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CONSTRUCTING THE UPHILL STEPS TOWARD A RESPECTFUL AND CHALLENGING CLASSROOM

Throughout the years, three lessons (listed here and then detailed) emerged through this lifelong process that are the foundation to a classroom design of emerging co-creation that I hope can be of benefit to teacher, student, and organizer alike:

  • • Becoming comfortable with discomfort, both with one's own social and personal identity and with how others might understandably perceive it differently
  • • Genuinely respecting others' initial reactions and responses to authority, including too much deference to the front of the room and too little toward their peers and themselves
  • • Combining attention to strategic substance—history matters, discerning how tactical choices reflect different strategic models—with problem-posing questions about power, identity, and process

Becoming comfortable with discomfort, both with one’s own social and personal identity and with how others might understandably perceive it differently

That fateful class long ago brought home two elemental lessons in my life. First, no matter one's deep commitments to social and racial justice, a person's own comfort in her or his social and personal identity and how others' perceive the degree of power and privilege one carries with it will greatly influence her or his openness to shifting dynamics in a classroom or community setting. To be concrete, I had to come to terms with my male, straight WASPness in all the multiracial, multicultural settings I was in and neither be embarrassed by my social privilege nor misuse it.

“Coming to terms” with one's identity is not easy. I partially had been aided in undertaking steps toward this humbling affirmation through my own ongoing TSA work (Burghardt, 2013). The ongoing TSA practice of affirming strengths in some situations and limitations in others had given me some personal resilience and the growing capacity to explore the more painful and disconcerting dynamics of race, class, and gender that were at play in class. Perhaps the most disconcerting was the awareness that situations and contexts that had been safe and affirming for me in my own development often had felt unsafe and threatening for women, people of color, and lesbians and gay men.5 That painful class early in my teaching career had brought home that what I assumed was a safe learning [1]

environment in which my identity could thrive and what others needed in that same environment were very, very different.

This insight initially did not breed intellectual or emotional flexibility and comfort. It bred guilt, and guilt can create an overreaction and overcompensation for one's past ignorance that simply replaces one form of marginalization with another. Validating racial unfairness at the expense of white students' own personal stories provided a short-term salve of assuaging my guilty conscience for past sins of omission, but it did nothing in creating a safe learning environment for everyone. The search for “the democratic experience of co-creation” without including every voice in the room was impossible.

For that to happen, I had to fully embrace my own identity while doing the same toward everyone else in the classroom. This was a twofold process: It began by acknowledging and affirming who I was with neither overt pride nor abject deference while affirming others' right to understandably doubt my commitments to their own well-being.

Neither overt pride nor abject deference: It took years to easily and comfortably state my social background in a mixed group. Only as I came to trust myself that I did not misuse my social privilege could I fully embrace my social and personal history and present it comfortably with others.[2] Likewise, I came to expect the inevitable nervous laughter from students when I wove in the obvious but almost never acknowledged whiteness of the teacher in the front of the room. Such nervousness is a reflection of the underlying, unstated dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality that make up almost every classroom experience. By implicitly acknowledging them through affirmation of who I was—neither dwelled on nor denied—I began to set the stage for more inclusion.

Understandable doubt: Coupled with my own affirmation was respect for students' possible doubt of my intent. As such, it affirms their own historical experience—the creation of their own identities—as separate and unique from my own and from each other—which may have included marginalization from people who looked and behaved like me. Whatever initial skepticism, fear, or hope they brought to this classroom as a safe learning experience had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them and all the other classrooms, meetings, and strategy sessions ofwhich they had been a part. Respecting their doubts while affirming my own identity is the initial use of paradox necessary for eventual critical reflection: Don't my social qualities lead to a misuse of privilege? Won't expressing doubts undermine learning? What if the story of my identity conflicts with someone else's?

It is through this initial design of affirmed identity and respect for difference that a safe classroom begins to take shape. The eventual reflection on this early classroom encounter among all of us is designed to remove primary fears that exist in multiracial and multicultural groups: for a person from a marginalized or oppressed group, the fear that to affirm others' stories will ignore the larger forces of historical and systematic oppression; for those from more privileged groups, that acknowledgment of this greater systematic oppression will deny the personal pain and struggle within their own individual stories.

Concretely, there is a “trusting and testing” process that takes place over a number of weeks in class, often woven through other discussions on tactical choices, group formation, and leadership development issues. Because social issues are woven into each session rather than provided in one or two class segments, there is no predetermined moment when difficulties in sharing assumptions about others' identities emerge. Trusting their safety, people from oppressed groups can initially express pent-up anger at straight and/or white students' lack of understanding of why their voices are often muted in classrooms or how exposed they feel when most other classroom discussions focus on clients of color. In turn, white students tend to opt for either overly deferential affirmation of their peers' oppression (which can lead to objectified forms of victimhood) or silent, perplexed upset, fearful that anything they say will be misinterpreted (which can lead to later, unresolved conflict). No longer nauseous, my role is to help students recognize their understandable overreactions, in whatever form they take, as caused by a lack of previous engagement in the sharing of their stories without fear that their own history, whether from oppression or privilege, will be denied.

Instead of the debilitating, seesaw experience of one group having pride of oppressive place over another, this slow, paradoxical acceptance of the “multiple truths” of greater social oppression of some people and the mutual struggle for affirmation for everyone becomes a solid foundation for listening to others' stories, sharing insights, and flexibility in strategic choices that are the hallmarks of democratic experience—including a classroom. And it begins with a teacher's comfort with discomfort and the humbling, affirming acknowledgment of one's own identity.

There of course will be inevitable differences in this process wrought by the distinct social identities of other faculty. There is no question that faculty whose social identifies are from oppressed populations (or at least appear to be) will confront other dynamics in the interpretation and construction of privilege, who is perceived as “smart,” degrees of deference (or the lack thereof), etc. However, raising the issues early in the classroom experience rather than waiting for either explosions or misinterpretations later in the term is a way to enrich the learning experience for everyone. No one can escape his or her own midwifery experience toward liberation as one grows through the painful discomfort and humility of discovering how hard and how beautiful becoming a “subject of history” can be. Ongoing dialogue among like-minded faculty on how this plays out in the classroom can be of enormous pedagogical value (Wong, 2009).

Genuinely respecting others’ initial reactions and responses to authority, including too much deference to the front of the room and too little toward their peers and themselves

Freire's quotation on “divided, inauthentic beings” (Freire, 2000a, p. 33) and the dilemma it poses for the educator or organizer in how one engages with people to undo these fractures is also woven into the first classroom discussion. This dilemma remains a potent backdrop throughout the term, for I make clear that this term is not simply about “the oppressed” with whom they work but also includes themselves as students. An early dilemma surfaces: As previously successful students throughout their academic careers, how much of their success has led them to internalize principles and practices of the “banking system of education” (Freire, 2000)? As organizers, they obviously intellectually believe in the rights of others to have voice. Does that belief extend to those sitting next to them? Gentle probing and problem-posing during the next few weeks reveals the difference between an internalized belief and an externalized behavior (one can fervently believe in racial or sexual justice and still be uncomfortable around people who carry those identities; people may want “democratic experience” in the classroom but not the added responsibilities that experience requires). Over time, students admit to and reflect on their impatience with those class members who talk a lot, the fact that they never take notes from each other's comments, and their growing consternation that the guy who wrote the textbook they are using is not providing many definitive answers either.

The themes related to deference to formal authority and the tendency to diminish each other's contributions in the classroom lead to important discussions on power: Who has it? Can it be shared? Is it a zero-sum game? Is that iron law of oligarchy inevitable? Having used TSA as an example of “multiple truths”—everyone is good at some things and not so good at others, not “either/ or”—these discussions are deepened to explore how to break down that most pernicious of constructions in organizing (and in life)—binary thought (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). The task of the strategically effective organizer or educator is to surface the mechanistic and limiting “either/or-ness” in one's thinking so that a truly innovative and supple approach to how one works—and thinks about the work—begins to emerge.[3] For example, some people can come from oppressed backgrounds and neither feel nor be oppressed; a child welfare worker may remove a child from her or his home and still be deeply committed to that child; a short-term tactic can be conciliatory in the midst of a long-term strategy of confrontation—and the reverse.

Having explored TSA as an alternative to Alinsky's perfect list of organizer attributes and begun weaving in respectful ways to hear each other's stories about their identities, there will already be concrete examples of “multiple truths” in the classroom. But the real modeling of how difficult it is to break down binary thinking must come from the front of the room. Whereas classic readings define “teachable moments” as those concrete examples of how to show someone what to do or how to correct a problem (Oshry, 2007), in these classrooms “teachable moments” also include the struggle by the teacher to undo one's own preconceived ideas of teaching, what it means to be “smart,” and—finally—the fears attached to giving up some of the classroom or organizing action to others with less training.

For it is through awareness of the understandable fear of losing control—of the class, the discussion at hand, the meeting's agenda—that deep-seated and profound notions of power and position surface for almost everyone. It is where the iron law of oligarchy and the possibility of throwing up come together. Only if one remains attuned to her or his own struggle to maintain “multiple truths” of experience, identity, and skills can one comfortably use her or his position of authority—whether teacher or organizer. It means neither succumbing too easily to challenges to your position nor condescendingly ignoring students' or community members' initial and often awkward attempts to gain some control of the learning process. It means sharing that discomforting struggle openly without giving up your hard-earned skill set and strategic smarts. To embody the change you seek, one must embody how difficult it is to change as well.

There will come a time in class—usually somewhere in the middle of the term—when a student or two will challenge the structure of the class: who gets to write on the board, who gets the more comfortable teacher's chair, why the professor still sits in the front. None of these challenges are especially profound or even thought out; they are often masked with wry humor or pop up unexpectedly. But they are indeed important moments of discovery and reflection for the entire class. Students are glad to have me sit somewhere else ... but not comfortable having me next to them. Why? It's great to have others use the board, but does that mean the professor no longer will? The discomfort of teachable moments extends to everyone in the room, for with more authority comes more responsibility. The liberating moment of potential co-creation carries with it the burden of more, not less, to do. The power in democratic experience, whether classroom or meeting hall, is filled with the liberating midwifery of struggle and time—if the “dirty laundry” within oppressed groups is to be aired in a room in which people of other social privileges are present.

discomfort alongside the joy of giving birth to new, unrecognized possibilities of co-creation. Students begin to see that alongside their growing strategic smarts is the need for resilience and tenacity, too. After all, a full life does not mean an easy one.

Combining attention to strategic substance—history matters, discerning strategic purpose within tactical choices takes practice, etc.—with problem-posing

questions about power, identity, and process

The unfolding of these classroom dynamics and their application to community organizing would continue to be abstractly academic—or an escape from the “real world”—if they were not grounded in the actual organizing experiences of the students. In turn, those present-day experiences need to be contextualized in the dynamic interplay between model building, tactical choice, and historic context. Therefore, the one, rather long, formal lecture of the term occurs in the second class, in which I consciously contextualize the models of Rothman (2008), Hyde (1989), Smock (2004), and Weil (2012) in the larger political economy—now in the globalized, wired 21st century; at other times, in the Reagan 1980s or the Clinton 1990s. The underlying intent is the same as with the process of the class itself: to capture the dynamic interplay between tactical choices and other, historically determined forces—in this case, the economic forces and political currents of, for example, 2014 compared to 1984 and the ensuing differences in strategic and tactical options wrought by these trends.

Using this global context as backdrop and flowing from a similar approach as case-based learning (Altshuler & Bosch, 2003), each ensuing class draws upon concrete examples of students' experiences in their fieldwork or other organizing activities: their campaigns, meetings, and outreach efforts. Because these actions can often appear to students to be “minor” or inconsequential compared to other, more famous moments in organizing history, situating their work in the dynamic interplay of a larger context helps foster the same flexibility of thought sought in the classroom.[4] Successful outreach in a poor community in 2014 may have smaller numbers than in a previous generation; this does not make it less successful. The interplay between context, strategic models, and tactical choices is thus respected and challenged in ways similar to those applied to the evolving identities of the student organizers and to the shifting dynamics of power and authority in the classroom. The emphasis on the “personal process” begun early on comes full circle: The strategic flexibility of the work and the personal flexibility of the student/organizer are joined in common purpose of mutual discovery—transformation of self and that of of the community become part of the same human prospect (Burghardt, 2013; Pyles, 2013).

At the same time, the vulnerability one experiences throughout this process of context, strategy, and tactics and the other constructed dynamics between teacher and students is ever-present. By definition, these classrooms are forever changing, not only because 2014 is different from 1994 but also because the social and personal identities of everyone in the room—especially me in relationship to them—are changing over time, too. When I began teaching, I was close to the same age as the students, unpublished, and certainly untested. The dynamics at play sometimes included too much familiarity and too little respect; generations later, I am older than most students' parents and all too often receive too much deference. What has remained constant is the need for me to struggle to co-create a genuine relationship of mutual respect without denying (ever-changing) differences. The vulnerability wrought by having to be forever critically reflective on how these dynamics will play out each new term is paradoxically what sets me free to explore and inquire. For although it is somewhat clear what I expect to teach, I never know what I am going to learn.

  • [1] At the time, attention to transgender issues was all but nonexistent even in progressivecircles.
  • [2] An illuminating example of another faculty member's struggle with discomfort andidentity can be found in Wong (2004).
  • [3] It is important to underscore that this is not the “on the one hand . . . on the other hand”vacillation to take a position but, rather, the strategic and educational reality that the worldin which we work and live can hold “multiple and even opposing truths” at the same timethat must be taken into account: Some people have had objectively more oppression thanothers, and many people from privileged backgrounds have their own stories of personalpain and struggle. Both are “true” and will require different yet supportive responses ina classroom or organizing campaign. For example, some racially oppressed groups havestrands of homophobia and sexism; as well, there is racism among some sectors of the LGBTcommunity. That said, this takes time: Students or community members must have enoughbuilt-up resilience and authentic comfort with each other—a truly safe space shared over
  • [4] Although his work does not cover the 21st century, Fisher's Let the People Decide (1994)remains extremely helpful for students in understanding these dynamics.
 
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