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The foundation of higher education institutions is built upon maintaining the power of privileged groups—in particular, middle- and upper-class white males. As higher education opened its doors to women, and then people of colour, those at the centre were threatened. This perpetuating of privilege informs (hidden) curriculua, pedagogies, assessments, and expectations.
As higher education continues to become hyper-corporatized (neoliberalism), universities have lost their way. There is a shift in focus from learning, contributing to social change, and collaboration to competition between professors, disciplines, students—and, administrators. In Canada this raises additional tensions for higher education. Following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, taxpayer-funded institutions are mandated to work towards decolonization and Indigenizing landscapes, curriculums, and pedagogies.
There is a wealth of research that makes visible how this happened and the consequences, yet the power imbalances increase. Higher education landscapes are becoming places and spaces where it is difficult to walk in good ways and to practice ethical educational leadership for social justice and change. Increasingly, graduate students find themselves facing supervisor abuse and neglect. Attrition rates, particularly at the doctorate level, are becoming an epidemic while universities purport to tackle escalating mental health crises among students and faculty.
Participation, access, equity, diversity, and inclusion are sound-good buzzwords. Retention and supporting students’ lives in the making takes backseat to marketing and recruiting students who bring money. Tenure is replaced by adjunct instructors who are unable to support themselves, their dreams, their students, and colleagues. Under neoliberalism’s power everyone (except perhaps administrators, communications, and marketing specialists) is disposable. It becomes different to imagine otherwise unless power is deconstructed and challenged. But the precarious nature of lives under corporate higher education makes this increasingly difficult.
This is not sustainable.
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As you go forward through this module—and connect with otherDHSI 2019 modules—consider the power of stories and narratives that shape our understandings of, and interaction with, institutional power and the corporate university. Okri (1989) makes visible how stories shape individual lives, families, communities, institutions, and societies:
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)
For instance, consider social class narratives. Deeply embedded in our collective psyche are dominant narratives that position those whose lives are shaped by poverty as less-than and Other. These stories shape politics, policies, practices, and beliefs of the deserving and undeserving poor—and, fuel the ongoing gendered nature of poverty. The American Dream, bootstrap dogma, meritocracy and classless society myths are profound, prolific, and exclusionary. Thus, these narratives unquestioningly become part of citizens’ embodied selves and shape how they navigate educational landscapes.
Assignments for Students
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Students and colleagues can be complicit in the networks of power that perpetuate hierarchies and undermine best practices in higher education. How can we use the structure and resources of higher education to combat this? Courses often have disciplinary, institutional, and state requirements that we are compelled to maintain. But our goals as instructors who are invested in the autonomy of our students is to subvert hierarchical structures and the factory-line method of education that merely repeats a structure to cause a specified outcome. We cannot do away with these institutionalized expectations altogether and keep our jobs. But we can aim for compromise. We can encourage students to use the institutionalized structures to their own benefit.
For example, on the first day of class one could ask students to read the course description in the syllabus, then compose a short essay in which they describe the ways in which they imagine this class or discipline will help them to achieve their personal and professional goals.
Following up on this assignment, if the class also requires a research project or final paper, require a project proposal: In addition to a working thesis statement and annotated bibliography, students ought to include a paragraph that identifies how this particular assignment will facilitate their personal and professional goals.
Grass Roots Education
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Administrators of higher education sometimes employ phrases such as “community outreach.” These buzzwords sound appealing, but what do they actually mean? More often than not, they suggest that the university serves the larger community in which it is situated, or, at the very least, they are mutually beneficial. But institutions of higher education project this public facade of the “ivory tower” in order to obfuscate the capitalist incentives that monetize people’s access to knowledge and production. So let us turn the incentives of our programs against the university. Encourage students to research the ways in which their institution has been harmful to the local community, biased practices, or problematic histories. Model for your students the means by which scholarship is a form of activism.
For example, students at the University of North Carolina, in the wake of the Silent Sam protests that continue to glorify confederate figures and promote white supremacy, have installed plaques around campus and the surrounding areas that expose the racist practices of the early university.
Being a Good Ally
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Use your privilege to lift up your colleagues. Numerous studies have made it common knowledge that women receive harsher criticism on their student evaluations. If you’re a man and you know teaching evaluations are on the horizon discuss gendered expectations with your students. Identify the ways in which male professors are usually either good buddies or professionalizing disciplinarians, but women who teach are either nurturing maternal figures or callous meanies. “Maternal figure” is not in their job description.
Along the same lines, tenured professors are morally and ethically obligated to speak out in the best interests of graduate students and adjunct faculty. If you’re not advocating for them then you are complicit in the structures of inequality that continue to bleed them dry and evacuate institutions of higher education of their integrity.
Subvert capitalism. Be mindful of textbook costs and the practicality of what you require your students spend on resources. Instead of assigning an anthology, put together a course reader or email articles for free. If you absolutely must use an anthology, then schedule your assignments so that students are not required to have the textbook the first week of class. Provide for them a comparison of the prices for your selected textbook at the bookstore, with a publishers discount, or via online shopping such as eBay.
Additionally, make knowledge behind paywalls more accessible. Universities with money have better access to journals and information. Colleagues with access to journals ought to share with others. When you publish something, offer your digital copy to colleagues.
Address accessibility, equity, diversity, inclusion, and exclusion.
- For instance, consider positions of privilege and marginalization from Crenshaw’s intersectional lens and intersectionality in relation to public spaces.
- Hankivsky (2014) offers a wealth of resources to implement intersectionality and practices.
- Adichie (2009) helps to understand “the danger of a single story” and reducing lives to single identities.
- Elbow (2009) suggests starting from a place of belief in.
- Sayer (2000) demonstrates why social class is crucial to consider at the intersection of multiple layers of oppression.
- Lisa McKenize writes extensively about her experiences in the UK as a working-class scholar.
- In “Decolonizing Academia: Poverty, Oppression and Pain,” Rodríguez (2018) directly challenges higher education colonial structures of power and demonstrates ways to resist through relational ways of being.
- The Shoestring Initiative at the University of Victoria demonstrates how a grassroots movement can create a community of support, mentorship, and advocacy for people from and/or living in poverty, from working-class backgrounds, from/in foster care, and first generation.
- Amarillo College in Texas has committed to a cultural change through their “No Excuses 2020” campaign to support their “poverty-class” majority of students. This cultural shift is vertical and horizontal and required an ongoing commitment by the president.
- Laberge (2016) makes visible how growing up in persistent poverty shapes students’ experiences as they compose lives on the higher education landscape.
Reflecting on Process
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Think about the institution you are in — describe the ways in which you are limited by the hierarchical structures of power that you exist within. Now describe the ways students are limited by these structures in the classroom. Create an assignment whereby students challenge those hierarchical structures (including their class, teacher, and institution, as part of the system) and empower themselves for change.
Consider reflecting upon how your lived experiences shape your experiences with higher education:
- Tell your story of your institution….
- Tell your story of your experiences with higher education….
- How might these stories connect? What are the threads or common themes in these stories?
- What might be the baseline assumptions that shape your critical pedagogy and ways that you operate within institutional power?
- What ways or might use to bump up institutional power that is contrary to critical pedagogy?
Conclusion: Subverting This Course
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This module, and indeed this entire online course, has been born out of our discussion at DHSI 2019 in the workshop “Critical Pedagogy and Digital Praxis.” This discussion has focused on the particular challenges we as educators face in thoughtfully and accessibly designing future courses and assignments; building on this, we have put some of our thoughts into practice, or praxis, by creating this online course.
If there is one take away from our many discussions, debates, and sharing of personal stories, it is that each student exists at a particular nexus of complicated contextual needs and vulnerabilities. While it is our responsibility—as well as our desire—as educators to do our best to accommodate everyone’s needs, to respect their right to privacy, to make our teaching methods and materials as transparent as possible, to ensure our students sense of safety, and to give our students the space to learn in the format and ways best suited to their needs, it is also true that we are frequently constrained in our ability to satisfy everyone—either by institutional power (at the departmental, university, corporate, or society level), or by our simple inability to make everyonehappy. We can engage with our students, empower them to design the structure of their courses, and to advocate for themselves or others as allies, but we are limited in that, in the end, some people will be still be left dissatisfied. The inherent flaw in a democracy is that inevitably some individuals or groups will be marginalized; while we can do our best to ensure protections for those pushed to the edges, the very impetus to do so is predicated on a shared value system adhered to by the majority, or at least by those in a position of power. However, we can and should continue to make the utmost effort to subvert these systems of power in order to ensure the safety, transparency, and inclusiveness of our personal pedagogy and praxis.
Which brings us to the main point of this particular section. As we have learned, not everyone learns in the same way, and yet we are sometimes constrained to make choices in designing our courses based on the technology and systems of power we exist within. We, the writers of this module, like you, the consumer of this module, are both educators andstudents: we are students who have registered for this course at DHSI in order to learn more about the principles of critical pedagogy; and we are educators who are interested in putting these principles into practice in our own classrooms, libraries, and publications, as well as in designing this course for you-the-reader to learn from in turn. One strategy we have learned and discussed in this course has been to allow ourselves as educators to be human, to be vulnerable, to say “I don’t know” or to disagree or subvert the systems of power we exist within. To that end, I would like to take this space to say, this assignment (to design a course module) is not for me. This is not how I learn. I have learned much more in the hours spent in discussion, simply interacting with my fellow educators, hearing their stories, questioning their methods, and bouncing ideas around the room, than in any of the time spent in group work on this module. This is not a criticism of the assignment or my group members; many of my co-writers are clearly engaging with the assignment and are passionately involved in writing on their sub-topics. I simply learn in a different way. In fact, you-the-reader might be experiencing something similar if you don’t learn as well in an online environment as through human interaction and dialogue…and that’s okay!
As a student in this DHSI class, I am constrained to participate in a project that may not necessarily work for my own particular learning style; as an educator, I am also constrained by the technology and applications that we have available to turn the pedagogical principles we have learned into practice—in this instance, to create an online course that does not necessarily allow for the freedom of expression, style, and spontaneity that I find most suited to my needs. I run into these same constraints regularly when I design and teach my online undergraduate courses, constraints imposed on me by my department, university, and the corporate capitalist system that the digital applications we use exist within. So to return to the question posed earlier in this section module, how do we practice radical pedagogy? How do we subvert the system to allow space for new, exciting, and accessible learning opportunities for our students? The answer might be…we don’t know.
My personal response has been to subvert this entire conclusion as my “act of resistance.” Rather than getting angry and resentful, or not doing the assignment, I am choosing to express my dissatisfaction with the current constraining factors—of tools, technology, time, and design—through the medium of this section, which I am constrained to produce. By articulating my frustration, I am allowing myself to be open and honest with you-the-reader, to show that operating within institutions of power can frustrate those of us who would be teachers, but that we can still sometimes operate within these systems and reclaim our voices and power. In taking this approach, I find myself reenergized about the assignment, and empowered to work within these constraints while still staying true to my own educational goals and pedagogy.
I would like to propose that we-as-educators try and find ways to engage in these kinds of small acts of resistance, to subvert the system that constrains us, to address inequity of access or injustice as we encounter it. In this way we can model for our students what we hope they can achieve themselves in practice, as well as allowing them the freedom to learn. In their own particular way.
- Adair, V. (2005).US working-class/poverty-class divides.Sociology, 39(5), 817-834.
- Appiah, K. A. (2018). Why social class matters, even if we don’t agree what it means. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Beeston, L. (2016).Nearly 40 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students experience ‘food insecurity:’ study.The Star.
- Biss, M. (2017).Canada is nowhere close to ending the student debt crisis.Huffington Post.
- Chatelain, M. (2018).We must help first-generation students master academe’s ‘hidden curriculum.The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Elbow, P. (2006).The believing game and how to make conflicting opinions more fruitful.In C. Weber (Ed.), Nurturing the peacemaker in our students: a guide to teaching peace, empathy, and understanding. Don Mills, ON: Heinemann.
- Giroux, H. A. (2014). Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Haymarket Books.
- Hare, J. (2013).Students under financial stress.The Australian.
- Harvey, D. (2007). Neoliberalism as creative destruction. The annals of the American academy of political and social science, 610(1), 21-44.
- Levin, B. (1995).Educational responses to poverty. Canadian Journal of Education, 20(2), 211-224.
- McCrory Calarco, J. (2018).Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test. The Atlantic.
- Okri, B. (1989). A Way of Being Free. London: Phoenix House.
- Quarry, J. (2018).Coming out as working class.The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Sayer, A. (2005).Class, moral worth and recognition.Sociology,
- Sayer, A. (2002). What Are You Worth?: Why Class is an Embarrassing Subject. Sociological Research Online, 7(3), n.p. Retrieved from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/3/sayer.html
- Smith, A. A. (2018).Tackling poverty to increase graduations.Inside Higher Ed.
“Praxis (from Ancient Greek: πρᾶξις, romanized: praxis) is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. ‘Praxis’ may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas” (Wikipedia, 2019). More simply, praxis is the practical application of theory.