Archive | October, 2012

Power and spirit

28 Oct

I watched Heather Rae’s documentary on the Native American artist and activist John Trudell yesterday, and it never fails to inspire me. At some point Trudell says that authority is not the same thing as power. We confuse them when we think that the government or corporations have power, when what they have is only authority. Power is about our relationship to life, or the development of what Trudell calls the “human spirit”.

I’ve been thinking about postmodern theory and the issues that I have with relativism. Trudell seems to believe in the existence of an essence, an irreducible substance that defines spirit. I see postmodernism, on the other hand, as a disembodied theory which tends to obscure human experience. I sometimes wonder what a theory of the sensible world would look like. I like Lisa Brooks’s analysis in The Native Critics Collective’s Reasoning Together when she argues that “the concern to which we should turn is the need for thought that acknowledges its embeddedness in experience, which cultivates and expresses an intimate relationship with the world in which it thinks.”

Teaching and discipline

27 Oct

Like Mictlantecuhtli who was told by a colleague to be a good prison guard, most of the advice I’ve received since I started teaching young adults is about discipline and how to affirm one’s authority, usually by being harsh and taking measures against students who fail to comply. I have a big issue with that logic, even though one of my classes is turning out to be difficult to deal with. The problem, as usual, is one of context. What I am made to teach in that school is not a stimulating programme: we follow a textbook which students do not much like and I am asked not to skip any of the exercises. This means that most of our time is devoted to grammatical drills (the textbook’s attempt to make them look like fun falls flat) while very little time is left for what I wish to teach them, which is reading and witing. I want real debates about themes derived from literature, not a discussion on “do you prefer parties with family or with friends?” I cannot blame students for getting bored and discouraged and concluding that English at their school has very little value. In the problematic class, this is clearly made worse by the fact that they perceive my status of substitute teacher as having little credibility. They believe that they can manipulate me, disregard what I tell them, and that their behaviour will be of no consequence. In addition to that, some of the students in that class seem to pose problems with other teachers, which indicates a generally dismissive attitude towards school.

I thus end up teaching material that I think insults both their intelligence and mine and having to discipline students who object to what I am asking them to do when, actually, I believe that it is a healthy reaction to oppose mindless teaching that disregards the humanity of teachers and students alike.

Student liberation

17 Oct

One thing I have learned recently is that one should always be wary of anyone who occupies a higher position in the hierarchy. Although I knew I should exercize caution, I wrongly assumed that the professor cared about my work and the consequences that their actions would have in my life. However, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire states that “Every approach to the oppressed by the elite, as a class, is couched in terms of false generosity” (133). It has become very clear by now that I do not matter and they only act in ways that protect their personal and professional interests.

Denis Rancourt’s advice: “Never accept overt intimidation or abuse from the professor. Stand your ground in such violent attempts to repress your agency in the classroom. Explain the nature of the unacceptable behaviour and request an apology.” I wonder why I find this so hard to practice. First of all, it is hard to acknowledge that you are being treated unfairly. I doubt myself, doubt my analysis even in the face of repeated offenses, find excuses for the offender, minimize damage. If everyone else accepts the situation, then surely it’s ok, or can’t be changed anyway, so shouldn’t I adapt and stop complaining? I’ve been trained to submit to figures of authority. I know I am not supposed to tell them why they are at fault. I can laugh, I can hint, give some clues, expose problems, but not challenge. Never challenge directly. Secondly, intimidation is seldom “overt” – it masquerades as paternalistic advice, false concern for your well-being, or a subtle indication that your judgement may not be sound.

Instead of supervision, I want collaboration. I must always be in charge of my work and will not blindly follow prescribed steps without knowing where they lead me. Instead of being told what to do, I want to consult with my supervisor. Decisions will remain in my hands. I will not be treated like a dependent. My supervisor does not know what is good for me or what is best for my work. As Rancourt writes, my first responsibility is not to my supervisor but to myself and my own dignity.

Authority and failure

2 Oct

I have come to realise the crucial role of authority. The point is not to have authority over others so as to dominate them, but rather authority over yourself, your decisions, your production, your thinking. Unless you assume a position of authority over your life, others will do it for you and use your time and effort for their own purposes, at your disadvantage and at the cost of your integrity and, possibly, your dignity. This happened to me and my work recently, and is particularly difficult to handle when the attack comes from people who have institutionalized power over my work and, by extension, over me. This is why, according to Mictlantecuhtli, “You have to have a resistance identity”. Failing an important stage of my academic work was a major blow. I’ve been reflecting on the experience over the last two weeks and, after talking to trustworthy friends and academics, I have come to the following conclusions:

1) The main cause of my failure is institutional. It is due to internal tensions and power games in my department, as well as to defective supervision.

2) The efforts I made with my work in order to patch things up, fulfill partly unspoken expectations, and obey impossible demands only made matters worse. I lost the authority I had over my work and omitted to give strong, clear direction to the project at large.

It is very difficult for me to believe in these conclusions. My immediate context is telling me that I have failed because my work was defective and I therefore deserved to fail. Failure is making me feel like an outsider, thereby further damaging my research identity and creating a pressing need for the development of a “resistance identity” to counter the process. Mictlantecuhtli writes that “Standard academic advice is designed to interdict the creation of such a thing. It says you have to work harder, work “smarter” and so on; it alleges that everything is under your control and anything that goes wrong, went wrong because you did not follow instructions.” The analysis is apt because it points out the covertly abusive nature of much of the advice we get, which only serves to reinforce the ideology of the institution. Basically, the system is right, and if you fail, you aren’t worthy of the system and must make amends (or the system may be wrong but it is what it is, so deal with it – which amounts to the same thing: subservience/compliance).

Authority must become my priority. It is not an authority that I will use to dominate others but an authority I will exercize over myself in order to become more assertive, protect my needs, and develop my project. Instead of trusting other authorities with the direction of my work, I will become self-reliant. I will no longer passively nurture the thoughts that:

– I do not have a strong enough sense of authority in the project AND I do not realize this
– I do not think of myself as the person in charge, but as a worker on the line
– I do not think of myself as the person with expertise, but as the implementer

I will make a conscious effort in order to determine why my work has value. Instead of following doubtful advice and attempting to work through distrust, I will use authority in order to define, shape and, when the time comes, defend my project against external attacks.