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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.

Academic freedom?

6 Sep

When I was a student at university, I idealized academe in spite of all the inconsistencies I saw. I believed that it was possible to be a free spirit within that institution and pursue vital, personal interests in a stimulating context of exchange. The idea that such a freedom exists is part of academia’s founding myths. Although it may look like tenure professors have the liberty to think and act freely, they can only be critical as long as they do not apply their ideas to the workplace, as long as they do not directly threaten the dominance hierarchy that constitutes the university. Jeff Schmidt says that “Academic freedom is given to those who will be least likely to use it”. You have it “to the extent that you can express views that your employer would not otherwise allow you to express”. But According to this definition, the few who dare challenge the institution stand out: “That’s what activists do: things that they weren’t hired to do”. Which is why some of them get fired.

The idealism I used to nurture also made me believe that I could sublimate my need for action by investing it into theory or that “ideas can change the world”. Rancourt points out that “truth and research are not threatening to power in a culture of subservience and obedience. In such a culture, radical-in-thought academics only stabilize the system by neutralizing the more action-minded youth”. In short, it is not enough to be a radical intellectual, you also need to engage in radical praxis. All too often, universities (as well as other institutions in my experience – when you’re lucky) promote discourse as a safe substitute for action. I have learned that I can express ideas if I lay them out in the appropriate format, carefully back them up with established sources, and cut myself off from the practical implications of the theories I develop. It seems that my credibility as a scholar depends on it. Now I increasingly wonder: is there a space for free thinkers? The more I examine the institution, the less I believe that university provides such an environment. Is academic freedom only a façade?

Chronic disease

24 Aug

I would like to give a new meaning to chronic disease. The usual one is, roughly, an illness that cannot be treated and does not go away. But I would like to redefine it as a chronic unease, a refusal or incapacity to remain impermeable to reality. Today I listened to a radio interview with Susan Rosenthal who does not believe in mental illness. She says that the mind cannot be sick, but rather, social relationships are sick. The effect of a sick society on an individual is mental suffering, not mental illness. The fact that health problems are strongly related to oppression and social unequalities has been known for over a century and basically ignored. Systems of domination create anger and intense suffering, which cannot be treated at the level of the individual.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says that “When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer”. How often do I find my efforts to think for myself and act according to my convictions censured? I will soon write about some of these situations and why I react so strongly to them, but the fact is that I see a desperate need for social change, for social justice, for equality, not only on a global scale but in the all-pervasive structures of dominance which institutionalize violence and oppression, thus preventing us from truly connecting with one another, from expressing our creativity and our humanity, and from having a real effect on the world we share.

And it makes me sick. I am physically sick and it’s not because I cannot deal with stress, it’s not because I haven’t meditated today, it’s not because I need therapy,  it’s not because I should pull myself together, it’s not because I’m bourgeois and lazy. It’s because the world is sick, because I confront that fact every day and am asked to stay calm and let things follow their course while I wait for them to change in small increments, over time, in ways that will appease public opinion without challenging the status quo until, one day soon, we can all be happy in a wonderful world. I cannot believe in this mythology. In a situation like this, believe me, it’s only healthy to be sick.

Anarchism Gathering 4 – Lecturing and participation

21 Aug

Following up on an older post, Xavier Renou did make some mistakes. Earlier in the day, he had led an interactive workshop in which he asked participants to signal their opinion about particular acts of civil disobedience by positioning themselves in a room divided into four intersecting poles: “violent”, or “non-violent”, and “would do” or “would not do”. He then used participants’ interventions in order to articulate the politics adopted by his collective. The approach was constructive in that it helped us understand how the approach of non-violent direct action works in relation to our own personal standpoints and to discern clearly which issues it is aimed to address. However, the workshop was not meant to enable the exploration of alternative strategies together but only to affirm Xavier’s experience with civil disobedience as valid. A woman interrupted his demonstration of the way one can wriggle around policemen to slow down arrest and expressed her concern with the technique presented. She said that while it might be useful in Western countries where police violence is seldom used, it does little to help activists who experience serious confrontation with armed forces. Xavier’s reply was that his approach entails that by the time direct action is taken, mainstream media will be present and popular opinion won, so that police will avoid using violence. While this is a valid response within Xavier’s own framework, it did not encourage discussion and effectively silenced the woman and her friends, who left as soon as he resumed his demonstration.

The discrepancy between Xavier’s intention – to introduce us to civil disobedience as defined by his collective – and participants’ expectations – to create a space in which tactics of violence and non-violence in direct action could be discussed – led to very tangible tensions the same evening when Xavier lectured about his politics of civil disobedience with the help of a powerpoint presentation. By postponing the possibility of discussion to the end of his talk, he tried to make sure not only that he would not be interrupted, but also that his position could be voiced in priority and then by reaffirmed during the question session. This unequality between a speaker placed in a position of power and listeners placed in a position of passivity is not caused by Xavier in particular but by lecturing in general. The lecturer necessarily endorses an authoritative role and knowledge is imposed on the audience rather than constructed by the people present. Perhaps it was a little naive to assume that a bunch of anarchists would be willing to sit and listen (also some of us certainly were). But more importantly, anarchists need to reflect on what knowledge means and in what conditions learning can take place, and then give speakers the means to attain these goals.

Teaching at a private school

18 Aug

According to Jeff Schmidt, work is political because “it affects the distribution of power in society” (video). Of course, as an employee, you have to protect the interests of your employer, and thus reinforce the system of domination that provides our unequal society with “justice and order”, including your own oppression. But who has the most blood on their hands, the working class murderers who end up in jail or the traders and lawyers to whom I gave language classes? Many of the employees I met in large companies were clearly discontented with their job conditions. I find it hard to imagine being led from country to country at your employer’s whim only to realize ten years later that the promotion you were hoping to get was meant, from the start, for the colleague who went to the same prestigious business school as your boss. Good job, doggy, good job! Now go back to work and sacrifice the rest of your life unless you’d rather be fired. The employees I had as students also voiced how mindlessly they entered the vicious circle of needing a job after college in order to make money, then getting an apartment and a car, then getting married and buying a house, and then realising that you need to stay at the mercy of your employer until retirement just to maintain your material privilege and the social status that goes with it. Of course, the system of domination which allows entire populations to be trampled on for the economic interests of large companies operates through the same logic of systemic violence when it disregards employees. How workers manage to deal with their conscience, how they convince themselves to adhere to the company’s ideology, how they put their mind on “business as usual” in the face of so much violence is beyond me. Unless, perhaps, they do it through the very same process that enabled me to work for this private school for over two years?