October 4, 2018

The Habitus of Critical Imagination

It is urgent that we have teachers. It is urgent that we have teachers with great imaginations. It’s urgent that we have teachers who can see in their students the potential for something startling, something unlikely.

The Habitus of Critical Imagination

"whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date"
~ Adrienne Rich, Poem VIII

What follows is a keynote written for the TLTS event on Auraria Campus on October 5, 2018, meant as an introduction to a day of creative problem solving, and to my recent publication, An Urgency of Teachers. I was invited to speak at this event, sponsored by Metropolitan State University in Denver—my alma mater—but for reasons out of my control, I was unable to attend.


I was not meant to attend Metropolitan State College in Denver for my undergraduate degree. In 1989, I was accepted to Pacific University, a small private liberal arts college nestled in rural Forest Grove, Oregon. Thirty minutes from the coast, surrounded on all fronts with redwoods and huge Douglas fir, I’d first seen pictures of the college when I was in high school, and it seemed precisely the dream I had in mind for my young academic soul. The vast library of emotions that welled up in me upon viewing the pictures and visiting the campus seemed that sort within which an entire life could be earned and spent.

However, it was not meant to be. Three days after I flew to Oregon to begin school, a terrible homesickness overcame me, and I returned home. I had left behind my fiancé, and the problems of distance associated with my borderline personality disorder (which was as yet undiagnosed) made it impossible for me to remain so far from home, despite the idyllic college life I’d begun to discover in Forest Grove. I came home determined, nonetheless, to restart my schooling.

Mind you, I came to university from a very common educational background, attending run-of-the-mill (or worse) public schools. I had severe delinquency problems in junior high school stemming from anxiety, and my family generally didn’t expect I would excel in education. They hoped I would just get by enough to, as my dad once put it, “not work at a gas station the rest of your life.” No one expected I would get into a private university.

My alternative was Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University), or more fondly, Metro. Metro was a younger school, with some faculty still working there who had opened its doors. The student body was largely non-traditional, dotted less frequently with young, just-out-of-high-school freshman than with working moms, retirees, students with families and jobs, students for whom a campus-centered education didn’t feel like an option. There were no dorms, and students and alumni called themselves “roadrunners,” as much for the school sports teams as for the fact that the busy avenues of Curtis and Lawrence Streets had once run straight through campus, forcing students to dodge cars on their way from class to class. As much as its graduates loved Metro, the school was not a first choice for most graduating high school seniors.

So, my choice to leave Pacific and attend Metro was welcomed with confusion and anger. I recall vividly my brother telling me: “You had an opportunity none of us will have, and you threw it away.” I recall my response just as vividly: “It doesn’t matter where I go to school. It matters how I engage with my education. I can get just as good an education at Metro as I could have at Pacific.”

Idealism? Probably. Naivete about the way the business of academia actually works? Most certainly. But in that naive idealism was nonetheless the kernel of something like critical imagination. Because my certainty was drawn from imagination—a capacity which my mother encouraged even more than she encouraged my criticality and intellectualism—and about which Dewey wrote, in Art as Experience, as

“a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole … When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination. When the new is created, the far and strange become the most natural inevitable things in the world. There is always some measure of adventure in the meeting of mind and universe, and this adventure is, in its measure, imagination.”

What I knew about Metro, what everyone knew about Metro at that time, was that it was the runner-up school, the just-above-community-college alternative to people who couldn’t get into the University of Colorado-Boulder. My own mother went to Metro for two years in order to “qualify” for CU-Boulder, and even then the larger university wouldn’t accept many of her courses for transfer, requiring instead that she retake the classes. Metro was not deemed the place where people with potential attended.

Yet, I was a child of divorce, a child bullied, a person living with borderline, and a queer person struggling with identity and love. I had no truck with this petrifacted view of Metro. In fact, I had—have had, continue to have—very little truck with fixities, thoughtlessness, conformity, and petrifaction of all sorts. To the view that going to Metro would mean I might amount to nothing, or less than what I was capable, I wanted to bend a curious glare. If I could imagine it differently, then what institution or commonly held belief could tell me it could not be so?

And so I set about to make of my state college education something akin to the education at a private university. I was a star student at Metro, a dedicated 3.98er who reached past the commuter college limitations of the campus to form communities around poetry and storytelling, volunteered dozens of hours to establish a new Writing Center, helped to establish a Children’s Literature conference, and created the first ever public poetry reading event, which raised money for a local nonprofit, the Women’s Bean Project. I commuted an hour to campus every day from my little apartment just two blocks from CU-Boulder (who would not have me), and invested myself fully in the life of Metro—the scrappy, determined, passionate life of students and teachers who really needed to make learning count.

My education at Metro required a constant imagining of possibility, which I daresay was also true of the non-traditional students who accompanied me on my way. What that education taught me best, in fact, was that learning asks for improvisation, messiness, collaboration, revision, and a willingness to be surprised. And yes, imagination. The Metro students of the time could not afford to be lulled by thoughts of a traditional education. We were there making for ourselves—in many cases, far past the point of likelihood. My Metro education was not boring, could not be boring.

Mary Warnock writes in Imagination that, “In my opinion, it is the main purpose of education to give people the opportunity of not ever being bored … not ever succumbing to a feeling of futility, or to the belief that they have come to the end of what is worth having.” If there should be any pedagogy for adult learning, if there is any andragogy, then it is this. Adult learners have already been inculcated into the brazenly boring world of work, the thoughtlessness of routine and deadline, the petrifaction of the rent payment, credit ratings, and pay raises. Why would we, teaching them, likewise ask them to trade their search for possibility with five-paragraph essays, discussion forums, multiple choice quizzes, and the grade? What adult seeking an education should ever be made to roll their eyes at the sameness of learning? Education must stir the imagination, must call people out of their honeycombs and into the brighter light. It must do this for students, and it must do this for teachers, as well.

In “Uncoupling from the Ordinary”, Maxine Greene writes about education that,

“What we are about is the making possible of intelligent enjoyment, or grasping, or apprehension that includes all the different aspects of consciousness: cognitive, affective, perceptual, yes, and conative—having to do with making an effort, exerting energy, reaching beyond.”

This conative aspect of education is especially important, and deeply overlooked. Academe generally sees the life of the mind not only self-sustaining, but also as an end unto itself. Thinking, discerning, citing sources are all a part of academic integrity, an integrity bound up not in the doing of a thing, not in the effort expended, not in reaching beyond, but in the slow discovery of the status quo. So much of higher education is dedicated to shedding light on what is already established that there is not much room for narrating toward what might yet be. And in general, very little time is spent developing in students the capacity to create beyond what is known/seen/assumed.

Even attempts to see things otherwise look to how things are as a foundation. And this won’t work. Because we must not only imagine things as they could be otherwise, as Maxine Greene so wisely encourages again and again throughout her work, but we also must imagine things as they have never been, and we must imagine things that might be, to bring them out of the vapor, if you will. For accepted reality—which Freire refutes as “not inexorably that”-—is but a single possibility once dreamed up by someone unafraid to imagine. If all we do is build upon the reality that is unsatisfactory now, we will construct a world just as unsatisfactory, even if its negations are buried beneath a new, more appealing surface, shiny as a blood diamond. We cannot constitute change on the basis of the extant world, because to do so would be to iterate rather than to invent.

If we start out wrong, we cannot build upon that beginning. We must, at some level, eventually, start again. Imagining things otherwise.

The same can be said of justice, which is always at the heart of the work of critical pedagogy. For if we base our movement toward justice on the justice extant in our nation today, we will never free ourselves from a justice that centers the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture we live in (as bell hooks names it). When Paulo Freire talks about students learning to critically read their world, at least in part he means cultivating the ability to see clearly the foundations upon which we have built our world, and still upon which we propose to change our world. Freire is not urging iteration, but difference.

This, in turn, means that educators and students alike must learn to read their world better and better. “As an educator,” Freire writes in Pedagogy of Indignation, “I must become more and more competent or else my struggle will lose its efficacy.” To continually refresh our understanding of reality, to recognize, as Warnock says, “that there is always more to experience and more in what we experience than we can predict”, to resist boredom, disenchantment, resignation—this requires imagination that has a conative function: a critical imagination, one that exerts energy, one that reaches beyond.

Academia is surprisingly unfriendly to conation. Will, desire, volition—these run aground of an economy of reputation and expertise, where worth and self-worth are largely determined by what one seems to know better, or at least as well, as others. And, as I mentioned above, efforts made to embrace volition, invention, and change are not only based upon long-accepted traditions and unspoken methods of collaboration, community respectability politics, and impartiality, but also on an unchallenged notion of what change even looks like, how it is gotten at. Various promises of change—MOOCs, for example, adaptive and personalized learning, student-centered teaching, design thinking—in fact do nothing to deny, call out, or discard powerful, accepted “facts” about school: grades and assessment, the leadership of the teacher, the incommutability of the institution. We believe we make progress when we let students design their own rubrics, for example, or when we invite adjuncts to faculty council meetings. But participating in oppressive structures is not liberation, it’s an invitation to one’s own slaughter.

A truly conative critical imagination isn’t shy about starting from scratch. It is not shy about the need to, and the agency to, pull the new from the vapor. A critical imagination also invents against oppressive structures, not working to alter them in their oppressive strategies, but to open spaces they cannot reach. In founding the digital journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, for example, Jesse Stommel’s critical imagination acted to create a space where alternative voices to the standard in academe could publish and be heard in credible, real, meaningful ways.

“Our goal with this project is to think holistically about the various hybridities of the modern pedagogue,” Stommel writes in “Hybridity, pt. 2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy”, “to think about how we live our real/digital lives in both academic and extra-academic spaces.” In other words, the journal was founded as a space of possibility to explore a space of possibility, a hybrid space, yes, but also a generative, personal one. And one which is traditionally omitted from academic discourse, which is framed by the academy’s need to guard the gates of reputation and expertise against will, desire, volition—the conative represented by the nontraditional student, the adjunct, the school like Metro. As I write in “A Call for Editors”:

The miscreant has a voice. The dropout has a voice. The insolent silent one in the back of the room, too, has a voice. The adjunct is a teacher when she writes. The undergrad, the grad student, the alt-ac and the post-ac—all teachers when they speak. The artist is a teacher; the poet, the musician, the anarchist, too.
Every voice is needed within academe, within education. The more we leave out, the less we have to offer. Gatekeeping corrupts—it does not fortify—ethos.

Holding the tension between invention and the map that is “out of date”, as Adrienne Rich suggests, requires both an attention to the nurture and care of that inventing process and a certain fearlessness in the face of the systems themselves that seek to silence it. This isn’t simple work, and tends to be devoid of best practices which could otherwise be handrails in the dark.

Similarly, the work of Digital Pedagogy Lab—which on the surface shows as an annual professional development event—creates and contains a space of critical imagination for everyone who attends the event and becomes part of the community. For five days every summer, educators of all kinds (librarians as much as classroom teachers as much as instructional designers as much as students) are invited to participate in the continual invention of a space of creative academic congress. A playground for seriousness about pedagogy, social justice, equity, transformative praxis, and all things digital, Digital Pedagogy Lab’s faculty and organizers work every year to continually invent away from the traditional academic conference or institute.

At Digital Pedagogy Lab, for example, hospitality is pedagogical. Welcoming is a critical practice, with every individual treated respectfully and with kindness. Food, access, the provision of personal space for reflection and writing, direct and active attention from faculty and organizers are all intentionally offered in order to show what kinds of invention are possible when a generous table is laid.

More interestingly still, though, is the fact that Digital Pedagogy Lab becomes a place where participants themselves invent away from the structures of their universities and classrooms, where they inspect and challenge their foundational assumptions about what education is, how learning happens, where it happens, and who they are as scholars and educators. It is a place where beliefs and expectations are laid bare as the guesses they’ve always been, and the inherited praxes of our professional lives can be resolved, and often healed. As Marcus Elliott offered in his “Letter from my students” a short digital story he recorded at the end of his time at Digital Pedagogy Lab,

“The thing about making a difference is that it will keep making a difference, and those differences will multiply exponentially as they ripple out. Every connection you have with someone makes a difference; it changes them, and it changes you. These changes ripple and grow. Every action you take has consequences that are felt.”

Without question, the best work done at Digital Pedagogy Lab is done by participants who attend, at least surreptitiously, to learn from the experts, but who find out before the days are over that it is their own expertise which is the surprise discovery.

Embedded in Elliott’s soft spoken, imaginative words is the idea that critical pedagogy is not a practice, though there may be good practices associated with it. Rather, this notion that “every connection you have makes a difference” gets at the idea that critical pedagogy is a habitus. I have variously talked about critical pedagogy as a stance, a perspective, even a positionality. But the notion of habitus, which I borrow from sociology, feels most fitting.

Habitus can be thought of as the full concatenation of “mental habits, schemes of perception, classification, appreciation, feeling, and action” which an individual brings to any encounter with society. Habitus is embodied practice, often uninspected or subterranean to a person’s own thinking about themselves. It is the deep “if this, then that” of our unique human behaviors. If you are a child of divorce, for example, or a bullied child, or a queer person struggling with identity and love, you will bring to each of your interactions some trace element of those experiences—even your efforts to break free of or heal from those experiences—and the way those experiences shaped your belief about the world.

A pedagogical habitus, then, would be the schemes of perception which influence the way we teach. Freire says, for example, that

“I have the right to be angry and to express that anger, to hold it as my motivation to fight, just as I have the right to love and to express my love for the world, to hold it as motivation to fight, because while a historical being, I live history as a time of possibility, not of predetermination.”

And in saying this, he reveals something not of his pedagogical practice, but something of his pedagogical habitus, the genetic makeup, if you will, of his teaching. Freire’s pedagogy circles relentlessly the notion that, as he states elsewhere in Pedagogy of Indignation, “I apprehend not simply to adapt but to change.” Freire’s critical pedagogy is not about education for the sake of education, but education for the development of a civic mind, one which will seek to improve “the mistreated and wounded world.”

I don’t have any of Freire’s lesson plans on hand, nor do I have access to any online courses in which he aligned content to learning outcomes (as I’m certain he was wont), but can we imagine what those learning objectives may have been?

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Develop an epistemological relationship to reality;
  • Apprehend not to adapt but to change;
  • Love the world;
  • Live history as a time of possibility, not of predetermination.

By which, of course, I’m being both utterly tongue-in-cheek and perfectly serious. While these are preposterous learning objectives, Freire’s ideals are not preposterous; rather, they reveal the practice of learning objectives to be. Freire had no truck with learning objectives. He writes that “Whatever the aspect of education to be examined, I never tried to understand it mechanistically. I was never satisfied with a technicist understanding of educational practice.” Instead, he urges us to consider the learner’s location, “their explanation of the world, which is part of their understanding of their own presence in the world.” Telling students this is what you will learn is antithetical to Freire’s pedagogical habitus.

Jesse Stommel and I have played across conference presentations and journal articles with the ideas that Freire might make a MOOC, or bell hooks might build an LMS—not to test a hypothesis, but to introduce the clear conflict between how contemporary, institutional education happens and what critical pedagogy is. Neither would Freire make a MOOC, nor hooks a learning management system, but the juxtaposition points to the absurd disconnect between a love for critical pedagogy and a practice of it. For there should be no deep rift between our pedagogical habitus, and the explicit way in which we practice our teaching. And if that habitus includes critical pedagogy, then the challenge is a very great one, but not an impossible one.

When I work with educators, they pine for examples and for best practices, and though it makes me sore to disappoint them, I usually insist that they discover good practices on their own. Critical pedagogy posits that education and learning occupy what the cynefin framework would call a complex environment, where practice is always emergent, where “best practices” oversimplify the real task at hand. Because critical pedagogical praxis arises from the reading of the world, and from our epistemologies, the practices which define it likewise must be allowed to arise, and therefore are hardly definite at all. The habitus of critical pedagogy is responsive by nature, imaginative by necessity, and narratively transferred and taught.

This last point is especially important when we are first considering our way into critical pedagogy or a practice of critical imagination. There is no guide book. While Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is regarded as a seminal work of critical pedagogy, so we should consider bell hooks’ work equally vital, and Maxine Greene’s lectures, and Henry Giroux’s interviews and blog posts. Equally, we must read the work by educators working their way through their application of critical pedagogy—Sherri Spelic, for example, Martha Burtis, Amy Collier, Bonnie Stewart, Maha Bali. We learn about critical pedagogy from its practitioners, from the stories they tell about their encounters and trials and successes and insights, as well as from the whole (almost ethnographic) scene of critical pedagogy as it unfolds.

In the writing of these educators, we read their habitus. We match it against our own. Like learning dance, they move and we move, and we find the particularities of our styles, our own sense of rhythm, and can invent and improvise as we grow confident of our own habitus. And before we know it, we are leading the dance. Which is why it’s worth our time to record our efforts. Freire did, hooks does, Maxine Greene did as well. The colleagues I hold dear record their efforts in blog posts and journal articles, in emails between us, and on Twitter.

The volume of work I recently published with my colleague, Jesse Stommel, is an example of two educators working toward their praxis, coming into a deeper, closer understanding of their habitus, especially against the backdrop of digital technology and its influence on teaching and learning. In writing the works that make up An Urgency of Teachers, and in editing that volume to include ideas that we have worn out or moved past, I recognized in myself a habitus of critical pedagogy, one that stretches back to long before I ever taught, even to my decision to attend Metro in Denver. When, so long ago, I believed I could achieve my educational goals going to what others viewed as a school I was settling for, rather than a rich opportunity, I was practicing a pedagogy of hope, a critical pedagogy, and a critical imagination. An Urgency of Teachers is not the pin I will wear on my lapel, but rather the message I hope to send out to others puzzling through their own stories.

It is urgent that we have teachers. It is urgent that we have teachers with great imaginations. It’s urgent that we have teachers who can see in their students the potential for something startling, something unlikely. It’s urgent that we have teachers who question assumptions about teaching, who will question curricula designed years ago by cis white straight men, who will subvert institutional expectations for the sake of their students, and who will not back down from the hard questions that must be asked. It’s urgent we have teachers who think not in terms of “just the way it is” but who instead look to how things may be otherwise—who see the music in mathematics, the truth in fiction, the human behind statistics, the loneliness of students learning at a distance, and the value of kindness as an academic standard.

An Urgency of Teachers is not meant to say, “Read me,” but rather “Write yourself.” My narrative will not stop with the publishing of this book. I will continue to learn from my dance teachers, as I hope some may learn from me (so that I may, in turn, learn again from them). It is urgent that more stories be told, urgent that teachers of all kinds—from classroom instructors to students to librarians to non-academics—understand the value of their narrative to the progress of education.

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