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Barefoot Teaching
February 6, 2011 - 8:45pm

I’m preparing for my fifth trip to India, my second with students. I run the Global Corps Practicum program in Hubli, Karnataka State, a month-long workshop on community development and social entrepreneurship. Students are paired with Indian students, and together they conduct the field research and organizational building necessary to solve community problems. I work closely with a well-known organization, the Deshpande Foundation, which funds the program, provides the much-needed community links, and gives our work credibility within the community. It’s a crazy amount of work for myself and my two intrepid teaching assistants (not to mention my students, who have been preparing for the trip for the past few weeks), but in the end, it’s always satisfying.

I’ve been running this and similar programs for some time now, and when I look back, it’s my experiences in southern and southeast Asia that I’ve enjoyed the most. I’ve described my love affair with Thailand in other posts, and have found similar love for beautiful Bali and chaotic India. They are very different cultures, but when it comes to teaching there, I think I’ve found the common thread that shapes my enjoyment: teaching barefoot.

The first time I taught barefoot in Thailand, I found the experience to be a bit off-putting, because I felt oddly exposed, as though my bare toes revealed all my anxieties and inadequacies. But I quickly came to love the feeling of pacing the floor amongst my (equally barefoot) students. It equalized us in some strange sense. I felt grounded, in touch, and unfettered by professional pretensions of authority.

I continue to relish the feeling. In Indonesia, our classroom was an outdoor covered platform overlooking rice paddies--the gentle breezes and bird calls complemented the murmur of student groups working together, sitting on the floor, debating and contemplating how to save the world. Being barefoot on a warm bamboo mat is a lovely feeling. In India, I was told that although the students should be barefoot, that was not the case for the professor. I did it anyway, because, in a workshop on community development, that kind of hierarchy really has no place.

Here at home in the US, I once removed my socks and shoes while leading a student workshop that had begun as a rather formal, stunted affair and made me uncomfortable. Once I took off my shoes, a ripple of laughter erupted, smiles opened up and students relaxed. We had fun and we had a very productive day. I felt in my element.

There has been considerable discussion about classroom authority on University of Venus, amongst my fellow bloggers and some of the commentators. Some have pointed out that it’s women who worry most about maintaining “authority,” which simply reinforces “patriarchal” teaching methods and squelches critical thinking among students. I know that as a rookie teacher early in my graduate career, I was terrified of losing any control because it would reveal my inexperience. I think that is a fairly common phenomenon for any young teacher (take a look at how harshly grad TAs tend to grade, for example), not just women.

Nevertheless, if we want to change the way we share our knowledge with students, and we want that learning experience to be a mutual affair, we need to relinquish a bit of control. What I have learned over the years is that sometimes losing that need for control in the classroom requires a willingness to reveal some of your vulnerabilities, fears and perhaps a touch of your inadequacies--to be slightly self-deprecating and human, and to let the students know that you trust them and their own abilities to teach each other. It requires making yourself, in a sense, slightly naked. I say, take off your shoes.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn (denise.horn@insidehighered.com) is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

 

 

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