As the Term Wraps
It’s finals and/or graduation week across Minnesota colleges and universities as I write. As a teacher, earlier this week I
- filed course materials for a term that included three graduate courses or seminars relating to higher education,
- turned in the university’s official evaluation of teaching forms,
- set up an electronic drop off for the final electronic portfolios each learner has developed across the term, each of these accompanied by a closing with a reflective self-assessment and two new questions for me to consider as I respond,
- responded to final exams (yes, my grad students participate in a final exam – how else to model possibilities!), and
- verified final grades.
During this week, I mostly ignore what my students are doing. Taking these few days as walk away days between courses wrapping up and final portfolio responding, I clear my mind of official course evaluation concerns, push aside notes about “next time,” and let myself have Friday for mulling as the resistant learner I am before I move back to my responsive – and responding – teacher mode, before stepping back again with final evaluations in hand and Brookfield’s four lenses at hand.
As a teacher, I am, first, that long-time resistant learner self. Sometimes my friend Alex Fink and I speak of this as being dissenting learners, and sometimes that does strike me as more accurate. We do dissent from what schooling would seek to teach us, and we do resist educational administrator edicts and corporate educationalist packaging. And mostly that makes us better teachers – additionally, resistance may be the one big thing that made it possible for us to ever become teachers. We’d always be teachers in our lives, I suspect; but I’m not sure we’d have become teachers without understanding this resistance – and the presence of other dissenting learners – as a gift.
Thing 1 – Context
Experience as a Teacher – I began teaching as an undergraduate when whatever editing role I had at the campus newspaper inevitably included supervising the journalism students doing internships -something like 35 years ago. Having done an internship there during year one and gotten no feedback (the journalism instructors didn’t want to be in the newspaper office, and we didn’t particularly want them there for hosts of personal and pedagogical reasons) and noted as a good editor by peers and teachers and administrators alike, I offered to take on this role in order to try out “teaching.”
In this role, I learned how to weave together the rules about writing, the goals of the writer, the ways we could talk together over real pieces of writing to note where when why how to break rules as well as what rules and who to attend to in order to tell the story that needed telling in the way the writer needed to tell it.
Later I read Peter Elbow, who’d call this “embracing the contraries,” or being a steward to the field/profession (tho he uses gatekeeper the word gatekeeper better reflects his tone and examples) while also being an ally to the student in the development of ideas, thinking, new insights and making of meaning. In the newspaper example, these weren’t my stories to write; rather it was my role to work with the person writing the stories to determine and suggest and models ways of getting there while offering feedback.
Still pretty much my pattern: Here’s what you gotta know. Here’s what you want to know, do, make, create, explore. So, let’s figure out how you’ll be getting from here to there in the company of others – emergent self, peers, teachers, family and other co-creators. And it’s still pretty much my pattern to take on the teaching assignments that nobody else really wants.
Learning Best – This is one of the items Brookfield lists in The Skillful Teacher chapter setting out reasons for/types of resistance: Apparent irrelevance of the learning activity. Absolutely. And for most of the teachers I encountered during that 18-year period between Kindergarten and earning my undergraduate degree, I was that student who “doesn’t live up to her potential” because I just didn’t do work that I saw as irrelevant. I worked hard first to understand why someone else saw it as relevant. Asked questions. Watched my friends doing the work. Tried to bridge between what I wanted to do and what a teacher wanted me to do. Usually got sent back to my desk with a sigh. Lately have been wondering how much this pattern was set in motion by my own learning disability, which didn’t get diagnosed until PhD school (and then unofficially with specialist clinician become phd student – I couldn’t afford health insurance and at 30 would likely have been required to pay the full cost on my own).
There were teachers who were familiar with students “like me” – they might have been like me, but mostly they knew a need for complex learning and complex learners. They made it possible for me to learn in other ways. A few even made it ordinary to learn in other ways, to learn as creative people. Making this the basis for much of our classroom discussions, the sessions were actually interactive.
I did have great math and social studies/civics/history teachers between first grade and the end of undergraduate years; two in junior high, three in high school. The bookends for me were two full years of being in a classroom with teachers who made it possible for students to own and make the learning relevant: first grade and my fifth undergraduate year. (I dropped that original double major of journalism and English with just a couple of classes to go.} When I teach, those teachers – Margaret Courts of the first grade year; Scott Shrewsbury, Carolyn Shrewsbury, Truman David Wood, George Green and Milton Oschner of the final undergraduate year with a new major – still inform decisions I make about learning and learners.
I should have six new mugs with my coffee making stash at work. The one there now is wrapped with the Tardis and WWTDD? – What Would The Doctor Do? I’m imagining now the power of picking up a mug for the right moment – or offering the right mug to a graduate student instructor sitting in my office: WWMCD? WWSSD? WWCSD? WWTDWD? WWGGD? WWMOD?
Students and Courses – As an early career teacher, my courses were in Women’s Studies, American Studies, Sexuality Studies, Rhetoric, and US Literature, and I taught at a variety of “institutional types,” not just at red brick universities. At mid-career, I shifted to a Center for Teaching and Learning where I would balance between being a consultant for faculty instructors and teacher of courses for future faculty and professionals, with graduate students/PGRs and postdoctoral fellows from across the university. Two reflections from my first year of teaching as a graduate student significantly shaped who I’ve become as a teacher – and made it possible, actually, for me to be a teacher:
- Because as I teacher I had the same need of course activities that were relevant and hands on and class sessions that were collaborative in building on active preparation of course materials / ideas ahead of class sessions, I opted to set up flipped / inverted classrooms before it came to have a name and when it was something we described as “active feminist pedagogy influenced by Highlander Folkschool and Freedom Schools” – or by Paulo Freire if his work was the teacher’s touchstone.
- Because classrooms full of “traditional” students made me cranky at privilege and entitlement – at least I admit it – I asked to teach sections of core courses that we all knew would enroll “challenging” students – athletes, transfers, first generation students, cohorts from “pipeline” admissions programs, and students who were for hosts of reasons were taking, for example, a first year course in a second or third year – at least equally with “traditional” students. Once a year, I would teach one of those “traditional enrollment” courses to determine whether and what I might need to teach differently in an “ordinary” classroom because I knew that soon the “ordinary” classroom was going to look more like my “non-traditional” classroom and I wanted to be ready with ideas my peers could use.
Thing 2 – Reflect Resistantly
Is learner resistance about being a hostile learner or at least hostile to learning that seems too different, uncomfortable, ambiguous? Always, sometimes about being a disinterested learner? Linked more often than not to fear, to disjunctions, to a bad self image as a learner? Maybe. There is hostile resistance that’s about defiance and active in the classroom as an opposition to desired acquiescence. There are big and deep hostilities that make me wish I could use my beloved Up the Down Staircase as a guidebook for the societal problem solving that’s part of my teaching work with individual students as well as collections of learners. And sometimes the resistance needs to be directed at us – we may aim to not act as “criticizing pedagogues” while being practitioners of critical pedagogy; but In this, I’ve heard enough harsh language and seen plenty of demeaning actions in classrooms “headed” by critical pedagogues to know that we can be tempted to want learners to accept, by acquiescing to, our principles and practices.
Connotations matter. Consider instead: Might learner resistance be a facet of responding to hostile learning environments (the little boxes of schooling – lockers to classrooms to check boxes)? A facet of being interested in multiple epistemologies and collaborative learning (a way of thinking that counteracts domination, that exerts other and multiple ways of seeing, knowing, being)? A facet of reflecting on past intimidations, slights, and marginalisations that provokes new questions, alliances, and complex learning (withstanding the force of coercion, unlearning the effect of oppression in order to relearn new and allied ways of being, to make new knoweldge)? More likely.
A capacity to resist. As in a bit of a coating that is made explicit, that protects against cultural, educational and physical actions that could otherwise harm. What would be the characteristics of this capacity were we thinking about learning and teaching?
To consider resistance as a desirable learner/learning capacity, we need to re-think connotative powers of analogies. Even with Stephen Brookfield’s writing about resistance, I’m left with the idea of it as a stain, a smudge that appears in the midst of reflecting on teaching. I prefer thinking about it as a strand of thinking to pursue, peruse – maybe even as a way of being that threads its way through teaching in ways that can be understood even assessed in reflection on teaching. If I let myself – and my students – take up resistance as a strand and expect this to weave through our class, we have a pathway toward discussion – a way to embrace those contraries Elbow sets out, a way to focus the two-eyed examination Highlander enacted, and a place from which to be individuals joined in the social work of meaning making. Here’s how I see that distinction:
|Despair inducing||Ordinary experience|
|On my reputation||In my perceiving|
|Defacing – distain presence, see crisis||Confounding – gather confusion, see chaos|
|“Lalala, I don’t hear you…” & mindworm||“Tell me more about that” & mindfulness|
|Entitlement clash||Privilege examination|
|Isolation quashes inaction||Identifying feeling enables action|
As a strand, I can travel, walk, rove, wander, ponder, make sense of productive confusion – rather than guilt confusion that comes with stain as the analogy – I shouldn’t have provoked this, I should have done something different, I should have not let one student derail me, I’m a bad teacher because I let this happen. As in untangling racism and white privilege, guilt unmasks nothing. I take my cues here from being a white working class queer woman reading this passage in a section of This Bridge Called My Back (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983: 64) where editors Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua introduce new materials:
Rather than using their privilege they [white women] have to crumble the institutions that house the sources of their oppression – sexism, along with racism – they oftentimes deny their privilege in the form of ‘downward mobility,’ or keep it intact in the form of guilt. Fear is a feeling – fear of losing one’s power, fear of being accused, fear of a loss of status, control, knowledge. Guilt is NOT a feeling. It is an intellectual mask to a feeling. Fear is real. Possibly this is the emotional, non-theoretical place from which serious anti-racist work among white feminists can begin.
Learning as always messy – whether it’s about trigonometry or structural engineering or transformational grammar or river life or about one’s own intersubjective self. No wonder the stain of resistance can be compelling – shut it down. Ah, but no wonder the strand of resistance is provocative – to openly and in the company of others as well as one’s own mindfulness makes of ideas chaotic and uncomfortable and unknowable to something else.
Accepting resistance reminds me of the emotional costs of learning / unlearning / not learning / relearning. Keeps me attuned to the cultural costs of learning / unlearning / not learning / relearning And to the emotional as well as cultural possibilities from making use of resistance – that meta thinking, the transformational acting, and grounded theorizing that becomes possible.
As the writing wraps today
I find myself thinking of Susan Bordo – We always ‘see’ from points of view that are invested with our social, political and personal interests, inescapably ‘centric’ in one way or another, even in the desire to do justice to heterogeneity.
Of Patti Lather (who introduced me to Bordo’s words) noting that women’s studies teachers often invoke both discourse and pedagogy “designed to shake up their [students’] worlds but which often loses touch with what that shaken up experience feels like” (emphasis added). From this, she notes: “Our pedagogical responsibility then becomes to nurture this space where students can come to see ambivalence and differences not as obstacles but as the very richness of meaning-making and the hope of whatever justice we might work toward.” For me, resistance as a strand of learning and dissenting as one of my own ongoing learning behaviors has made for “Eureka!” awareness.
One of the discourses available to me is resistance – as a learner, as a citizen, as an activist, as core to my identity in a world that would like me to refuse most of my identities. I’m invested in how I use that discourse to understand learners, to parse all the ways I dislike schooling but love learning, to both construct courses that provoke meaning making and to create space for the unexpected gifts of my students’ own resistances. It’s what the we of those classrooms make together that awes, astounds, amazes and animates me at the end of now year 35 of teaching.
A Saturday Note
And the piece I read after writing this – from the Friday Guardian by Ken Robinson:”To encourage creativity, Mr Gove, you must first understand what it is.” The essay, of course, is excellent – especially the example of Hans Zimmer as a student and the 3 observations on creativity, learning and teaching that follow; and the comments offer some provocative insights.