An Upsurge of Questioning and Critique: toward a Community of Critical Pedagogy

Be kind. Pay attention. Tell stories. Invite stories. Show you care. Don’t be afraid of love. Close doors when they need to be closed. Keep doors open when they need to be kept open, even if keeping them open is hard on your heart.

An Upsurge of Questioning and Critique: toward a Community of Critical Pedagogy

My most valued colleague and mentor was a 60-something Southern woman. She had spent more than two dozen years working in state and federal government—short-statured and kind—surrounded by blustering Southern white men certain of their own power. At the time I knew her, Dottie was my musician husband’s manager, having agreed to take on that unfamiliar work entirely out of her love for him, when he was but an upstart with grand dreams and ambitions.

Dottie had a glint in her eye always. Of mischief, of steely determination, of profound curiosity, of keen insight. She could walk into a room, or a meeting, or a confrontation, and with silent patience assess the temperature and temper of the moment, and depending on what was needed, offer a disarming smile, a conscientious nod, a well-considered “hm” or “Well…” She was the least assuming person at the table, and also the keenest strategist.

The music industry—my husband’s work for 25 years—is a hard, unkind environment bloated by its own sense of importance, its wealth, and the posturing of its biggest names. (Not dissimilar from academia, on its worst days.) Dottie was a mystery to music executives and celebrities alike, with her sincerity, her step-aside-ness, her capacity and desire to remember people’s kids’ names. They might have been able to stereotype her as a grandmotherly type—or as a harmless Southern charmer who could mend disagreements and make everyone feel better—but for her ability to just as easily put her foot down, or firmly close a door.

Dottie taught me the most important things I know about doing business with people. Be kind. Pay attention. Tell stories. Invite stories. Show you care. Don’t be afraid of love. Close doors when they need to be closed. Keep doors open when they need to be kept open, even if keeping them open is hard on your heart.

These are lessons in pedagogy, too.

There has been, of late, a lot of talk about centers of teaching and learning, digital innovation centers, and efforts to grapple with the emergent nature of the educational profession and practice. Academics of a certain shade are padding down desire lines toward a future where learning and progressive digital education might leave its paddock and find its space upon the wider pasture of higher education. Many of these efforts, though, look and feel like paddocks themselves, circumscribed around professionalism, administrative power or vision, closed by the choice of their constituency even in their testament of openness.

If leaders choose groups of leaders, if those groups publish upon their pedigree in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Times Higher Ed, &c, then they will be hard put to magnify their purpose through an allegiance with education’s lesser privileged: students, adjuncts, “drop outs,” instructional designers—those without access, without committees, without the funding to network, without the key cards necessary to open certain doors. Change kept at high levels—change which doesn’t include, but makes obsequious gestures towards, those who lack the privilege to debate change—cannot be productive except to elevate higher the privileged and further disenchant those who most need change to occur.

Change, in other words, cannot be accomplished with a coffee klatsch, no matter how well-funded by a Mellon grant.

Maxine Greene writes that conscientization—that critical consciousness that alerts us to our agency, and that spurs us to intervene in the world—to make change— “is only available to those capable of reflecting on their own situationality” (102). If we find ourselves finally capable of that reflection only when or if we clear a certain pay band, or are granted a certain title, or are invited into the right rooms (rooms too often unlocked by respectability politics), then what of those who remain outside those rooms, who cannot—or refuse to—participate in respectability, those without the titles, those underpaid?

Doesn’t leadership in education also include the adjunct who offers their time to an online community college student? Doesn’t leadership include a student who conscientiously objects to Turnitin? If leadership in education has to include a 3D printer, an Oculus Rift, a budget to hold “summits” and attend conferences, then I fear there are too many leaders being left out.

Quoting Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Greene writes:

Praxis cannot be the viewed as the project of any single individual. Rather, it is “the cluster of relations of an ideology, a technique, and a movement of productive forces, each involving the others and receiving support from them, each, in its time, playing a directive role that is never exclusive, and all, together, producing a qualified phase of social development.” (99)

In other words, change requires movement across many lives, the weaving together of multiple and unexpected intelligences, and a radical inclusivity that is bound to make uncomfortable those who issue the call, that disrupts the disruptors, that leaves humbled leadership. It’s not that a community formed around inclusion must aim to unsettle and unseat, but rather that the myriad diversity that answers the call will necessarily yield the unexpected. A multitude will never be of a single mind; but it is a multitude, by Merleau-Ponty’s accounting, which is the only means toward change.

Similarly, Jesse Stommel has written about critical digital pedagogy, that praxis:

  • must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
  • will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices.

Cultivating these many voices to realize a praxis is an ongoing project. I wrote recently to a friend affected by the recent UCU strike in England:

There are times when a critical pedagogy refuses to be merely theoretical. It is a tradition that comes out of a concern for labor, for the agency of those doing labor, and the perspicacity inherent behind that agency. The imagination is not an impractical facility at all, not a dreamer’s tool only, but a precision instrument that delivers a certainty that things can be otherwise; and in the face of circumstances that are unfair, the imagination gives us insight into what is just.

Similarly, though, the imagination asks us to consider justice an evolutionary project, if not an asymptote we will never quite reach, a process more than a destination. “The role of the imagination,” Greene tells us, “is not to resolve, not to point the way, not to improve. It is to awaken, to disclose the ordinary unseen, unheard, and unexpected.” Each new dialogue around justice leads to new insights, new confrontations, new inventions, and each new dialogue necessarily also uncovers old hurts, systemic injustices, and offenses nested within un-inspected assumptions and behaviors.

It is with this in mind that I find myself so often blinking into a teacher’s or administrator’s assertions about grading, or plagiarism, or taking attendance, or just “making sure they do it.” There are undetected injustices riding under our teaching policies, the teaching we received, and the teaching we deliver.

There are likewise injustices riding under so many attempts to gather in our circles of prestige. To enact a just agency, we must step outside those circles into unexpected places. “An upsurge of questioning and critique must first occur,” Greene insists, “experiences of shock are necessary if the limits or the horizons are to be breached” (101).

In her time in the music industry, Dottie was both that presence who did not arrive with the keys to the doors that needed opening, and that essential, unconsidered voice that spoke honesty and sincerity in an industry that did not truck with either. By learning from her, I have learned to look outside the door for those who must be let in, and I likewise have come to recognize when I am not the one inside the room, part of the discussion, a voice in the decision. And, like Dottie, I usually decide to raise my voice regardless.

It is perhaps odd to think the gathering I direct has its roots in the ethos of that bewitching Southern lady, but Digital Pedagogy Lab is founded upon values of hospitality, openness, agency, freedom, kindness, and a community that knows—or wants to know—when to put its foot down. The community at the Lab is open to everyone, and seeks to offer not only a place for stimulating dialogue and action, but for reflection and introspection.

This year, nearly 20% of the participants at Digital Pedagogy Lab will attend for free. We don’t have a Mellon grant. The Gates Foundation hasn’t found us. Instead, these folks will attend for free due to the generosity of our teachers—some of whom donated back their teaching stipends to make room for people who couldn’t attend otherwise—and to the kindness of donors who gifted scholarships. They're attendance is also possible because the event reinvests its revenue every year back into its participants, providing more fellowships at each new event than at previous events.

It’s my belief that the Lab must be a place where a cacophony of voices can be heard, where an upsurge of questioning and critique is the mode of the day. And to make this happen, no door is left unopened. If praxis “signifies a thinking about and an action on reality” (98), then Digital Pedagogy Lab seeks to be praxis, and to make change through the movement of productive forces, new insights, new confrontations, new inventions. All gathered together in matching tee-shirts.

unsplash-logoPhoto by Sam Beasley