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.

Word of the Day

Got to admit, sometimes I feel at a disadvantage writing and thinking in English. I study mostly French and German philosophers (Marion and Heidegger especially). Somehow those languages seem so much more hospitable (enter Derrida) to the philosophic project. Maybe in the case of Heidegger, the use of language seems more calculated and engineered (because it is). But French seems to effortlessly bend and twist to produce a subtly in thought that defies gravity. And easy translation.

Today I’m preparing a paper on Marion to present at a conference in March. I’m extremely humbled to be included in the program and very happy to be writing about work that on any given day takes up a good deal of my head space. In particular, I am writing on the way “vanity” in Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon suggests the need to think beyond Self and Other to include Another, in this case the religious community.

“Vanity” is a pretty good word as things go. In Marion’s work, at least in my reading of it, vanity is the precipice at which the self comes to the end of its rope and becomes capable of the plunge into existential crisis. Vanity is a great word for this extremis because it carries with it both the self-absorption native to the self and, in the useage assigned in Ecclesiastes, its undoing, an exasperated admission of the futility of self-agency. That’s neat work for one word, especially one that retains the full connotation in English.

Writing on the subject today, I reacquainted myself with the word “deponent.” A deponent is both a person who makes a deposition and a passive verb that in nonetheless active in meaning. In other words, deponent turns out to be a handy word for discussing the self converted by the saturated phenomenon to witness. The witness is active in its capacity to register the saturated phenomenon, but is also passive in that the coming forward of the saturated phenomenon itself becomes the self which is attested.

Deponent is not at the heart of my argument (so much good has been said on that front by others better than I), but seeming as I so rarely find an English word (albeit one that is invoking Latin and Greek verbs) that fits philosophy so nicely, I thought I’d take the time to celebrate. Please feel free to share the love and list your favorite English philosophical phrases. In the meantime, keep writing.

The Leftovers Ends Perfectly Imperfect

The season finaleleftovers of the HBO series, The Leftovers, was not perfect in execution. But that’s exactly perfect.

In the apocalypse category, The Leftovers is original, hinging on a catastrophic non-event. The central event, which claimed a thoroughly random (Gary Busey!?) 2%of the world’s population, lacks any discernible shape at which the characters might direct (and therefore manage) their anger and fear. There was no calamity, no noise, no light. Just suddenly nothing where people had been.

Along the same lines, the non-eventness of “The Departure” left no mark on society apart from the absence of the persons it claimed. In many post-apocalypse stories, the main characters are preoccupied with adjusting to new realities: disease, shortage, flesh eating zombies. Any introspection on the nature of existence happens in the small space between life or death choices. In The Leftovers, the buildings are left standing, the TV is left broadcasting, the restaurants are left open and ready for business. And people are left free from distraction from the ultimate reality: non-existence attends existence. Always.

And this, apart from its beautifully sparse cinematography, apart from its actors’ brilliant performances, is why I love The Leftovers. It exposes truth. Human agency is fabulously effective, but ultimately limited. When life is perceived as a puzzle to be solved, as a race to win, there is only so much we can DO to attempt to make that happen. There are times in life when we have done everything according to the directions, when we have met challenges with stunning courage and competency, but we are deprived of a winning end result. We come to the end of our existant tether and experience existence in its bleak reality. If life is a math problem, then it solves for zero. But only at that summation is joy possible.

The finale of The Leftovers demonstrates this perfectly. I was disappointed with the way the Wayne story line was not played out in camera. I was disappointed with the disappearance of Kevin’s dog hunting “friend” in the last episode. There were pieces of the story that got smudged out of focus in the haste to gather it all back in frame for the last episode. However, the events of the last episode clearly demonstrate our inability to engineer ourselves out of confrontation with non-existence. The final act of the Guilty Remnant, so carefully planned, so meticulously (and maliciously) performed was not responsible for deliverance. In psychology, it would best be categorized as a extinguishing behavior, an elevation of antagonism that is a demonstration of its perceived futility. It was a temper tantrum that did not earn them an extra cookie, an extra hour of play time before bed. Because the reality is that what they were seeking could not, in fact, be earned at all.

Deliverance came in unlooked-for places. Nora, having decided to give up trying to move on by running away, finds a new beginning in an infant failed-savior on the front porch. Kevin realizes, in the relief of having his daughter restored, that life itself (not the portrait of life that he was tortured by) is all that is precious. Without any reform or obedience training, the feral dog presents itself as a friend. Lori sees in her son’s face the permission to let go of her need to overcome her first failed marriage. In the end, there was nothing they could have done to surmount the grief and anguish, except to accept that just as surely as existence is always attended by non-existence, so joy attends that tension. The acceptance is not an act of the will or a decision of the intellect, but a relaxing into our proper, human position.

So if the final episode of The Leftovers was not able to perfectly bring about its own ending, then I say, I can’t really think of a more perfect ending.