms as well as within a community (classroom) context.

The crossover of links and information among and between sites and platforms -- including the Black Lives Matter hashtag and Twitter site, the use of Twitter in spreading information and announcing protests especially in relation to the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the viral spread of video like that from the infamous Pool Party in Texas showing the police officer man-handling/assaulting a teenage girl in a bikini – and real-world action – the move from inside to outside of the internet -- marks a new kind of possibility for social activism that if continuously utilized may in fact contribute to real social change. And these kinds of conversations can open our classrooms to making better connections between the texts we read and the lives we live in the world. If in fact we want to realize that all lives and not just some lives matter, that improved race relations and addressing social inequalities will result in a better society for all people and not just some people, and if these are issues that some of our students are concerned with when they enter our classes, we might be able to do more to help all students link their own lives and experiences with our classroom activities.