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Talk About Teaching and Learning

April 12, 2011, Volume 57, No. 29

The Pedagogical is Political (and Personal)

John L. Jackson, Jr.

Last year, I took part in a faculty discussion on “teaching controversial issues.” In preparation for that gathering, I started to jot down some thoughts on the matter, trying to distill my own approach to negotiating potentially volatile subject matter in undergraduate and graduate courses.  Some topics (religion, sex, politics) have always been controversial and pedagogically challenging, but an argument can be made that those traditionally prickly subjects are even more difficult to teach nowadays, especially in the context of what might be called “the hyper-politicization of higher education,” a hyper-politicization that I want to label “reactionary Foucauldianism.”

French theorist Michel Foucault’s nothing-is-innocent post-structuralism argues that knowledge is a kind of “power play.” As we know, education is not simply a mechanism for disseminating facts and figures about the world. And we hardly need postmodern theory to tell us that. But Foucault’s research was organized around demonstrating many of the ways in which seemingly apolitical social policies and institutional practices work toward very particular social ends, privileging some forms of political possibility over others.

A similar theory of power informs reactionary critiques of academic culture today. Foucault gets cited to challenge “the state” and what he calls “governmentality,” a quintessential example of how power-plays use the protective cover of objectivity (not to mention plausible deniability), but “reactionary Foucauldianism” is a critique of Foucault-quoting, “left-wing” scholars on decidedly Foucauldian grounds: that education is always a power-laden skirmish, and that the political left wants to pretend it isn’t exerting real indoctrinating power by what (and how) it teaches.

In the current climate, many of these “reactionary Foucauldians” are on the hunt for academic bullying, labeling certain scholars unpatriotic and unethical for mixing scholarship with political positions. It might look like they are trying to take politics out of the classroom (by outing any ideologues trying to brainwash students), but they are really making a case for including more politics: the “conservative” take on things. This is an angle that they claim usually gets short-shrift within the “bastion of liberalism” that is America’s educational system.

At the end of last semester, Frances Fox Piven, a professor at The City University of New York, had stepped up her response to Fox News commentator Glenn Beck’s ongoing attempts to demonize her as un-American, as “an enemy of the Constitution.” Beck’s efforts translated into death threats against the 78-year-old professor’s life—and mostly because of an article she wrote over 40 years ago.

I teach quite a bit about race and religion, both of which are hot-button topics in America’s “culture wars.” Any discussion of “religion” as something that is social, cultural and political (invariably how many scholars frame their takes on “the sacred”) bleeds quite easily into the traps of partisan electoral politics, especially in the context of America’s religiously-inflected “war on terror,” public debates about “Islamic fundamentalism,” and the increasing political might of the nation’s “Christian right.”  Moreover, the “ideological left” is considered just as anti-God as it is anti-America, so of course it would try to merely intellectualize religion.

In terms of race/racism, according to some critics, any talk about racism (especially after the election of Barack Obama) is simply an example of racism, a hollow attempt to play the race card. Period. We live in a world where some people would imagine that the only real racists left are the people who can’t stop talking (and teaching!) about it. This idea that race-talk is an instantiation of racism (nothing more) can mean that a curricular offering on the topic is seen as only ever a venue for preaching to the choir and damning the unbelievers. Defensiveness (about being dismissed as a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a “reverse racist”) meets defensiveness (about being labeled an old-fashioned “racist”), causing a stalemate that doesn’t make for particularly constructive conversations.

I’m trained as a cultural anthropologist, and I try to approach the classroom a little bit like how I approach my ethnographic field-sites. For one thing, anthropologists don’t conduct fieldwork simply to disabuse their research subjects of “bad” beliefs. We are there to listen, and to do so with a proactive and generous ear. Our job isn’t to win an argument with our research subjects or to convince them to believe what we believe. Instead, we are trying to understand how they came to their own understandings, pushing ourselves to take their divergent worldviews seriously, even and especially when they seem antithetical to our own. (The goal isn’t to follow them, but to humble our hubris about the natural logic and absolute correctness of our own cultural beliefs.) Even when anthropologists are “studying up” and/or conducting research “at home,” working with relatively powerful and well-off populations (as opposed to focusing on poor communities that have a more difficult time keeping anthropologists away), the point isn’t just to demonize the powerful as exploiters of the powerless, an often simplistic formulation of the complexities of social life.

Treating the classroom like an ethnographic field-site doesn’t mean letting anything that students say stand as fact. All claims aren’t equally valid. Instead, the pedagogical project pivots on a desire to actually comprehend how students come to think what they think. What is the discursive architecture of their beliefs? What evidence gets marshaled to support them? What is the place of affect and emotion in people’s often self-interested investments in certain contentions about social causality?

An ethnographer’s job is to carefully observe individuals’ beliefs—and to make sure that people with varying positions feel comfortable divulging them. Ethnographers ask probing questions to create space for informants/subjects to provide nuanced details about their worldviews, potentially allowing those same subjects to think about aspects of their belief systems that they haven’t necessarily thought about before. When asking people to thematize ideas and actions that are often instinctual and unquestioned, or to explain the potential irrationalities and contradictions of their own beliefs, ethnographers open up the opportunity for people to think more rigorously and purposefully about how they have come to hold the beliefs they espouse, beliefs that they are sometimes willing to die for. “Reactionary Foucauldians” might still have an issue with my intellectual interests, but my students should never feel like they are victims of ideological indoctrination.

Whenever a course is over, I want to hope that everyone who has taken part in our semester-long conversation feels some need to continue pondering and challenging their own most-cherished assumptions about the world. And I am most confident that the course was a success, at least potentially, when it moved me to ponder and challenge some of my own.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology and
 Penn’s first Penn Integrates Knowledge professor

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - April 12, 2011, Volume 57, No. 29