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Experiments with a Liberating Graduate Pedagogy Seminar

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It’s hard to believe that the semester is drawing to a close, and yet, the palpable sense of exhaustion exuding from students, faculty, and librarians convinces me that it is true. It has been a challenging semester in many ways. I taught my first graduate course and asked both myself and my students to stretch to learn new skills while also attempting to keep up with my frenetic full-time job. It was also a semester consumed by and with the 2016 election. References to current politics were unavoidable as we explored the structures of settler colonialism and history of settler colonies in the United States and French Algeria. And students’ thoughts and emotions following the election could not be ignored. Now that the first roller coaster wave of emotions has passed, fatigue has set in. The end of the semester usually brings enervation and a desire to just be done with it, but this year, that feeling seems pervasive and more powerful than I have ever noticed in my 30 years of involvement in education.

When I began writing this post, I had not intended to dwell on this, but I think we need to recognize both our own emotional vulnerability and that of our students. This seems even more important at this particular moment than ever before, at least in my own lifetime. Thankfully, this segue leads me to happier and more hopeful reflections.

This semester, I launched a monthly pedagogy seminar for my graduate students serving as Digital Scholarship Fellows. Our 90-minute conversations each month have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career and sustained me through both good times and the rougher ones in and outside the classroom this fall. Here’s a snapshot of what we explored this semester:

  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, chapters 1-2.
    bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, chapter 4.
  2. Susan A. Ambrose, et. al., How Learning Works: Seven Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching, chapters 4-5:
    • Chapter 4: How do students develop mastery?
    • Chapter 5: What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning?
  3. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, introduction and chapter 1.
    bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, chapter 1.

In our very first meeting, I heard about my students’ experiences growing up in India, China, and the United States; saw light bulbs suddenly flash as understanding illuminated their experiences; and encouraged them to see how they were already evolving as teachers even though they had begun teaching in the banking style at the start – a notion that horrified one of my students when he realized this about himself. Our discussion teased apart Freire’s ideas and helped the students relate to them on a personal level. As I asked questions and shared my own experiences, I explained that they did not have to share anything that made them uncomfortable, that they could consider my questions as prompts for later reflection. And I was blown away as they shared their stories openly, honestly, vulnerably. A beautiful bond of trust that I have rarely seen as a teacher developed in those moments.

Once we had a common understanding of Freire’s work, we agreed that a liberating education was the ideal for which we would strive. Consequently, we delved into the implications for our own teaching practice. Here are just a few of our take-aways:

Problem-posing, liberating education…

  • recognizes the teacher as learner and the students as co-teachers and co-creators of knowledge
  • recognizes, honors, and values the humanity in both students and teacher
  • grapples with the reality of oppression and does not ignore or skew that reality
  • encourages asking “Why?”
  • develops critical thinking and critical engagement through dialog and action

At the end of our first seminar, I watched as the students explored a table full of other books somewhat related to education to see what caught their eye. (The idea was to allow the students’ interests to guide the rest of the seminars for the semester, a principle I followed in my planning.) One student was drawn to Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You Will Go! and broke down as she began to read it aloud, exclaiming that she never would have been allowed to read such a book as a child. She slowly shut the book, wiping tears away. Nearly in tears myself, I asked what struck her about the book. It was such a beautiful encapsulation of Freire’s observations in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and my student’s own experience with a demanding education system and culture that charted children’s paths for them, that the notion that she was smart and capable enough on her own to forge her own path, explore, fail, learn and keep going simply overwhelmed her.  We began the second seminar with a read-aloud and discussion of Oh, the Places You Will Go! in its entirety.

In teaching my students about critical pedagogy, we have simultaneously co-created a classroom that exemplifies Freire’s liberating education – and I can’t take the credit for it. As a teacher, I can ask them to read certain things. I can show up and be authentic, but unless they engage with the readings and are willing to be vulnerable as well, the classroom would remain unchanged from the banking model with which are all far too familiar.

I have asked the students to reflect on what they have learned in the seminars this semester and how these insights apply to their own lives and careers paths. With their permission, I will share some excerpts at the end of the semester. Stay tuned!

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