Diving Into Critical Pedagogy

The more I move through the semester, the more and more I realize how much I love Shaughnessy’s “Diving In.” I think that her piece can help us dive into one of the most compelling questions brought up in this week’s reading: “How closely [do] critical teachers actually align themselves with the ‘oppressed’” (George 87)? What does it mean to preach the woes and oppressions of the capitalist patriarchy while living a “’system-supporting, system-supported, pro-capitalist, American capitalist life’” (North qtd. in George 87)? George addresses this question by drawing on feminist and poststructuralist thinking to revise the “decidedly uncritical use of empowerment rhetoric. First. Empowerment suggests an agent who does the empowering and an object whom [sic] receives power from another” (87). The intent is to “move beyond the class-based binaries of oppressor and oppressed and academic binaries of teacher and student” (88). Shaughnessy’s metaphorical call to dive in does this kind of work. Diving in means becoming a “student of new disciplines and of [the] students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence” (297). The dive disrupts the teacher/student binary because it demands for the teacher to become a student. The terms “teacher” and “student” then become a little empty. Shaughnessy’s description of the dive also includes the students “incipient excellence,” meaning students already have the capability for agency in the world; we don’t need to hand over the football of power.

If I can draw from my exam a bit, we can also see how darn hard this is to actually do. Ong writes that “Human knowledge demands both proximity and distance” (48), but writing increases the distance and gap between knower and known (37-8). Basically, the default position for the academy is a view from a distance. After all, writing’s theorizing power comes from its ability to see from a distance, to cover a lot of ground. This is also implicit when Shaughnessy brings up the fact that it isn’t until the first batch of essays that the teacher’s “alarm” is rung (292). The distance face of writing makes generalizable what was not so beforehand; the students are conditioned to think like this, too–that writing is for “magnifying” (visual metaphor!) their “deficiency” (292). To allow for genuine conversation, learning, and success, we may need some new methods as theorists and teachers to help collapse this distance and normalize it.

Q: What kinds of activities and methods do we already use to collapse the distance between teacher and student, research and study subjects, knower and known?

Q: How do we define ourselves to our students so that the proximity between us can be genuine? How do we address the definitions already given to us by the institution and society?

Ong, Walter J. “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The Written Word: Literacy in Translation. Ed. Gerd Bauman. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 23-50.


2 thoughts on “Diving Into Critical Pedagogy

  1. Raising the question “What kinds of activities and methods do we already use to collapse the distance between teacher and student” is very interesting and important and perhaps very difficult to answer. I have been teaching for about more than 9 years and never have I been asked/advised by my mentors, senior faculty members and colleagues to create a proximity between myself and my students that would “collapse the distance.” I have always been told that to establish my ethos, I will have to keep a distance or else the students will start taking advantage of me being “too frank” with them. So what I have always understood from the advice is that “collapsing distance” is like becoming an equal to my students, hence losing my ethos and authority over them. But my practice on the other hand has always been contrary to what I have been told.

    My attitude toward my students is and has always been like the one I would prefer for me by my teachers. Viewing ourselves into a student position always helps us to decide how to interact with the students.

    I always use the plural pronoun “we” when talking to my class. I don’t want them to think I am an outsider looking over what they are doing and being judgmental. When I want a general discussion, I would say, for example, “lets see what we understand by this term” and then would encourage them to come up with their ideas and then after they are done, I would also tell them what I think of it. There are also times when I start and they they follow.

    I share my personal experiences of being a student with them. I had a student the other day who said: “I refuse to spend three weeks writing a commentary on the theme that i am not interested in and not familiar with.” I shared my experience of having to write a commentary on American pop culture that was entirely alien for me back then. I explained the whole process, including the anxiety that I had. I could clearly see that the student resolved his tension and came up with a very workable plan in the next class.

    To cut it short, being close to the students does not take away one’s credibility and ethos. My ethos rests in my ability to make my students comfortable in my presence and to make myself approachable. Teaching for me is more about “sharing” than anything else.


    • Your response resonates with me a lot, Neelam, especially this: “I have always been told that to establish my ethos, I will have to keep a distance or else the students will start taking advantage of me being “too frank” with them.”

      I feel like this is almost “common sense” for a lot of persons’ pedagogies: establish yourself as top dog right away in the classroom. It’s almost like the cliché of your first day in prison—beat up someone else to prove that you’re no weakling, etc. Come in guns blazing, etc. etc. (There are a lot of metaphors for this type of behavior, which is interesting in itself). Now, this definitely IS an effective way to establish ethos. But the effects of such a maneuver outweigh any perceptions of an obedient or ordered classroom for the semester/year. The fact that this approach seems common sensical masks the fact that this isn’t the only way to establish an ethos. Another way of establishing credibility is exactly through your examples: credibility can come through genuine empathy as well, a narrowing of distance. I firmly believe that the seemingly small changes we make in language influence the way our environment works, so I love your inclusion of “we” in the classroom. I try and do this within my tutoring sessions as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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