Saturday, February 25, 2012

Critical Pedagogy in My Classroom

In a nutshell: What I care most about in the classroom is increasing students' awareness of social justice, categories of privilege and oppression, the connection between knowledge and power, and their own potential as champions of freedom. Here I explore how that hopey changey thing is workin' for me.

I like the definition of critical pedagogy in Henry A. Giroux's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Lessons from Paulo Freire." Giroux calls critical pedagogy
[an] educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.
This semester I am teaching classical mythology, European literature since the Renaissance, and a proseminar for literature grad students.  Except for the graduate course, I have not explicitly mentioned critical pedagogy in the classroom. But my goal, as always, is to find opportunities to raise issues of social hierarchies and their justice or injustice. Some interesting things have happened in both of my undergraduate courses. One of the nicest surprises has been the way the use of an online discussion board has facilitated relevant discussions.

In my mythology class, the greatest energy has swirled around the issue of sexual double standards. In brief, the male heroes of Greek mythology can sleep around as much as they want regardless of marital status, while unmarried women must remain virginal, and wives must remain faithful to their husbands. Many of my students are particularly offended that Odysseus gets to have sexual liaisons with the witch Circe (for a whole year) and the nymph Calypso (for seven years!) while his wife Penelope is home alone in her bed, pining for her absent husband and fending off the scores of suitors who are pressing her to choose a new husband, since most Greeks assume that Odysseus, having failed to return from the Trojan War with the rest of his comrades, must by now surely be dead.

Now, there is only so much I can beat this horse in the classroom without turning my mythology course into a course on sex and gender dynamics, which is not what my students signed on for. Online, however, discussion of the sexual double standard can proceed apace, even resurfacing from week to week in the context of newly read texts. Moreover, those students who are particularly interested in the issue can stick with it, while other students can move on to other topics. Discoveries can emerge from the students' own reading, thinking, and experience, without my having to intervene in any heavy handed kind of way. On the other hand, at apt moments, I can poke my head into the discussion and draw their attention to notions like "patriarchy" and its implications. Even better, students who have taken a women's studies course can explain patriarchy and its relevance without my having to lift a virtual stick of chalk. I was literally thrilled when one of my students brought Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique into the discussion! Now, that's the sort of thing I'm always champing at the bit to do, but again, I feel strongly about staying off my many potential soap boxes so that students do not get turned off to the subject they came to learn about.

In my European literature since the Renaissance class, the injustice of social hierarchies is all over the place, in ways that are immediately relevant to my students' own daily life--but it has taken them weeks to warm up to that idea. The perennial problem is the tendency of students to say that "back then" (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic era, the Victorian era) society was hierarchical and oppressive and discriminatory, but of course, we are lucky enough to live in the United States in 2012, when none of that happens anymore. I must breathe deeply into my rising blood pressure while I ask, "Do you think the racism that confronts Othello is no longer relevant here, in Columbia, SC, in 2012?" Of course, no student will ever insist that their own world is completely free from racism, sexism, religious intolerance, etc; but they cling to the belief that theirs is a world whose justice is only limited by each citizen's own commitment to hard work and Christian values.

In this class, too, an online discussion board has provided opportunities for discussion of sex-, race-, and class-based privilege and oppression more extensive than would be possible or appropriate in the classroom without risking abuse of academic freedom. In both classical mythology and European literature, I am finding that, as the semester proceeds, posts to the discussion board are becoming more sustained, discursive, and analytical, as well as venturing more opinions and raising more issues for further discussion. Indeed, what started out as a discussion board in name only--more a collection of serial monologues--is becoming a discussion board in fact.

I will end with a plug for Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist and His Master as a superb text for practicing critical pedagogy. Voltaire's Candide is probably the more natural choice as a go-to text to represent the French Enlightenment. But I remembered loving Diderot in my college French classes, and I was eager to share this road less taken with my students. To be sure, they did not immediately warm up to Jacques, and some of them remain resistant as we approach our fourth and final class meeting devoted to this text. But for others, this quirky, highly unconventional, quite experimental meditation on the fundamental conflict between the Rights of Man and the Great Chain of Being has proven revelatory.

To be sure, my students are still at the point of arguing among themselves about rights versus responsibilities, the comfort of stable hierarchies versus the anarchic thrill of freedom. They are not about to march out of the classroom and reboot the Occupy Columbia movement that has been on hiatus since December 23, when the state Budget and Control Board passed emergency regulations that ended the two-month encampment on the State House grounds, mere blocks from our classroom. Nor is that my objective as their instructor. Rather, I simply want them to engage with the issues of social hierarchy, privilege, oppression, and justice, thinking for themselves, making their own decisions, and learning to become fully enfranchised citizens of a democratic society. In the words of former New York City mayor Abe Beame: "How'm I doin?" I don't know. You'll have to ask my students.

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