Archive for the ‘Pedagogy’ Category

This Upworthy post & video entitled I Never Thought I’d Want To High-Five A Teacher For Yelling At A Student, But I Was Wrong has been going around on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) in the last few weeks… I’ve seen a number of people express great support for it, as we all quite often, and quite rightfully, do when we find a video that calls out societal wrongs and aims to make a difference. I felt quite differently.

I cannot express how angry and upset this video made me. It took more than half an hour for a friend to talk me down. I put off writing this post for a long time, and considered not posting it at all, for fear of the feedback. But, I am still terribly offended, appalled, disgusted, with this teacher for treating her students this way, for thinking it okay to do so, and for thinking this an appropriate way to teach about racism, and I continue to see people posting positively about this video, so I feel I need to say my piece. If we disagree, I hope we can discuss it civilly and calmly, focusing on issues of pedagogy and discourse, without saying anything that should make anyone feel personally attacked.

The video opens with the teacher talking to students about listening skills, and body language, in a very severe, harsh, authoritarian sort of manner. She clearly expects the students to behave as she dictates, and to reiterate things as they’ve been taught, without question. One student, a young lady in a bandana, attempts to say something about how strict adherence to a set rule doesn’t actually work in all aspects, or doesn’t apply in all situations, and the teacher not only shuts her down, but does so in a manner that sets up the rest of the class against her. The teacher says “bring it on, bring it on,” as other students laugh, and then as the student attempts to make her voice heard over the commotion, the teacher says “now, does that make sense, what you just said?” The student continues, setting up a “yes, in general it’s like this, but..” sort of argumentative structure, but is rudely interrupted by the teacher who tells her STOP, you’re getting too wordy.

I apologize for this pop media reference, when it should have been a picture from a famous civil rights protest or the like. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good picture of a single person standing up amongst a crowd, to speak out against injustice. And this one served the purpose…

She raises her hand. She attempts to play within the rules of a normal classroom, signalling that she has something to say, but is politely waiting to speak rather than shouting out. She is denied again, and harshly, being told that if she is raising her hand, it means she’s thinking about what she wants to say, rather than truly listening to what others are saying. A fair point. But, even so, this strikes me as terribly controlling, overbearing. Clearly, this is no normal American classroom. As the teacher continues to attempt to shut her down, the student continues to speak up. Finally, she says “I don’t care, because it’s wrong, and you persecuted her for standing out, and you persecuted him for standing out, and the only change that ever happens is when people stand out.” The teacher then says, “Martin Luther King…”

I was ready to applaud. I thought the girl’s reaction was precisely what the teacher was looking for – that people should not take things sitting down, that when someone demands you have to think like them, have to think their way, without questioning, that people should instead speak out. I thought the teacher was going to say “Martin Luther King spoke out against injustice. He stood up, and spoke out, when few others would, and when the status quo and the powers that be were very much in opposition to him.”

Imagine my surprise when she instead completely discredits this student’s courage, her outrage, her willingness to stand up against injustice, by saying “Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Are you in any physical danger here?” Seems to me somebody is missing the point. Martin Luther King spoke up, spoke out for what he believed in, despite the physical danger. This girl, too, stood up and spoke out, despite the dangers of a verbal chastising, detention, suspension, a failing grade, or whatever other consequences a teacher might be able to dole out.

And yet, as the video continues, we are led to believe that this student, the one student who was willing to stand up to an authoritarian presence, the one student who felt the injustice of the situation so strongly that she became quite genuinely upset, was in the wrong. That she’s the one who didn’t get it. And that all the students who simply sat there silently, accepting what the teacher told them without question, were the ones who “got” the lesson.

I don’t disagree with this teacher’s message whatsoever, of course, but I very much take issue with her methods. There is a very important lesson to be learned here about racism, to be sure, and it is a lesson that I think everyone should learn. But I do not think that being domineering and controlling is the way to do it. For such a complex, touchy, and deeply personal, topic as racism, I believe the best way to do it is to have open discussion perhaps based around readings, a film, a lecture, or the like. Allow people to ask questions. Allow people to ask why. Allow people to share what they have experienced, or what they have been taught, and help them work towards a more progressive or enlightened understanding. This is how I learned about indigenous issues in Hawaii and the Pacific (and by extension, indigenous, post-colonial and ethnic/race issues around the world), and I am extremely grateful to my professor for teaching in this manner. For understanding that if I came into the class believing certain things about the United States, about imperialism, about native peoples, it was only because that’s what we are taught in public school, and by popular media, that I am not an inherently “racist” or bad person, and that with exposure to new narratives, evidence, discussion, and debate, I can come to a new and more progressive understanding.

When you force a paradigm, a discourse, down someone’s throat, telling them you have to see it my way, you have to think how I think, without allowing for raised hands, without allowing for questions, that is how attitudes are enforced in fascist and totalitarian regimes, not here in the United States. If this were a lesson on civil disobedience, if this were a lesson on how Nazi Germany and Maoist China and totalitarian Japan ran their education system, and on why we in the free and democratic United States oppose their methods, then having the student defy the teacher, to speak out against having an ideology shoved down her throat, would be the right answer, the correct ideal outcome.

Just because your lesson, your message, is a morally superior one, an anti-racist one, does that entitle you to use such methods? How is your forcing me to unquestioningly believe one thing about race that much different from forcing me to believe a different thing about race? What sets you apart from so many others, in Germany and China and Japan, who have in such a domineering controlling way forced students to adhere to a given ideology?

I’ve heard of this “experiment” before, and indeed remember being taught about it from a very young age, albeit in a slightly different context. The metaphor was not whites and blacks, but rather Jews and Gentiles. We were taught that this was similar to how the Nazis ran their classrooms, and their society. The Jews and the Gentiles were separated, the Jews forced to wear a yellow star on their shirts identifying them as different. And so they were treated differently. And if anyone spoke out, they were not only harshly punished, but they were made an example of, so that the other students would remain in line. Adherence was reinforced not only through fear, but through ideology, making the students believe that aligning with the teacher, adhering to what teacher taught, was the right, good, proper, way to be. And in talking about this experiment, the entire point of the discussion, the entire point of the experiment, was for the students to realize that the set-up itself, the division and different treatment of people by whatever features, is unjust, is inappropriate, and is something to be opposed. In other words, within the metaphorical context of this experiment, Mrs. Elliot represents the authority figure enforcing the institution’s racism, by herself dividing people up in her classroom, and treating them differently, and as such, she should not be obeyed, but should be resisted and opposed.

Now, I don’t know what this student would have said were she allowed an opportunity to speak; many who have shared this video on Facebook have suggested that what she had to say was racist, in opposition to or resistance against the underlying lesson being taught. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but, have not we all struggled with our own prejudices? Have we not all struggled with the belief systems, the myths and discourses about our identities that we were raised with? Were not a great many of us raised, for example, to believe in Columbus as a great noble explorer, in Manifest Destiny and western expansion as great, noble things that allow us to have the great God-given country that we have today? Were we not taught that the United States has never been an imperialist/colonialist power, and that in fact, the US is from its origins, ultimately anti-imperialist & anti-colonialist? As someone who has myself struggled very much with unlearning these lessons we’ve all been taught in the past, and as someone who has often felt personally under attack simply for being who I am – accused of being racist, misogynist, imperialist, oppressor, purely because I am a white male from a well-off suburban New York family, regardless of my actual beliefs, attitudes, experiences, actions – and most importantly, as someone raised from a very young age with stories of how the Nazis spread and reinforced their ideology, I sympathize very much with wanting to stand up, to speak out, against the forceful blanket imposition of an ideology, whether that ideology is good or bad.

What lesson have these students learned? That Ms. Elliot is a harsh bitch? That one should not ask questions, should not question or challenge, or even consider or think about what a teacher tells you, but should just accept it at face value because she’s the teacher, and she’s right? Is that the lesson we want our students to learn? Is that what it means to be an American?

The list of things that disgust and appall me about this video could fill numerous pages. But I think this post is long enough as is, and so I shall leave it here.

Laura Willard, who created the post on Upworthy, writes “Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.” As for myself, not that long ago, I too could have been the girl who walked out. I’m glad that my teachers welcomed me back into the room more warmly, less harshly, using discussion to help me come around, rather than excluding me as harshly as this teacher, Jane Elliot, does here. I am glad that my teachers allowed me to ask questions, so that I could work through the answers myself, to come to decide for myself what I believe, and why I believe it, for such is a much stronger, more genuinely belief than something you are forced to agree to, simply because your teacher said so.

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Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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Last term, I TAed a course on Japanese History through Art & Literature, and while the course as it was taught that term focused much more heavily on the literature, it really got me thinking, how do we teach “history through art”? Or, to put it another way, how do we incorporate art into the teaching of history, without it becoming “art history”? I struggled to come up with a good answer. Sure, you could show images in your PowerPoint in lecture, but, so what? I was going to do that anyway. It’s about the angle, the approach, the way you use the images to help convey the historical themes.

This term, I am TAing a World History course. I found the textbook extremely frustrating almost from the very moment I began reading it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, today, as I was reading a bit discussing the Incas, and contrasting them with the Mayas and other groups of Mesoamerica, it hit me. It hit me that the visuals in this textbook are terrible. Not in resolution/printing quality. And not in quantity, either. In fact, the page layouts look about as busy as a typical webpage, with all sorts of extra infoboxes on the sides. Rather, it’s the selection of which images are included, and the way that they are used.

Visuals – specifically images of art, artifacts, and architecture – can serve as powerfully useful touchstones for a student’s, or a reader’s, understanding of a period or a culture, serving as mnemonic devices or flashcards, encompassing a whole range of concepts within a single, relatively easy to remember image.

Left: Lady Xok’s Vision of a Great Snake. Limestone, c. 720s. Maya. Chiapas, Mexico.
Right: Gold back flap from the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Moche culture, Peru.

Reading purely in text about how the Incas had more advanced metalworking technology than the Mayas seems abstract, seems hard to grasp, for me at least. It makes one think of a whole bunch of intricate, complex, economic and “history of technology” sort of factors that, for an undergrad I’m sure, and even for myself, can make one quickly feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s difficult to recognize the significance of this comment about metalworking, the implications, and it’s hard to remember. But then I thought of the golden backflaps, and myriad other golden artifacts that our art history textbook provided as representative examples of Incan objects, and immediately it all clicked into place. These standard examples of Inca art given in a survey art history textbook are, many of them, gold, while the standard examples of Mayan art are all stone-carvings. Picture these in your mind, remember the image of what these objects look like and which culture or period they belong you, and you’ve got in those images a touchstone for remembering the identity or character of each culture, and a jumping-off point for remembering and thinking about further details about that period or culture, and about comparisons/contrasts with other periods or cultures.

You don’t need to talk about artistic style, composition, the individual artist, or anything else exceedingly “art historical” to use images in this way. Just include examples of images, objects, from each culture, to serve as a visual example of the character of that culture, and you’ve created an anchor, a touchstone, for helping the students remember which culture, which period, is which, and what characterizes it. The World History textbook we are using this term could have benefited greatly from this, because instead of these sorts of touchstones, we find, for example, a 17th century line illustration of a particular Andean farming technique which, really, adds nothing to the reader’s (the student’s) understanding. Honestly, do you think this image is going to stand out in a student’s mind, and help them remember anything about the key characteristics of the Inca civilization?

Maybe I’m a visual learner. Maybe I’m biased because of my art history background. But I think that visuals can be used to much greater effect in “mainstream” History than they are (or seem to be). The field of Art History has been much too marginalized, when in fact it has a lot to offer, and many Historians seem far too intimidated by the idea of art history, not realizing how easily it can be employed. Admittedly, granted, as someone without much training or experience myself in deconstructing and analyzing literature, theatre, or music, I can appreciate that art, too, requires a certain set of techniques or approaches, but, we’re not talking about in-depth analysis here, just superficial visual, stylistic, material associations. Flashcard-style recognition.

St. Peter’s Basilica versus the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia (left) as symbolic of the differences in character, in flavor, between Roman Catholicism and Arab Islam, for example. Something for the student to latch onto, as a representative example, to spark the memory for all the various concepts and facts that he has memorized about Roman Catholicism, or Islam, or the politics of the Popes, or about the Islamic Conquests – whatever. For another example, a picture of a Minuteman, with his formal-looking coat, breeches, tricorner hat, and horse, as compared to one of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt in a 20th-century men’s suit and tie, in a 1940s-style automobile, as compared to one of JFK riding in an early 1960s automobile, to provide an instant indication of the time period, the level of technology, and again, though I know it’s a vague sort of term to use, the “flavor and character” of the period.

I think the role played by visuals in this respect profoundly powerful and useful. Art brings something alive. It gives it texture and color, makes it tangible in a way that pure facts do not. If you can’t imagine what a person or place looks like, how can you feel you know it, understand it?


Postscript: As I worked to prepare this post, read more of the textbook, and continued to think about these issues, I realized it is quite possible that in their dearth of representation of cultural character, the authors were deliberately trying to combat Eurocentrism and Orientalist approaches. That would certainly make sense given the political/historiographical trends prominent in the field right now. An advocate of non-Eurocentric attitudes myself, I certainly cannot disagree with this as an admirable political aim.

By representing all societies as simply cases of different ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and different ways they engage in agriculture and trade, the authors level the playing field, and do, actually, a pretty incredible job of presenting a historical narrative that truly does not privilege Europe; this textbook neither devotes a disproportionate amount of space (pages) to Europe, nor does it speak of Europe as being better, more advanced, at least not in the chapters I have read so far (extending up to the 13th century or so). But, what it gains in a more global perspective, it loses in becoming oh so much drier. My apologies to those historians genuinely interested in modes of agricultural development, but for me what makes history colorful, fun, exciting, and interesting is the visual and material culture – the cultural flavor and character of the myriad of cultures that exist (and have existed) in this wonderfully diverse world of ours.

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