An educator speaks about pedagogy, critical thinking, and connecting with students. Education is about creating a safe place for exploration, for confronting the hard social, political, and psychological realities of our existence. But it�۪s also about honesty, exposure, and trust. It is not easy moving beyond the rigid and stereotyped roles of the cardboard educator, but we try to be more than the boxes we find ourselves in.
"I come to teaching with all of my being."
My devotion to you is complete. For me, teaching is about something you are, something you embody. Thus I have no techniques, no strategies, no skills, no drills, no exercises that tend to work in conveying various ideas and concepts. Instead, my focus is on how I enter the classroom as a human being.
Ultimately, my ambition is to push you to lay bare the forces that constitute you as a human being. I aspire to create a safe space for you to do this work. For what I am asking of you is really hard. I am ultimately asking you to go beyond the beliefs, values, assumptions, fears, suspicions, doubts, truths, and norms that constitute you. I want you to come face-to-face with your deepest anxieties and insecurities. I know you are often unable to lay everything bare���just too much to deal with in one class. You were unprepared for this kind of pedagogy. You obviously had other expectations. But my commitment to you demands that I engage you in a more demanding pedagogical experience.
"I want you to leave my class less afraid of the world."
For I know you are afraid when I you enter my class. Most times I cannot even begin to fathom how scared you are. What has this world done to you? Of course I know you often pretend to be unafraid. But eventually you always become undone. I despise the world for what it has done to you. Your capacity to imagine new and different worlds is shot through with fear. I want my classroom to be the place where your healing begins���that is, where you find the courage to act upon the world in ways that affirm your ability to alter and change your world. It is therefore my responsibility to create a space that encourages you to come face-to-face with all the forces that are damaging you. It is also my responsibility to create a space that allows you to explore the beginnings and possibilities of new and different worlds.
"The healing begins in the writing, in you reclaiming the power to interpret and reinterpret your lives, your experiences, your worlds."
Interpretation demands power and courage. It calls forth a willingness to engage the world�۪s ambiguity. Understandably, interpretation is hard for you. You often resist. You insist on looking to me for direction. You are afraid to let go of me. But I demand that neither my words nor my thoughts appear in your writing. Still, many times you insist of doing otherwise. I guess any port in a storm will do. You often complain of the ambiguity of the process under the disguise of insufficient direction. Often you are simply unwilling to trust me. In frustration you sometimes threaten to write anything since there is apparently no correct answer. You are afraid. I know. Eventually, you discover that interpretation assumes an interpretive world���one that lends for multiple realities and possibilities. But such a world is discursively alien to you.
The world you belong to is discursively and materially dichotomous and discontinuous. Something is either positive or negative, good or bad, right or wrong, male or female, sacred or profane. You too believe that the world is outside and separate from you. Of course you also believe the world is finite. Thus you believe that regardless of how one chooses to interpret, say, an apple falling from a tree, the fact of the matter is that the apple will fall to the ground rather than up to the sky. Understandably, you believe deeply in this finite world. You know no other. You are therefore suspicious of any suggestion that our interpretive capacity gives us the power to change and redefine our worlds. You believe that such claims only have purchase in theory.
But is the world really dichotomous and discontinuous? How do you really know that the world is finite? What is the origin of this knowledge? How do you know this to be true? How do you know that such truths are beyond the forces of interpretation? How do you know? In other words, where do our worlds begin? Do our worlds begin inside of us, outside of us, of somewhere in between? No position is arguably more fundamental in shaping your ethics and politics. As such, I never allow you to avoid such questions.
Worlds of Cultures
You generally tend to believe that there is a world outside of us that dictates a set of harsh realities. Hierarchy, for instance, is presumably such a reality. The law of gravity is presumably a next such reality. You also generally tend to believe that cultures are morally and spiritually unequal. Naturally, you tend to believe, though most times embarrassed to openly say so, that your culture is the most superior because it supposedly accepts the world�۪s harsh realities. For instance, you believe in competition, and thereby in capitalism, because you believe it constitutes the natural order of the world. So although you sympathize with those who are suffering the fallout from social, political, and economic systems that promote competition, you merely wish for some way to alleviate their plight. But you want to hear nothing of revolution.
I never want you to be ashamed or embarrassed for what you believe. Neither do I ever want you to apologize for what you believe. I never want to convince you that your position or your beliefs are wrong. That is your own journey to negotiate. Maybe the world is really dichotomous and discontinuous. I am merely trying to create a space that allows you to consider the possibility of a different world, and the possibilities that can potentially come from such a world. But by this point we are negotiating more than the writing that is before you. We are negotiating motives. That is, do you trust me? Do you believe I care for you? Do you even believe I love you? Most times, of course, you cannot make sense of my commitment to you. Other times, I am afraid of your betrayal, of my vulnerability been abused. Other times we are simply both struggling to love each other. This struggle usually becomes the larger subtext for the class. It will ultimately dictate how much learning occurs.
There is a tacit agreement found in teaching. We as educators want to treat you as merely persons who are in our classrooms to learn what we have to teach. On the other hand, we want to be merely teachers���merely there to teach what we have to teach. This agreement generally works well. It simplifies teaching and learning. It allows both of us to leave our humanity out of the classroom, or at least maintain the illusion that our humanity is out of the classroom. But of course our humanity is never out of the classroom. Our fears, insecurities, anxieties, suspicions, and prejudices dictate what we are willing to learn and what we are willing to understand. They also dictate how we teach and what we teach. Our humanity is inextricably bound up with our teaching and learning. We both come to the classroom with all of our hopes, biases, prejudices, beliefs, values, fears, ambitions, insecurities, and anxieties, and therefore bring our full humanity to bear upon each other. I work hard to always remind both of us of this reality. For to miss this reality is to reduce teaching to instruction, and to do so is to perpetuate a lie���the lie being that I can impose knowledge on you, the way a designer imposes a design on a fabric; the lie being that I can make you look at the world in new and different ways; the lie being that I can separate learning from being and thereby make believe that learning demands no courage, no risking of life.
On Difference and Pedagogy
I always speak about race, ethnicity, and sexuality in my classrooms. You know my position well on this matter. I abhor any manner of discrimination and prejudice. But of course my class is really our class. One reason why I raise issues of race, ethnicity, and sexuality is because these issues are always present in our class. Why should I therefore help perpetuate the illusion of absence? I also know these issues terrorize you, even though you pretend otherwise. For how could you be of this world and escape the anxieties, insecurities, fears, and prejudices that promote a deep fear of difference? I also understand the pressure you face to have the correct thoughts in classes. For I too know the price of being accused of saying something insensitive, even offensive, when none was meant.
But what is certain is that you have a deep fear of the racial, ethnic, and sexual differences between us. For example, when I ask you to define community, you always define community in terms of homogeneity. ���Community is a group of people sharing a commonality of some kind, working together to achieve common goals, standards, values, and so.� ���Community is a feeling of belonging to a group of people because of a commonality shared between the members, whether it be where they live, shared hobbies, etc.� You are always embarrassed when I point this out to you, especially when you have to reckon with the implications and consequences of defining community in this homogeneously privileged way. Sometimes you are even ashamed, for you feel like a hypocrite, especially when you have already said in class how you despise intolerance and prejudice, or you have bragged about your own open-mindedness and your love of diversity. But there is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.
You are no hypocrite. You are merely now recognizing the grip your insecurities, anxieties, fears, and suspicions have on you. This is what education is about. This is what education should do. Most likely you never even consciously knew these insecurities and anxieties were there. Sometimes, however, you know, but the climate in the classroom is inappropriate to articulate your deepest fears. But for me what you know is unimportant, for this does nothing for you as regards changing your relation to persons who represent different ways of understanding and experiencing the world. I have merely pushed you to come face-to-face with what you believe. Yet in the end, though you are embarrassed by your confession, you still believe that homogeneity is a prerequisite for community. You cannot fathom a different definition of community. But, as always, I refuse to let you off this easy. Why are you incapable of imagining a different model of community? What is stopping you from doing so? Do you believe the world lends for no other definitions of community? If so, what does this supposed reality mean about the world and what being human means? For instance, what does it mean when your own definition of community is in no way fundamentally different to that of fascists, racists, nationalists, and fundamentalists? In what ways can your own politics and ethics be fundamentally different? Can your gods even be fundamentally different? Indeed, how is it that your definition of community is in no way fundamentally different to those you claim to despise? How is it that you happen to share the same beliefs, assumptions, fears, suspicions, anxieties, and insecurities? How is it that your worlds share the same ideological trajectory? What does this reality say about the world you are often determined to defend? Can we really celebrate such a world? Is such a world truly divine?
You are always anxious to know my definition of community. You want to know how I have escaped your dilemmas. You want magic, but I am no Houdini. What I merely have is a different definition of community that is born out of a different set of assumptions, values, fears, values, hopes, beliefs, and ambitions. I treat community as a verb rather than a noun. I assume that human beings have a moral, existential, and spiritual striving for communion with the world and each other. I therefore believe that practices and arrangements that undermine our moral, existential, and spiritual striving make us less human by appealing to our primal selves. The result is our moral underdevelopment. I view our fixation with homogeneity as an expression of this moral underdevelopment.
Yet I disagree with prevailing definitions of community that treat diversity as difference, whether such difference be racial, national, sexual, national, or even cultural in nature. I find such definitions to be politically and ideologically dangerous. Diversity emerges as a noun, something we achieve through addition, specifically the addition of historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups. It thereby emerges as being devoid of any human context, much more any moral context. Our commonly held view of diversity is contrary to what we find in the natural world. In this world diversity is emergent. It disrupts ecologies, yet at the same time it increases the resiliency and capacity of such ecologies by pushing these ecologies to develop new talents, new resources, new capacities. Life flourishes when diversity blossoms. Thus all natural ecologies become more diverse as they evolve and flourish. But this diversity in no way comes through addition. Instead, this diversity comes through evolution and expansion, which is also to say that diversity emerges from within and flows outward. It is inherently organic. I therefore define diversity in terms of emergence and evolution. Diversity is about relationships and environments that promote the evolution of new and different ways of experiencing, embodying, and understanding the world.
The way I reframe diversity always impresses you. My definition seems elegant. But my ambition is in no way to impress you. I merely want to demonstrate to you that the world in no way damns us to one definition of diversity and community. We are therefore capable of transcending the realities that are before us. The world does lend for other realities and possibilities, and we have the power to realize such realities and possibilities. But most importantly, I want to renew your faith in the world�۪s potentiality and beauty, for only in doing so can I help you release yourself of those anxieties, insecurities, uncertainties, fears, and suspicions that torment and damage you. This, again, is what education needs to be about. It should ultimately make you less afraid of the world. But before you can become less afraid of the world, you have to be at least open to the possibility of becoming less afraid of the world. Unfortunately, too often you never allow yourself this possibility. Your damage is great.
Paulo Freire�۪s Pedagogy of The Oppressed is a romantic book. It is laden with romantic images about teaching and the potential of teaching to change the world. Reading Freire is a rite of passage for those of us who enter academe with grand ambitions to save the world through education. But then we enter the classroom and meet the oppressed. It is rarely a pleasant experience. I hear endless complaints from colleagues of your apathy and indifference to the world. They say that you are especially hostile to readings that expose your racial and gender privilege. My colleagues are adamant about neutralizing your privilege in their classrooms. They warn that your privilege would be exposed. They are determined to create a safe space in their classroom for women and minorities. I empathize for I know exactly what their anguish is about. At the same time, you complain to me about my colleagues. You constantly feel like you are being attacked in the classroom, that you must apologize for who you are and what you happen to be believe and value. You are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You fear retribution from the class for your ignorance. You are afraid of being labeled something horrible. So you remain quiet in the classroom and let those who agree with my colleagues speak. But you remain resentful for being attacked for you are and what you believe. The classroom has become a site of aggression. How quickly has Freire been forsaken. For where is Freire�۪s notion that no dialogue can occur in the classroom outside of love for the world and you? Or that in the face of your mistrust and suspicion it is still my responsibility ���to seek out true avenues of communion� with you? Or that ���the full pursuit of full humanity . . . cannot unfold� in a context of antagonism between you and I?
How could Freire be so quickly forsaken by so many who claim to admire him? Maybe we never really believed him. Maybe we were just infatuated with the idea of working in service of the oppressed. After all, Freire romanticizes teaching. He makes prophets of us. He never discusses the anguish, frustration, and angst that come when we encounter you. On the other hand, maybe Freire is simply demanding too much of us. Either way, there is no place for violence in the classroom. There is already enough of it in the world.
I aim to interrupt how you look at the world and how you experience the world. It is no doubt a difficult task as our worldviews reside at the core of our being. But in some way I have to find a way to get between you and your worldview. I expect resistance. I even expect hostility. How could I expect you to react differently? I am challenging you to contest everything you hold be true and sacred. I am also challenging you to contest the legitimacy of everything that those who love you hold to be true. In short, I am threatening to put your world in turmoil. What is more is that you have given me no permission to do this. I simply claim the responsibility to subject you to this work. Thus I expect you to be hostile. Yet how could I be responsible for inflicting such turmoil on you and have no compassion for you? What would I be teaching you about what being human means? How could I expect you to trust me if I have no compassion for you? For without compassion, how could I heal you from the wounds that come with learning?
I have never made you believe that I am an apolitical person. You know what my positions are on most issues. I enter our class as a full human being, just like how I want you enter. To enter the class in any other way is to begin our relationship on a lie, and I never want us to lie to each other. Still, the seduction of believing that I need to keep my humanity out of the classroom is always there. It encourages me to enter the classroom as an object���merely the conveyer and transmitter of information. It uncomplicates the teaching equation���the teacher teaches, the student learns. It perpetuates the illusion of separation between teaching and learning. But of course I have no intention of entering the classroom as an object. To do so would be to encourage you to enter the classroom the same way. I therefore refuse to enter the classroom with a script. I am afraid of succumbing to the seduction that I have the power to implant ideas in your head. It is, again, a looming seduction for it makes teaching easy. I would even admit I have often been seduced. But my seduction does nothing good for either of us. It merely makes for the impression that you are learning and I am teaching. But for sure nothing constructive is really happening. In order for me to teach I must enter the classroom with vulnerability rather than authority. I must possess the courage to be vulnerable to new interpretations, those that are sure to emerge as we encounter each other as full human beings in the classroom.
Teaching will always be ultimately about our relationship to each other, and in many ways I am responsible for initiating and nurturing this relationship. As much as I am responsible for commanding and covering the subject, I am foremost responsible for creating the relationships that contextualise the teaching and learning of the subject, which means that I am always negotiating issues of trust, compassion, mercy, vulnerability, and forgiveness. But these tasks are in no way separate. I strive for us to embody the class in the moment. This is how we begin to enter the classroom as full human beings.
I demand that you draw from your own lives. I want nothing we discuss in class to be abstract to you. Thus when I teach Ethics and Communication, we study prominent school of ethics, but we always focus on your ethics. We grapple with how your ethics are different, and what do those differences mean. The focus is always on you���where you are, how you got there, what does it mean to be there, and how do you move from there. Education should create this space for you. It should allow you to explore who you are, and how, and why. It should also allow you to come face-to-face with the implications and consequences of who you are. But most importantly, education should help you, if you desire to, to move away from who you are. Thus education must possess a redemption dimension, which means that I must embody a spirit of redemption in the classroom. I must be a source of hope and faith for you. For without either no change is possible.
I have no problem being physically available for you. But being a source of hope and faith is often difficult. Sometimes I simply have none, much less any to give. This world is hard on hope and faith. Our own cruelty and savagery can be difficult to bear. Sometimes trying to protect what you believe can be dangerous. But increasingly the most difficult struggle I face is being a source of hope and faith for you. I know the consequences of being unable to do this. I must stop teaching. Yet I also know that you will always look to me for hope and faith because I am always pushing you to look at the world in ways that fall outside of your wildest dreams. At the same time the world seems intent on undermining what I am asking of you. I therefore worry when sometimes you say I possess a nihilistic sense of humor. Sometimes life is really tough. Still, I am sorry that sometimes I have been unable to spare you my despair and anguish over the state of the world. Maybe I should be more honest with you. Then again, I would prefer to spare you of any despair. I want my classroom to be a place of refuge for you���a space where you can put down your own despair. In other words, I want my class to be a home for you. It should be a nurturing space, one that nurtures new and different ways of being in the world.
I hope to help you reclaim your humanity and the power that comes with being human. I also hope that in helping you reclaim all of your humanity, I am ultimately helping you end the various schisms that make you afraid and unaware of who and what you are. Thus to learn is to heal. This is the most fundamental distinction between education and instruction. It is also where the redemption spirit in education dwells. Education is therefore a much larger matter than merely exposing you to the ideas of others. It thereby demands of me a much larger commitment. I too must enter the classroom as a full human being, for only in entering the classroom this way can I begin to meet the the commitment I owe you.
What teaching requires is the ability to embody a set of core beliefs in the most difficult and trying of times. For example, I would never expel you from my class. Such action constitutes failure for me. It would mean that I have foreclosed on your ability to heal. It would also mean that at some level I doubt the efficacy of education. But what place do I have foreclosing on your redemption? How can I teach but yet doubt the efficacy of education? This agnosticism would surface for sure in my teaching. You would soon realize that my commitment to you is suspect. I would be compromised as a teacher.
My love for you constitutes my belief in your capacity to heal and learn. I therefore have no problems in demanding a lot from you. I believe my love for you has power. Moreover, most likely you have never been loved by a person from a different corner of the world. But my classroom should allow you to have such experiences. Also, how can I truly embody a stance of redemption if I am unwilling or incapable of demonstrating to you that one person from a different corner of the world can love someone from a different corner of the world? How could I entrust such an experience to chance?
I also understand why my ambition to be vulnerable causes you anxiety. My vulnerability exposes your dependency on me. You wish for me to take responsibility for your learning, to allow you to continue to believe that you can enter the class as an object. But I care too much for you to participate in this illusion. I must disrupt it. It also scares you when I speak about the dangers of knowledge. Understandably, my claim seems to be contradictory. What am I therefore doing in the classroom? But what I wish for you to understand is that everyway of framing the world negates another way of framing the world. That is, every worldview negates a next worldview. We must therefore treat all of our understandings with a certain suspicion. This is the only way we will remain open to new experiences and new understandings. As such, education is about the formation of a way of being. It changes how you relate to yourself, how you relate to others, and most importantly, how you relate to the world. But no knowledge can happen to you outside of your ways of being. Education occurs in how you engage the world. Everything else is instruction.
To treat education as a way of being is to assume a world of infinite possibility. This is what makes the world so redeeming. It is inherently incomplete. No reality, no truth, no understanding, no meaning is inherently stable and complete. It is this position that sustains my faith in redemption. It is also this position that I always introduce to you when you are unable to look at the world in new and different ways. But you struggle with this position. It dramatically alters your understanding of the world. It disrupts everything. Sometimes you deal with the disruption well. You were probably already on your own journey searching for a new and better world. I merely met you along the way. But your healing had long begun. Too many times, however, you have no interest in a different world. You are determined to believe what you already believe. Regardless of what I have to offer, you insist on clinging to a world that is inherently finite. I cannot escape my anguish over your unwillingness to move. But I cannot force you to have an experience that you are simply unwilling or unready to have. You need to believe what you believe, and I must respect that.
However, I always wonder whether I am failing you. I know this anguish is mine to bear as when I begin to believe that I have no responsibility for your education I must walk away from teaching. For again, how can I truly embody a stance of possibility if I am ready to surrender any possibility in your redemption? In other words, a pedagogy of possibility is really a possibility of hope���foremost hope in the possibility of new and different worlds. Thus what I am trying to bring to you is hope. But hope is a tenuous and fragile thing. It is even more so in a finite world, or one that we presume is finite. For what can one really hope for in a finite world? Indeed, what often scares me about you is your despair. How can I now push you to look at the world in ways that promote hope and possibility when the world insists on telling you otherwise? So in many ways I understand why you are often unable to do what I am asking of you. For I too am of this world. As much as you are often unready and unwilling to do what I am asking of you, is probably as much I am unready and unwilling to do what I need to do to engage you in a different experience. I guess what I am saying is that through teaching I come into being. This is where I make sense of the world.
The Revolution Is Over
There are those who now famously say that I have no business trying to use my classroom to change the world. This is the job of other professions. My job is merely ���to interpret� the world. Apparently, ���the true task of academic work [is] the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.� I am supposedly to have no other obligation because ���the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship� (Fish, 2004). ���If by the end of a semester you have given your students an overview of the subject (as defined by the course�۪s title and description in the catalog) and introduced them to the latest developments in the field and pointed them in the directions they might follow should they wish to inquire further, then you have done your job. What they subsequently do with what you have done is their business and not anything you should be either held to account for or praised for� (Fish, 2003). In other words, I am to ���aim low.� The advice is tempting.
But when did the world no longer become our world? When did our work become a profession? Also, ���how did the search for truth� and its dissemination emerge as my ���true task�? Nevertheless, I have no interest in searching for truth, much less engaging in its dissemination. This pedagogical model cuts out the human dimension from our understanding and experiencing of the world. Of course there are things in this world which are true and other things which are false. But no truth is outside of human experience, and human experience is inherently variable and changeable. How we engage the world begins with us and from what is within us, and what is within us is developmental, historical, and cultural. In other words, no truth can escape interpretation, and interpretation is inherently unstable because we change and evolve and the world changes and evolves. We can expand and enlarge our interpretations and understandings of the world, which is also to say that no understanding or interpretation of the world is morally neutral. We can never separate any description or understanding of the world from the condition of our humanity, and we can never separate the latter from the historical, cultural, social, and ideological forces that impact the condition of our humanity. As such, calls that advise that we in academe confine ourselves to our own business���which again is supposedly to merely ���interpret the world����and leave matters of democracy, civility, and justice to other institutions show no understanding of the centrality of human experience in defining and shaping our truths of the world. Indeed, education should strive to reveal how historical, ideological, and developmental forces impact our understandings of the world. This is what education should strive to do well. However, this is exactly what education is failing to do. You therefore leave our classrooms with no conviction that you can change the world and no appreciation of how the condition of your humanity shapes your world. Instead, too often you leave believing that the world�۪s truths are outside of you, and thereby you have no capacity to change the world and its supposedly harsh realities.
We are of a world where our spaces and distances are rapidly collapsing and contracting. Peoples with all sorts of diverse beliefs, values, norms, conventions, truths, assumptions, and other practices are increasingly sharing our spaces. We also live in a world that seems to be on the edge of chaos and anarchy as more and more peoples and nations threaten each other with weapons of mass destruction. What is more is that we are of a world where it seems that the means we have long used to make sense of world no longer apply. The world seems to be imploding before us. I know the anxiety this world is causing you. I know you are afraid. Ambiguity is always difficult to deal with. We all have the urge for complete answers and tidy and neat endings, and we have always been made to believe that we can have them. Certainty and simplicity will always seduce us. As such, this world that is now upon us, with its unparallel ambiguity, diversity, and co