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Riley Linebaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Follow her @rileysline.
This semester a friend/colleague and I put together a syllabus on solidarity and 20th-century women’s history. We both have equal parts inexperience and enthusiasm for teaching in a college environment and have been thinking a lot about our approach, the goals of our course and the ways we wish to engage students. The topic prompted us to consider the classroom as an outcome of the histories covered in our course. After all, our ability to teach women’s history at the university is a result of the women’s movements that we’re studying. By grounding the course in that connection, we hope to emphasize the power of the students as producers of knowledge and politics.
I’m still wondering how to facilitate a classroom environment that activates students to express their individual and collective agency on both the material and their societies. Luckily, there are many others committed to the same approach. For example, at last month’s African Studies Association annual meeting, Ami Shah of Pacific Lutheran University chaired a roundtable on decolonizing African studies. I cannot do her contribution justice through summary, so instead I’d like to pick up on one of her points: pedagogies of love.
Pedagogies of Love
Pedagogies of love build on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which argues that education can be a practice of freedom and portrays teachers as “facilitators of emergent emancipation.” In practice, this has led to/strengthened educational methods such as sustained dialogue and participatory action research. These approaches encourage socializing ideas, position experience as a category of knowledge and democratize the relations between participants. Dialogue in the classroom places the emphasis on participants’ ability to generate and express their thoughts alongside their peers and teachers rather than on rote memorization. To do so requires relations in the classroom based on trust. bell hooks writes about a “love ethic,” or the complete utilization of all the “dimensions of love: care, commitment, trust, respect and knowledge.” hooks addresses a general readership but specifies the role educators have in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. These dimensions construct a learning environment that rearranges the social relations of the classroom in order to foster the type of education praxis described by Freire.
Educator Fabiola Torres explains that, “When faced with the truth of oppression, love is the act of courage that enables students to find their freedom to dialogue about humanization and love.” Supporting this type of courage is an essential act in universities as the form and function of dialogue continues to shift. The problems surrounding campus free speech, which came to the fore at campuses like Oberlin and the University of California, Berkeley, highlight the relationship between speech and power. When the analysis of this relationship caters to the notion of an increasingly polarized political landscape, the possibility to nurture the type of courage Torres discusses shrinks.
In practice, I believe that pedagogies of love have a lot of overlap with other teaching models. For example, cooperative learning places emphasis on active listening, responsive action and personal expression; the Waldorf method aims to cultivate in students a sense of meaning in their own lives. However, pedagogies of love specifically demand that we, as educators, ask 1) what do we need to understand about the world today and 2) how can we practice understanding across difference? Love becomes necessary because of the difficulty and pain that answering these questions can produce (especially when discussing the structures and experiences of systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, etc.).
Love as Praxis
By way of example, the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students' learning about social group identity, social inequality, and intergroup relations.” Students attend small group sessions where a facilitator guides conversations that deal with race and ethnicity, ableism, gender, etc. The discussions veer away from a debate model of discussion, and participants rather practice expressing themselves and listening to others on issues at the intersection of the personal and the political. Other universities such as Cornell, UCLA and Syracuse offer similar programs. It was through my own interactions with an IGR facilitator as an undergrad that I developed a vocabulary of power and privilege. I vividly remember the day I read through Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege and the feelings that it provoked (I am a white cisgender woman). However, there are significant limitations and even risks with stopping with vocab acquisition and the emotional catharsis of the privileged naming their privileges.
On the Decolonizing African Studies panel, Susan Thomson of Colgate College shared her reasons for refusing to use the language of "privilege" and "ally" with students because she found it was often instrumentalized to demonstrate rhetorical mastery rather than a commitment to the eradication of systems of oppression. Why does this distinction matter? One teacher in the audience answered with a reminder of our responsibilities as educators: while we are discussing issues of racism, sexism, etc. in the classroom, her sons are not safe in the streets. How can the work inside the classroom translate to work in society? How can we learn to speak across difference and honor our connected humanity? Charmaine J. Smith-Campbell and Steven Little’s analysis of Freire’s notion of pedagogical love offers some insight. The authors define pedagogical love in action as “the engine that generates an ongoing and continuous enriching educative process of dialogue that leads to personal critical awareness and critical consciousness. This is an empowering and liberative process that should lead to self-motivated willingness to actively work towards changing one’s personal life circumstances.”
I am in the process of working through these ideas, how they translate into educational practice and how to strike a balance between curriculum knowledge and pedagogical framing. This post is a way to try and systematically explain what pedagogies of love (could) mean, and I am writing with the hope that you, the readers, will join in the conversation.
How do you see the role or potential of love as a framework within higher education?
[Image by Pete Railand used in accordance to Justseeds Downloadable Graphics Guidelines]