Monday, November 19, 2007

bell hooks Monday: Teaching, Learning and Safe Spaces

From Teaching to Transgress:
"The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. To some extent, we all know that whenever we address in the classroom subjects that students are passionate about there is always a possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict. In much of my writing about pedagogy, particularly in classroom settings with great diversity, I have talked about the need to examine critically the way we as teachers conceptualize what the space for learning should be liked. Many professors have conveyed to me their feeling that the classroom should be a "safe" place; that usually translates to mean that the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on. The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all "safe" in what appears to be a neutral setting. It is the absence of a feeling of safety that often promotes prolonged silence or lack of student engagement." (pp 39, Teaching to Transgress).
All through grade school, high school and college (at least while I was an undergrad), I loved the sort of 'safe' classrooms that hooks describes above. I loved lectures, I loved answering questions when called upon, and I would get frustrated when students would interrupt that by asking questions out of turn, or bringing up information I thought tangential to the conversation (and pretty much, anything the teacher thought was tangential, I thought was tangential). I tended to not like group work for various reasons, most of which revolved around the sort of psuedo-safety ideas hooks is talking about.

In college, my major was philosophy, and despite the preponderance of individualistic, opinionated people in that discipline, most classrooms were still 'safe' in the way hooks describes. From time to time, somebody would point out the lack of diversity in the discipline, but generally, arguments of that sort were seen as ignoring the 'universal' knowledge that philosophy often purported to reveal--"Yeah, yeah, yeah, women philosophers aren't talked about much, but that doesn't matter because 'critical thinking' is genderless," was the basic line of thought, which ignores the need to 'think critically' about, say, the fact that Socrates (and/or Plato, depending on your viewpoint) thought that women were not only inferior to men, but also sprung into being as former men who were cowards.

When people brought up such subjects, they were often quickly shut down. Of course, there are volumes to be said about the complexities of teaching and learning--'safety' is just one of many goals, for instance. But I think that hooks is right to point out that 'safety' isn't obviously safe for everybody, and is often masking something more like 'safe-for-some' through the shroud of 'normal'.

And this doesn't only apply to the classroom, of course. In fact, one runs into problems of deciding whether or not to rock the boat, which will be seen by some as violating the safety of others, on almost a daily basis. And it's often a fine line to walk, because one does want to limit the parameters of discussion to some degree--no forum is completely "open", and for good reasons. So it's a constant sort of decision-making process, where one is always having to choose in order to create a space where ideas can flourish (and compete?)--allowing in as many new ideas as possible without letting a few people (or ideas) distract from the overall conversation. Anybody who has taught in a classroom or tried to moderate blog comments knows that these decisions aren't always easy, but that they are pretty much constant.

Still, I like to err on the side of not promoting so much 'safety', a good deal of the time, both in classrooms I might find myself in and in conversations with people in general, while in a place like this blog, I find myself policing what I see as not apropos views (anti-feminist talking points, racism, and the like) more than I would in other public forums, partly because of the lack of social pressure to be kind to others, and respectful, on The Interweb. Luckily, there is not just one idea space which can be safe or unsafe--there are lots of communities where various opinions can be explored.
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