Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Answers!

Of course I meant to be ironic... but I threw out a few random thoughts on the questions Martin posed to us a few weeks ago. These are quick thoughts that I wrote down more for myself than for anyone else:

"Astrid's tactic is silence. Astrid seeks nobody's approval in this context but her own."
- Sue Turnbull
"But perhaps there is more to the silence and less to the voice."
- Our blogs
How can we support student involvement in our classes if we are trying to de-construct ideologies within which some our students may have invested their identities and would thus prefer not to offer their opinions?

There's obviously no full-proof method for dealing with this. Personally, I've found a little success in using as many student generated materials and topics as possible. I find that there is usually more genuine engagement when everyone is expected to (even required to) contribute to the course content. My goal is not to deconstruct students' perspectives nor is it to expose their beliefs as mere ideologies (where I am privileged to a truer deeper meaning). If there's one thing that I'm after as a teacher, it's the inclusion of more voices and more perspectives. My key word is 'inquiry'. When texts that students themselves have contributed to the class become the object of inquiry, it's quite common that we stumble on a variety of messages, perspectives, and possible meanings. I don't need to deconstruct anything. My job is to facilitate inquiry.
That said, there are ALWAYS students who are not interested. No matter what approach I take, some students are more engaged than others. This is probably less a result of teaching techniques and more an inevitable aspect of the power relations that develop in any group practice. I personally think that a student should always have the right to resist. Further, I try and remind myself that just because a student doesn't engage in the way I believe she or he should, that doesn't mean that there is nothing meaningful happening. If everyone interacted the way that I (as a teacher) expected then it might be more a sign of obedience than it is a sign of critical engagement.

"I became acutely aware of the discourses of disapproval circulating in the staff room about the girls' media preferences and tastes;romance, soap opera, male pop stars, fashion etc."
- Sue Turnbull
"We have all observed students’ penchant for simply regurgitating what they believe the teacher wants to hear rather than risk a potentially catastrophic foray into critical thinking."
- Our blogs
How can we practice an empowering pedagogy if we harbour distaste for our students' choices and doubt their abilities to develop a critical awareness?

We can't. All genuine dialog requires mutual respect. The inability to grasp the complexity of our students' social worlds is a failure on the part of the teacher and to see students as fundamentally 'lacking' is just a byproduct of not truly knowing or understanding them. Unfortunately, the act of teaching often breeds arrogance—not least of all in critical approaches to education. When the teacher knows beforehand what an answer should be, what the students should be thinking, or how students should approach a problem then there's a danger of silencing potential voices. Of course, there is a place for the teacher's knowledge, but this knowledge is not one of predetermined techniques, facts, or (even worse) truths. The real lesson is a genuine desire to learn and this can only be taught by example.

"...we should be extremely wary of using [media] teaching as a platform to advance our own political and moral positions."
- Sue Turnbull
"How much divergence from a traditional class room can I get away with?"
- Our blogs
To what extent do we have to reflect upon our own unquestioned ideologies when considering changes to our classroom practices? Is it right to do something in the classroom solely because we decide it to be so? What informs our opinions about what's right?

I didn’t have a satisfactory answer in class. No excuses... but to be fair, this is a really tough question- particularly as I’m positioned as an ‘instructor’ in our class and it’s quite likely that people could and do interpret me as pushing my own agenda.
I believe I need to reflect and to question my own assumptions as much as I possibly can without letting it paralyze me. I do not think it is okay to present an issue in class just because I want to. But on the other hand, students are subject to all sorts of ideologies no matter what I do in class (the corporate textbooks that students are often coerced into buying are just one example). It seems to me that challenging prepackaged messages is no less problematic than ignoring them. To simply gloss over messages that ‘sell’ America and ‘American culture’, to ignore potentially racist and sexist representations is no less ideological than questioning them. To take this a step further, sticking to the ‘normal’ curriculum or to ‘normal’ classroom practices (thank you CELTA for ensuring that we all know what “normal” means) entails a wide range of ideologies as well. In short, it’s impossible not to push an agenda. I am always performing and reflecting more than I realize. Just by being a White, American, male who can’t communicate in Korean I am both a product and a propagator of all sorts of questionable beliefs and ideologies. What I have to be weary of is the possibility of turning my class into a space where I justify my own issues. That is one of my own personal landmines.

I believe my responsibility is to teach in the most caring and compassionate way I know. That doesn’t sound very ‘critical’ or very academic, but academic theories are no more than tools of reflection and inspiration. ‘Real’ life requires compassion and humility. So, in terms of what informs my opinions about what’s 'right', I have to say that I don’t have a general set of rules. I react minute-by-minute seeking out the best way to negotiate a path forward. I hold on to my beliefs that post-colonialism, racism, and any number of ideologies may be effective ways of discussing classroom experiences, but I hold stronger to my belief that if these things do indeed exist, they don’t conform to a general set of criteria that I learned in a book or an academic article.
Henry Giroux once said that you’re not a real teacher unless you’ve been fired. I think he’s a jerk for saying that. On the other hand, if we’re going to base classroom practices on genuine cultural inquiry then at some point things probably SHOULD become a little frustrating. If things are too self-evident or too easy then there is probably very little learning going on.

"I had to deal directly with the students' experiences, not just of TV, images, culture, but of their own identities."
- Judith Williamson
"Last Saturday we talked about the barriers why we can't implement oppositional reading. One of the reasons is irrelevance."
- Our blogs
How can we more profoundly connect our classroom practices with our students' lived experiences?

The problem isn't that classroom practices aren't connected to students' lived experiences; the problem is that classrooms in modern schools are usually delegated to a certain (very narrow) type of relevance. It's a place to get information, to learn some basic cognitive skills, and to develop an ability to negotiate within a bureaucracy. When we, as teachers, try to change the role of schooling students are rightly confused. In fact, when we attempt to bring the outside world into the classroom it's possible that students see this as an imposition. “We're here to learn English, why do we have to think about what music we're listening to or what television shows we watch? Just teach me how to communicate!”
That, to me, is a perfectly reasonable response from someone who has been raised to believe that schools are nothing more than a preparation for real life—a hurdle to pass over on the way to full person-hood. But part of what I'm trying to do is challenge the meaning of schooling (in terms of the Shannon reading at the beginning of the semester: from scientific management to social reconstructionism). So I should expect some degree of resistance. I should also respect students' right to allow their schooling to remain irrelevant to their lives outside of the school.

"I don't like your teaching style...I don't think this year was the right time for doing this kind of thing. You said that, "If you study English only for entrance exam in this school, isn't it a shame?" But I think that if we get even one question wrong in the entrance exam in this school, it is more shameful."
- Student quoted by Shin Hyunjung and Graham Crookes
"But the problem was that the classroom setting was not powerful enough to engage all students in critical discussion since we all had to stick to studying for the big exam."
- Our blogs
How can we validate spending our students' precious time on classes which fail to satisfy their immediate needs?
Let them study whatever they feel is necessary. If the students want to prep for an exam then the teacher should provide that service. There's no other satisfactory answer for this question. But I will venture to say that 1) this desire to prep for an exam is a product of social forces much larger than those in our classroom, and 2) not every student has been pulled into these social forces in the same way. In any classroom of 30+ students there is undoubtedly a few who do not see the merits in the current economic/social/educational system they are being 'hailed' in to. Note that the quote above was taken from a study on critical pedagogy in a Korean high school classroom where many students quite enjoyed the 'critical' class. The lesson I took from this is that we have to be careful about viewing our students as a monolithic 'thing' with identical desires and goals. I also see no justification for modeling a pedagogy in a way that serves only the lowest common denominator.
In terms of pedagogy, why do we think that every student in a classroom needs to be learning/doing the same thing? In a student centered classroom it seems to me that certain participants can and should be free to pursue exam prep if they wish, while others can pursue other interests. Of course, this would require rethinking classroom management strategies and the exact role of the teacher, but I think it's worth allotting some of our intellectual resources to figuring out how this could be done.

"Topics selected were the following: gender discrimination, cultural invasion and internet filtering, anomie, religion, job opportunity, the society's view of Azad University, prohibition of traditional dress, army service, prohibition of Bandari songs and dance."
- Sima Sadeghi
"Why all topics are all about problems? Can't we make critical lesson without talking about problems, issues, and something political?"
- Our blogs
If we are interested in practicing a critical pedagogy, how can we keep our classrooms reflective, empowering, and positive?

According to most people who identify as critical pedagogues we can't conduct a 'critical' lesson without dealing with political issues. The reason is simple: everything is in some way political. Avoiding discussions of gender, race, social class, power, and so on is in itself a political act. Where Sadeghi should be challenged is the fact that the political doesn't need to be reduced to the ideological. In other words, we don't have to discuss 'feminism' or 'colonialism' in order to engage with critical issues. In fact, the 'isms' often times just get in the way (in other words: don't talk about feminism, ask about how we tend to represent women).
My take is that rather than bringing critical issues into the class, the job of the educator is to recognize the political implications and origins that are ALWAYS present in the class. Giving students a voice in curricular decisions, eliciting opinions in a democratic way, cultivating new ways of looking at textbooks, these are all political moves and in my experience, these are much more effective ways of inspiring genuine dialog than directly confronting political issues or 'isms' the way that Sadeghi did.


  1. Re: The questions I posed and you answered.

    Insight: 9/10
    Intimidating length of answers: 11/10
    Flagrant use of the word "jerk": 10/10
    Your total: A+

    (And yes, those are the three criteria I always use when marking...)

  2. HA!!! You just gave a perfect numerical representation of my dissertation strategy. Whatever is lacking in insight can be made up with the sheer volume of words words words.