Write-up — Pedagogy of the Empowered: Teaching as an Act of Resistance in 2017 and Beyond

On April 6th 2017, the University of Southern California’s Center for Excellence in Teaching held an event entitled “Pedagogy of the Empowered”. Four Teaching Assistant Fellows — Leslie Bernsten, Mary Donhoffner, Rima Basu, and Lizette Solórzano — spoke individually about how to be inclusive in classroom dialogues on political or difficult topics, providing us with strategies and practical advice on how to deal sensitively with specific scenarios that can and do happen. This is exactly the kind of event that is essential in the current political climate, and I left the session feeling that everyone who is teaching right now should attend an event like this at least once. I was grateful to be able to attend.

Leslie Bernsten opened the session by saying that teaching is a caring profession; research supports that the best teaching is that which is above and beyond the call of duty. She mentioned the anxiety that some may have of being a teacher at an R1 university, where you might not be expected to make teaching a priority, and perhaps will receive less support from the institutional framework around you. But she affirmed something that I have always felt — that the best teaching happens when human beings treat others as human beings. Here are some tools and strategies which I took away from this event:

  • If you want to respond to a recent political moment in the classroom, be clear with yourself and your students on why you are doing so. The classroom is not the right place to rant about how you feel about what’s going on in politics. If you want to talk about something that is happening, make sure you tie it in to part of the curriculum, and take the time to present it in a way that does not simply reflect your own political beliefs, but allows students — who have many different beliefs and experiences — to be able to engage with it.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you want to talk about a politically charged issue, prepare as much as you can in advance.
  • Create a classroom contract. How do you set up your classroom so that serious conflicts do not occur? How can you make sure that everyone feels fairly treated, and that the class discussion is productive for everyone? One way to prepare is to be clear from the first day what your students can expect from you, and what you expect from them. Guide them through the syllabus to show your expectations. How will late work be dealt with? How will grading work? How will conflict in the classroom be handled? An effective strategy is to have the students workshop community guidelines: have your students work together to write a charter which describes how they will behave towards each other. And always explain to your students why you’re having them complete a task; doing this can help avoid a sense of being infantilized.
  • Be aware of how you can help marginalized students. Many students have had experiences which leave them emotionally and legally vulnerable. Recent studies show that at certain universities up to 30% of female students are survivors of sexual violence. That means that you need to keep in mind that there is a very high probability that several of your students (male and female) have had this experience. If a student confides in you that they have been sexually assaulted, you are legally obligated to report this to the Title IX officer at your university. Many of your students may also be undocumented, or their family members may be undocumented. These students are living with a very real threat of deportation. If a student confides in you that they are undocumented, you must not tell this to anyone else. This is an example in which maintaining confidentiality is crucial. Teachers at the university level are not necessarily (and perhaps even usually) trained to be able to give students the support which they need; instead, we have to know where to send them when they need help. So we should know what the counseling services are, and whether our university has an immigration clinic. In these cases, we must send our students to trained professionals who can help them emotionally and legally.
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AAUW’s livestream: “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism”

This morning I tuned in to — and live tweeted — a live streamed panel organized by the AAUW (American Association of University Women) on implicit bias and sexist microaggressions:  “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism.” The moderator was Soraya Chemaly, and the speakers were Abigail Lewis, Gina Torino, and C. Nicole Mason.

The panel discussed the fact that sexist behaviours against women often come in insidious, undetected forms. Sexism happens casually, unconsciously — sexist ideas are so ingrained in our culture that they feel natural, but such gender coding has long-term effects for women, their treatment by both men and women, and their opportunities for leadership.

The AAUW panel discussed some of the implications of institutional sexism, and offered some solutions. The term “microaggression” was first used by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s in the context of racial discrimination in commercial advertising, but has been expanded greatly by psychologists in recent years. Gina Torino was one of the co-authors of a highly influential academic paper, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”, which defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour (2007:271). The fact that the term originated in the study of racism and has been expanded to include sexist and classist behaviours alongside racist ones demonstrates that intersectionality is at work here.

The panelists shared their experiences of microaggressions: a male co-worker only says good morning to his male colleagues; a woman of colour is asked where the professor is when she’s the professor; another professor makes digs against women in an engineering class that is 20% women. In each case, the implicit message is: you don’t belong here, your body signals you as different from what I want or expect. Even if the person (man or woman) responsible for sending the message has no idea they are doing so. The panelists cited studies in which respondents, asked whether sexism still existed, answered “no” but still blamed women for not being more proactive in their achievements. The problem is that sexist behaviour is so prevalent that it becomes invisible. This means that women keep being silenced and excluded, and then they are blamed for their apparent incompetence. And women also blame themselves when they are at the receiving end of sexist behaviour.

The panelists also discussed strategies for communicating the problem of sexism to an audience that is inclined to deny its existence. They said that studies have shown that male listeners are likely to “circle the wagon” when confronted with reports of sexism; they double down on the status quo. The panelists suggest making changes by seeking support: find female colleagues who can validate your experiences; communicate your experiences through storytelling to male and female audiences. What doesn’t seem to work is an explicit statement of the problem — this seems generally to provoke an impulse to deny. If there is any way forward it is through persistence and through empathy — shining more light on the stories of sexism, and communicating these personally.

The AAUW also has an excellent discussion guide, which lays out how to engage in productive discussion about sexism in a formal setting. What I especially like about this guide is its care to bring muted voices into the forefront in the “community agreement”, which in many ways reminded me of WCC’s practical tips for feminist pedagogy:

  • What’s shared here stays here, but what’s learned here leaves here.
    The group agrees to confidentiality of names, but the knowledge and insight garnered will stay with them once they leave the room.
  • One speaker, one mic.
    When someone is speaking, they should not be interrupted. Everyone who would like to speak will be given the opportunity.
  • Move forward, move back.
    If you normally are the first to contribute to the conversation, considering allowing others the chance to speak. If you normally are shy, challenge yourself to share your opinions.
  • Challenge by choice.
    While everyone is encouraged to leave their comfort zones and share their thoughts, no one will be forced to share.
  • Listen to understand, not to respond.
    When others are talking, make sure you’re digesting everything they’re saying, rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak again.