Thursday, April 19, 2012

Choose-Your-Own Radical Pedagogy

For many many years, as a project of anti-oppressionist teaching*, I have practiced a work style of  autonomous relationships between teacher and student / mentor and mentee / asker and provider / etc and etc.  For example, if a student approached me at the Women's Center with a project idea, I would support the idea and try to find out more about the student's knowledge base and approach so I could understand it better and provide appropriate pointers/resources.  Rather than do FOR the student (which is one extreme of the binary), or even provide a large number of directed resources (which may encourage completion and organization but perhaps not autonomy and innovation), I would point to a handful of resources and encourage independent research of others.

... I have always been aware that this style works best for a handful of students:  those with similarly radical ideologies; students well trained in the class and educational structures I'm part of; and/or for students who come from backgrounds where initiative, self as locus of control, and autonomy are/were rewarded or required.  But I'm starting to wonder:  does it really work at all, let alone for those who find it more challenging?

I always attend to the verbal and nonverbal feedback I get about this approach.  It relies pretty heavily on the "N" in my ENFP--the instinct grounded in body language and people-reading skills as well as my willingness to process with explicit comprehension and consensus-testing. I'm always checking to see whether someone "gets" it or is "ready" or whether I need to be more directive or explicit (i.e. "answer this question and this question only"; "go to this office for this task").

This year I am noticing that it's not working like it used to.  Or--perhaps it didn't ever work as well  as I thought?  Some things I observe and consider every day:

1.  From one perspective, I'm withholding information. The rationale is that I already know how to book a room, locate a resource, or interpret a poem.  Often I say this when venting about my day to friends or colleagues:  "I already know what I think!"  or "Problem-solving.  It's what I need from you right now."  My main motivation for this pedagogy is actually encouraging/supporting students to assess and resolve their own educational challenges--to self-educate and self-actualize and thereby grow and learn.  But if this doesn't work in a large majority of cases, am I actually encouraging self-education, or am I serving as a gatekeeper who limits access to knowledge through a false sense of "doing the right thing"?

2.  This process is emotionally and psychologically taxing for myself and for the student.  Perhaps I am planting seeds for a more lasting maturity, but again, is the payoff worth it when I spend a lot of my days presenting students with cryptically abstract questions about their intentions, strategy, and resources?  Wouldn't it be more helpful to give specific requirements up front, provide feedback, and let the students signal their readiness for autonomy?  Am I projecting a maturity/independence that isn't there, in the process draining students of energy they could be using to develop their maturity in other ways?  And let's not forget, downplaying my own knowledge base while stretching my attunement, intuition and feedback skills as far as possible is a tiring exercise that often leaves me ordering the molten lava cake at the local chain restaurant on a Wednesday.

3.  Most importantly, this process may be an exercise of privilege.  Here's a scenario that may illustrate why I wonder this:

A student enters my office to discuss a final paper.  I have written an open-ended prompt to address a case study using the theoretical lens we're examining in a 200-level special topics course.  The student identifies a general topic but doesn't identify a good direction.  Choice Point A:  do I name one or more specific sub-themes to help guide the student, or do I name the databases and/or search terms that will help the student find the sub-topic that I think would most appeal to them or fit the paper requirements?  I settle on recommending the databases, but this happens to be a student who is taking this special topics course before having taken an intro or methods course that would acquaint them with the databases.  I may not know this, but does my withholding of specific topic-related guidance constitute my withholding of useful knowledge or information?  Or am I providing the right balance of autonomy and information-sharing?

Here's another scenario:  A student worker comes in to my office at the Women's Center to develop a volunteer program.  I sit down with her to sketch out my general hopes for the program and suggest that she call around to other campuses to find out how/whether they have other volunteer programs.  Choice Point A:  do I give her the names of the other Directors and contacts on other campuses I already know, or do I let her find those out herself and make direct contact so she has the experience of cold calling offices and networking?  Is it meaningful?  She reports back with minimal data and we move forward with our own plan, since it was hard to reach others.    Choice Point B:  Do I sit down with her and come up with text together, or do I give her the practice of coming up with text on her own and with student collaboration, and then provide feedback and make any edits potentially in the summer when she's not around (essentially hijacking her project)?

In each of these scenarios, I am always already projecting myself into an asymmetrical relationship with the student who wants to accomplish something.  I stand, as an educator, between the student and the resources ze needs.  My approach for over 10 years has been to try to get out of the way as much as possible.  But am I, in fact, one of the resources?  By getting out of the way, am I getting in the way of learning?

There is also the problematic question of my existing power within a number of external asymmetrical power relations:  I am a middle-class, highly educated white woman teaching at a private institution.  The dynamics between me and many of the students I work with are packed tightly with spoken and unspoken power exchanges, especially because I work currently within Women's and Gender Studies, a space that is intended to be liberationist but often is co-opted to divide groups that could work together to develop greater power and autonomy.  By getting out of the way, am I providing greater access where I can, or broadening the gaps between students who already struggle for information, power, and access in many other campus spaces?

I'm writing this in order to process what feels like a huge learning moment in my career.  So it's not quite a "problem solving is what I need from you" moment.  But I surely would love to hear what others have done in trying to adapt as much of a free school/circular educational model within authoritarian educational systems.  

*I know that there are entire fields devoted to these issues and welcome insights from folks more knowledgeable about education systems and student development than myself.  I have learned this much by doing and being in higher education and there is always more to learn.

Monday, February 20, 2012


I keep watching this video.  Three times so far today.  Since I'm teaching Ecofeminism, it puts me in mind around reproductive justice, population control, and the politics of speech.

Because, although I love Amy Poehler in many ways (and I love a lady business joke even more), this skit has me thinking about a few things to do with class and race and reproductive rights.  Namely, Seth and Amy's "really!?!" reads as really white to me.  As in, who is surprised that there are laws restricting reproductive freedom?  Who is surprised that Congress doesn't make even a tokenized effort to represent the citizens who will be most directly/immediately impacted by its decisions on policy panels?  The moral outrage of "really!?!" is the outrage of a disappointed citizen and disappointment is a privilege.

As the ghosts swirl around my brain, I hear myself thinking:  well, we should all have access to reproductive freedom, therefore this "really!?!" is a humanistic reaction, not a privileged one.  But given the history and current realities of disproportionate access and reproductive oppression, I don't think so.

What seals it for me is the joke about the Chinese Olympics.  Really?  The point can only be made with a crack about overpopulation in Asia?  Really!?!   

It seems like a skit rooted in "the focus on legal access and individual choice", which has never really applied for a number of women (and men), particularly advocates for reproductive justice for women of color.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

oh, hey!

1)  I haven't really been posting so I don't know that anyone's reading.  But here I am.  How are you?

2)  SlutWalk Toronto developed a good anti-racist statement.  Check this out:

It is possible!  More to come.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

thinking about solidarity

Whew, the air feels thick this morning.  I am sitting on so much tension and anger arising from the continuing debates about racism within SlutWalk, Occupy Wall Street, and the many other movements I see on a smaller scale in which young white activists (who are some of my favorite students and/or friends, and/or myself some days) make colossal mistakes reproducing racism as they seek to advance their chosen causes.

My tongue thickens as I taste that difficulty.  To hold the reality of the racism people are reproducing in SlutWalk--and how people are responding, failing to respond, again and again, in defensiveness and white blindness--holding that alongside my conviction that racism can and must be dismantled, that we must build a movement, we must step in together even with people we don't respect.  ("We" here being "people who care about justice and are willing to work".)  As a colleague said to me on Friday, as long as there are young people in the movement and racism in the world, we need older organizers to step in and help them.

How many people have to be hurt, shut out, or degraded before organizers (specifically white organizers who will likely experience this racism differently, thus enabling a more effective approach) WILL step in?  It seems as though many are or are trying to, yet I am so far removed from what's happening on the ground that I don't know whether a blog's-eye view is accurate or sufficient.  I also wonder about how many of us would even in times of less acute pain seek out resources like The Catalyst Project, which organizes in predominantly white movements to dismantle racism.

I wonder if the solution is for those of us who are angry, disturbed, dismayed, furious, hurt and enraged to seek out space and movement-building together, so we can find the strength to have the dialogue and accountability we need to have with the people who resist, derail, and actively reproduce racism in these moments.  I question whether (as with The Help) ongoing critique will really give me fire I need to contribute to ending racism and violence against women.  It is so important to name and understand what is terrible, and each day I struggle to clear the space to make something that is a life-giving alternative.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

NOT MY FEMINISM: SlutWalk, feminism & racism, part 2

Woke up this morning and read this:

Oh, my. I have little hope or confidence in a movement that makes space for people to think it's acceptable to behave this way (specifically, to be as defensive as Kassidy, the young woman who made the sign, is in the cited comments).

Generations of women have invested themselves in pointing out why this kind of reaction is unacceptable and ineffective. What good reason should I have, regardless of my identity, for continuing to invest time and energy in a perversion of feminism that permits people to bully unchallenged and indulge their blinkered worldviews?

I was thinking overnight that maybe I had been too harsh or judgmental--this is all definitely wrong, but from a tactical perspective, would it make sense for me as a white feminist to reach out to other white women to try to move them through some of their (our) racism? Isn't that part of my responsibility as a person in a movement? To reach out with compassion when people are engaging in violent and destructive behavior? And to step out to share the responsibility that too often falls on feminists of color when these conflicts come up?

Lord. I don't know what the right thing to do is. But I want to organize with others who are thinking along these lines because the SlutWalk momentum keeps growing and it's making my stomach twist to imagine that the pain, anger and frustration of being here AGAIN (only a month after being here with The Help) will not be cared for and transformed. That people won't stand up. Who can intervene in this movement in a way that retains the importance of female agency?

This is not my feminism.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mostly a rant: SlutWalks, racism, and why I hate to call myself a feminist

This plate hangs over my desk. It was a gift from a friend/comrade/feminist ally with whom I have struggled in gratitude. We have cooked, fought, created, danced, and debated together for several years and with blessings will do so for many more. This treasured bit of domestic subversion reminds me of the work I've done to reclaim my own sexual power and to support several other women in doing so. It reminds me of how hard I've worked to interrogate the shame, violence, and hatred associated with female sexuality and to celebrate and question my own and others' differing growth into power, ecstasy, and insight.

This private reclaiming of the word "slut", for me, has no relevance to the circumstances in which SlutWalk participants can perpetuate white privilege and parade their sense of entitlement. As a woman who shares some of the privileges (namely, whiteness as a political class) of the women participating in these behaviors, I am judging them. I welcome respectful dialogue below.

To the women embodying these privileges, I imagine that feeling a sense of permissiveness around sexual expression is very powerful. I expect that the women involved in these movements have diverse life experiences but feel connected at an intuitive level by the concrete skills and the emotional benefits of social protest. Seems to me also that these women feel a sense of themselves reflected in a social movement that feminism has not been able to provide at a grassroots, widespread level for quite some time.

I'm guessing it feels pretty amazing to feel so entitled. But that's precisely the problem.

I've been working as a professional feminist for a few years and, in that time, have come up with a stock answer for how I qualify/represent my feminist identity: "I don't identify primarily as a feminist, but I do so out of solidarity with my mother and the ancestors whose work has benefitted me and in solidarity with movements that share common political aims." It's something of a long story, but I had been cradled into this social movement, only to uncover later a thousand stories, thoughts, images and connections that had been hidden in a monocultural feminist narrative. So I cast around for many years for a way to understand why or how a particular brand of feminism, which was supposed to empower me, had kept me an emotional and intellectual child. There is no simple answer to this question, but I do understand a little better that "how" and "why" don't matter so much as "get over yourself and do some work". I recognized (and continue to recognize, in a cyclical, iterative way) how my feminism denied me the truth about my own reality and the suffering it caused for others. The responsibility for unraveling this lie, and acting upon the truths I discover, rests with me.

So, as several people have said several times by now, it is necessary for white feminists (as with all social movement activists) to take a continuous look at what we are doing. Build coalitions and relationships in communities and movements led by people of color so that you are connected and accountable with struggles beyond your own perspective.

Above all, LISTEN. Just because you feel the power of your own voice does not mean you must impose it on others. You may think that John Lennon was anti-racist, but did you research it to find out how he was? Or did you just respond to the spark of controversy that using the n-word ignited in you and allow your selfish gratification to substitute for the hard work of solidarity? Yes, it takes longer. No, you don't get a cookie at the end. What you get is to listen. Someone else is giving you the gift of their energy, their time, their words, their perspective. Listen and sit with what it teaches you.

This is very different than silencing yourself. True power is learning when, where and how to speak. You will make mistakes along the way, but let those mistakes not be the same ones made by your colleagues, friends, and ancestors in feminism. Because this is the same business that drove us apart in 1848. There is nothing new under the sun, but this is ridiculous.

If this post makes you angry, please, open up a dialogue with me so we can collaborate, because we need to get our shit together. I'm about to check out of much of white/liberal feminism permanently and expand my support for the varied other feminist, womanist, and class-based movements out there, because this is just not ok, and I don't see much leverage anymore. I am not comfortable giving up/disclaiming what my mother and grandmother worked for, nor am I ok with disidentifying at a distinctly anti-feminist moment in history. But I can't evade the truth that a lot of feminism and "the women's movement" seeks to be identified and praised for being a positive culture as much as it seeks to create positive social change (i.e., "embrace the f word!" rather than joining movements to end the use of the "i" word). That smacks of the master's tools and that is ridiculous.

I understand, also, that SlutWalk sounds sexy and cool to some people, but it only sounds sexy and cool to some, and it's not going to last. I think we can do better at building a fun and beautiful movement. I cannot dance to this particular revolution.

Since I've committed to working within spaces of privilege, I spend a lot of time negotiating appeasements and I'm getting tired of making space for others to cling to the privileges I work to dismantle. It's hard, but it isn't so hard you can't step up.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What it means to "do" racework

I've been thinking a lot about the term "racework" and what it means, this week, for several reasons.

My colleague Amy Steinbugler presented a paper at the Women's Center yesterday based on her research into racework in intimate relationships. Her book, to be released from Oxford UP next year (spring-ish), is titled Beyond Loving; she looks at how black-white interracial couples (gay/lesbian & straight) do "emotional labor" within love relationships. She uses the term "racework" a lot and I'm starting to attach to that as what I'm trying to do--not "anti-racist work" but "racework". Or, racework in service to ending racism.