Thursday, June 23, 2016

Engaging Minds, Hearts, & Bodies - UMOJA Summer Learning Institute

One of the most important criteria I have for professional development programs is whether or not the facilitators actually practice the sort of pedagogy/andragogy they promote. Many of us teachers have attended (been subjected to?) professional development where the leaders simply lecture or present a PowerPoint. I wish I could say I was exaggerating. I'm not.  

I don't need anyone to read me a lecture or recite from slides, regardless how brilliant the ideas. I want to experience the ways successful teachers create classroom climate. I want to observe their philosophies in action and to experience the sort of lessons the experts advocate (Note to self: I need to live up to this standard, too!).

If today, the first day of the UMOJA Summer Learning Institute (SLI), is any indication of what to expect, I will be heartily pleased. Today's program manifested deliberate intention on the part of the organizers to demonstrate the sort of classroom culture and pedagogy/andragogy they expect us to create and deliver next semester.

I wrote yesterday about the two texts we were to read in advance of the SLI: bell hook's Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Joy DeGruy's Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The opening activities did not directly refer to particular pages or passages of either book. The program did, however, hit the same content, but from a different angle. More importantly, the organizers created the conditions for us to experience the kind of teaching practices they want us to learn from our readings. 

A significant section of DeGruy's book outlines the devastating experience and ongoing effects of the African Holocaust. Her words provide an competent outline of the historical facts, a solid primer on the legacy of American-style slavery and the abuse suffered by kidnapped Africans. 

Instead of merely reviewing notes and providing a lecture on DeGruy's work, the organizers lead us in an experiential workshop that meant us to learn - experientially - what history cannot capture. Certainly, slave narratives serve as direct evidence of the Holocaust. And fictional accounts like Toni Morrison's Beloved and Octavia Butler's Kindred allow for affective experience that literature can provide. But history is an intellectual, rational process. And even with the emotions gained from literary depictions, those works approach thought experiments.

So the exercise on the content was experiential rather than didactic. I won't completely give away everything about the exercise, but I will say that part of the activity included wearing blindfolds and being lead through path meant to recapitulate the kidnapping from Africa, the Middle Passage, and the experience of slavery. The exercise engaged all of our senses - (lack of) sight, sound, smell, and physical touch as we had to place our hands on our partners' shoulders (as one might do in a "trust-walk" activity).  Our whole bodies were involved in ways that lectures nor books cannot access. Indeed, the activity compelled us to physically experience notions community and connection vis-a-vis the MIddle Passage well beyond the dictionary definition or even viewing a movie. 

The activity left me emotionally drained, bouncing back and forth between despair and hope. During the debrief, I didn't speak (which isn't how I normally participate in exercises). Feeling numb after the activity, I chose to dine alone to pull myself together. It's only now, a full seven hours afterwards, that I'm able to string together my initial responses to the exercise. If you think I'm incoherent now . . . 

Note: I do not claim that today's activity could replicate or even approach the horrors of slavery. The whole time, I was, as were many of my colleagues, aware this was an exercise, one we could opt out of in ways the actual targets of slavery could not. The experience remained a "thought experiment," but one that tweaked our bodies in way neither history nor literary book could.

While several participants discussed the possibility of organizing an activity like this in their classrooms or campuses, I wondered how the experiential "taught" us differently than a book or lecture. I wondered what elements of the process I might hack or recalibrate for my purposes in my own classroom.

Here's where hooks' ideas might be instructive. I'm still thinking this through, so my ideas are a sketchy. The sort of topics I use for my English classroom have to do with identity, diversity, and oppression. Much of those social justice issues have everything to do with material bodies and how those bodies are perceived, represented, judged and legislated. Those of African descent find themselves placed in subordinate positions based on their black  bodies. Women, the gendered body, find themselves placed below men. The "perverted desires" of gay, lesbian, bisexual bodies find themselves on the receiving end of homophobia. And those who feel as if they are born into the wrong gendered body find themselves under surveillance, as in "Which restroom can I use?".. Indeed, it's as if the only way to be a citizen is to be without a body (see note below).

So talking about racism, about slavery, is a deeply embodied issue. The justification for slavery is the body, and an immediate site of damage is the sensate body. 

Yet in the classroom, rationality, cognition, and transfer of intellectual knowledge is the order of the day. That's how I was taught. And how I was taught to teach. Indeed, as hooks reminds us, "We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies" (139).

Jason de Caires Taylor's "Vicissitudes" 
What the UMOJA organizers did was genius; they found a way to engage our emotions to make the lesson more than intellectual and more than affective. They engaged our bodies, helping us recognize how we ourselves might - ever so slightly -feel if we were kidnapped and enslaved. This approach practices what hooks promotes when she writes, "Once we start talking in the classroom about the body and about how we live in our bodies, we're automatically challenging the way power has orchestrated itself in that particularly institutionalized space." (137). In other words, if we are to truly deconstruct the oppressive forces in play because of the legacy of slavery, we need to find ways to embody those lessons, to, in an appropriate way, bring the body back into the classroom through out own. As hooks explains, "We must return ourselves to a state of embodiment in order to deconstruct the way power . . . [denies] subjectivity to some groups and accords it to others" (139).

I guess what I'm trying to knit together what I've learned from reading DeGruy and hooks and what I felt (emotionally and physically) from participating in "The Middle Passage" experiential to figure out what the means for me in my role as teacher.

I don't have concrete answers yet - it's just the first day! But I do have questions to consider as I plan units and lessons for next semester. How do I engage bodies in a meaningful way that is relevant to the lesson at hand? What emotional and physical factors should I consider if I move toward a more experiential classroom? In what ways does my own classroom deny students' subjectivity? What transgenerational or epigenetic trauma might students bring into my classrooms? Indeed, what kinds of trauma have they suffered at the hands of teachers and other authorities, experiences that may affect our relationship?  

The fact that I left today's program with my mind full of questions testifies to the efficacy of the teaching that took place today. The UMOJA organizers demonstrated how they might, under these particular circumstances, engage the heart and body in what simply be treated as an intellectual question. They demonstrated how to stoke hunger for more inquiry, for more reflection. They got me, even after a long day, to crack open my books and begin thinking deeply about my practice. Now that's the kind of teaching I'm talking about! 

Note: I'm thinking here of Lauren Berlant's essay "The Queen of America goes to Washington" which discusses "abstract citizenship", i.e., notion that the American subject, as a white heterosexual male, is without substance. A "colored" or "sexed" or "queered" body is material, tangible. The white male is beyond body - an abstraction. Can you say body/mind split, where the body is the subordinated, baser material, and the mind is spirit, the important essence?

revised 6/23/2016