Beyond Uncomfortable Silences

A couple weeks into the Spring semester and once again I’m enjoying exploring the concept of privilege with my students. I’m also very conscious of attempting to “hold space” as I teach this semester. I’m really fortunate to have smaller sections, so I can invest more deeply in cultivating mastery in my students and experiment more freely with different approaches to developing their own intuitions.

Recently, I came across this article on “whitesplaining” from the great folks over at Everyday Feminism. The article very clearly outlines the kinds of responses that (regardless of intentions) invalidate the perspective of people experiencing racism and reinforce white privilege narratives.

As I read, I kept on thinking of another article that has become a part of the way that I think about race. In “A Muscular Empathy,” the author challenges us to confront examples of historic and/or institutional racism not with the immediate assumption of our own exceptional opposition, but rather with the question of what would prevent our opposition? Even better: Why would I have likely gone along with injustice? Although we want to believe that we would be the one to speak out against slavery, against segregation, against prejudice, the truth is these injustices have existed and still exist because most people don’t speak out. Likely, I would have been, have been, sometimes still am numbered among the don’ts. The Everyday Feminism article invites us to a similar consideration. Putting myself in the position of the “whitesplainer” in the article, the informative question is not whether I would say things that attempt to explain away someone’s experiences, but why would I say those things?

For me, I think the answer is mostly embarrassment and shame. I am ashamed that racism is still a daily experience for people in America. I am embarrassed that people who I consider good people say bad things, revealing how embedded racist presuppositions are in our culture. I want to relieve the sting of racist comments, not only because I feel bad for the person receiving them, but also because I am really uncomfortable confronting the fact that racism is a persistent reality.

So I think the first step in avoiding “whitesplaining” is to be silent. Not necessarily to more fully listen to the experience of the person talking. At least, not at first. If my shame is what is compelling me to speak over someone else, then that’s the first thing I need to let ring through my silence. I need to sit in the uncomfortable silence.

But I can’t stay there.

That’s the point of the last article I want to bring into conversation today. It challenges what ally politics and activism should look like. I had to read the article several times (and yes, there were uncomfortable silences in between). Guilt and shame, if allowed to have the last say, can lead to immobility, specifically a refusal to take action under one’s own auspices. The article contends that sometimes even “listening” can amount to another abdication of responsibility even if done in the name of deference to the oppressed community. Although this seems at first to be the correct impulse, like the “whitesplaining” examples above, what results is re-entrenchment of racist and other authoritarian assumptions. The author writes, “For a liberating understanding of privilege, each of us must learn our stake in toppling those systems of power to recognize how much we all have to gain in overturning every hierarchy of oppression.” I understand it this way: in the same way I need to confront my own shame about racism, I also need to fully understand my own reasons for fighting for racial justice. Only then can we have genuine partnership instead of awkward paternalism, arriving at a place where those participating in racial privilege and those experiencing racism will end up as equals on the same side of action.

Please share your reactions to the articles above (my attempts to grapple with them included). If you are a teacher trying to bring these concepts into focus for your class, I’d love to learn about your strategies.

Teaching to “Hold Space”

As a result of teaching the concept privilege to my students, I’ve become increasingly aware of the privilege inherent in my position as teacher. More than just having a seat at the table (see my snack time illustration), to some extent, I convene the meal, including picking the menu, serving the food and monitoring behavior at the table. If I’m encouraging my students to consider how they might use their seat at the table to influence the conversation in a way that makes space for others, then I need to ask the question how I can leverage my position as teacher to make a space for my students.

One of the things my students discovered in contemplating the question of privilege is that offering a seat sometimes means giving up yours. What I mean is, that while we like to think equality can be achieved by bringing everyone UP to the same level, sometimes it means taking people a step DOWN to achieve fairness. I love (everything, but especially) the ending on this short video from the ACLU. After Sasheer  Zamata loses her drink, her friend offers some of his lemonade, but she playfully knocks it out of his hands: Now we’re equal. Let’s go get some more lemonade together. I think this is particularly pertinent when thinking about how I might deal with my privilege as a teacher. It’s not about stepping every student up to be a teacher, but maybe taking a step back towards my students and transforming my teaching to look more like their learning.

I came across this article in a friend’s newsfeed. Although the focus of the article is on end of life care, I thought it provided an interesting framework around which to rethink, what I’m calling, invitational teaching. I took the time to attempt to consider specific applications of the author’s points to the project of teaching. Here’s what I came up with:

“Holding Space” Teaching Thoughts

  • Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
    • Ask open ended questions: What do you think? How would you approach the problem?
    • Design activities for exploration. Allow them to handle the problems.
    • Design both questions and activities to reveal and employ held skills
  • Give people only as much information as they can handle.
    • Reduce teaching content to a few central concepts per lesson
    • Reduce teaching content to non-intuitive tools/information
    • Design activities/questions to employ newly supplied information
  • Don’t take their power away.
    • How can I put decision making power into my students’ hands?
    • Include a decision making nexus within activities
    • Allow for divergent decisions within the activity
  • Keep your own ego out of it.
    • Provide evaluations that matter to students, allow them to assess their mastery
  • Make them feel safe enough to fail.
    • Lead through the process, not to a predetermined answer
    • Use in-class journaling to encourage protected creative thinking
  • Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
    • Present info to guide, not countermand
    • Present philosophers as historical guides rather than authoritative voices
    • Share personal growth in discipline as well as struggles in growth
  • Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
    • Use in-class journaling to capture feelings and personal reflections
    • Use videos and other media to present vulnerable viewpoints
  • Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
    • Distinguish between clarity on key concepts and divergent processes of inquiry
    • Graded assignments should emphasize and honor the above distinction

Looking at the observations above, those around grading surprised me. What I find most challenging is providing decision making opportunities within the lesson. I feel encouraged that in-class journaling was a good tool to use in our privilege lessons and I’m very interested in continuing to use it going forward.

These are more general thoughts than lesson plans, but I’ll be sure to share those here as I develop them going forward. Please continue to let me know what you think.

Privilege – Lesson 3

It’s taken me a long time to get this post up, mostly because this lesson took several class periods to navigate.

Whenever I teach Intro to Ethics, I start with Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and move into the feminist critique in the form of ethics of care. Although on this end of the lectures it’s hard to imagine why, it never occurred to me before how well these topics would frame our discussion of privilege.

The lessons include the diagrams I used. The “Wheel of Oppression” I feature is a modified version of Peggy McIntosh’s model, as cited by Dena R. Samuels in the paper I mentioned earlier.

Please find the new lesson here. I look forward to your comments.

Privilege – Lesson 2

Finally got to the second lesson on privilege today. It ended up taking the whole class period to discuss. I even had to assign the journaling activity for homework.

The “cherry” set-up took awhile, but I thought it was important to establish a safe framework for exploring how privilege becomes entrenched, how it feels to encounter it, how addressing it often creates resentment. I may have erred on the side of making privilege appear too passive or benign. However, I feel like that’s a common retort to privilege: I don’t actively oppress people so I’m not responsible. I’m trying to establish responsibility without activity. We did refer back to the analogy often in our discussion of Kim Davis’s actions.

Here’s the link to Lesson 2. Please comment here and let me know what you think.

Privilege – Lesson 1

Today, with fear and trembling (the good kind of course), I began incorporating activities on privilege into my intro to ethics class at our local community college. I feel really strongly about giving my students an effective framework to engage the contemporary conversation about privilege.

I wanted to make my lessons available here as a work in progress: to invite comment and critique, to share what I’m learning and invite others to share how they are teaching on this important issue.

I’m drawing heavily on “Connecting with Oppression and Privilege: A Pedagogy for Social Justice” by Dena R. Samuels. I especially like her suggestion to use in-class journaling around questions and activities. We used it today and I think it helped to create a sense that our classroom is a safe place and also gave the students a chance to engage their own thoughts more deeply than they might when responding verbally on the fly.

In the following activity, I found that cataloging our “passive” associations (communities that we didn’t choose) and talking about how these may or may not inform our identities differently than “active” associations set the stage nicely for the idea that privilege is a “passive” condition, one that informs who we are whether we actively engage it or not.

You can use this link to access the lesson. Please leave comments and suggestions here. Looking forward to learning from you.

The Last Exorcism and Utilitarianism

I often use film as a teaching aid in class. In the first place, I love film. I have a visual imagination. Whether I am trying to work through a philosophical problem or a new poem, my brain “sees” main concepts in images which I can then “move” in relation to one another to “build” a solution. So film is a process I recognize, relate to and enjoy.

As far as my students are concerned, I recognize that we live in a visually saturated culture. I believe analyzing films offers my class an opportunity to connect with important philosophical concepts in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. In addition, in the same way that I give my students tools with which to mine the meaning from texts, I feel it is important to expose my students to the reality that the content of visual story telling goes beyond the story being told to include the how of the telling. I encourage my students to become aware of not just what’s in the picture, but how the picture is framed and composed in understanding the author’s intent, presuppositions and underlying agenda. To sum up, films connect my students to the philosophical, connect the philosophical with their lives and help my students decode their visual universe (with the hopes that they’ll get all philosophical about it.)

This week in Intro to Ethics, we will be watching some opening scenes from The Last Exorcism. As many of you know, I’m a devotee of the exorcism film genre and this one is one of my favorites. The ending suffers from a Rosemary’s Baby over-reveal, but otherwise, the storytelling is really compelling. Ashley Bell’s performance is nuanced and intense. All well and good, but why show it to my ethics class?

In class, we are currently studying Utilitarianism, which along with Deontology and Virtue Ethics is one of three main schools of ethics we cover. The bumper sticker breakdown of Utilitarianism is “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” Different thinkers crunch the numbers differently, but on the whole, you are trying to solve for “good” in a way that maximizes that good for as many other members of your community as possible. In other words, utilitarianism is largely about weighing consequences (as opposed to character or intentions.) Utilitarianism certainly has its detractors (Elizabeth Anscombe for one), but it remains an important line of thinking (my favorite is Hutcheson).

Back when I first starting teaching the class, I was scouring my DVD collection and Netflix queue for movies that contrasted the different ethical schools. What I found was that it was really difficult to find any positive depictions of Utilitarianism. American story telling very much prefers a Virtue Ethics model for its heroes. In that story, the protagonist is faced with incredible odds that they navigate by the strength of their outstanding, inner character.

I get why this is a winning story. We want to believe that all our investments into building good character will yield good returns. We want to live in a world where good people persevere. However, it also suggests that the people who don’t get a victory, who can’t overcome their circumstances just might be bad people. Aside from being a gross miscategorization of our society, this is where the American meritocracy ideal goes wrong. It’s also the book of Job: if you’re in this kind of mess, then you must have done something to deserve it, because we know good people come out on the good. If Utilitarianism is depicted in films at all, it’s usually employed by villains or other characters that are opportunistic, self-serving and suspicious.

lastexorcism-09But not in The Last Exorcism. In The Last Exorcism, the main character, Rev. Cotton Marcus, is an exorcist trained from his youth in the church. After his son’s birth and subsequent medical problems, he loses his faith, but continues to officiate exorcisms because he believes that he is still helping people, people who believe that their maladies are supernatural. However, when he is confronted by the possibility that children, especially disabled children (a reality that is really frightening), are being harmed by the rite, he decides to expose exorcisms for the sham that they are. He is seeking the most amount of good for the most amount of people and acknowledges that children are a special class of vulnerable people that deserve a special kind of evaluation in his ethical math. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which is absolutely rare in American film. Now, of course, the movie unfolds in such a way that Rev. Marcus is confronted by a real possession in this last exorcism, but that doesn’t tarnish his portrait as someone who is trying to bring about good through his actions.

Can you think of another film that presents “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people” in a positive light? I’d love to broaden my resources, but in the meantime, we’ll be watching The Last Exorcism.

Why Maleficent is Morally Boring (and other spoilers)

I’m certainly glad I saw Maleficent in 3D in the theater. It allowed me to enjoy the best of what the movie has to offer; the visuals were enchanting. But otherwise, the movie is a bore. In particular, there was nothing morally compelling in the film, no ethical tension and therefore, no real plot to speak of.

Let’s start with the premise: The bad guy is actually the good guy or has good reasons for becoming so bad. In the post Severus Snape universe, this is not just a well recognized plot twist, it’s a tired one. What makes this reiteration particularly tiresome is that the narrative doesn’t extend the kindness of ambivalence to the other main character, Stefan. We meet him as a young boy, caught in the act of stealing. The narrative offers no moment of counter point to suggest that his character is other than avaricious. The ring flinging in the next scene doesn’t directly contrast (the ring belongs to Stefan) and is therefore ineffective. Additionally, when Stefan discovers that he can’t kill Maleficent to secure the crown, the moment of indecision is not depicted as internal conflict, but rather cowardice. Any regret he may have about maiming Maleficent is not sustained for longer than a scene. By the time Maleficent confronts him at the christening, Stefan is affronted by rather than (even slightly) apologetic at her unlooked for appearance. By the end of the film, Stefan runs completely off the rails, plunging into an abyss of madness and revenge. Meanwhile, Maleficent giveth curses and taketh curses away, asking us to believe that she is an essentially good person in a particularly challenging circumstance. Paired with the unmitigated condemnation of Stefan, the movie is not able make her character register on the Severus Snape Character Conflict Scale. Not even a tremor.

Equally disappointing, the movie does not offer believable motivations for decisions of conscience. As mentioned above, Stefan’s initial act of thievery is never challenged by a contrasting act. In the whole friends-to-more-than-friends montage, we are not given a single reason why we should believe that Maleficent should particularly trust Stefan. The narrative doesn’t endorse his character in any way. In fact, it continually reminds us what a bad person he is. Seeming as Maleficent is presented as more than an empty headed fairy, it seems less than plausible that Stephen would be able to secure her affections so easily. Then there is the relationship between Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty, Aurora. When Maleficent curses the baby princess, she is consumed with anger and revenge. However, within a couple of scenes, she’s saving the dizzy toddler from diving off a cliff. I realize that, within the film, a couple of years pass between these two scenes, but the movie gives us not even an inkling as to why our hero turned villain is suddenly waxing heroic again. Not even a “I did that so my plans can come to fruition, but no not really, Diablo don’t look at me with those knowing beady eyes.” We’re just supposed to accept it as a matter of course.

Contributing to the lack of motivation, the character of Sleeping Beauty is stunningly underwritten. I suppose this is understandable given that Aurora’s traditional function is to serve as an object of rescue, but it’s a really bad move in a movie claiming to be a non-traditional retelling of a classic story. But as Maleficent indulges in a relationship with her (Why? Ummm, we don’t really know why), we are asked to believe that the delight of watching Auora pet fairies and coo at pixies is enough to convince Maleficent to not only attempt to lift the curse, but undertake a dangerous attempt to break it. Aurora is nice. Maybe nice was all Maleficent needed, but the movie can’t get away with asking us to believe that Maleficent is at once morally complicated enough to handle the bad/good tension and the kind of girl that falls for puppy videos.

Lastly (and this is less an ethical gripe) like everyone else, we are still detoxing from Frozen overload in my household. I did enjoy the movie and I found the act of true love reveal completely believable and refreshing. Maybe Maleficent was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s own attempt to critique “true love” came off like a copy. If anyone is glad we are moving on from the Prince Charming model, it’s me. But coupled with the tiredness of the plot “twist” and the general lack of motivation, it was really hard to believe that Maleficent and Aurora are headed to happily ever after. Or maybe it was easy to believe, but only because that’s what happens at this part in those kinds of stories. You know, the kind of stories Maleficent wants us to believe it is reshaping.