Teaching through Paradox: The Individual Voice and the Group Voice

Steve Volk, May 7, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Before We Begin…

Today’s article is my final one both for the year and for CTIE’s “Article of the Week.” Skimming back, I found to my surprise that I posted the first article 10 years ago, almost to the day (May 6, 2008), although I didn’t begin to write weekly original articles until 2012. Since then, I’ve uploaded more than 125, posting them every Sunday during the school year, a practice that played havoc with my weekends. I’ve covered everything from writing good letters of recommendation, to managing difficult discussions, to suggesting ways to think about reading, writing, grading, and activism. I’ve ventured into national issues that impact how we are able (or not) to teach, explored the environment that influences how students are able (or not) to learn, and tried to read the signals as to how higher education is surviving the current Trumpian moment (poorly). The feedback I’ve received indicates that you enjoyed some of what I’ve written, but neither were you hesitant to let me know when you disagreed. You’ve called my attention to failures of spelling, embarrassing typos, and critical research I overlooked. All the feedback was greatly appreciated, and I can only hope you’ve found at least some of the commentary to be worthy of further thought.

But it’s time to move on. I intend to keep writing about education, teaching and learning, democracy, and the factors that shape each of them on my new blog, “After Class.” The title encompasses multiple meanings. In the first place, I have discovered that, quite often, more learning takes place directly after a class ends than during the class itself. Learning and reflection can bloom in the conversations that emerge when students approach to ask a question they somehow felt constrained in asking during class, as you chat with a colleague on the way back to your office, or when, as you pack up your laptop and head to the door, a boisterous conversation emerges in your own head as you ponder what on earth just happened in that class! Secondly, having retired from teaching in 2016, and now from directing Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am soon to be fully located in that “after class” space, free from grading papers and crafting seminars as well as from institutional responsibilities and constraints, where my schedule will be determined more by what I’m thinking or reading than by specific deadlines. And, finally, the title nods to the more intersectional approach that has shaped my thinking about education and democracy as friends, colleagues, and family members have introduced me to critical pedagogies, culturally relevant approaches, and the way in which on-going struggles against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and inequality are shaping demands for high quality, inclusive and equitable education in this country. In any case, should you wish to follow what I have to say, you’ll find me at After Class. There you’ll be able to subscribe to follow my posts when they appear, or if you would like me to subscribe you to the blog, just send me your email.

And now, back to this week’s article…


This week’s article was inspired by a photograph taken by William DeShazer for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 30, 2018). He was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce it:

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The photograph carried the following caption: “At Illinois’s late-February game versus Purdue U., basketball fans strike a Chief Illiniwek pose.”

The Chronicle’s article, “The Mascot is Fiction. The War is Real,” reveals that even though the University of Illinois trustees “retired” “Chief Illiniwek” as their mascot in 2007, many students are still encouraged by a group supportive of the mascot to suit up in their old Illiniwek gear when they come to a game. Chancellor Robert Jones, for one, takes the challenge seriously. “Perhaps more so than any other time in the last 10 years,” he complained, “it has become a divisive issue that has in many ways pulled this otherwise outstanding, vital academic community apart.”

My interest in this photograph was not sparked specifically by the central issue of the story, the stubborn use of Native Americans as team mascots. (Only this year did the baseball team that manages to break my heart every season – the Cleveland Indians, for God’s sake! – begin to nudge their noxious “Chief Wahoo” off the field.) There’s much to be learned in exploring this topic (and James Fenelon’s Redskins? Sport Mascots, Indian Nations and White Racism, Routledge 2016 is a good place to start), but, instead, I’m interested in what the photograph tells us about crowds and the individuals who make them up as a metaphor for thinking about how we as teachers can embolden the voice of individual while also listening to and engaging the voice of the group. What can we do to support individuals as they learn to speak their conscience in the face of adverse social pressure? How we can make the group aware of its own voice and capable of self-generated change?

Reading the Photograph

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “Picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with an ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.” While not the photographer, I intend to invade this image to raise issues that, likely, weren’t on his mind when he snapped it, fully aware that I am reading attitudes and behaviors into those caught by his lens which might be illusory or simply a reflection of my own thinking. But, on the other hand, the postures frozen in place by the camera look exceedingly familiar to me; I’ve seen them many times and have been there myself (metaphorically) so many times. So I’ll assert my peremptory rights of interpretation.

This photograph tells two different stories which, at their heart, speak to a certain paradox that we deal with in the classroom, one which Parker Palmer pointed out in The Courage to Teach. The first story is about conformity and the power of the “crowd” to assert its hegemony and intimidate opposition. The second is about non-conformity, resistance, ambiguity, and unease that challenges the wisdom of the crowd. As teachers, we must deal with both.

Here’s the photo once more: take a long look, and consider what you see.

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The image is of a group of young people, students, in an arena. They are decked out in Illinois orange and the great majority of them have their arms crossed. This, we will learn, is a “Chief Illiniwek pose,” the “Chief,” again, being the mascot (or “symbol,” depending on with whom one talks) of the University of Illinois from 1926-2007.

Let’s zoom in on one group (please forgive the lower quality of the blow-ups), which I call “All in for the Chief,” to get a better view of this. (I’ve given names to the images just to help me refer back to them.)

“All in for the Chief”

The faces in this group are quite fascinating, a combination of smiles (upper row) and grim determination (lower row). All of them, however, as with the great majority in the arena, are making a statement since the university’s board of trustees banished the “Chief” more than a decade earlier. I make no claim to know why these individuals chose to adopt the “Indian” posture, other than to say that they know they are making a statement and that they are defying the university’s desires. We also can be sure that they know they are in the majority in the arena.

Is this the end of the story? That students attending a University of Illinois basketball game demand the return of their “Chief Illiniwek”? “Photographs are really experience captured,” Sontag continues, “and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” What the camera acquired here was not just the apparent uniformity of the fans, but the fact that the crowd is composed of individuals, and as we keep observing, we encounter doubt, hesitation, ambiguity, and even resistance.

Let’s look further.

“In Sync?”

The young man to the left can be found in the center of the larger photo, just north of the horizontal midpoint. Is he craning his neck to look for a friend in an upper row? We don’t really know. But it’s not going too far to suggest that, having crossed his arms, he’s scanning the crowd to make sure that he’s in conformity with the group, that he’s not standing alone with his “Indian-folded” arms. His posture is confident, his face is less so: just checking, he might be thinking, just want to be sure that I’m not doing this alone! As I said, there’s absolutely no way I can claim to know what, in fact, was on his mind as he turned his head, or if anything was on his mind. He could have simply been reacting to a sound behind him (although no one around him has followed his glance). But whether I’m reading him appropriately or not, I would hazard to say that we have all be there: just a bit uncomfortable or doubtful about our actions and therefore glancing around to make sure we were in sync with our peers, that we were not out of step.

It’s not easy to stand against a crowd, particularly if we’re not quite sure what we think ourselves. And it’s even harder for adolescents who, research has shown, have a greater need for cognitive-closure in general and in the avoidance of ambiguity specifically. It’s not hard to read the discomfort of those who are unsure, a discomfort which is manifest in the “kind of/sort of” gestures we can see in the crowd.

“Not quite all in”

“Perhaps if I just begin…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two women in these images both suggest that they have less enthusiasm about adopting a “Chief Illiniwek” posture than their male companions. They don’t seem ready to buck the crowd by refusing the gesture, but neither do they fully embrace it. Their hands clasp at chest level, but their arms don’t cross. Is this a fair reading: “I not really comfortable about doing this ‘Indian’ thing, but maybe I won’t be noticed if I just kinda hold my hands together.” And what about the woman in the image below?

“Cough of convenience?”

 

 

I’ve labeled this a “cough of convenience?” as in: “I was really intending to do the arm-thing, but I had to cough so I couldn’t?” Can we read this as uncertainty? Refusal? What is clear is that she’s not nearly as committed as the woman on her right.

 

 

Just below the group in the “All in for the Chief” photo, stand four men in various postures of non-participation. One, to the right of center, has his hands together, but his arms aren’t crossed; the man to his right has his arms at his side, the one on his left could be clapping; and, the bearded man below, has brought his hand to his chin.

“Not doing this”

And finally, there is what I call the “Full Refusal”:

“Full Refusal”

Hands firmly sunk into her pockets, this woman, although surrounded by crossed-arms companions, is not participating. No ambiguity, no hand-clasping or apparent coughs. She will not go along with this.

Individual Voices/Group Voices

The predominant message in William DeShazer’s photograph blends well with the narrative of the accompanying article, that a decade after the trustees banished a Native American mascot, the students haven’t let him go. From the determined look on many of their faces, perhaps they are even more committed to him now than students were in the 1940s or 1950s when they didn’t bother thinking about what they were doing.

By paying more attention, we are better able to observe disturbances in the group’s zeitgeist. Some students mime the “Chief’s” bearing in a less-than-enthusiastic manner, while others reject the performance completely. So, what does it tell us? Probably the easiest take-away is that measuring a group’s response is not the same as being mindful what is going on with the individuals within it. “Is this clear to everyone,” we ask, after making a particular point in a lecture. The room says “yes,” as many heads are nodding in agreement. So we move on. Still, there’s the guy in the back row or the drowsy one two rows up. They aren’t nodding their heads but neither do they raise their voices to say that, no, they actually don’t understand. This is not a critique, for we’re probably not going to stop everything and ask, “Thomas. Do you have any questions?”  Not only can it be embarrassing to Thomas, but it can also suggest implicit bias on our part.  And we don’t have time to go over every point if no one indicates confusion. But reading the class closely can help you look beyond the group and reach out more effectively to the students who appear to need more help. The ability to read a group and the individuals within it at the same time, inward and outward reflection, often just comes with experience. (And this is another reason to have students leave a “muddy point” comment at the end of the class.)

My second point is a harder one to make. When I look at DeShazer’s photograph, I’m drawn to the students who appear to be caught in a moment of doubt or uncertainty as those around them assume the posture. They came to watch a basketball game, but they need to make a quick decision about a contentious issue with social consequences: to cross arms or not? Go with the crowd or refuse its pressure? I don’t pretend that it’s a huge deal to them, and it’s not unlikely that they will forget about it with the opening jump ball. But their body language indicates a flash of doubt. They embody the difficulty of going against the crowd or of taking a stand when one is not ready to make a decision. We often face such moments, but my question is whether we, as teachers, can help students when they come to these frequent crossroads.

Teaching as Paradox

Parker Palmer talks about the way in which teaching and learning are fashioned by various creative tensions, by paradoxes. It is paradoxical, for example, that the space of teaching and learning should be both bounded and open, hospitable and “charged,” silent and filled with talk. He also notes that the teaching space “should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group,” and this is the paradox that, for me, is best represented in the DeShazer photograph and which allows us to transfer its message to the classroom.

In our classes we work  to help students find their authentic voice whether they are in conformity with the group or not – indeed, even more so if they challenge the group. We also “listen for what the group voice is saying and…play that voice back from time to time so the group can hear and even change its own collective mind.” As Palmer puts it, “in a learning space shaped by this paradox, not only do students learn about a subject, but they learn to speak their own thoughts about that subject and to listen for an emergent collective wisdom that may influence their ideas and beliefs.”

This is not easy. How do we encourage students to articulate their ideas even if they might be considered unorthodox or unpopular? How do we create an environment in which groups can hear themselves, changing and growing when necessary? How do we help students appreciate complexity and accept ambiguity? How do we support them as they determine when to take a stand and when to say that they’re still thinking about it? How do we invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group?

Some of the answers to these questions are to be found in how we structure the space of learning, the classroom. I’ve offered some suggestions before about helping students establish their own rules of conduct to keep their discussions both open and bounded at the same time (see here, for example), or ways to encourage students to listen to each other. And, while I’ve talked about the role of social media and its impact on teaching and learning many times, the more that I think about it, the more I think it important to encourage students to adopt procedures that separate the classroom from a larger social media environment. What happens in classroom needs to stay in the classroom. When a student’s fashion choice for her high school prom generates 42,000 (largely) dismissive tweets in a matter of hours, it is not hard to see how students can become paralyzed by the thought of voicing an unorthodox opinion.

We can also address this by introducing pedagogies that help students appreciate complexity, remain open to multiple opinions, and admire contradiction and paradox, and I’m sure you already employ many of these methods.

  • Set up in-class debates. You can assign positions in advance or have students randomly select their “side” at the last moment, requiring that they prepare to argue both sides of an issue;
  • Use role playing techniques to foster perspective taking;
  • In papers where students are required to come to a conclusion based on the evidence that they have considered, have them also elaborate the most likely objections to, or weaknesses in, their positions;
  • Have students present conflicting interpretations when reading primary source documents, whether historical or literary;
  • Help students both value evidence and understand its limitations and contingencies;
  • Encourage students to think beyond critique alone and help them to understand the implications or likely consequences of certain courses of actions.
  • Allow students to recognize their preconceptions, and offer them the chance to hear alternative narratives.

In the end, and perhaps most importantly, I think we teach students more by how we act than by what we say. Whether we want to be or not, we are role models to our students.  It is important not only that they hear us speak our minds, but that we give them the space and the encouragement to articulate their own thoughts, to experiment with ideas that may not yet be fully formed, to inhabit ambiguity as well as certainty, to hear the crowd yet listen for the resistant voices within it.

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