I write this in the wake of the unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; Atatiana Jefferson and Fred Rouse where I live in Fort Worth; and just two days ago father of four Rayshard Brooks; among too many other innocents who should have been alive today.
I write this as we are still inexplicably engaged in a conversation about the humanity of Black people, as though it were somehow up for debate.
I write this as global uprisings against police violence and systemic racism are entering their third week while losing the attention of the 24-hour news cycle and those who hashtagged their way to a suspiciously visible allyship.
I write this during Pride month, as LGBTQIA+ people’s legal rights are being deliberately rescinded by a bigoted president and their identities publicly invalidated by a bigoted children’s book author. As Black trans women are still being murdered and forgotten at an alarming rate.
I write this as the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate, disproportionately affecting underrepresented and underserved communities. 110,000+ Americans have died and the government has turned away—willfully negligent and criminally inept. Our national mourning has been negated by a political horror show.
I write this as grief has become pervasive and accepted. As “just checking in” and “wanted to see how you’re doing” have become essential daily communications with loved ones. As “I hope this finds you safe and well during this difficult time,” has become the standard prologue to our emails.
I write this as I am hesitant to acknowledge my anger. My white, female, cishet identity keeps me from the prejudices, the racism, the centuries of hate. I can only try to imagine the degree of rage and the kind of exhaustion that one might feel in the face of it daily. As a woman I can sometimes relate. Sometimes. To some extent. I donate and read and call and write until the fury gives way to a less volatile feeling of existential malaise. There is too much suffering in too many places happening all at the same time; seeking out moments of joy takes dedicated effort. Doing the work helps. No one needs another white woman’s tears.
Scholar and activist bell hooks is renowned for her work to dismantle what she calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” These interrelated centers of power, she teaches, are responsible for the oppression and domination that shape our world. In 2010, hooks came to my alma mater as a Visiting Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies. Despite being hosted by five different departments and centers across the massive Ohio State University campus—interdisciplinary voice that she is—hooks’s one public lecture took place in a not-nearly-big-enough lecture hall. We broke fire code, cramming as many people as we could into the rows and clogging the aisles. We were doubled up in seats and smashed against walls. The administrators present stood aghast, powerless. And as only a true critical pedagogue would, hooks invited hordes of students from the audience to fill the stage with her. She physically brought us together in community around her, a generous act which served as the precursor to an intellectual ass-kicking that brought us—if possible—even closer.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear hooks speak, you know it’s a near-spiritual experience. She’s a philosopher and a storyteller; sharing her own narrative in a way both theoretically significant and personally meaningful. Her work to expose systems of oppression is at once about her and about all of us, collectively and as individuals in the world. It seems to reach out from multiple centers, and all at the same time. Through publicly accessible academic discourse rooted in a love ethic, she finds us where we are and shepherds us into a critical awareness of ourselves and others. Her work always feels urgent, essential, human.
In the face of so many unknowns as we approach the Fall semester, universities are treating educators like vehicles for “content delivery.” They’re pushing too many one-size-fits-all course models that, like department store winter gloves, don’t actually fit all. There are too many cookie-cutter solutions. Too many catchphrases. Too many online platforms and learning management systems with too many biases that disadvantage too many students. And too many damn hyphenates; “standards-based” and “data-driven” among the worst offenders.
“Student-centered” might be the most misused of all the hyphenates the education field has ever devised; it’s lipstick on a pig, so to speak. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to say “student-centered” at all. It would be apparent in our work. It would manifest. And yet for some reason we’ve come to need a term like “student-centered” to remind ourselves and our institutions that there are indeed students present. In spite of our slick buzzwords and “flipped classrooms,” the students are nowhere near the center. Many have left the room unnoticed.
Often occupying the center of the learning space in their stead, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” has taught us that students are the enemy. Our syllabi are a bloated ten pages long and thick with policy statements, as too many in education have come to believe that good teaching and rigid rule enforcement are one and the same: no late work accepted; grade deductions for late arrivals; required use of surveillance software; “fairness” as represented by uniform punishments regardless of personal circumstance or hardship.
Where is our humanity?
It’s no wonder that many students seem only mildly interested in school, if at all. School isn’t made for them. Not when there are accrediting agencies and state standards and educational technology contracts in play. Not when universities rely on unethically sourced student data analyzed with questionable integrity to confirm their use of often inequitable “best practices.” Not when the Ivory Tower doesn’t. even. try. to respond to those learning or trying to learn.
In this fraught moment, I am looking to pedagogy. I am embracing the curriculum and the classroom and yes, even the Euro-centric ballet studio as sites for resistance; locales where trusting students, expressing interest in them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt are seen as radical acts that defy the “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” that we’ve allowed to remain in the center for too long.
The pedagogy I see is equitable. It invites students into the center by valuing their differences, recognizing their experiences, and affirming their identities. It practices acceptance. It centers our collective humanity, asking out loud and as part of the process: Who is learning for? Who is learning about? Who authors learning? And why?
This pedagogy is responsive. It prioritizes checking in on loved ones, holding space for grief, and honoring rage at injustice. It situates learning in and through and with community. It is at once about our individual stories and about us, together, in the world.
This pedagogy is vital. It eschews reductive assessment practices and grading for the sake of competition. It stands opposed to pre-determined learning outcomes and welcomes incidental, unexpected developments that we call learning. It is impassioned and joyous and nerdy. It refuses to measure what is not legitimately measurable. It does not make objects from subjects. It pushes back against any policy that seeks to silence, falsify, or diminish. Failure is critical, as is self-reflection; it loves these processes—it thrives on them.
Moving pedagogy from philosophy to praxis is always a challenge, but the how and the what tend to become visible once I articulate the why and the for/by/about whom. This attempt at a pedagogy of resistance isn’t new for me, and yet no matter how pedagogically disruptive I think I am, there’s usually further to go. This moment in our history is calling for a full-scale radical overhaul of our systems. It’s asking us to reimagine the centers: of pedagogies, curricula, courses, methodologies, and individual lessons inside individual classes. It’s asking us to consider who is there, who is not, and why. Perhaps most importantly, it’s asking us to consider why not, and why not now.
This piece is republished with permission from Jessica Zeller's blog.