I’ve taken to writing little end-of-class reflections, which I read to my students on the last day. Here’s my reflection on my last day teaching at Whittier College. (The class was about digital cultures; you can find some of the course materials online at GitHub.)
A million things to write, most of them still inchoate. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more articles about critical pedagogy and one of them is by Jane Tompkins. “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” it’s called, in College English from 1990. She comments at one point on her long inattention to her own pedagogy, and on what she views as academia’s distaste for education as a discipline:
“In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me — something that you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Teaching, like sex, is something you do alone, although you’re always with another person/other people when you do it; it’s hard to talk about to the other person while you’re doing it, especially if you’ve been taught not to think about it from an early age. And people rarely talk about what the experience is really like for them, partly because, in whatever subculture it is I belong to, there’s no vocabulary for articulating the experience and no institutionalized format for doing so.”
In reading about “politics of knowledge” today I was reminded of a horribly unresolved issue: the contradictions of authority in radical pedagogy. Let me quote a classic case from Saundra Gardner, Cynthia Dean and Deo McKaig’s 1987 article, “Responding to Differences in the Classroom: The Politics of Knowledge, Class, and Sexuality.”
Because this was my first officially designated women’s studies course, I thought it had to be “truly feminist” in content and form… Instead of being the source of knowledge and socially distant, I would become a peer and facilitator of knowledge. Thus, I perceived, as have others, that the “truly feminist” classroom is one in which I would give up my official trappings, merge with the class, and, in the classic sense of “instructor,” become invisible.
By playing such a passive role, I set the stage for the following dynamic that emerged early in the semester. The feminist majority, or those students with a strong background in feminism, began to use their knowledge as a source of power. As a group, they were articulate and dominated the class discussions. They often talked at rather than with the other students and, as a consequence, effectively silenced the nonfeminist minority. Thus, rather than sharing ideas and learning from each other, the students used differences in knowledge to create a distinct hierarchy in the classroom, with knowledge being a source of power over others. In other words, the feminist majority defined the class as their class and soon became the new caste of ‘men,’ while the remaining ‘women’ sat passively, accepting their subjugation.