It’s been years since I read Freire.
I’ve been working in an around various forms of critical pedagogy since.
And I was very pleasantly surprised when I read in this week’s prompt for the Critical Pedagogy Mooc Mooc:
Jesse Stommel has described critical pedagogy quite often and in many different places as a pedagogy of generosity. And his anthemic tweet “Ultimately, education has to be about kindness” reminds us that there is no room in critical pedagogy for fault-finding or censoring.
This quote from Chapter 2 in Pedagogy of the Oppressed also caught my eye, given my intrigue with digital pedagogies that were not on the horizon when I first read the book years ago:
Knowledge emerges only through intervention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, and with each other. (loc 996 in Kindle edition)
I work in the field of Education, in a subfield in which we do “critical, normative, and interpretive” work around schooling, inequalities, and social justice. And sometimes this world can feel as if faculty invest a great deal in out-critiquing one another — while also building careers on writing about their dismay at students’ “resistance” to critical pedagogies. Rarely do they write very much about their own teaching beyond the reading list and the writing assignments, as if there was nothing relational about the work of education.
Even when colleagues in my field move to digital platforms in their teaching, they commonly assign writing prompts (within LMS discussion boards) in which they, not peers, are the actual intended audience.
It can get discouraging.
I don’t intend to fall into the fault-finding that Jesse cautions against. But I do believe that this work of critical pedagogy is a whole lot harder than it seems.
Relatively early in my career as a university faculty member, I read Elizabeth’s Ellsworth’s essay Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering: Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy. I went back to re-read it this morning as I launch into this Mooc Mooc. This is a powerful essay of her experiences organizing a course to address blantant racism on her campus, and it offers a powerful critique of the “abstract and highly theorized” work on critical pedagogy written then by scholars who were mostly white and male.
Reading this article again now as I’m doing a lot of thinking about connected, digital learning, I highlighted the section in which she quoted Valerie Walkerdine, a British feminist sociologist of education who writes brilliant things about pain, anger, and shame embedded within social class and mobility in education (a core interest of mine):
In schools, rational deliberation, reflection, and consideration of all viewpoints has become a vehicle for regulating conflict and the power to speak, for transforming “conflict into rational argument by means of universalized capacities for language and reason” (Ellsworth, p.301)
Often, both Ellsworth and Walkerdine write, students are justifiably angry about the circumstances of their lives or even their experiences in schools, but their anger has little place even within some critical pedagogies.
Later, Ellsworth writes:
In their writing about critical pedagogy, educational researchers consistently place teachers/ professors at the center of the consciousness-raising activity … in contrast, many students came into [my course] with oppositional voices already formulated within various anti-racism and others movements. These movements had not necessarily relied on intellectuals/ teachers to interpret their goals and programs to themselves or to others. (p. 311)
It is common in work in critical pedagogies in my field to also elevate the role of faculty in opening “student voices” that are presumed to have been silenced with oppressive structures, and Ellsworth again takes this head on:
White women, men and women of color, impoverished people, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, are not silenced in the sense implied by the literature on critical pedagogy. They are just not talking in their authentic voices, or they are declining, refusing to talk at all, to critical educators who have been unable to acknowledge the presence of knowledges that are challenging and most likely inaccessible to their own social positions. (p. 313)
I think that now more than ever, we teachers need to expect that students are engaged in “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry [that] human beings pursue in the world, and with each other” outside of school, and that they are finding audience via media that have little to do with the rational, analytical writing that we teach and reteach them throughout their formal education.
I’m not romanticizing the digital engagement of our students outside of classes, but I am hopeful that more than ever, students have the capacity to learn from one another, to organize, to speak sometimes rationally and sometimes out of anger, depending on the message they want heard, and to mediate all of this. To me, this makes much of the work that Freire writes of more possible– even with work still to be done to close digital divides.
I work with many first -generation students, and I’m moving more of my assignments into visual and mediated projects. They learn rational argument and they also learn how to edit sound and images to communicate in broader ways. They learn to make digital stories connecting their lives to the theoretical work we’re reading, often with deeply emotional overtones. Hopefully (though they sometimes do push back on this) they are learning to connect with others to learn completely apart from my presence.
I’m reading the classics of critical pedagogy much differently now in this work in which we can pursue the problems in our worlds via digital networks of our own creation.
So for me now, a major goal in all of my courses is teaching digital literacies. That’s becoming more essential — and more critical, in very sense of the word.