On Love, Critical Pedagogy, and the Work We Must Do

Pedagogy is a felt practice more than an intellectual one. The same holds for scholarship.

On Love, Critical Pedagogy, and the Work We Must Do

“A humanizing education is the path through which men and women can become conscious about their presence in the world. The way they act and think when they develop all of their capacities, taking into consideration their needs, but also the aspirations and needs of others.”
~ Paulo Freire and Frei Betto, 1985

Pedagogy is a felt practice more than an intellectual one. The same holds for scholarship. This offends the sensibility of the academic, whose merit relies upon rigor, whose first language is the language of the rational mind. The more education we receive, the less we rely on those impulses which first drew us toward education: curiosity, need, an urgent passion, bonds of love. The more education we receive, the more distant we become from the emotions which preoccupied us in our youth. This the academy sees as a sign of maturity, of readiness for a career, and in return for our rationality, we receive credibility.

But credibility is only a reward of hubris. In the face of what we do not know about the human mind, the human heart, the human life, any of the credibility that we are granted by our audience or institutions must not be worn, but set aside.

Here at the end of the Digital Pedagogy Lab - Cairo Institute, it is my heart that is more exhausted than my mind. Over the course of these very few days, deeply embedded in an international culture that is new for me and vital, I have come to love the faces that have surrounded me, that have smiled and frowned and squinted in confusion and gaped in sudden comprehension. My fifteen years of experience in digital learning are less than a drop next to the sea of collective wisdom in the rooms I’ve occupied at American University in Cairo. I’ve shown tools, discussed pedagogy, consulted on practical application, led conversations, and given a shared keynote. From an outside perspective, all of this would look like teaching. But I have not taught here, I’ve accompanied.

I have been more affected than I have effected. I have no power to make the suggestions and ideas I’ve presented stick. When they go home to their institutions, the burden of applying their learning to their work will rest on the shoulders of those who shared the space of our classroom. What I’ve said may spur good work and collaborations, or it may disappear, may wash away, may inevitably fade. But the rough disorientation of the love I’ve felt for the people here has altered me. I’ve learned from their enthusiasm, their passion, their need, their bonds with each other in ways that will not fade. I’ve been inaugurated into a community even as I sought to share my own.

Love, patience, kindness, humility, truth — we don’t often talk about these things in the academy. Even those of us who eschew discussion of “efficiency” and “effectiveness” in favor of “empowerment” often stop short of genuine affection. But education, at its core, is an act of love — it seeks to empower as its very nature. And this care fuels our desire to help each other become full agents in our own right. ~ Editors at Hybrid Pedagogy

What occurs when we decide that agency and not expertise is the core principle of learning is that we must, as teachers, learn to see the very best in students. This doesn’t mean leaving behind the intellectual, the rigorous, or our expertise, but it means not leading with these. Instead, we lead with attention, capacity, and a spaciousness toward the people in the room that can easily find analogue in the emotional approach we take to those we love.

Love in pedagogical work is an orientation. It’s a commitment to the personhood of learners, to their intersectionality, to their deep emotional backgrounds, to the authenticity of their lives. It is a decision to commit first to the community of learners and second to the material we’ve come to teach. When we speak about love in pedagogical work, we suspend our habitual talk about assessment, content, educational technology, plagiarism, compliance. We do not need to eliminate that talk, but when we return to it after orienting ourselves to a pedagogy of care, it is no longer habitual talk—it is considered discussion, that often includes the learner. Love gives rise to the critical in this way, for it demands the decay of unconsidered habit.

Had I come to Cairo with nothing but my bag of tricks, I would have cheated both myself and these students. Had I not stopped in the midst -- again and again -- of my lesson plans to listen with respect and care, the classroom would have been mute and my teaching an almost obscene display. Deciding not to love the learners we accompany is an uncritical decision, and ultimately not scholarly. Doesn’t the Shakespeare scholar first love Ophelia? Doesn’t the physicist first love the gravity of an atom? Isn’t it the love of sediment that draws the geologist, the love of human history that seduces the archaeologist, the love of the human anatomy that is the siren song for the surgeon?

So why is it painful for the academic to admit that love stirs them? Why, even in writing this, do I find myself looking for more and more evidence to support my claims? Why is love considered uncritical when in fact it is only that fragile care for our fields that inspires the critical inspection that eventually grows into rigor? Can not I love my subject matter? Can not I love my students without reproach?

As I finish writing this post, I can hear the distant call to prayer carried on the breeze over Cairo. I pause to listen, to wonder at why it stirs me. I must always allow myself to be stirred—by learners, by teachers, by pedagogy, by the weird transpersonal nature of digital networks—and I must always let that stirring call me to critical practice in my teaching.

Photo by Ahmed Badawy on Unsplash