A New Critical Pedagogy

By most objectives measures, democratic governance is in retreat all around the world.  In the US, extreme political polarization has resulted in legislative paralysis, as well as the rise of politicians whose ideas, attitudes and tactics are unacceptable to many people.  Many writing teachers, myself included, are upset by this dynamic.  What is to be done?  I think the answer is clear: a recommitment to pedagogy that helps prepare young people for democratic participation.  In short, we need new politically progressive teaching methods, specifically tailored to the world our students now face.  This involves, inevitably, rethinking what makes a pedagogy progressive.

The maintenance of a healthy public sphere has often been listed among rhetoric and composition’s many goals.  In the 1980s, the field saw the rise of so-called “critical pedagogy.”  Largely influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy is overtly political.  Through a variety of methods, critical pedagogues seek to help students achieve “emancipation” and “empowerment,” hoping to ultimately spur positive social change.  Of late, some scholars have argued that critical pedagogy, as such, has run its course.  This is not to say that overtly political pedagogies are out of fashion: one of the most lauded rhet-comp books of recent years (by the chair of Cs, no less) presents an overtly political writing pedagogy.  I do think, though, that ideas about what makes a pedagogy “political” or “politically progressive” have grown somewhat sedimented.

What’s the current progressive consensus?  Approaches vary, of course, but I think we can safely imagine a generic progressive classroom.  First, efforts are made to decentralize authority, to give students (relatively more) control over what and how they learn.  Second, students are taught to recognize and interrogate power structures.  It is assumed that we know what we know, and do what we do, not sui generis, but because of larger forces within society.  These forces create hierarchies that advantage / disadvantage certain groups.  With proper instruction (which often involves an introduction to critical theory), students can be taught to recognize and challenge these hierarchies.

The justification for the consensus approach is two-fold.  First, by gaining knowledge of power structures, students will be a better able to operate within them.  They will become more self-conscious and contextually aware writers.  Second, they will see that these structures are often unfair.  In turn, they’ll seek to challenge them.  Advantaged groups will realize that they need to “renounce their privilege” and embrace “allyship,” while disadvantaged groups will realize it’s “not their fault” and “by working together, we can change things.”  A combination of these factors (increased writerly agency + increased political awareness) are what makes these pedagogies “progressive.”

Now, I don’t want to completely dismiss the consensus approach; many teachers likely feel it works well.  Identifying and challenging power structures makes their teaching meaningful.  This is fine.  I highly suspect, though, that given the fact that regressive political elements now control all three branches of the US government, many teachers feel that current progressive approaches are not working.  For whatever reason, our efforts are not having optimal impact.  If this is the case (which I think it is) we need new forms of critical pedagogy.

Where should a progressive rethink start?  Well, for one, we can start by examining texts outside the conventional canon of Marxist-inspired social analysis.  I find that much progressive pedagogy (and honestly, much of rhet-comp in general) is painfully blind to how individuals actually think, feel and act.  In short, for too long we’ve focused too heavily on systems (networks, discourses, etc.) and not enough on human behavior within systems.  How can we correct this?  Well, one approach is to learn from those who study human behavior.  It seems to me that behavioral psychology can be particularly useful.

As noted, I believe that a progressive pedagogy should help prepare students for democratic participation.  This includes providing “knowledge of” (power structures, etc) and “knowledge how” (to formulate and evaluate arguments, etc).  Behavioral psychology, however, reminds us to take a more holistic view.  It suggests that a functioning democratic system requires not just that individuals have knowledge and skills, but certain dispositions.  Citizens, or a large portion of them anyway, must be inclined to act in certain ways.  In other words, if we want to promote liberal democratic values, we have to promote liberal democratic ways of being.

Now, to an extent, critical pedagogy recognizes the importance of cultivating certain ways of being.  Teachers relinquish power, for example, in order to demonstrate (and hence promote) egalitarian behaviors.  So how can behavioral psychology further such efforts?  Well, psychologists generally hold that behavioral tendencies occur together, thus allowing for the categorization of dispositions.  They also hold that certain dispositions are correlated to certain political attitudes.  For our purposes, the most relevant dispositional factor is one’s “openness to experience.”  Simply put, people who rate highly in openness are willing to accept that which is new or different.  As such, they tend towards creativity, intelligence and empathy.  In the political sphere, they resist authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and systems of dominance.  Tellingly, research also indicates that democracy is more likely to work in relatively open societies.

From the above, we can conclude that to promote openness to experience is to promote liberal democracy.  We want our students to embrace, rather than run from that which is new or different.  To promote this dispositional tendency—which will manifest in patterns of behavior over a multitude of contexts and over a student’s entire life—is as important, I believe, as teaching context-specific knowledges or skills.

So how can we teach openness to experience?  This is a hard question.  It seems, though, that our first step should involve critiquing our current practices in light on this new goal.  Is it possible that anything we are doing is working to make students less generous towards others, less creative, less sensitive to beauty, or their own or others’ subjective states (all traits associated with high openness)?

Each teacher needs to perform her own analysis, but I do wonder if the current progressive emphasis on power structures might be working to make students more “closed.”  Perhaps well-meaning members of advantaged groups, eager not to oppress by “asserting their privilege,” are being incentivized to engage in less personal or meaningful contact with members of disadvantaged groups.  Likewise, members of disadvantaged groups, schooled in the ways of “microaggressions,” might be quicker to derive negative affect from otherwise benign encounters.  Indeed, reports indicate that cultural segregation—the clustering of same with same—is becoming more common on college campuses.  Overall, this line of analysis indicates that supposedly progressive ideas might be shutting down, rather than opening up, students’ willingness to engage with (and hence learn to accept) difference.  If so, behavioral psychology tells us that such pedagogies might be working against democratic ideals.

To close, I will say that the above is not an argument against the progressive consensus.  Instead, it is a call to take into account the whole person when theorizing how progressive political ends might be achieved.  Focusing more on dispositions, or patterns of behavior, can help us achieve a broader perspective.  What we will then see is uncertain.

Microaggression / Macro-aggravation

Of late, the concept of “microaggression” has emerged as the hot, new PC boogeyman. In today’s Washington Post law professor Eugene Volokh chimes in, discussing recent efforts by UC-Berkeley to dissuade faculty from saying things like “America is a melting pot” for fear that such statements may alienate students of color. Is this censorship? Suppression of ideas? Let’s discuss.

At the heart of Volokh’s article is a worksheet distributed by UC-Berkeley to inform faculty about unintended discrimination. This is fascinating document. It defines microaggressions as actions, intentional or otherwise, which “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” This includes (obviously problematic) stuff like clutching one’s purse when a black person walks by. It also includes statements which act to deny the existence of racial/gender discrimination. For example, one should be wary of telling a person of color that “in this society, everyone can succeed.”

Prof. Volokh’s main concern is that efforts to prevent professors from talking like Republican presidential candidates represent a suppression of certain viewpoints. I agree that taken out of context a prohibition on statements such as “there’s only one race, the human race” sounds ridiculous. Prof. Volokh perhaps feels that this is a true statement. Great. Of course he should be able to think and talk and theorize about our fundamental oneness.

At the same time though, perhaps Volokh, as a sophisticated reader and thinker, is being slightly disingenuous. The document he cites clearly states the importance of context. Of course, not every humanistic platitude is an act of racialized violence. No one is claiming this. Instead, the cited worksheet simply tries to explain (presumably to a white reader) how certain statements, in certain contexts, might be construed. When her professor asserts “color-blindness,” for example, a certain brand of prickly activist (I know the type, trust me) might hear “this white man thinks he doesn’t have to acknowledge my truth.” Such a response, even if silly, is real. It can impact the educational relationship and therefore must be respected.

To get a little more general, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between “truth” and consequences. In the university environment, all parties (ideally) are entitled to their own truth. Prof. Volokh can believe that “America is a melting pot” and the student activist can believe that “America is a cesspool of oppression” and AMAZINGLY they can both be right. This is pluralism. This is a good thing.

At the same time though, in exchange for the right to be right, both actors must be aware of the consequences of their statements. Volokh and the student activist must recognize that their truth is not necessarily shared. Therefore, that truth must be presented with a certain amount of rhetorical nuance. If anything, the statements on the worksheet lack this nuance. It is that, not their validity or lack therefore which makes them offensive.¹

So to summarize, as long as we keep it at the level of rhetorical etiquette, I see no problem with the policing of “microaggressions.” On the other hand, if such policies work to restrict what truths can be held and promulgated, they must be resisted.

1. Admittedly the text of the worksheet does not make this distinction. I’m reading it generously.