Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.


An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.


We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.

[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

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