In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks observes that “many professors have intensely hostile responses to the vision of liberatory education that connects the will to know with the will to become.” Our work so far this week — in Google Docs, on Twitter, in Zoom, on Discourse — has all revolved around a determination to help students become more self-actualized and conscientious learners. Teachers, though, cannot determine for students what self-actualization looks like. By definition, students necessarily discover it themselves. “This, then,” says Paulo Freire, “is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” So it is within a classroom: We do not lead students to their liberation; we join them in it.
When students have true agency over their learning, their teachers cannot help but get involved in the process of becoming. Indeed, hooks asserts that teachers must join with students on that journey, saying that “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” In other words, teachers prepare space for student actualization while creating space for their own growth, as well. hooks goes on to say that “professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply.”
The more connected we are to students, the better we can join that process — hence our course’s emphasis yesterday on building community. Deep, meaningful shared community with students is the soil in which engaged pedagogy grows. hooks explains that “engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks.” Though taking risks means very different things to teachers than to students, so much so that many times teachers are actually playing it safe while encouraging others to take the risks.
How can we best take risks as teachers? We can learn to let go. We can listen to students. And, when appropriate, we can learn to use our voices. Because sometimes, there aren’t enough of them.
To take these risks and enable students to do this work, teachers must make space for student discoveries and for students’ process of becoming. Making space, notably, does not mean defining the steps students should take through that space. In “Listening for Student Voices,” Sean Michael Morris and Chris Friend say that “the more elaborate direction, specific instruction, and constraining requirements we provide, the less our students rely on themselves to think and learn.” The more we relinquish our hold on the shape and details of our courses, the more invested students become and the more legitimate their learning.
And so we come to the guiding thoughts behind today’s activities: What actions can educators take to support and encourage student agency? How do those actions work within (or in spite of) institutional platforms and systems?
Today’s activities aim to uncover answers to those questions.
Suggested Readings in Advance
- Sean Michael Morris, Critical Digital Pedagogy and Design
- [How] Are assessment student agency compatible?
- How do policies or platforms dictate, enable, or constrain student agency?
Quick Activity - End of Day Reflection
Since agency is deeply intertwined with choice, we invite you to pause, take a breath (perhaps literally) — and consider the choices you’ve made so far in our course. This may be a useful exercise as some private writing, though we welcome any shared perspectives on these questions as well.
- What activities have you completed? Why? What activities haven’t you completed? Why?
- Contextualize DPL: What have you chosen to put on hold to join us? What haven’t you?
- Consider your level of engagement so far. Why hasn’t it been higher? Why hasn’t it been lower?
One last brief note: these prompts are designed to surface competing values — in posing “Why hasn’t [your engagement] been higher?” we presume there are important reasons for this to be the case. By definition, they will balance with the important values that have prevented you from engaging less.
- Practical — Search through a course syllabus, assignment sheet, institutional tenure & promotion guidelines, union contract, or similar such document looking for imperative language (“You must / you should / your task is to…”). How could that language — or indeed, that whole document — be re-imagined as an agency-affirming text that highlights values, choices, and desired outcomes? Draft a revised version of the problematic text in question.
- Philosophical — Craft an institutional policy that will prevent the practical assignment above from ever needing to happen again.
- Technical — Can platforms be built with agency at their foundation? What specifications or guidelines should exist for platforms to make user control the default? Outline the guiding principles or EULA for such a platform.