Pedagogy of the oppressors

It seems like everyone these days has got teaching advice. The sheer volume can be overwhelming, but it’s heartening that most of it seems to be centered around how to treat students (and ourselves) more humanely amid health and economic crisis, and growing consideration of inclusive teaching practices. The movement away from lecture-style one-way teaching towards active and engaged learning has been building steam for decades. But I suspect the existential alienation derived from weeks of speaking at a screen-sized void of black boxes with name-tags must have made even the keenest lecturers think that something might be off in their approach. I always valued humanity and engagement in my classrooms. But I’ve definitely tried to step it up in the past year, thanks in part to the chorus of voices that has risen in the education blogosphere in renewed support.

Valuing the humanity of students sounds like something so obvious that it need not be expressed. But the lecture-exam style that has been dominant in Western higher education for the past century or more, along with its neoliberal attitudes about competition, does tend to treat students rather more like absorbent sponges than human beings. The idea that the fact of students’ humanity should actually inform how we approach our time in the classroom is neither new nor dare I say attributable to any particular individual or group. All I can say is I find it both heartwarming and odd that humanizing and egalitarian ideas are being applied inside the bureaucratic architecture of universities that are run like businesses, within the larger landscape of a hyper-individualistic and capitalist society. But try don’t let these contradictions make you feel cynical — maybe this is how slow revolution works.

A purpose of traditional academic devices like exams and grades is to stratify students. They (we) are conditioned to think of themselves as perpetually comparable and ultimately unequal. It has been said that an education system is the most effective device for a society to implement and reproduce its internal order. So in a mythically meritocratic society, exams and grades make perfect sense. If you didn’t get an A, you just didn’t work hard enough. (Same goes for you on your academic job hunt, amirite.) But do modes of education that are intrinsically anti-hierarchical have a place within brutally unequal and hierarchical academia? Apparently yes, if you can back it up with data. Statistics, those faithful friends of the bureaucrat and businesswoman (which wave of feminism is it again that was about liberation through private enterprise?) are finally revealing to us that when students participate in creating their own educational experiences and are allowed to discover things for themselves, they (a) are more satisfied, and (b) learn more. In the administrator/economist’s view of student as both consumer and intellectual-capital-in-progress, we have happier customers and more effective future laborers. It’s the same principle behind those giant slides for employees at Google, or even the free coffee in your department. And you thought it was because they loved us.

Some statements about teaching: I believe in participatory modes of learning. I think that encouraging student ownership of the classroom will better lead them to ownership of knowledge. When learners engage with each other and work together to reach a goal, there is unpredictability and dynamism that is undeniably fun to witness. I have felt the greatest satisfaction as a teacher watching well-designed activities set a classroom abuzz. I was attracted to these practices instinctively at first, but now I realize the political ramifications of educational styles. Yes, sorry, teaching is political too. But not just in content; rather in form. To quote a phrase, the medium is the message.

Inquiry-based approaches, active learning, math circles, “student centered” what-have-you. What they have in common is the decentralization of knowledge, the ceding of authority by the so-called teacher and the vesting of same within a community of learners in dialogue. Some of the terminology and practices as we know them in the 21st century university seem to be sanitized versions of radical pedagogical theory going back through Marilyn Frankenstein[1] and Paulo Freire to the early 20th century anarchist escuela moderna (modern school) movement, and I’m sure further still. (There’s another thesis there that would be fun to have time to write.) Commonalities can also be found in more palatable alternative educational philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf, which do not openly challenge the social order. Adherents have sworn by these practices based on direct experience, moral principle, and gut feeling. But when science eventually certifies that they are safe and effective, institutions run in.

It is easy to dismiss radical ideologies that prioritize humanity and freedom over any kind of measurable produce as deconstructivist nonsense. It is not too much harder to see that evaluating theories by their quantifiable outputs will inevitably lead to the convalidation of theories that are centered around maximizing measurable outputs. Rest assured, scientists and big tech are hard at work trying to figure out both ways to induce and measure that elusive quality of “real human experience,” but humanization with a profit motive is probably something to be suspicious of. I’ve always had some unease about the pedagogy training provided by the higher ed industrial complex, fearing a similar perversion of noble ideas for the sake of bottom line.

I want my students to have rewarding and transformative experience in the classroom because I value and respect their humanity. But I’m not totally sure my institution values and respects mine, insisting on in-person classes this Fall while continuing refuse to provide health insurance to graduate student workers. I want my practice of education to lead to a freer and more equal society. But how can it when a degree costs a few hundred thousand dollars, administrators make around fifty times what I make, and so many of my students are the children of the one percent? Not to mention that the name of building I work in and the person to whom the glory of the math department goes is someone who literally owned human beings, went to war for it, was swept to US Congress atop a wave of vote-suppressing racial terror, and whose legacy to the university was making sure it was re-established as exclusively white after Reconstruction. Never mind, let’s just think about how can we make teaching more transgressive at this institution. Let’s brainstorm how a university can be simultaneously diverse, equitable, inclusive, and elite. Is there a manual on education of the overclass as the practice of liberation? Am I joking?

Even if they don’t give me health care, one thing my institution does offer me is teacher training. Probably yours does too. The acronym is always a mishmash of the same letters: CELT. They offer an abundance of advice and support for engaged (or excellent) learning and teaching. They care about our well-being, and want us to succeed as teachers. When we were upended trying to figure out online teaching last Spring and Summer, they contracted a private ed-tech company to offer us free online teaching training. The university made us go back in person anyway, but CELT was there again! They supported us with assessment workshops, syllabus prep help, and support for all the tools we had to learn to make the experience of education in a pandemic more accessible and humane, plus some online yoga sessions! The big joke about going back in-person was that of course everything had to be available online anyway what with hundreds of students infected with COVID on a given week, many more needing to quarantine, and an even greater number realizing that professors had no good way to make them accountable for going to class — it’s like a hybrid model but where no one tells you ahead of time that you have to teach hybrid. I think they call it HyStress. But the promise of the humanizing experience only in-person education can offer really justified the expense to the university, which really threw down for capital-assisted safety protocols and education enhancements (you should see the warehouses they built us to teach in). More importantly, it was worth it to students and their families as well.

The discourse around research, that other pillar of our professional development, is a bit more honest about its premises. I have been counseled many times against going into this area or shifting toward that because that’s where the money is(n’t). You wont find a job. No one will care about what you do. But what is it useful for? This is the standard criterion by which scientific and intellectual exploration is judged nowadays. It is magnificently simple and reasonable, seemingly unimpeachable. Yet the question betrays an imperialistic framing of the whole business of science. If there is plunder to be had, all else be damned.

The insinuation is that knowledge of nature is not worth much effort unless it can be exploited for human purposes. Nature is to be dominated. Scientists are not the high priests of modernity because we have a culture that truly values broad intellectual practice. It’s because scientists have “done so much for society.” Only science could save us from a pandemic. Only (military-backed) science could build the internet, get us to the moon, or develop weapons capable of ending wars. Fused with capitalism, science will soon take us to Mars. Scientific manifest destiny is a nearly unquestioned ethic in contemporary culture. We don’t often like to think about the fact that the very predicaments we need science to get us out of are also the same ones science got us into, by, say, technologizing warfare in the first place, creating the conditions for human population boom, and devising extractive uses for every animal, mineral and vegetable on this decreasingly green earth. We may be forever chasing that dragon.[2]

It’s tempting to map the problematic and imperfect pure/applied mathematics distinction onto the divergent values of personal intellectual freedom vs. measurable social utility. But just like education reproduces its own organizing social structure, “pure” mathematics research also operates by a subordinating and self-perpetuating force. Math research is a patriarchy. Your legitimacy as a mathematician is granted according to your ability to master the style and body of mathematics of the great (men) who came before us. Once you do that, you are granted the freedom of solving your advisor’s problems. If you are really top-notch, you will solve your advisor’s advisor’s problems — stuff that the elders couldn’t figure out. Do this, and they will give you awards and professorships named for the patriarchs. Cultural progress in mathematics is measured by the rate at which these honors are bestowed upon women and people of color. But the system can remain intact regardless of who sits in the chairs.

There are relatively few incentives for producing liberated mathematics research (if such a thing exists). If it is not useful to society (broader impacts) then it better at least answer some questions the elders had (intellectual merit). In either case, the primary personal attribute our system rewards is mania because that’s the fuel of scientific production, and it doesn’t cost your dean a dime. Just a little bit of humanity off the top. Competitive academic market pressures are squeezing us to always do more with less, just like globalized capitalism squeezes workers in other industries. We are trained in academia to get used to a mentality of scarcity. Scarcity of jobs, scarcity of funding, scarcity of time to explore our imaginative and curious sides. Scarcity of time to engage with students! I think students were starting to get wise that their interests were being subverted to scarcity ecology of the professoriate, which is why the universities had to respond and set up things like CELTs in the first place. So were back to the question — how can educators deliver liberatory education from within a system that is wringing them out?

The neoliberal model of education as commodity, and its correlate patriarchy in academic research, is a deeply engrained system. Its power seems inescapable. But, as a hero reminds us, “so did the divine right of kings.” We must seek transformation collectively; no one individual has all the answers on how it should work. And probably doing teacher trainings and making use of the resources of CELTs and their like is part of the way forward, despite the apparent macro-inconsistencies. At the very least, these workshops (should) get us in dialogue with one another. But I’m sure this is not enough. The arc of an academic career does not in general to bend towards broader freedom and justice. You might have to go out of your way for that.

There are many good discussions happening about these issues and how to effect change. To name just one other source, check out Abolition Science. But if you also need some escape into fantasy, try Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. It was recommended to me by a fellow graduate student some years ago, and I recommend it to anyone else looking for a vision of the pursuit of truth in a society removed from profit-motive and imperialism. (Also for sci-fi nerds, it gives the back story of a device for instantaneous communication across space called the ansible, which term/device appears in lots of later works from many other authors (notably the militaristic Ender’s Game series).) I see this book as something like solarpunk for mathematicians¬† — a prefigurative work that can help us move toward a better future by envisioning it for us. But it’s an ambiguous utopia. It’s never clear whether you have to abandon the world you know to get the one you want, or whether transformation is forever possible from within.

As a final note, the thoughts and observations shared here come out of conversations with my family, friends and community. I claim no ownership. I am grateful to the AMS for the opportunity to write for this blog and for encouraging open discussion among mathematicians. Any deficiencies or offenses caused, I do own.

[1] Thanks to this blog post for making me aware of Marilyn Frankenstein and critical mathematics pedagogy.

[2] Try Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven if you want to marinate on this point for a while.

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About Aram Bingham

I'm a fifth year Ph.D. student at a university in New Orleans which is problematically named for Paul Tulane, and where I work in something like algebraic combinatorics. I drink plenty of coffee, though I'm working on a new method of turning kombucha into theorems.
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