I am a transformative educator, who regularly addresses themes in my teaching that harbor the potential to—and often do—promote dissension within and beyond the classroom. I attempt to form collaborative learning environments that avoid a hypodermic approach to education, where interaction is meaningful. Nonetheless, I recognize certain immediately immutable conditions of higher education, generally, and of the particular institutions at which I have taught. For instance, despite concerted effort to learn together with students, I take seriously the fact of leadership that being a professor entails. Further, I recognize that higher education is necessarily implicated in open controversies about course content and civil communication within which instructors must deliberately and carefully intervene.
bell hooks explained that the classroom can be transformed into “a location of possibility” when we labor for freedom, demand of ourselves and our students, and open with our hearts and minds to “collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.” When doing so, education is “the practice of freedom.” But our students are embedded in a sociopolitical context in which their intersecting social positions are produced by and are productive of what some educators and activists refer to as “privilege.” This term is used so frequently that it may now be empty without grounding it in a particular literature. I prefer the specificity offered by W.E.B. Du Bois, in what he referred to the “public and psychological wages” conferred to those deemed to be “white.” These wages are not “held,” but are “paid” through the participation in dominating subordinated populations. When confronting inequality as involved with domination, we no longer approach stratification as solely a matter of variable inclusion and exclusion. Recognizing that all our students are somewhere located in (what Patricia Hill Collins called) the matrix of domination means that introducing any lessons on the matter would be cause for students to grapple with ways they are personally entangled, implicated, and—for each of them in some way—harmed.
Not only are plurality, conflict, and inequality common themes in my course materials, but I also work with my students to recognize these as unavoidable conditions in the classroom itself. The university can be a setting where students learn to recognize their relationships to others within a matrix of domination and can work to acknowledge the oppressions on which these positions rely. From a transformative approach to education, this work is in order to change the social conditions that reproduce oppression. These are challenging lessons for students to learn as we ask them to consider that justice in our communities and around the globe will require resituating priorities and goals, using the skills we acquire together to build a more sustainable and democratic world. In the classroom, I aim to inspire my students to prioritize the value of attaining knowledge that will help them to build the world they want, rather than to settle and prepare for the world they have. Such changes would certainly come with the loss of extant comforts and advantages for most students, but provide something more, something new.
Despite broadened access to higher education, all students still pass through many gatekeepers. Most of them are seeking to not only increase their employability and quality of life, but to increase their social advantages and assets. Much of my teaching has involved guiding students through sensitive topics and challenging materials. Often, the implications resultant from these materials challenge the very structures of social power within which students are invested in entering and securing a position. If we are to take transformative education seriously, we must recognize the competing demands between transformation and the status quo that educational institutions are often committed to reproducing. As a teaching assistant at Rensselaer, I led six semester-long discussions in groups of 14-20 STEM majors. Students were compelled to wrestle with the ways in which their future careers will implicate them ethically and politically, often placing them in management positions where they will likely be encouraged to exploit others and to profit from products that produce harm. Many of these students were on track to work for military contractors in the defense industry. On the other hand, some students came from countries ravaged by these very contractors’ weapons. My students discussed and considered the possibility of restricting their choices, amplifying their personal responsibilities, and potentially narrowing the kinds of innovations they might pursue, all of which many engineers are reticent to do. Similarly, while teaching democratic theory at Union College to (mostly) exceptionally privileged students, I prompted students to confront the blow that expanding democracy might deal to their own privileged social positions, and asked them to explore what new opportunities such an endeavor might provide.
Discomfort is fundamental to and unavoidable in transformative education. I have strived with my students to make the classroom and college community a safer space that recognizes and includes students and community members from historically disadvantaged social groups. At the same time, I work with my students to be reflexive about the ways in which the classroom can never (under present conditions) be a completely safe space. By welcoming disagreement, we instead work to collectively construct and enforce norms. While many colleagues lament students’ insufficient preparation for college-level writing or analytical reading, I have greater concern that few of us are prepared for disagreement among what Chantal Mouffe refers to as “friendly enemies,” people among whom compromise is unlikely but nonetheless who can contend in productive ways. I hope to learn with my students how we can be better citizens in this regard.