Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sabbatical Post: Look, a White Lady on Sabbatical!

As in the tale of Odysseus and the sirens, whites often fail to run the risk of being truly touched by the Other, exposed to the Other’s voice, narrative, and experiences. Odysseus wanted to hear the Sirens and yet play it safe. He wanted to be affected by them without risking fundamental transformation through a radical act of exposure. ”
––George Yancy, Look, a White!

One joy I’ve experienced while on sabbatical has been discovering a bounty of theoretical frameworks regarding whiteness and new vocabulary for the set of structural and behavioral practices that term describes. For white teachers, such as myself, it should now be easier than ever to enter uncomfortable but nevertheless necessary conversations about the impact our whiteness has on students.

Among the radically expansive thinkers who are developing these conversational pathways are George Yancy, an African American philosopher who provided the epigraph above. In his compelling book Look, a White!, Yancy asks that we* “flip the script” in our thinking about racism. Rather than focus on people of color when we think about race, he wants us to thoroughly, philosophically, and honestly interrogate our own social, cultural, political, and economic positioning.

This is a corrective to the misconception that because racism is an immense and on-going problem for people of color, the problem is theirs to solve. Racism belongs to white people and to achieve social transformation, Yancy says, we must be willing look deeply at the myths and fantasies (many unnamed and unrecognized) that allow us to continue to benefit from race privilege at people of colors’ expense.

“I encourage whites to dwell in spaces that make them deeply uncomfortable,” Yancy writes, “to stay with the multiple forms of agony that black people endure from them, especially those whites who deny the ways in which they are complicit in the operations of white racism. I want them to delay the hypothetical questions, to postpone their reach beyond the present. Reaching too quickly for hope can elide the importance of exposure.”

He asks white people “to tarry,” slowing our responses while sitting with all that arises when our own racial and ethnic identities are named, problematized, and analyzed, something that people of color in the United States must contend with daily.

There is a growing body of mindfulness practices that may allow white people to fulfill Yancy’s request. Utilizing these can help us avoid the sometimes overwhelming urge to flee, hide, or deny when we look at our status and privilege. Ruth King’s Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out is one such book, one that came highly recommended, and that I look forward to reading soon.

In the meantime, books such as, Historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of WhitePeople, Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latino’s, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, Tapo Chimbganda’s The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytic Paradigms for Social Justice, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, have helped me understand that while whiteness is a biological fiction, it nevertheless materially affects the world and shapes everyone it in it, including the individual psyches of white teachers, such as myself, and all the students we serve.

These new-to-me methods for looking at whiteness and the fresh language these books provide for naming its impacts seemed unavailable to me the last time I invested this deeply and explicitly in social justice work. That was more than two decades ago in New York City during the AIDS crisis.

I recall white activists attempting to work with people of color from inside a certainty that all our assumptions were correct. We were overly invested in these perceptions and overly confident in our analysis, arising from what was an unconscious, but nevertheless powerful, belief in the objectivity of our perspective combined with a natural intelligence. 

All our proposed actions built from this broken place. But it couldn’t have been clearer; despite the crushing effects of homophobia, white gay men and people of color, including gay people of color, experienced the AIDS crisis differently. We just didn’t think that mattered, and we white activists knew best, or so we thought.

I saw that we disappointed and even betrayed the trust of the people of color groups with whom we tried to form coalitions. I witnessed one such group walk away. We, somehow, were bewildered when they did.

In light of all this, the best any individual white activist could do was attempt to prove our goodness despite the racism we knew existed somewhere out there, beyond what we thought was our own realm of agency or responsibility. This often meant some other white person in the room needed to be identified as the bad white, if only to preserve the myth of our individual innocence.

In her book White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, DiAngelo attributes this dynamic to white people’s false understanding of racism. If we think about racism at all, most white people see it as grounded in the individual acts of bad people. In so doing, we cut off conversations about its deeply rooted structural elements, elements which normalize and privilege our own experiences.

DiAngelo’s book is about the many unconscious strategies white people have developed for cutting off conversation, thus, avoiding accountability and responsibility for the oppression from which we benefit (regardless of how much we also suffer from it in other forms). In this way, structural racism continues to flourish, diminishing the lives of people of color, and deeply thwarting our own humanity too.

Back in the nineties, though, white activists seemed to have nowhere to go with the peculiar mix of blindness, aggression, and shame, which is also common to our people at this time, in this place. That’s why two little words “white fragility” are so precious to me today. To name a thing is to know a thing, to bring it forward even as it does its best to stay unnamed, unseen, and unconsidered.

As DiAngelo says, “[R]ather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity––a necessary antidote to white fragility.”

My hope it that in examining my own whiteness and how it functions within my school and the larger systems within which it too operates, I will be better able to engage in richer more meaningful dialogues with students, teachers, and administrators alike and fulfill my teaching responsibilities more effectively.

Chimbganda encourages teachers to draw on the messy dynamics of transference and counter-transference to help navigate such challenges. Her book on the interplay between classrooms, social justice, and psychoanalysis, is especially good at laying out the psychological dynamics and consequences of keeping parts of ourselves unexamined and in the shadows. When coupled with racist ideologies and structures, the damage this does to us as children, and by extension the adults we become and the societies we develop, is immeasurable. Hers is the most profound book I have ever read about teaching and learning, and I hope everyone I know reads it.

The shadow’s presence in an educational context means we rarely-to-never name the actual dynamics of an individual campus. In the case of the school where I work, most faculty and administrators are white and most students are not. This is true despite the fact that study after study indicates students of color find greater support and connection, and, ultimately, success through educators and curriculum that mirror and reflect their own ethnic experiences. 

Chimbganda captures it like this, “Within these systems even a microcosm of empowerment was enough to make a difference in the outcome of these children and this is what I seek to highlight as the most valued asset of education in relation to social justice.”

Likewise, study after study also shows white students benefit from the presence of faculty of color, who seem to more consistently build good learning relationships with their students. But we haven't talked much about what this means for us as white instructors, and I think it would illuminate a lot about our teaching practices if we did.

It’s easy to see that the hiring practices on my campus arise from the larger societal inequities within which it operates. Another of these is the fact that most instructors on my campus are part-time, hardworking people who are paid less per hour than I am for doing the same work. Their status and working conditions also affect students’ learning. But this structural inequity is another that rarely gets reflected upon when we examine, as we do more and more frequently, data meant to tell us all we need to know about student success and failure.

Data and its uses, misuses, and the myths it supports are at the heart of the Ochoa’s book on the dangers of what she names "academic profiling," which is related to "stereotype threat," something social psychologist Claude Steele has written a lot about. 

By focusing on data, educational institutions can appear to drill down into foundational truths about learning and success without ever addressing what affects them most: power and inequality.

Ochoa’s book is a lengthy and powerful case study of the very “Southern California High School” from which she graduated. In it she names that phenomena as a “power evasive discourse,” showing how it limits system-wide transformation and blinds teachers to their students’ actual lives, abilities, beauty, and fullness, condemning everyone involved to the same outcomes and unrealized potential.

“In such climates, the needs of students are overlooked,” Ochoa writes, describing a system where “technical” and “aesthetic” solutions to perceived gaps are prioritized over inter-relationship. “[W]here the impersonal and standardized are privileged over personal connections and human affection. This type of ‘aesthetic’ schooling is ‘subtractive’ and often divests students from what they know and experience.”

However, when educators and schools open themselves to “power aware” discussions, Ochoa says, they are better equipped to hear what students have to offer and what they actually need. From here our ability to respond in a human, heartfelt, and meaningful way increases.

My hope is that once my sabbatical is completed, and I return to my campus and the classroom spaces where I operate with all my promise and also all my flaws, I am able to live up to the wisdom, beauty, and humane practices these scholars have uncovered and named. The language they’ve developed to do so is a treasure, one that should be shared.

* Though this post is meant for every reader who’s willing to make their way through it, I’ve used the collective “we” throughout to refer to myself and my white peers. In doing so, I hope to make an identity that is often unnamed, and consequently hard to see, more visible to myself and my readers.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Reading Like This

“I am left bereft of both pleasure and satisfaction, and yet I cannot stop trying to figure it all out. Jouissance works in a similar way. It is a driving force that brings with it regret and pain even as one seeks for more. Jouissance maintains an illusion of mastery. If I keep writing, if I keep studying, if I keep researching, I will somehow beat racism. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytical Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

Thank God, I had the opportunity to teach a stand-alone reading class last semester. It seems it’s only when we teach something we truly learn it. Somehow I’d completed college and two graduate programs without the reading strategies necessary to integrate what I’ve been learning during my sabbatical project, which you can learn more about here.

Reading texts thick with unfamiliar concepts and fresh ideas has become an almost physical experience. I open these books, pencil in hand, pacing my reading rate by the marks it makes. As I go, the pencil underlines, questions, and fills margins with stars, exclamation points, and connecting thoughts and comments. Rather than merely listening to an author, the experience is akin to having a conversation with them. They make statements, and my pencil offers its emoji-like responses.

Each writer’s words flow through and across my own consciousness triggering subtle neurological responses. A brain cell alights and suddenly an idea on one page connects to another in a novel way. Like a magic-trick, terms I’d never come across suddenly describe things I’ve often seen in my own world but had left unnamed. Therefore, what had only moments before been nearly invisible to me crystalizes into a tangible and meaningful shape. It’s humbling, enlivening, and thrilling all at once to experience this sensation page after page––concepts that explain learning conditions I’ve worked within for all my professional life, but have never been able to truly understand, come fully and freshly into view.

Without sabbatical, I’m not sure I could expand my thinking with such freedom and abandon. Had my sabbatical not been granted, I would have had to cram this kind of intense study into a semester break (which are longer than most professionals’ and for which I remain ever grateful).
But unbeknownst to me, such cramming narrows what I’d be able to take from what I read.

With one eye on the calendar, I would feel pressure to pull out only those ideas that applied directly to what I’d be teaching next. Even more limiting, I think I’d unconsciously reject ideas counter to what I was already doing in my classrooms. Taking in a radically new perspective is almost impossible if one lacks the time and space necessary for the reinvention and integration that are a meaningful idea’s natural consequence.

And because much of what I’m reading describes system-wide structural phenomena that hurts students (and by extension society), it will ultimately, require collective degrees of change to ameliorate, meaning it requires changes in my classrooms, yes, but far beyond it as well. When I return to campus, I will need to attend to both, which means I must be in community with others to create transformation.

A sabbatical framework means I’m meant to think this broadly. Certainly keeping in mind my campus, a rural community college on the southern end of the Silicon Valley, and my role on it but also education as a whole and its larger purposes, imagining alongside others what it might be and become.

Surprisingly, I’m finding this expansiveness invites greater clarity and precision instead of less. I find I see both a general context and a particular place with greater distinction. I now recognize there are patterns in the ways educators are being pushed to name problems and solutions on our campus. It isn’t that California has suddenly and magically aligned with the top-down reforms also happening in other states. Rather, my college like every other campus in the US, and maybe even all over the developed world, is being pushed toward certain types of educational solutions because global business and political interests want it that way and not because that is what is best or most humane for students and workers alike.

The thinkers I’m now engaging offer alternative perspectives and a critique of solutions being promoted across the nation and on my home campus as well. However, I find my brain isn’t as nimble or as masterful as it once was at retaining new ideas. That’s where last term’s reading class also comes into play. I know what needs to happen in order to integrate the thoughts of writers and scholars as varied as Chimbganda (quoted above) George Yancy, and Gilda Ochoa. It’s all in the reading strategies I taught last term.

Here’s what I’m doing to make it most likely that what I’m reading won’t disappear into a gaseous vagueness once I put a book down.

As described above, I read with pencil in hand. I mark key ideas and anything that excites me (only sometimes ever the same thing) by using explanation points, stars, or simply a check mark in the margin between paragraph and page’s edge. Sometimes, if I’m unfamiliar with a term, introduced to a person I don’t know, or a new concept I circle it. Often by page’s end, these have become clearer and are already entering my own vocabulary. Sometimes not. Nevertheless, I carry on, reading at a pace slightly quicker than feels entirely comfortable. Counter intuitively, that’s what makes it most likely I’ll be able to makes sense of what I read.

Occasionally, I slow down enough to make a small comment about what I’ve read, noting how one idea relates to another in a different text or even something I’ve experienced or heard first-hand.

Often, I underline something in order not to lose it, sometimes half a paragraph or more at a time. What I really want to hold close, I box up with my pencil, so it sits on the page bounded on all sides. Sometimes a portion of the page is boxed and dancing with explanation points and also stars because for me the words are burning with power. They’ve become precious to me, and my marks signify their vibrant energy and make it easier to find when I need to share them with a friend.

And then there are those ideas that seem so vital, so important, so filled with a potential to make education better, to free not only students but teachers too, that I mark them with a heart––a heart to signify what I hope stays with me for decades of teaching to come.

One text, then another. A new dialogue between writer and reader arises. A fresh voice enters my conscious, and I sense the old author’s voice drifting away––still a part of a background melody, perhaps, but the lyrics no longer as fierce as they had been only hours ago. I know I’m in danger of being unable to share what I’ve learned with the integrity required. For this there is only one solution––the annotated bibliography.

I’ve adapted this old composition classroom form in the following way: I write an overview of the text, then talk about how it applies to the sabbatical project as a whole. Next, I pull out important points in ways that follow the path of the book. Finally, I include the quotes and ideas that meant most to me. In typing these out, word-for-word, I find the author’s voice becomes distinct and sticky once again.

I wish I could say this was a quick process. But hours of work go into these bibliographies. Some are only a page or two, but a dense text like CharlesMann’s 1491, with its dozens of facts per paragraph, grew to 20 pages.

To complete an annotated bibliography, it’s not enough to read the text once marking as I go. I have to skim each book a second time, sometimes even a third, reframing each page in one or two key phrases that chart an author’s line of thinking across sections and chapters. This is what allows me to retranslate their ideas it into my own words. It is in this way, that these finally and thoroughly integrate into my consciousness, and I see more clearly how they relate to other parts of the sabbatical project.

It’s tedious. It’s time-consuming. It’s delicious. And I very much look forward with sharing the results of this labor with you.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Love & Learning

“I am aware that I tend to romanticize education. It is my chosen object; the longest and most beneficial relationship to which I have ever committed. I hate when teachers corrupt education because I simply love school. I love its ideals and values. I believe in its promises. Even though I have endured much emotional and physical trauma throughout my schooling, usually perpetuated by teachers who did not understand how or why I value education, I still hold education to be true and good. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytic Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

It is ever more evident to me, as it is to many others, the energy of love itself is supportive of, maybe even critical to learning.

My own best teachers introduced me to the following idea; a loving environment is recognizable by the presence of three distinct elements:
  • Safety (physical, emotional, and spiritual)
  • Validation and acceptance (no one is trying to “fix” anyone else)
  • Inter-relationship and connectedness (to people, shared activities, and texts)

Since being introduced to this working definition of love, I’ve found it useful in surveying my own classrooms for love's presence. My assumption being, that when love is in the room tensions ease and learning deepens.

Love is a kind of nutrient, feeding students and teachers alike. It allows for greater intellectual and creative risks, and it provides a sense of purpose and hope when the other less pleasing and inevitable aspects of learning arise––challenge, discomfort, and threat. After all, in order to integrate new ideas, we often have to let go what we already believe to be true. That’s seldom pleasant, especially if it brushes up against what we call the self.

Chimbganda, a Canadian psychotherapist and educator, who is quoted above, has a lot to say about these dynamics. She doesn’t shy away from the idea that aggression is naturally present in educational environments, but she also highlights the harmful ways aggression plays out in classrooms where historical, social, and political inequities are also part of the picture.

For example, at the rural community college where I teach most instructors and administrators are white, as am I, but most of our students are people of color. Nevertheless, we seldom explicitly reflect on how that might be affecting our campus or our classrooms. Part of this sabbatical project will be to better understand these dynamics and to look for ways to mitigate their harms.

Considering love’s three elements is one way for me to start a conversation.

At one time, it felt simple to believe my students and I were physically safe during a class, but the proliferation of guns and a more fearful and divided nation have lessened my sense that our campus is safe. Still, in order to teach, I must proceed from the assumption that in any given moment, at least, my students and I can grant each other physical safety.

To attain emotional safety, we must first become a community. This takes time to establish. Naming our purpose, forming and then agreeing to communication norms, experiencing classroom rituals, such as regular periods of freewriting, mindfulness, and movement between activities calm brain and body. 

This promotes a positive learning environment, especially as ideas and relationships get more complicated, as they are bound to do the more time we spend with each other and commit to our work.

The presence of emotional safety, however, doesn’t mean everyone is guaranteed constant emotional comfort. Learning is difficult. People are complicated. Teachers sometimes suffer for it. So do students. It helps when people are allowed to ask for what they need while being held accountable to a group’s larger purpose, a purpose the group itself collaborates in naming before the inevitable difficulties arise.

It also helps to remember we have choice. No one can make another person learn something. It’s never worked that way, even when we organize our schools and classrooms as if forced learning is possible, even preferable to a more collaborative approach.

Especially at the community college level, safety can sometimes be established simply by reminding ourselves, we chose to enter this classroom together, and it is possible to leave at any time.

Because of some specialized training I’ve had in trauma informed practices, I now invite rather than demand students engage in particular activities. “Are you willing?” I often ask them. Sometimes extending the question to include, “Are you willing to fail?” It’s meant as invitation, not threat. I find the more failure becomes possible, so do the joys that arise from creation.

Asking, “Are you willing?” reminds everyone, I can’t make students do anything they don’t want to. I can only work with them to set the conditions where desire and willingness bloom despite the specific barriers we each bring to the room.

In my profession, there is a long tradition of teachers claiming commitment to an asset model. In theory, this means we actively embrace and recognize students’ specific intellectual and expressive gifts.

But teaching is hard and often emotionally so. Chimbganda speaks of teaching as an “impossible” profession, one that largely happens through the complicated realm of human emotions, which are sometimes only marginally connected to class content. Teachers and students alike are swimming in feeling as they make through various assignments and some of those feelings are attached to social, economic, and political marginalization.

At my school, for example, we teachers still easily fall into speaking about multi-lingual students as problems for us. Most of us are untrained in helping fix the particular sorts of errors they make in their writing. We feel like failures, and we focus on flaws (theirs and ours) rather than on the fact they these students are generally far more language fluid than us teachers and that such fluidity is a tangible benefit in and out of the classroom.

As with all things, it’s easier to identify the finite way in which something isn’t working than the infinite ways it may be working well. Such distinctions become especially stark at institutions like mine where there is ethnic and racial segregation between the people serving and the people being served.

Old ideas about who writes well and who lacks what are perpetuated within this structure, therefore, the expressive and linguistic bounty in our classrooms goes unnamed and the students unseen. 

But if I don’t see my students, I can’t understand them, and if I can’t understand them, I won’t ever recognize them for all that they are and all that they hold. This lessens the chance our classroom community (much less the institution as a whole) will ever become inclusive and strong. 

If this sabbatical project has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t see my students half as well as I thought I did.

Books like Chimbganda’s alongside Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi and other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, sre helping me confront the limitations of my own perspective and understand why it’s necessary to acknowledge my limitations when working with students of color. That acknowledgement alone can validate a student’s experience.

My background closely mirrors that which the academy most values. My speaking and writing arise from its preferred linguistic and cultural practices. But these represent only one strand among many possible discourses. My students usually have a broader perspective and are engaged in many more possibilities each day. They speak languages I don’t, understand the world in ways I can’t name, and have experiences outside of what I can imagine.

If we can learn to name and welcome their viewpoints, realities, and earned wisdom the academy will benefit. They can help an old structure become more expansive, fluid, and useful to society in a time of great upheaval and change.

Perhaps, there will be no mastery here for me as a teacher; the sabbatical project is large and keeps growing and I feel more unsettled the deeper I go. I don’t yet know what any of it will mean for how I teach once I return to the classroom come spring. But I do see these questions are enlivening my sense of what may be.

I write this post in hopes that love will remain at the foundation of what I do and that the classrooms I enter will generate more of it.