pedagogy of the non-oppressed

Since I rediscovered and posted one of my favorite bell hooks quotes the other day, I have been thinking about whether her pedagogy or any of those based on Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed are actually relevant to teaching today’s American college students.

I asked this question once before, when at Marlboro College I served as sponsor of a student’s Plan (that’s Marlboro-speak for area of study/major/concentration/line of inquiry) that included the Freire-inspired theater of Augusto Boal. Examining and experimenting with the material together, the student, community, and I found that the Legislative Theatre exercises designed to give the disenfranchised poor of Rio de Janiero agency in public affairs did not automatically translate to helping the 99%-white, middle-class students at this liberal college solve their problems.

In Legislative Theatre as Boal envisioned it, actors perform a scenario for the audience in which an oppressed person encounters discrimination and/or marginalization. Audience members then substitute for the oppressed character and, through a series of improvisations, attempt to discover ways to change the circumstances of the character’s oppression. Though the exercise in this form did not lend itself to a group composed primarily of those in power, when audience members were allowed to substitute for the oppressing characters instead, they were made more aware of their power and learned to exercise it in more democratic ways. In such a way, perhaps, may an adapted pedagogy of the oppressed be made to suit the conditions of higher education today.

hooks devised the Freire-inspired pedagogy laid out in Teaching to Transgress (1995) for the students she encountered who

want [teachers] to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply seekers after compartmentalized seekers of knowledge.

17 years later, hooks’ “Promise of Multi-Cultural Change” has not come to fruition, and I’m astonished at the extent to which today’s students–not all, but most–expect and even demand that teachers be authoritative purveyors of facts rather than engaged human beings modeling an experiential way of learning. As have many other educators, I blame their helicopter parents, who, along with a secondary education system that revolves around tests and therefore defines the teacher’s job as “making sure the students have the answers,” have created a generation of college students with no idea that they haven’t actually learned to think yet and no practice doing the hard work necessary to gain real knowledge. Add to that the total saturation of consumerist values they’ve been bombarded with since birth through their unprecedented exposure to media and technology, and we’ve got students who see teachers as contractors and themselves as buyers who can and should customize the product to suit them individually.

In the hopes, however, that the only future for higher education is not the for-profit, online model, and being as persistent as ever in my belief that humanism is not dead, I cannot conform to that status quo. When conducting a search for a new faculty member, colleges and universities often request a Teaching Philosophy, but that document is rarely provided to students. Therefore I will lay out here, for prospective students either being forced to take one of my courses by their curriculum or deciding whether to take it of their own accord, the principles by which I teach.

1. I am not a patriarchal authority figure. I do not approach the material as one who has all of the answers. The best way to learn to think critically is to ask your own questions of the material and to seek out, on your own, your own answers. I model this by approaching even material I have been teaching for ten years or practicing for 20 as if it holds yet-undiscovered secrets which only an intellectual archaeological dig can uncover. I ask questions to which I do not have the answers, and this may make you uncomfortable. Here is the good news: THAT’S OKAY. Being uncomfortable does not mean you are unsafe. Being uncomfortable means you are in new territory and though you should proceed with caution, you must above all else work through the discomfort to proceed.

2. This does not mean I do not know my shit. I do.

3. I do not command respect and I do not have to earn it. Just as I respect you as a human being deserving of it unless you do something to lose that respect, in which case I will ask that you work to earn it back, I expect you to enter the room with a default of mutual respect and to participate in a social contract in which others only have to earn your respect if they do something to lose it.

4. I am not a babysitter. I will not police your behavior. If you insist on having side conversations, I will only ask you once to focus on and engage in what’s happening around you. After that I will either ignore you or ask you to leave the room. If you are unable to use your willpower to concentrate through an entire class and are unwilling to accept that what another student has to say is worth listening to and engaging with, you are unready to be in a college classroom. To the students who can concentrate and do believe that you can learn from, say, watching your classmates work a scene that you are not in, I expect you to take responsibility for your own educational experience and use peer pressure to impose higher standards of behavior upon those who would distract you from your goal.

5. I teach the arts, but I use the scientific method. Whether I am asking you to interpret or to create, I will ask you to pose an inquiry, investigate it, gather and analyze data, and reevaluate your hypothesis. And then I will probably ask you to do it again.

6. I am not one of those ever-more elusive master theater teachers who, through a lifetime of experience in the field, always have a relevant anecdote and name to drop, whatever the material. I have studied with some of these men, and they can be pretty awesome. But I’m not one of them. I will, however, use personal anecdotes to model a way of engaging with the material. I do not expect you to care about my stories; whether you do or not is actually irrelevant to me. I do expect you to perform the act of bringing yourself to the material in an equally personal way. Connecting the plays you are reading and the art you are making to your own lived experiences is the first step in encountering and interpreting the material on your own.

7. Though our personal experiences are a useful start to exploring material, they are not enough to interpret art created by others or to create art relevant to others. The next step is to understand the ways generations of received authority have interpreted and made art. If you are unwilling to look deeply into the sources of and conditions which created the material with which you are dealing, you will never be able to make it meaningful in the here and now.

8. Once you have both investigated the material as a unique individual and consumed as much of the received knowledge on the subject as you can in several sittings, you will be prepared to ask the biggest questions of all: what in this material is NOT us, what is NOT a part of some Western conception of the universal but is rather OTHER? To what extent must you, despite your personal connection and exhaustive analysis of the text, also use your IMAGINATION to understand this material and embody the other within it? Is there, in fact, an other or has she been elided all together? Can you use your imagination to see the invisible ways in which power and privilege are at play in this version of this particular story? Can you, therefore, imagine telling this story in a way that creates freedom?

And that’s about it. Discipline, rigor, individualism, and imagination. If you can bring all these things to our classroom, there’s a gold star in it for you. Oh, and you’ll also get the ability to live a self- and socially-aware life in which you use critical thinking to solve problems.

Photo of Freire looking like a patriarchal authority figure via the Paulo Freire Institute

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