Hospitality and Agency

Derrida starts us off.

It is as though we were going from one difficulty to another. Better or worse, and more seriously, from impossibility to impossibility. It is as though hospitality were the impossible: as though the law of hospitality defined this very impossibility, as if it were only possible to transgress it, sa though the law of absolute, unconditional, hyperbolical hospitality, as though the categorical imperative of hospitality commanded … that the ‘new arrival’ be offered an unconditional welcome.
Let us say yes to who or what turns up…

I have never found much comfort in Derrida. Even in his speaking about hospitality, his language is inhospitable, hard to read, concerned with theory that demands action; but that action never comes, unless delivered as a lecture. I do love Derrida. I find his ideas stirring and his perspective on the world off by just the right fraction so that it challenges us and sheds light. But I struggled to find the compassion behind his intellect. Do these words of his inspire the handshake, the embrace, the hospitable abandon they demand?

I wrote recently, in a blog post called “Tobacco and Patchouli: Writing about Teaching”, that:

To teach, we must believe in the potential of each person in the room. Unwaveringly. This is not to say we don’t get to have our bad days, our off days, the days when we really can’t stand to talk to another student or plan another lesson. But it does mean that we teach for a reason, and that reason lies in what lies in the heart of a student. What lay in our hearts when we were students. Hope despair melancholy desire passion hunger confusion. All the things it takes to learn to walk. All the things it takes to learn to do anything.

Critical pedagogy demands a lot of us. It demands we walk away from our assumptions about how teaching and learning happen. It demands that we question the teaching we received. It demands we listen. Sometimes, it demands we step aside from our own identity to make room for the identity of a student struggling far more than we are—but just as hard as we once did—to find their identity. Critical pedagogy requires a radical hospitality.

And yet the very notion of hospitality implies a host, someone who is offering space, someone who makes the plan, invites, sets the table. Hospitality requires that a center be established before anything else can happen. It requires occasion, and to some degree, authority. A classroom requires a teacher because the teacher understands, to quote myself, “more in its entirety the circumference of the community.” The host knows the occasion from which transpires hospitality. Saying “yes to who or what shows up” requires first that a place be determined for that showing up.

In education, that space is most usually the classroom, and today, the learning management system. But what has happened in the classroom is something beyond sending the invitation and setting the table. Education has become a party game with too many rules.

I wish we would suspend our need for learning objectives. I wish we would suspend the temptation to align lessons and assessments to outcomes. I wish we would stop talking about scaffolding. Maybe these apparatuses have something to do with learning and teaching (by my own principles, I have to admit they may). But I wish we could step aside from them—because they prevent discovery, they sanitize and make learning predictable in ways that make us deeply comfortable. Best practices such as these orchestrate learning over much.

But we must recall: “hope despair melancholy desire passion hunger confusion.” Learning is uncomfortable. It exposes our soft underbellies. And teaching must address this. If our rubrics can account for whomever shows up, if our learning objectives can do that, then we should employ them. If they do not, if they cannot, they must be reconsidered.

No one likes it when I say that. We are tied to our way of doing things, our way of seeing education. We are bound to these, and having been bound to them for so long, we’ve grown used to them. But being accustomed to a thing does not make it useful.

If he is adamant about anything, Paulo Freire is adamant about refusing the notion that our situations are unchangeable, that our systems are not only complete but also that they determine the outcome of our work, our histories, and our identities. If I say that I am a teacher who uses the LMS, if I say I am a teacher who must create learning outcomes, who must grade, if I say I am a teacher whose students do not trust him or who only learn from lectures or who do not want to take ownership for their learning—and yet I want to do or believe differently—then I am settling for a reality that is not just. And that is distinctly uncritical.

When we do because we are told to do, or because we have inherited a kind of doing from our teachers or parents or from society, or we assume that doing it this way or that way has been proven to be most effective, or, worse, we wait upon the news of what is best to do coming from our governments, our administrations, Silicon Valley, the keynote at a conference, then we surrender our agency to learn for ourselves the material substance and nature of our reality and can no longer take it upon ourselves to change, to do, as best suits our wisdom and identity. And if teachers surrender their agency, they can only teach students to do the same.

Over and over we have surrendered our agency—to the modern myths of behavioral psychology, neurology, “learning styles,” and more. Audrey Watters writes, in “The History of the Future of Learning Objects and Intelligent Machines,”

What we know about knowing is not settled. It never has been. And neither neuroscience nor brain scans, for example, move us any closer to that. After all, “learning” isn’t simply about an individual’s brain or even body. “Learning” – or maybe more accurately “learnedness” – is a signal; it’s a symbol; it’s a performance. As such, it’s judged by and through and with all sorts of cultural values and expectations, not only those that we claim to be able to measure. What do you know? How do you know? Who do you know?

Learning is complicated, multivalent and multi-layered, and our understanding of it should always be evolving. But not evolving toward an understanding that can claim mastery, not toward an understanding that will define learning finally and for the last time and perfectly. Our first mistake is to assume that because something sounds reasonable, sounds like it will work, rings true of the ways we’ve seen students behave, that it is reasonable, will work, is the way students behave. And we make that assumption, we choose to believe what research tells us about learning because we have forgotten the original lie: that students are a population to control.

When we choose to believe that lie, we do not only surrender our agency to actually teach, we erase agency from the conversation altogether. We no longer have freedom, nor can we any longer assume accountability.

Agency lies in the balance between freedom and accountability. It is not wholly one, nor the other. It does not, cannot discount the relationships we maintain of respect, confidence in another's knowing, or the responsibility that comes with authority. But it also does not yield the capacity of critical inquiry that is the hallmark of liberated life. And so agency is more than choice, but not always more than collaboration. It is rebellion, but it is always also nurture. Freire says directly that the oppressed must free the oppressor as much as themselves in order to overcome oppression. An unwillingness to do so, an inability to make real the balance of criticality and kindness, results in another oppression, and no one is freed.

Critical inquiry, then, is a conversation always, an hospitable one.

Hospitality may begin with a host, but it continues with those who show up. But not in actions of politeness and etiquette—in critical inquiry. When we find ourselves at an occasion, or in the presence of an authority who has laid out the ground rules for our time together, we must ask: Where have we arrived? What is the occasion? What is expected of me, and what is fair? Is this a space where I am free, or is this a space where control has overwhelmed collaboration? Who will I show up as, and am I ready to welcome whomever else shows up? Will I become a model for participation—whether by joining the games, changing their rules, or disrupting them—and how does my agency as a participant affect and balance with the agency of everyone else?

These are questions students should ask when they see a syllabus, when they are invited to complete an assignment, when they enter the LMS, agree to use a digital tool, or when they are considering a university for study. And educators should ask these questions of their professional organizations, the conferences we attend, the committees we belong to, and even of the profession itself. Elision of these questions, or the space to ask these questions, is oppressive, and does not lead to the kind of critical collaboration that frees agency to take the floor.

Let us move from impossibility to impossibility together, rather than move together with side-eyes and rubrics. We must recognize the spaces we occupy, the occasions we act from, and the communities that accompany us in the work we do. We must make our conversations critical inquiry, our collegiality liberatory, and our respect for one another impressive and irresistible, excited and sanguine.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash