Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Words, Werds, Whirreds...

Lots of thoughts on last week's class:
The first thing I want to address are comments one of our presenters made on her blog. These comments were quite insightful and I think they can help us elaborate on the way we're reading and discussing things. The presenter shared that she created a Power Point presentation that summed up the main ideas in Chapter One, only to get to Chapter Two and confront the concept of banking education. She explained that she worried that her way of presenting the information in the first chapter was based on banking ideals and she questioned her approach. I think these are important questions and that perhaps, the most important thing one can take from these readings is the sensation of questioning oneself as a teacher. I think it is crucial that we can ask difficult questions about our teaching practices. Unfortunately, in the age of accountability teachers are more and more often placed in a position of having to defend their practices rather than questioning them. It's good to be able to do both but probably more constructive to do the latter. I think that the presenter's willingness to question her approach is commendable and I hope that our class can be a 'safe space' where we can all question our practices.
That said, I think that there is a danger in all of this. Freire's ideas evolved a lot over the course of his life. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published fairly early in his writing career. As he traveled and as his ideas reached further and further out into the world he rethought a lot of things. Of course he never abandoned the idea of emancipatory education, but the ways that he framed it continually shifted within the contexts where he did his work. If Freire had been an English teacher in contemporary Korea, I believe his ideas would be dramatically different. Why is this important? Well, I think that it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing these concepts as prescribed methods to universal problems. Banking education contributes to oppression. This is a nice straightforward equation but it has little to do with real life and real teaching. If we begin to judge ourselves according to a set of abstract principles, no matter how 'emancipatory' they purport to be, aren't we falling into a trap? Isn't the idea that our teaching must be 'emancipatory' according to “Freire's principles” in its own way oppressive? Banking education (whatever that means) certainly seems like something to move away from, but I don't think it's helpful to let Freire loom above our heads like some 'emancipatory' paternal figurehead.
So... I really enjoyed the presentations and the conversations they inspired. I think that the open conversation style each presenter employed was engaging. I also think that we saw clear evidence that no classroom format is really 'neutral'. No matter how we set up the chairs and no matter how we structure our group activities, certain voices are amplified by particular forms of interaction. I will continue to play with classroom and conversation formats and I encourage all future presenters to do so as well. Let's keep an element of play in our activities.
Finally, I think it's worth mentioning some of my reservations about Freire's ideas. First of all, I have to admit that I'm a little uncomfortable with the ease with which Freire throws out the terms “oppressed” and “oppressor”. I have no doubt that in his own teaching contexts (the early 60's in rural Brazil) it was quite clear to him just who was oppressed and who was the oppressor. I'm not sure that these sorts of designations are so transparent in (post)modern, (post)industrial, globalized spaces like Seoul. Certainly oppression exists (at least it certainly seems to). But I'm not so sure the noun “oppression” necessarily leads to the need to designate fixed identities like “oppressor” and “oppressed”. Take the fairly straightforward descriptions in Chapter Two. Freire implies that teachers are in the position of “oppressors” and students are in a sense, the “oppressed”. But I'm not sure that at the time he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed he could have foreseen the emergence of the intense “age of accountability” which has implemented some very creative ways of reducing the freedom teachers have in their classrooms. Indeed, the trend is toward teacher proof curricula. I personally find it hard to ascribe a simple “oppressor” identity to teachers in this sort of context. Further, I think that static categories like oppressor/oppressed carry with them the danger of reducing the complexity of real life human relations into theoretical/academic jargon. Once we feel comfortable with these categories it is easy to see how everyone and everything can fit into them. It is in this way that language is productive rather than simply descriptive. Naming such categories determines what we are able to see. And perhaps ascribing any identity to the other or to the self is in some senses an act of violence. While the events in North Africa and the power transfer in North Korea are nice clear-cut examples of oppression, our day to day interactions and dealings are usually not so clear. Perhaps words like “oppressor” and “oppressed” are ways that we avoid the messiness and the ambiguity of day to day life. Perhaps calling another “oppressed” in some way serves to silence them. Perhaps calling myself an “oppressor” is a way of avoiding responsibility. This is not necessarily the case but I think the danger is there.
So, I appreciate everyone's willingness to keep playing the theory games. We have one more week of the thick stuff and then we're going to (hopefully) transition into some more hands-on work that can carry over into our classrooms. Keep blogging!

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