October 1, 2013

JOHN: For a Messier Classroom and a More Personal Pedagogy

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In one of my classes, I am reading the personal testimonies of third world revolutionaries. I’m reading these texts and trying to figure out what it means to be reading a story about anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle while sitting on this Hill, in this classroom, underneath this gothic architecture, my feet on stolen land. I’m struggling to make myself feel connected to this campus because I feel like I need to feel connected to it, but all I feel is numbness.

Where is the anger in the classroom? I’ve been sitting in on way too many classes where the texts we read are erased of their revolutionary potential, and read as though they were as bland as an assembly guide. What does it mean to be reading Marx at a neoliberal university, to be reading about colonialism on occupied land and to be reading about third world revolutionaries in a racially stratified country? When I read about oppression, it makes me angry, and rightfully so. It is important to have spaces to read and discuss radical texts at a place which, as an elite institution of higher education, is directly culpable in systems of oppression. In this context, it is even more crucial to be able to engage with these texts in an personal and urgent way.

I don’t want the classroom to be a dead space. I want it to be a space teeming with life, because the purpose of an education should be to affirm life. In a life-affirming classroom, it is crucial that we bring our entire beings to the table. This means all of our histories, all of our traumas, all of the ways we relate to each other.

I don’t want the classroom to be a sanitized space. I want it to reflect the messiness of the world that we are inheriting. This includes the messy ways we respond to material that we learn that implicates us. Sometimes that means anger, sometimes that means tears, sometimes it means numbness. I don’t want to redundantly assert “the personal is political” as much as I want to affirm that what is political is already profoundly personal.

I refuse to sit in any classrooms that force us to make distinctions between what is here, and what is there, what is global and what is local, what is emotional and what is objective, and most of all, which parts of us belong in the classroom, and which parts don’t. Compartmentalization of our experiences is a kind of violence the institution commits against bodies of color, a kind of violence we internalize and enact on ourselves. It means that I must be a student in space, and a woman, a sister, and a daughter in other places; it means that I must be a critical thinker in one space and an emotional being in another; it means that I must be present in the classroom, and keep my historical memories and traumas elsewhere.

Where is the anger in the classroom? Within these four walls, students are being given scholarly ammunition to dismantle systems of oppression, yet all sense of urgency seems lost in the Ivory Tower on the top of a hill. I’m trying to hold onto that sense of urgency, and I’m disturbed by the idea of reading texts that should compel me to action, but that leave me not feeling anything. I am thinking about how to affirm life. All around me I see death. There is death laced into the clothing on my body and death imbued into the ground I am walking on and death at an institution that funds death. There is death settling in the classroom where we talk about death like it is something distant from us.

In a Poem About My Rights, June Jordan eloquently articulates how she is “very familiar with the problems of the CIA and the problems of South Africa and the problems of Exxon Corporiation and the problems of white America in general,” because these problems turn out to be her. I am looking for that sort of seamless personal pedagogy that does not commit the violence of disconnection because it recognizes that we are already connected in a million ways. Apathy is not an involuntary ignorance but a deliberate move we make to reject the ways in which we are linked. If we allow ourselves to experience and feel those connections in the classroom, allow rage and sadness to color our knowledge, we could be creating catalysts for change, creating huge dents in the marble walls of this Ivory Tower.