Archive | education RSS feed for this section


15 Dec

Pic26jpgI am borrowing the title of this post from Clarissa, who wrote: “what pleases me the most about my life is that every aspect of it was carefully constructed by me. I didn’t let things just happen to me but created a vision of how I wanted to live and then set out to turn that vision into reality. By the fact of my birth, I was supposed to lead a very, very different life and be a very, very different person.”

I found this very inspiring because I, too, am struggling to envision a life that departs from what was handed to me at birth. Doing a PhD, being queer, or developing an independent spirituality are some of the crucial aspects of my experience which in many ways work against what my parents or extended family has in mind for me. The past exerts a strong influence, as does education into a certain social class and a particular religious perspective, and it takes strength and determination to take bold steps towards emancipation from these external forces, steps towards self-determination. Even though it seems quite stereotypically American to me (think self-made man), I am attracted to the idea of creating a vision for one’s life and using it as both inspiration and guiding principle.

Incidentally, I stumbled upon this article on HigherEd about black dandies who are fashioning academic identities. I loves the self-conscious effort involved in the process of carefully constructing one’s identity – dress offers a practical, material way of stepping into a crafted persona. It provides a way of reaching out of oneself to effect change on one’s environment. I recognized Sharon Holland, whom I’d met before and whose style had made quite an impression on me. This isn’t surprising since I also love Elisha Lim’s Illustrated Gentleman and wish I had the courage to dress like that more often. I am reminded that one grows into a new social identity, but that the first moves can be taxing.

Back to Clarissa, who added that “the reason why academics so often get depressed is that they allow their identities to be molded by forces outside of themselves.” Although this is by no means specific to academics, it does remind me that unless one learns to be self-assertive, one will usually end up being manipulated into submissiveness. This is true, at least, for people on whom power was not imparted at birth, in other words, to those of us who want to make progress in life even though it strays away from what we were “meant” to be originally. As Joseph Jacotot once said: “L’éducation, c’est comme la liberté: cela ne se donne pas, cela se prend.”

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.

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?

Substitute teaching

3 Sep

I am currently switching jobs, leaving a private school to become a substitute teacher at state shools. As a substitute teacher, it has been made very clear that I am expected to follow instructions without challenging them in any way. I’ve also been told that if, years from now, I decide to become a full teacher and prove to be competent enough for a school to hire me and keep me, I will have the right to start voicing my opinion and express disagreement. The way I see this is that by the time you have worked long enough and hard enough, you will be unwilling to lose the respect and influence you’ve gained. You’ve fought too hard to risk losing your job and, though you may voice your critical opinion, you are unlikely to act on it if the results are too confrontational. According to Paulo Freire, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects”.

In my teaching job, not only am I alienated from my own inquiry and decision-making, but I must impose the same limitations on students. I have to spend our time following a method that many students consider boring, inefficient, and too easy (which is absolutely true). However, the fact that I must comply with the curriculum has been expressly stated to me by the school, and the rythm required to complete these mindless exercises leaves very little time for other endeavours. When a student told me that he would be willing to work if only the subject matter was more challenging and he knew he could learn something, I told him we had no choice but to work on this book, but I also said that we would do something different during the next lesson. This will be a small act of resistance: each week, I will prepare some extra-curricular activities and make them as participative and stimulating as possible. As things stand, although I secretly respect the ones who resist automatic obedience, the fact that the curriculum bores students forces me to be very authoritarian to maintain order in the classroom. This so-called professional attitude makes no sense to me since I want to be a radical teacher. Only, being a substitute teacher puts me at risk – I can be fired at any time and/or never hired again. I wish students resisted. I wish more established colleagues resisted. The real question is: how can I resist in the present circumstances, and how much do I risk for it?

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.