Reflective Practice

Developing A Socially Conscious Pedagogy: Lessons in Teaching, Learning, and Unlearning

By Sakina Laksimi-Morrow

For me, socially conscious pedagogy is a balancing act between thinking through, developing, executing, reflecting, revisiting and refining course materials, assignments, classroom discussions, and teachable moments. As a queer male educator of color that teaches students and communities of color that intersect my own lived identities and experiences, socially conscious pedagogy is a discursive balance of power, expertise, reflectiveness and reflexiveness. With these students and in these communities throughout my years of teaching what fascinates me most is how I hold up and offer a mirror for students to look at themselves in and through, but also how students hold up mirrors for me to do the same––how we hold up mirrors for one another:those where we can see our reflections staring back, and those that we turn away from precisely so we don’t see and meet our reflections in the eye.

FIG Member José Alfredo Menjivar, Urban Education

I developed the term “socially conscious pedagogy” from my intellectual, personal, and political experiences as an educator and through my work as a fellow at the Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center. It was also influenced by engagement with art-making and meditation. When I began as a TLC Fellow in Fall 2016, I already had an agenda that mobilized my pedagogical practices and research interests in higher education: I had been teaching  at a few public and private colleges and was committed to education for the sake of equity and empowerment, even as I grappled with what that meant and how to enact it in my own classrooms. My research into the experiences of doctoral students of color with academic knowledge production further influenced the types of programming I was interested in designing at the TLC, and as it turned out, the programming I was designing shaped my methodological approach to my dissertation.  As a result, I have developed a symbiotic relationship between my pedagogical, professional, and academic projects.

Around the time I started my work at the TLC I revisited my meditation practice (after a long hiatus) and frequently attended secular and non-secular sessions at a few locations by the GC. Seeking respite from stresses and anxieties through meditation turned out to offer a lot more than anticipated. Meditation drew my attention to consciousness and its implications for pedagogical practices. I had always approached my work from a political perspective until I began to delve deeper into work around consciousness. Meditation was not about the total suspension of thought, but the practice of transcending thought constructs, which in turn liberate us from mental and emotional architectures and the ways they manifest in our behaviors. Consciousness-raising is about recognizing these constructs as constructs, and engaging in a process of letting them go. These ideas shifted my perspective significantly as I continued thinking about knowledge production in academia—how we design our research agendas and our courses, the structures that legitimate these processes, and the ways they ground and shape our (social) realities in the classroom and in scholarship. It influenced my thinking about pedagogy as an iterative, evolving, fluid, and reflective practice.

Many existing frameworks of pedagogical praxis struck me as prescriptive, teleological, and/or overly abstracted. I was never fully satisfied with some popular critical pedagogies. While frameworks such as culturally responsive or culturally sustaining pedagogy and the social justice paradigm have much to offer intellectually and politically, they also contain some inherent contradictions and limitations. First, I was interested in locating a descriptive rather than prescriptive framework for pedagogical practices as they happened in real time and in a particular place (which in my case was the GC, working with graduate student educators teaching at CUNY). Developing the term socially conscious pedagogy offered the opportunity to draw on a variety of practices that are enacted by myself and other educators interested in resisting and disrupting oppressive and marginalizing forces in higher education. Cultural responsiveness tended to essentialize culture and obscure larger social inequities in practice. In a place like New York City where many cultures intersect in the classroom, enacting cultural responsiveness is not only a daunting task but one that can be riddled with assumptions about others’ cultures. “Social justice” as a term also contains its own problematics. Hearkening towards an end (justice) rather than a process, the concept of justice is a flawed teleology that has yet to define the terms and possibilities of what it looks like in the face of historically rooted and socially, culturally, and economically reproduced inequities. By contrast, the term socially conscious pedagogy recognizes the iterative, evolving, fluid, and reflective process of developing a practice over the goal of achieving an end.

To me, socially conscious pedagogy starts with the recognition that teaching is a political act. People walk into classrooms with a range of diverse experiences and ways of knowing. Society also reads differential power and privileges onto our bodies based on a host of factors — race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, class — and those will impact how people view and interact with institutions of higher learning and with education in general. They will also shape how people grapple with and appropriate ideas, and learn. To practice socially conscious pedagogy requires reflection and introspection: on the context where you teach, your students’ and your own intersectional identities, and the content and skills that your institution, your students, and you, value. It means always questioning the methods you use and the content you explore — who constructed this knowledge? Which voices are missing? 

—FIG Member Sara Vogel, Urban Education 

The first event I organized and facilitated at the TLC was “Critically Engaging Race and Racism” in Fall 2016—a workshop followed by a panel, which opened up conversation about how racism manifests in our classrooms and how racial identities shape the types of teaching and learning experiences that happen in academia. It’s important to note that these conversations were happening in the direct aftermath of the Trump election, and many educators were eager to dialogue about their experiences, anxieties, and practices in this new conservative era of national politics. These conversations were the seed which blossomed into the Developing a Socially Conscious Pedagogy Focused Inquiry Group (FIG), and into an interconnected series of events addressing issues of educator positionality and praxis, and the hegemony of disciplinary canons. My work has been responsive to the contributions, interests, and needs of the educators who have attended and collaborated in my programming.

The FIG  was a cross-disciplinary group of CUNY educators comprised of seven students from a range of departments including Music, English, and Urban Education. We met over the course of the semester to discuss teaching  practices and negotiate a common project that would manifest what socially conscious pedagogy meant to each of us. We each contributed and reflected on a teaching artifact we had designed (assignment, project, or activity). These conversations inspired the first event in the Developing a Socially Conscious Pedagogy series, the “Educator Positionality Mind-Mapping Workshop.”  In our discussions, I had noticed that each of the educators expressed a commitment to critical self-reflexivity in their work. These educators acknowledged their subject positions, considered the power dynamics in their classrooms, and constantly revised their teaching approaches and assignments to be responsive to their students. The concept of positionality, then, emerged as a powerful thread across these different teaching practices. This insight spurred me to think of self-portraiture as a approach to designing a workshop on educator positionality. I first tried this with a group of Masters-level K-12 educators I was teaching at Hunter College in Summer 2017. With the support of the TLC and later,  FIG member Atasi Das, this workshop evolved from self-portraiture to mind-mapping. In its current iteration, the workshop first invites educators to plot significant aspects of their life trajectory, including places, events, or people that have shaped their identity. Participants then draw links and connections between the elements they’ve plotted while considering the types of experiences, principles, and ideals they bring to their work as educators. Creating art in a low-stakes and nurturing environment enables the possibility of vulnerability, a precondition for deep reflexivity. While we cannot achieve self-awareness in the constraints of a workshop, this activity opens up dialogue about how our personal, political, cultural, and social positionalities in the world influence what we bring into the classroom.

I think of a socially conscious pedagogy as a set of principles and practices that work through and toward an ever-greater awareness of dynamics of power and the mechanisms driving majoritarian claims to privilege. What this means is honest, frequent conversations about and analysis of how white supremacist, masculinist, sexist, gender essentialist, ethnocentric, and heteronormative ways of thinking and living get promoted and reproduced through the classroom. It also means teaching how whiteness gets made into a norm that intersects with specific expressions of class and gender. It seeks to engage students in exploring not only the production of that norm but the radical ways in which those outside the norm experiment, resist, and destabilize it. This pedagogy likewise attends to the ways in which power dynamics play out in classroom dynamics and course design. 

FIG Member Karen Lepri, English

In collaboration with a second FIG member Sara Vogel, we facilitated a workshop called “Developing a Socially Conscious Praxis,” which asked participants to reflect on and develop an assignment they had tried with their students. We engaged in dialogue about our  principles as educators and negotiated what socially conscious practices meant. Based on the FIG work, we had already collected a curated list of what we considered socially conscious pedagogical practices, which we shared with the group for feedback. Together we reflected on how our assignments aligned or misaligned with individual and collective principles, and how to revise them. Though this workshop was probably the least successful of the series, many lessons emerged. In particular, the challenge of maintaining balance between structure and fluidity, and between leadership and participation. It became clear that the attempt to create democratic and participatory spaces and processes sometimes worked against establishing efficient, focused, and enabling structures. For educators who had not formally engaged with issues of marginalization and oppression in their teaching, the iterative, evolving, fluid, and reflective nature of developing socially conscious pedagogy as a framework offered few tangible takeaways to implement. Part of this can be attributed to the lack of clarity about what socially conscious pedagogy is: I realized that while I had been working on this framework in collaboration and conversation with others, I was hesitant to claim it. This was a slow, messy, and self-conscious process of theory-making that I thought was above my head even as I led the way.

The socially conscious pedagogy that I practice as a mathematics teacher educator integrates how students make sense of state authorized math content while questioning the ideas they hold about people and society. As an educator-activist, I would not describe myself as a typical mathematician. I remember doing well enough on tests yet never really retaining an understanding beyond exams. I can recall the feeling of dread when asked to immediately regurgitate multiplication facts in elementary grades. The questions were always jarring and panic-inducing. Yet, while the experience in math education felt like a form of hazing, I never questioned math curricula or the discipline itself. It wasn’t until I began working in elementary schools and engaged in a math professional development course that focused on building an understanding of the base ten system that I even made sense of how multiplication algorithms worked every time. This “aha” moment for me cracked through an all powerful mysteriousness of math. This moment accompanied a longer process of investigating many ideas I had unconsciously accepted, like the idea that tests are definitive of a person’s capability. This crack keeps expanding into larger fissures as I continue interrogating the relationship between math and society.  

FIG Member Atasi Das, Urban Education

The third event in the series was a panel of GC doctoral students who presented their approaches to resisting the canon. Co-organized by a fellow FIG member, Makeba Lavan, whose own research engages with resisting/unravelling/disrupting the canon, the panel offered a platform for assessing and critiquing the hegemony of disciplinary canons. This topic had been an issue I had taken up in my own dissertation research, and one that had come up as a strong theme in our FIG conversations. The panel consisted of two educators who taught in English and two in Cultural Anthropology. Panelists discussed their experiences and shared resources on resisting disciplinary canons in their teaching. They also  each offered a unique practice that demonstrated their resistance to the canon, and shared an assignment and reading list with other educators interested in doing the same. What emerged from these presentations and conversations was that there are a diverse array of ways to resist the canon—from introducing non-mainstream literature by authors and scholars of color, to engaging in critiques of canonical works, to methodologies of teaching that elevate and center the voices and experiences of students as legitimate producers of knowledge.

We concluded the series with a Zine Meet-Up toward the end of the Spring 2018 semester. Nine educators convened over art supplies and breakfast in a three-hour session co-facilitated by experienced zine-maker and librarian, Elvis Bakaitis, to consider the scholarly and pedagogical possibilities of zines as a legitimate form of knowledge production. Each educator contributed one assignment to the zine that we shared, discussed, and deconstructed using collage. The final artifact is a teaching zine that captures the diverse approaches of educators to socially conscious pedagogies, and a first iteration of alternative forms of teaching and learning scholarship that engage arts-based methods.

For me, socially conscious pedagogy involves contextualizing the very narrow slice of human culture that is Western classical music and examining both my own teaching of it as well as my students’ study of it. I am concerned with teaching the basic tenets and characters of Western classical music but at the same time encouraging my students to investigate it and even tear it down by asking questions like, “What are the boundaries of this music?” “What are some of the assumptions we have about its creators and practitioners? Are these assumptions valid?” These questions empower students and help us as a group to break down some of the more rigid ideas about classical music and the study of it...Throughout my education and development as a musician and scholar, I have become aware of a number of problems in music pedagogy and research in institutions of higher learning in the United States: 1. The music of Europe from the years 1500-2000 is the measure against which all other music is compared. There is an inordinate bias toward this type of music resulting, for example, in the distinct disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology. The music of non-European cultures and music by non-European, non-males is sadly underrepresented in literature and course offerings. 2. I have observed in my teaching that a large portion of beginning students approach the study of Western classical music feeling like outsiders or like they are incapable of performing or properly understanding the music.FIG Member Manon Hutton-DeWys, Music

Developing a socially conscious pedagogy has involved two intertwined processes: first, enacting my own pedagogy in the design and facilitation of programming for GC student educators; and second, collecting, documenting and reflecting on the practices of these same educators. The two most common themes we discovered and emphasized in the series were the role of positionality in socially conscious practices, and the ways in which  disciplinary canons reproduce hierarchies of knowledge and continue to marginalize and erase the voices and intellectual production of people at the peripheries of power. Diversity in higher education is not simply about black, brown, and disabled bodies in the classrooms. It cannot be a quantitative measure of acceptance and graduation rates, doctoral degrees awarded, and faculty positions appointed. Rather, we must contend with the very nature and structure of knowledge production, and we must do that at the level of scholarship and teaching. Socially conscious pedagogies are as much about unlearning as learning—identifying the mental constructs we inhabit and working from there to find a path and develop a practice that resists and destabilizes the many marginalizing social forces and interlocking systems of oppression that manifest in our practices, our classrooms, and our institutions. This work begins with the self.  My dissertation research, my work at the TLC, and my role as an educator have offered me so many opportunities to think more deeply about the ways that higher education is implicated in hegemonies and violences through structures of knowledge production. Academic scholarship and teaching are intertwined activities with the potential to reproduce these structures in our own work (consciously or unconsciously) or, alternatively, to resist and subvert them. There is no right answer or one way. Socially conscious pedagogies are not prescriptive. Rather, this work continues to engage in conversation and learn from others, and to elevate voices that have been muted.

I think about ways that I can raise the level of awareness to social issues in my students and ways to make it interesting and personal for them. My students get more involved in socially conscious pedagogy when I can relate lessons to something that directly affects them or impacts them, or that interests them I’ve been fortunate in that it’s easy to do at Lehman. I usually teach English 111 or 121. You have the freedom to do what you want as long as you hit the checkpoints, so I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what was going on at the time: Ferguson, Flint, Syria. ... I was going to have them read from Aime Cesaire’s version of The Tempest. I’ve noticed that some educators have issues with SCP. They don’t know how to bring it in unless they are teaching a special topics class. But SCP is just about how you see the world — you can bring that to anything. If you’re not, it’s kind of a problem. 

—FIG Member Makeba Lavan, English

Sakina Laksimi-Morrow is a PhD candidate in Urban Education and a TLC Fellow.

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