WGS 298 Critical Issues: Gender and Love
Teaching is not just about the transmission of knowledge and that learning does not just happen because students are exposed to interesting ideas, good facts, enticing curricula, or inspiring teachers. Instead, I have come to respect that teaching and learning are complex processes that demand a lot from both students and teachers. This is particularly the case when teaching is committed to affecting social change and social justice. In this context we ask of students not just to learn about something but also to learn from the material studied. Deborah Britzman (1998) offers a lucid explanation of the difference between these two modes of learning when she writes:
"Whereas learning about an event or experience focuses upon the acquisition of qualities, attributes, and facts, so that it presupposes a distance (or, one might even say, a detachment) between learner and what is being learned, learning from an event or experience is of a different order, that of insight … Learning from requires the learner’s attachment to, and implication in, knowledge." (119)
Thus in the classroom we are always engaged in at least two learning modes. One concerns the encounter with new knowledges, information, and ideas at the level of comprehension. This learning is important: students need learn critical concepts and theories as tools that can help to rethink the world more critically and complexly. Fostering a critical cultural and theoretical literacy, however, requires something else that exceeds comprehension: Learning from requires that students begin to understand their own implication in the material studied.
This second learning mode is very exciting and challenging at the same time. It is exciting for both students and teachers because this is where we make the connection between the knowledges of the course and our own lives. If things work well, the encounter with new ideas and knowledges can feel like what bell hooks (2000: 28) describes as a “liberatory practice,” where new ideas help us “to make sense out of what [is] happening. [And we can] imagine possible futures, a place where life [can] be lived differently.”
The encounter with new ideas, however, can be very difficult. Particularly when the material asks us to reconsider cherished beliefs central to our own sense of self. Given the kinds of counter-knowledges that fields committed to social justice teach, students frequently find ideas not only unfamiliar and intellectually difficult, but, at times, new ideas may also feel like a criticism of their own views or of themselves. Indeed, encounters with new ideas can feel intrusive, punishing, and, even oppressive. Students may experience their encounter with new ideas as a crisis, as conflict, and confusion, accompanied by profound feelings of loss or unbearable uncertainty. These feelings can make it very difficult for students to consider, let alone attach to new ideas and to make them their own. These kinds of feelings also seem to contradict the popular promise that “knowledge is power” and the expectation that that learning will feel empowering.
My task as a teacher involves working with students through the crises and conflicts that new ideas might produce and to get students to be interested in their resistances to knowledge and insights, especially knowledge that makes demands of them, such as considering their own implication in systems of inequality. I want students to come away from my classes with the sense that their lives and the lives of others have become more interesting to them. Thus, my teaching is interested not only in what and how I teach, but also in what my students understand and, particularly, in that which makes their understanding difficult.
Britzman, Deborah P. 1998. Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. Albany: SUNY Press.
Felman, Shoshana. 1987. Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable. In Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, 69-98. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
hooks, bell 2000. Theory as Liberatory Practice (1994). Reprinted in Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (eds.), Feminist Theory: A Reader, 28-33. Mountain View CA: Mayfield Publishing.