Should we save the word on our own time?

As I read Ritchie and Boardman on Feminism in Composition, Ann George on Critical Pedagogies, and Paulo Freire one issue kept bothering me. Drawing from stasis theory I could assert that there is a central question of definition that has to be addressed. Knoblauch and Brannon ask: “who is to be liberated from what?” (cited by George, 87)

I believe that feminist movements can be particularly effective in questioning orthodoxies when the question of gender functions as a metonymy for the larger question of privilege and lack of privilege, power and disempowerment, enfranchisement and disenfranchisement. Underprivileged people can be male and female, they come from all countries, belong to all possible ethnic groups, speak many different languages or dialects. The oppressed are the students who participated to Brodkey’s commendable and eye-opening study on discursive hegemony. They are oppressed because the very people who should help students find ways to actively participate to social life and the construction of culture are unwilling to listen to what these students have to say. Booth’s rhetoric of listening might be considered utopian in scope but is a sine qua non for the liberation of the oppressed. But teachers Don and Rita can only offer tangential replies to the issues raised by their students. They don’t really listen, they are too engrossed in the narration of their own story, in the reproduction of safe orthodoxies and topoi. Whenever they are invited to empathize with the plights of the oppressed and establish what Freire would call a “dialogical relation” with their students, bourgeois teachers lapse into paternalistic social action by clumsily diminishing the import of a statement, by changing the subject or by simply deluding themselves that situations are not as bad as they seem: got evicted from your apartment? Buy a house.

Who gets to do the liberating? Maxine Hairston and Stanley Fish scorn privileged teachers who put “politics before craft.” Perhaps they have a point, perhaps we should save the world on our own time and focus on the best way to serve our students because that’s what they expect. I don’t have a neatly wrapped answer for this question, especially when an advocate of diversity like Victor Villanueva voices doubts about enforcing our liberating agenda on students who just want to be successful.

It is hard to dispute the idea that we have better chances of being successful when we conform, when we accept dogmas, when we use prestige languages, even prestige accents.  That’s what English learners want: in my 10 year experience as an EFL teacher in Italy I have never met a student who did not fret because he/she could not exactly reproduce the British accent. In “Living-English Work” (College English 68.6, 2006: 605-618) Min-Zhan Lu reports on news stories of tongue surgeries in developing nations, where people’s goals are to speak “accent-free English” in order to be successful in the global marketplace.

Perhaps students are right, perhaps Hairston and Fish are right; perhaps we can disrupt the status quo only when the times are ripe, when we have become insiders and we speak the language of power. Good. Does this mean that we have to accept the idea of tongue surgery? Do we have to accept the mutilation of students’ identity for the sake of being competitive and successful?

Finally, Elizabeth Ellsworth raises the very important, and often bypassed, issue of context. In what context is it effective to adopt critical pedagogies? Should we carefully assess class dynamics before we decide on our pedagogical strategies? Ira Shor argues “that not all students or teachers or institutions can accommodate an activist agenda” (86).  I agree with Shor and Ellsworth but I still can’t answer to the questions below. Perhaps you can, dear friends.

“Are we all equally credible as liberators?”

“Should we adopt critical pedagogies regardless of context?”

“When do we draw the line between students’ needs and our moral obligations as educators?”

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2 thoughts on “Should we save the word on our own time?

  1. I, too, have been thinking about Brodkey’s case study, Massimo, and the surprising disconnect between what students wrote in their letters and how teachers responded, or failed to respond, to the uncomfortable moments of class oppression presented to them (to use Freire’s term). You ask a question about “context” in terms of applying critical pedagogy that I think informs the complexity of the teacher-student relationship specific to this study and more broadly to the power structures Freire discusses in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Based on Freire’s conception of pedagogy as “paternalistic social action apparatus” (74), it would appear that the ruling hegemonic class does not countenance the verbalization of certain topics that make transparent the inequities of the systems that maintain the power dynamics of a society. The educational institution, which Freire calls “the banking concept of education,” further instills the unspoken discomfort of taboo topics that threaten to challenge that authority (72). Indoctrinated into a culture that “obviates thinking” (76), the teachers in Brodkey’s study dutifully dismiss the problematic communication that defines the agenda of critical pedagogy in an unconscious effort to reestablish the equilibrium of a “good, organized, and just society” (74). This is specifically what Ann George warns against in her article “Critical Pedagogies”: the apathetic acceptance of the status quo that supports “the hidden curriculum” (79). I don’t necessarily agree that teachers must adopt a “radical” (George 77) approach in the classroom that attempts to change all student perspectives in a single semester—that will likely fail—but I do think that, especially in those contexts entrenched in repressive environments, teachers have an obligation to teach students to think, even if such critical skills result in resistance. The danger, as you point out, is doing so without overstepping our role as teacher and mentor. As teachers, we can make lasting intellectual impressions on our students. How do we know if we are the “liberators” or another facet of the “oppressors”? Intriguing post, Massimo.

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  2. I think that educating students to become successful college writers is a subversive act in itself. After all, for some students, university will be the first time that they are exposed to authors who may look like them and have voices that are considered educationally valuable. Also, college basic writers have almost all been told that they are not good at school, or English, or math, or whatever. Kim Flachmann (Composition Chair at CSUB) insists that when these students are allowed into institutions of higher learning, their lives and the lives of their families are improved. I know that “allowed” is a very loaded word, but open-admission programs and remedial math and English programs seem to be under more funding attack than humanities departments.

    I do feel like there were failures in the case studies (Buy a House! Murder is Bad!), but the instructors could have used those moments to actually bridge the gaps in contextual understanding. The letters are a way to reach out, but they needed to stretch out of their comfort zone to actually learn something. Perhaps, Paolo Freire best sums up the idea of how teachers can be liberators rather than oppressors:

    [T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” (Freire 39)

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