It is easy for those of us invested in critical pedagogy to see need for major change in education in the U.S. It is also easy for us to write highly ideological manifesti that make sweeping philosophical statements about how things should be. One question I often hear from those getting their feet wet in critical pedagogy is where do I start? Many agree with the ideology and the goals of critical pedagogy and other movements seeking major change, but we cannot simply drop those changes into our current institutional structures. Never mind the fact that we have colleagues and students to win over before we can implement these changes with a chance at success.
But some of the issues raised by critical pedagogy are major ethical issues. It’s not that we can do something more efficiently or effectively, it’s that we see what we’re doing on the whole as being actually wrong. As a critical pedagogue, I can go along with something less effective much more easily than with something that goes against my newly pricked conscience. So when I disagree fundamentally with the direction something is headed, but am powerless to change it singlehandedly, what do I do? Do I forget about it and wash my hands of the situation? Do I leave in disgust? Do I bide my time until I can really do something? (And hope it doesn’t get worse in the mean time!) Do I try to make incremental changes, appeasing my conscience with the knowledge that I am improving things, albeit slowly?
As I’ve thought about various issues in various contexts, I’ve come to believe that I should work on at least three different planes — or resisting along three different fronts. Sometimes, only one is an option; sometimes all three. But by framing my thoughts and work this way, it helps me to identify what I can and can’t do, and to not feel like every class I teach needs to be a major revolution. I hope these three lines of resistance can help other people seeking to make changes where they are.
The first and highest line of resistance is pushing for major institutional change in policies and practices, like I did at Charleston Southern University with the social media policy. This is where we should push for large, sweeping changes — where our full ideology, even our manifestos, should come to the fore.
The second line of resistance is changing our own day-to-day practices. Major institutional change comes slowly, if at all. And we are unlikely to get everything we want on the highest level. But we can effect significant change on the local level. These changes are often incremental because of the lack of major institutional change, but they are no less important.
Often, I find myself working on both of these levels simultaneously. For example, I may speak against the use of letter grades or standardized tests (first line of resistance). But until there are major university-wide changes, I cannot operate entirely outside of the world of grades and SAT/ACT/GRE scores. However, I can ignore, or at least heavily de-emphasize, GPA and GRE scores in favor of writing samples and unique elements on the C.V. when considering graduate school applications to my department (second line of resistance).
Likewise, I can employ assessment practices in class that focus on formative assessment and verbal feedback over summative assessment and final grades. I can also use a standards-based, or criterion-referenced, grading system where I assign grades of P, B, A, or N (passing, borderline, attempted, not attempted) — encouraging students to think less about ABCDF grades, and to think more about the meaning of an assessment. (The fact that the letter grades stand for a word, and that B is better than A, both contribute to that.) Since these grades are assigned in reference to concepts or skills, rather than assignments, it also invites students to focus on the content we are exploring together and their intellectual development in light of it, rather than just a series of scores. This is by no means ideal, but it is an improvement that still fits inside university policies and draws student attention to the problems with those policies. It also allows me to demonstrate the value of other systems, and have data and student feedback to point to if and when the university actually considers changing its policies.
Not every change we would like to make can be accomplished within the policies set forth by our university, though. That’s where the third line of resistance comes in: teaching underground. Academic instructors can influence the intellectual and social development of our students outside the boundaries of the course. We can also influence the way our colleagues think about things. Further, our role as critical pedagogues need not be limited to the professional relationships we have with students and colleagues. We have an educational role to play outside the university, as well.
For example, while what we do during class, prep, and grading time is important, what happens during office hours often has a greater impact on our students. Even better can be meetings over coffee or the throwing of a frisbee. And education need not be limited to our tuition-paying university students. As a parent and the member of a vibrant faith community, I have two very important educational charges outside my professional life, in which I seek to put my critical-pedagogy ideals to work. Social media is another locus of pedagogy, if we use it as such. Many of us teachers use social media for pedagogical development, seeking the ideas of others that we can can appropriate for our own teaching. But we can also use it as an others-oriented place to teach other educators, especially given the large population of educators seeking to learn from others on those platforms.
These are not the only ways in which we can seek change and resist harmful practices in education. But I have found it helpful to frame my educational work in these three ways. For instance, I used to try and do everything that I found important in every class. When institutional policies or student preferences got in the way, I became frustrated — either with the policies, or the students, or with my own inability to make it all work. However, recognizing the difference between the first and second lines of resistance helps me see the value in making incremental local changes while pursuing big change outside the immediate context of my classes. Likewise, taking opportunities to “teach underground” helps me accomplish aims outside of class that I cannot (yet) accomplish in class. (Don’t underestimate the value of having coffee with education majors, for example, especially if they just read Paulo Freire in one of their education classes!)
Among the Hybrid Pedagogy community, we often focus on the ideology, and thus the first line of resistance. Of course, most of us live in a world where we can have our biggest influence on the second and third lines of resistance. (And communities like Hybrid Pedagogy are examples of that third line of resistance.) We do not live in Luther’s Wittenburg or Calvin’s Geneva; most of us live in Cranmer’s England. Reformation, if it comes at all, will come slowly and incrementally, and we may risk our livelihood if we push too hard on the first line of resistance too soon. But we all have things we can do on the second and third lines of resistance. The more we push there, and the more people we can bring along with us, the greater chance we’ll have of success when we do make that assault on the first line.
As a community that teaches each other underground, let’s keep our eyes fixed on the broad goals and help each other to make significant, incremental gains on the local level, both in class and off the books.