Critical and Connected Pedagogies

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.

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9 Responses to Critical and Connected Pedagogies

  1. Maha Bali says:

    I am a huuuge fan of Ellsworth and have published a couple of articles mimicking her style – i.e, highlighting the multiple competing elements, and writing about critical pedagogy in contextualized, comcrete, non-idealized ways, rather than abstract and theoretical. Thanks for bringing up one of my favorites 🙂 feminist poststructuralism sounds like a mouthful, and that article is heavy but the ideas behind it resonate so deeply.


  2. professorjvg says:

    Thanks for commenting Maha. I remember reading her just as I was feeling uneasy with some of the jargon-rich abstract work on critical pedagogy written mainly by white men that felt alienating rather than something that seemed to resonate with what I believe about emancipatory teaching. Reading Ellsworth again this week was refreshing. She pushes my thinking about ways to teaching and knowing with students that isn’t about moderated discussion walled off from the rest of the world.


  3. francesbell says:

    Thanks for this great post Jane. It provoked me to (re)read Ellsworth 1988 piece. Quite by chance, I picked up this article about a review of Selma this morning It strikes me how lucky I am to read these two articles alongside your post.
    I’ll just make two comments.
    I agree that offering the chance/ enabling students to tell their stories in ‘different’ ways helps teachers listen to what students have to say beyond what they are ‘taught’. This can only improve communication – and I am also interested in the ‘repair strategies’ we can use when communication suffers a (hopefully temporary) breakdown. Teachers interacting online may be able to draw on their own experiences here.


    • professorjvg says:

      Thanks for reading Frances. thanks to the link to the Salon piece. It reminds me so much of the things some people wrote yesterday on the chat about needing to trust students. Dowd seems to be saying that these kids can’t distinguish drama from history, or that the only way they’ll engage history is via hollywood movies.
      Great question about repair strategies. If we’re going to try risky conversations, we’re going to make mistakes. How do we build trust both before and after?


      • Maha Bali says:

        Hi Frances and Jane

        I read the salon piece and was soooo touched by this “Being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.” – exactly something Ellsworth talks about.
        Also the piece made me feel you will enjoy discussing bell hooks next week in moocmooc.
        It also reminds me of a story i tell in my hybridped column – it’s from the intro in bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress, where she shows how desegregation of edu actually felt disempowering to her! It’s a powerful story and reminder.

        But back to the question of trust. It’s such a paradox, isn’t it, that we sort of need to trust without really having any guarantees…. For the most part, practice has shown me that trusting students is very rewarding for me and for them. The one thing i am careful about is that we may forget that letting students go doesn’t mean there are no power issues in the class – there are still issues of race, class, gender,sexuality, popularity, personality, etc, at play


  4. francesbell says:

    This isn’t going to be much of a comment as although I could say a lot, I don’t have any crisp answers. So maybe I could just pose some questions as markers rather than in the expectation that they will or should be answered.
    Should we always strive for absolute trust?
    What are the advantages/ disadvantages of absolute trust?
    When a breakdown of trust impairs dialogue between teachers and students how can we restore dialogue?
    Are there more limited forms of trust? How do they operate and how/where can we use them?


  5. professorjvg says:

    Great questions, Frances. And a quick response. I think that I imagine something less than absolute trust. I think, though, that the more I let go of control in my classes, the more I realize how much my students can and would do if I stepped out of their way. I am still a ‘professional stranger’ to my students in a role that many of them have found to be adversarial in the past, so yes, I’m thinking of limited forms of trust.

    Maha, I saw your lovely piece in Hybrid Ped today and am looking forward to hooks. And I still don’t get the Twitter vs Zombies thing through I’ve followed parts of two rounds :).


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