by Asilia Franklin-Phipps
One of the things that I have learned over the years is the importance of giving students space to ask questions of themselves and one another. Some of the most productive class discussions have happened when I get out of they way. I believe my role is to curate thought-provoking texts, videos, film clips, and podcasts to facilitate conversations, while also allowing students space to practice having difficult conversations with little-to-no intervention on my part. This is a useful practice. First, it is much more engaging for students to participate in the production of knowledge through writing and discussion. Second, it acknowledges the range of perspectives and experiences within the space. Finally, it makes more room for change, reconsideration, and collaborative meaning-making. By that I mean, students can often change their minds much easier in conversation with their peers than with me. When everyone has read a text in a particular way, that holds more weight than me telling the student that they are wrong in their reading. This often feels scary as an instructor, particularly when students might say things that might be taken as (or intended) as unkind or offensive. The truth is though, this is always a possibility in classroom conversations–directed by the instructor or otherwise. The idea that we can control what happens in classrooms is a fiction that is proven again and again.
In Education, I teach courses that take up topics that people generally feel very familiar with and knowledgeable about—school, teaching, education, merit, success, and fairness. School is an unqualified good thing (not a space that does harm to some children to the benefit of others), teaching is about helping kids become successful (measured by the hoarding of wealth and adherence to middle-class norms) and a teacher’s role is to help young people become productive members of society (which is often understood as working and making money). I’m not saying that all people think that this is what education is, but nonetheless this is the common discourse about education is deeply entangled in white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Even when we do not individually understand the world in these terms, so much about schooling is coherent with these logics. It can be quite a shock to learn that there are vastly different perspectives about schooling, ones that some students are unprepared for and unconvinced of. This dynamic is something that I am always negotiating–the lack of preparation for this shock and the need for it.
Here are some of the questions that I use to facilitate tense but important conversations on these kinds of topics:
What did you feel when reading this article? Why do you think you felt that way?
What were some of the words or phrases that you had a reaction to? Why do you imagine that you reacted in that way?
What claims did the author make that countered or challenged your thinking or perspective on this issue?
How does this make you think about X differently? What are the implications of that different thinking?
What claims do you disagree with, are unconvinced of, or have an embodied response to?
In the courses I teach, we often read articles that challenge, chafe, or even upset the reader. By chafe I mean some of them are irritated by the text. Some read and snap their fingers as they are overcome by the truth of the thinking, but others may come to class irritated. They might write a response or post on the discussion board about their irritation. Sometimes I am irritated by their irritation, which at times feels like ungenerous, unfair, or dismissive of the text. Students might fixate on a point that feels inaccurate and use that to dismiss the whole argument. Or become distracted by the language and unable to persist beyond the language. As a person who has struggled to make coherent arguments, I am sometimes personally hurt by how carelessly readers can dismiss the painstaking work of academic writers. I have come to realize that these kinds of readings are interesting places to begin to explore the ideas in the text. Rather than saying, this is what the author is saying and leaving those strong reactions aside, I begin with those strongly felt responses to readings, claims, and arguments. One of my most productive questions is: what claims or arguments are you not convinced of?
In a course I teach called Cultural Contexts of Adolescent Education, we read Nancy Lesko’s piece about the cultural construction of adolescence as rooted in colonization (1996). We also read a piece called “Schools as racial spaces: Understanding and Resisting Structural Racism” (Blaisdell, 2015) and “Losing an Arm: Schooling as a Site of Black Suffering” (Dumas, 2014). These articles taken together disrupt the dominant discourse about teaching secondary school: the taken-for-granted perspectives that orient many of their desires to go to graduate school to become teachers. I often ask provocative or risky questions, then invite them to write for 10-minutes to gather their thoughts. Other times I have them write anonymously on notecards.
The class that I am currently teaching is not shy about dissent, so I generally ask them what they think. On the day that prompted this post, I asked them what they were not convinced of and/or irritated them about the readings. I did not respond to any of the comments and I wrote down what each of them said (I was surprised by some of it). Once we had everything down, I read them what I had written down. Then I asked which question they wanted to start with. I resisted the urge to defend the arguments of the texts under discussion, even when I felt that they were mischaracterizing or misunderstanding the argument. I invited them to discuss the claims and refused the role of evaluating their takes. I took notes as they talked and once the discussion ran out of steam, I responded to some of the comments. I used my speaking time much like a discussant on a panel and found this to be a useful way to facilitate discussion–making room for pushback and allowing space for peers to speak to that pushback.
In this particular discussion, one student said that after reading the articles, they were not convinced that race was a factor in a person’s success. I felt the affective response of the class as this person said this. Someone might have audibly gasped. I asked if anyone had a response to this or wanted to add something. If I were to do this over, I might have left the room. Another person expressed similar doubts about the claims made by the texts. I waited to hear what others had to say. Someone spoke very passionately about their experience with activism, another person spoke about the challenges their own children faced, and another person drew attention back to the empirical work that showed how race impacts peoples’ life trajectory.
I do not know if the person who expressed doubts was convinced as a result of our tense conversation, but I do not think of that as my role anymore. I think that the people who responded to and even those who heard the response learned a lot. One of the things that I tell students who are intersted in feminist and anti-racist pedagogy and scholarship is that it is not enough to know the facts, but to be able to articulate those facts in a cultural context that does not widely engage those facts or perspectives as valid or real. I also think it was important for everyone to be aware that it is dangerous to assume that we are all in agreement or that what feels obvious and evident to some, is not evident to others. Making space in the classroom to pay attention to that is worthwhile. It also gives the person who is unconvinced or irritated by the texts, the discussion, and the course overall to have some space to speak those feelings without being graded or feeling like they cannot be moved by new ideas. Inviting their thoughts, even their unpopular thoughts into the space created an openness that remained over the course. It also allowed people more room to change their minds because their peers challenged them and I supported them in being challenged.
Another example of how this can happen comes from a course I taught on Social and Cultural Contexts. I started by asking for anonymous responses. People were particularly worried about saying the wrong thing or being judged by their peers. I asked them what they felt irritated or annoyed by in the course. They wrote their responses on notecards and passed them to me. I reordered them and passed them back out. We each took turns reading what others wrote. One person read, “We only talk about Black people. In a course that is supposed to be multicultural, you would think that we would talk about more than just black people.” I took a steadying breath. As a black instructor I am often accused of only talking about Black people, even when it’s demonstrably not the case. I resisted responding defensively and instead, I asked if anyone had a response to that statement. Someone raised their hand and said that she had a reaction to that statement and asserted that it was inaccurate. She said that the direction of the discussion often went in that direction because many of the people in the room were at internship sites that served a predominantly African-American population. Another person raised their hand to direct our attention to the syllabus and the range of texts that were not exclusively about Black people. Finally, someone said, what’s wrong with talking about Black people anyway. At this point, I finally spoke. I spoke about how I have been very as an instructor and that I am always very cautious about balance in my syllabus, lest I be accused of only focusing on Black people. I also reminded students that they had shared that they only read white people until my course. I wondered if there was the same response in those classes and how the assertion connects with some of the other conversations we have had about whose knowledge counts and whose perspectives matter. I believe though, that what I said was the least important in the discussion. What students said to each other was the most important exchange that happened.
Last week I had a really wonderful conversation with a group of Graduate Center students about facilitating the kinds of conversation where people express views that offend or chafe us as instructors. We worried about students who are impacted by these statements. We also wondered how to respond. I have learned that sometimes a response is not needed from me. Students need to be able to respond to one another, not in a debate but in a discussion. In this case, I can ask students to return to the text, clarify their statements, and ask questions that invite those less popular views and perspectives into the space. This is important for many reasons, but most important is that many views go unchallenged because they are rarely said in mixed company. People can more easily hold misguided or harmful views when they are only in conversation with those who share those views. Classroom spaces are one of the few places we can challenge each other in a way that is sustained over time. Giving time to respectfully engage dissenting views creates a community where people can be heard and have their minds changed through encounters with others.
This is difficult but important work.
Asilia Franklin-Phipps is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Teaching and Learning Center and teaches at Brooklyn College and Hunter College in Education.