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.