Steve Volk, April 3, 2016
“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)
While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.
I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”
I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.
Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.
The Pedagogy of Equality
As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.
The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (“after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).
One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:
Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room. Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate. Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.” These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.
Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:
- take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
- demonstrate their own expertise; and
- embrace their own expertise.
And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?
It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.
But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!
Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.
But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.
No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.
If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:
- Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
- Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
- Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.
Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.
Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.
The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise
We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).
The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.