среда, 4 июня 2008 г.

In the field

There is high demand for stories in the classroom--both the traditional academic classroom and the one in which I teach human rights activists at an annual summer college. There, Aptheker's "respect for each other", acceptance of tolerance and ambiguity etc., frustrate me however, in the same way that Elizabeth Ellsworth felt frustrated by the fine sounding phrases of critical pedagogy in her influential article `Why doesn't this feel empowering?' (1989). Stories intended to serve as an opposition to patriarchal discourse have not always felt empowering. This is due, in large part, to two tendencies: our failure to recognise the multiple nature of subjectivity and hence the complex ways we construct meaning, and a failure to develop an ethical vision [1] based on our differences. In the effort to untangle how we are constructed we have sometimes failed to define what it is about the world that we want to change and why.

Ellsworth noted specifically that in mixed sex, mixed race classroom on racism, students enter with "investments of privilege and struggle already made in favour of some ethical and political positions concerning racism and against other positions" (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 301). The strategies of empowerment, dialogue and voice do not in fact work as neatly as they are supposed to because there is no unity among the oppressed and because our various histories are not left at the door when we enter a classroom to critically reflect. Her students were unable to `hear' each other. The operative mode was rationality and the stories of various groups had to be justified and explicated using the very tools that held these stories to be inadmissible. (Here the parallel to feminists working in law is obvious. The rules of the legal game structure the tale in such a way that only some parts of it can be told or what is told is unrecognisably transformed by the fancy scientific dress.) Going beyond Aptheker's unproblematic call for a tolerance of ambiguity, Ellsworth suggests that we respect the diversity of voices, of stories as it were, that we recognise that the voices are "valid--but not without response" (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 305). In other words, the stories must be critiqued and she has a number of concrete suggestions for doing so which I would like to address in order to look for a way out of a return to rationality or to an uncritical reliance on stories.

Ellsworth recommends that we work hard at building trust, hence the importance of building in opportunities for social interaction (we do this at the summer college by making the programme a residential programme); that we stress the need to learn about the realities of others without relying on them to inform us; that we name the inequalities in the classroom and devise ground rules for communication, (for this we used Uma Narayan's (1988) article `Working across differences'); that we consider strategies such as encouraging affinity groups between those who are most likely to share the same forms of oppression; and that we consciously offer such groups the time to coalesce so that individuals can speak from within groups. All of these recommended pedagogical practices come out of her central piece of advice which is that we critically examine what we share and don't share. We work from the basis that we all have only partial knowledge, that we come from different subject positions. Most important of all, no one is off the hook since we can all claim to stand as oppressor and oppressed in relation to someone else. These suggestions, which I do practice, do not save me from some of the `ethical dilemmas' that: arise frequently at the summer college, although perhaps I could have minimised their impact had I paid closer attention to the ground rules above.

Two incidents from the most recent summer college in human rights illustrate some of the difficulties with a critical use of story-telling. The summer college in human rights, held at the University of Ottawa but sponsored by the non-governmental Human Rights Research and Education Centre, brings together 60 human rights activists who work for social change within an organised group. Thus there are members of groups of women with disabilities, various anti-racist groups, the Assembly of First Nations, lawyers for human rights in South Africa, etc. Although it frequently happens that individuals from dominant groups work for organisations on behalf of the oppressed, the majority of students can fit, in one way or another, into the `disadvantaged groups'. The first incident illustrates the unreasonably high demand for story-telling from those in dominant positions. Here I take some responsibility. The curriculum is designed to encourage storytelling and the pedagogical practices emphasise the need to make a space for different voices and in fact to forge a politics of alliances based on this sharing of daily experiences. One participant in my group, a white disabled woman, frustrated by the silence of a black woman from South Africa when South Africa was being discussed, directly confronted her with a firm `Why don't you tell us your experiences?' Realising the harshness of what: was said, another participant, also disabled but male, repeated the request more gently. Instantly, the trust and sharing of the class, built over 5 days, dissolved in a puff of smoke. The black participant, thus confronted with a request to tell her story, defended her right to silence and then left the room in tears. In the chaos of what then ensued, it became clear that the sentence, e, so simply expressed by a white woman, innocently inviting a woman of colour to share her experiences of racism, recalled for every person of colour in the room (seven out of 20) that this was not in fact a safe learning environment. For me, the instructor and a woman of colour, I tried hard to retain my composure. Later, distressed to the point of tears by the `loss of control' in `my' classroom, and not consoled by the learning value of the event, I wondered how it was that I could have been so powerfully affected in spite of many years' experience of just this type of situation. I recall trying clumsily to explain to a colleague that we (people of colour) are always being asked to tell our stories for your (white people) benefit, which you can't hear because of the benefit you derive from hearing them. Suddenly, the world was still white after all and the pedagogy that insisted that the oppressed can come together to critically reflect and share stories seemed a sham.

Let me leave this story for a while and tell another that occurred in the same context but among all three classes of the summer college. This story illustrates for me the sheer difficulty of understanding across differences and the need for some ethical guidelines for listening. The session in question took place in August 1990. On the day that the Federal Government of Canada, at Quebec's request, decided to send in the army to try to end the stand off between Mohawks and the Quebec provincial police (Surete Quebec), the students of the summer college decided to abandon the curriculum and take action. This after all was the basis of the education for social change they had come to get. In the very heated discussions that followed as to the most appropriate actions to be taken, the only two Native participants (not, however, of the Mohawk nation) assumed a leadership role, again in keeping with the principles of the college that struggles for social change must be led by the groups in question. They both endorsed a march on Parliament Hill to protest armed intervention and made a passionate plea (in the form of stories of their lives as Native women) that we all accept this as the only course of action. As in Elizabeth Ellsworth's class, we, the non-Natives in the room then began to process the story we had heard. Some of us then required the two women to defend their position using the master's tools since we felt that the army was in fact an improvement over the Surete Quebec, a police force well-known for its racism. In fact, we argued, the Assembly of First Nations who represented Native groups, themselves agreed this was so although they deplored, as we did, armed intervention. The situation soon led to tears (from the Native women), recriminations (from some of the francophone participants who felt that sympathy for the Mohawks came easily for anglophones whose daily lives were not touched by the crisis as were the lives of francophone inhabitants of Quebec), sheer astonishment at the depth of' emotion we had observed, and to our general confusion and failure to find a way out of this ethical dilemma. In a different way, the situation was repeated when a native woman from an altogether different reserve (Akwasasne) came to speak against the Warrior societies of the Mohawks, while a Native leader later spoke in their defence. We had to employ the tools of rationality to choose between stories and to determine political action. The brilliant suggestion of Uma Narayan, that we grant epistemic privilege to the oppressed, falls apart when the subject positions are so confused. Unless we want to fall into the trap of demanding that the oppressed speak in a unified voice before we will believe them, we are still left with the difficult task of negotiating our way through our various ways of knowing and towards political action.

Both these incidents led me to reflect on classroom ethics, indeed on ethics in general, in mixed sex and mixed race groupings where there is a commitment to social change. First, I agree with Zuniga and Ellsworth: we do shy away from critical reflection of the practices of those on the `good' side. Ironically, our analytical and pedagogical tools seem to discourage internal critique by calling for respect for different voices with insufficient attention paid to the contexts of both the teller and the listener. Second, the risks taken in the course of critical reflection are never equally shared. This is almost a truism yet we have not been careful to devise a pedagogy that would accommodate it or a political practice that would not sacrifice diversity, again I think because the game of good guy/bad guy discourages it. What would a pedagogy that recognised the inequalities of risk-taking entail? We know more about what it would not entail, for instance Ellsworth's comments that acting as though the classroom is a safe place does not make it safe.

From feminists and practitioners of critical pedagogy alike has come the suggestion that caring is as important as critical pedagogy. For instance, Meth-child Hart warned of an overemphasis on cognitive processes (Hart, 1990, p. 135). We cannot absolutely know what is required in what instances. Is the best we can do to remain open and to care? There are, however, boundaries to our caring which have to be worked out when deciding how far we will commit ourselves to action. Furthermore, these boundaries are hard to discern across cultures and caring sometimes gets in the way. Lynet Uttal (1989), writing of her experience of the differences between Anglo-feminist groups and those of women of colour, notes that in Anglo-feminist groups, the emphasis on providing care and support leads to passive listening of diverse voices. There is seldom any heated discussion or disagreement; those who fail to fit in simply leave the group. She describes the "blank looks of supportive listening" and the absence of critical engagement with the ideas proposed (Uttal, 1989, p. 318).

Richard Brosio reminds us that our professions notwithstanding, education is not the leading route to social change (Brosio, 1990, p. 75). Perhaps we ought not to have the expectation that a pedagogy can be devised that will help us to transcend the dichotomies and the bind of partial knowledge. Iris Young wisely notes that "too often people in groups working for social change take mutual friendship to be a goal of the group. Such a desire for community often channels energy away from the political goals of the group" (Young, 1990, p. 235). I interpret this to mean that we often forget that community has to be struggled for, which I think Ellsworth very forcefully demonstrates by her critical analysis of her course on racism. What might assist us to promote that struggle?

If there is no automatic friendship, good will or community, where do we begin? The answer is of course already an axiom among us: we begin with critical thinking and critical pedagogy. But where critical pedagogy has traditionally begun is not far enough below the surface. We have to begin with how we know, giving this more attention than we have traditionally done. Epistemology, perhaps without using the word, has to enter into our pedagogy and our political categories. It is not an auspicious beginning to build on the feminist insight that women appear to know differently to men because the universalising tendency of the category `woman' has been every bit as destructive as the universal category `oppressed' has . in critical pedagogy.

Carolyn Steedman (1986) well illustrates the point that how we know what we know is central to our political practice because it helps us to locate the inconsistencies, the cracks we might then use to empower ourselves. Commenting on the fact that all women learn about patriarchy in the family, whether by the father's absence or presence, she remarks:

What is a distinction though, and one that offers some hope, is the difference between learning of this system from a father's display of its social basis, and learning of it from a relatively unimportant and powerless man (as in the case of her working-class father), who cannot present the case for patriarchy embodied in his own person. (Steedman, 1986, p. 79)

Our different subject positions, borne out in how we know, tell and hear stories, are ignored at our peril. Maria Lugones describes the dilemmas that confront her as a Chicana woman in an intellectual context that is predominantly white, when invited to tell her stories. White/Anglo women, she writes, "can see themselves as simply human or simply women. I can bring you to your senses con el tono de mi voz, with the sound of my--to you--alien voice." (Lugones, 1989, p. 49). This at any rate is the assumption behind story-telling. For the woman of colour, however, the situation is altogether more difficult:

So the central and painful questions for me in this encounter become questions of speech? En que' voz with which voice, anclada en que' lugar anchored in which place, para que y porque why and to what purpose, do I trust myself to you . . . o acaso juego un juego de cat and mouse for your entertainment. . . o por el mio? I ask these questions out loud because they need to be asked.

If we are sensitive to this difference which Lugones brilliantly demonstrates, and we heed Ellsworth's practical advice on this score, that is that we problematise what the limits of our knowing are, based on our different subject positions, I think we end up realising that story-telling serves various groups differently and that it should never be employed uncritically in mixed groups.

Trinh Minh-ha's work is a courageous attempt to delineate modes of storytelling, to explore the complex interplay between the subject positions of the tellers and the listeners. "There is more than one way to relate the story of specialness", she observes, and stories can perpetuate domination. For instance, specialness can serve the dominant groups as entertainment, as "that voice of difference likely to bring us what we can't have and to divert us from the monotony of sameness" (Trinh, 1989a, p. 88).

Eager not to disappoint, I try my best to offer my benefactors and benefactresses what they most anxiously yearn for: the possibility of a difference, yet a difference or otherwise that will not go so far as to question the foundations of their beings and makings. (p. 88)

As a listener, one can be drawn into such a process very easily. I have seen students literally feeding off the tears of stories from the Third World, basking in the sense of having visited another country so easily and feeling no compulsion to explore their own complicity in the oppression of others.

The problems of voice and identity are packed with internal dilemmas not only for the listeners but also the tellers of the tale. Often women of colour are asked to tell their stories while others will do the theorising and the writing up. Yet the chance to speak, to enter your reality on the record, as it were, is as irresistible as it is problematic. What kind of tale will I choose to tell, and in what voice? Trinh Minh-ha asks, "how do you inscribe difference without bursting into a series of euphoric narcissistic accounts of yourself and your own kind? Without indulging in a marketable romanticism or in a naive whining about your condition?" (Trinh, 1989a, p. 28). There are penalties for choosing the wrong voice at the wrong time, for telling an inappropriate tale. Far better, one might conclude, as the black woman from South Africa did, to keep silent. I found myself exploring, at the summer college, this right to silence and offer in this regard another of Trinh's observations: "Silence as a will not to say or a will to unsay and as a language of its own has barely been explored" (Trinh, 1989b, p. 373). As an educator, however, I find the idea of silence extremely unsettling, reminding me of my own compelling interest in encouraging the telling of stories.

In story-telling, then, while asking ourselves what we can know and not know is important, particularly in terms of listening to others and then deciding how to act in a particular situation, I think there is a more basic task at hand. This is the task of calling into question knowledge and being of both the teller and the listener, and struggling for ways to take this out of the realm of abstraction and into political action. "What we do toward the texts of the oppressed is very much dependent upon where we are", writes Gayatri Spivak (Spivak, 1990, p. 57), echoing a Quebecois proverb that `on pense ou on a les pieds'. Again I turn to Trinh Minh-ha who has illuminated for me most clearly why neither rationality nor emotional sharing will suffice. Trinh suggests we consider breaking the dichotomy mind/body, reason/emotion as is done in Asian martial arts for instance, by adding a third category, `instinctual immediacy', by which I think is meant subject position or point of departure. Here, instinct does not stand opposed to reason; it requires us to relate to the world with immediacy, to allow "each part of the body to become infused with c consciousness". Instinct requires us to reactivate the "radical calling into question in every undertaking, of everything that one takes for granted" (Trinh, 1989a, p. 40. Give up, in other words, the quest for knowledge, that is to definitively know, either through the heart or the mind. Instead, question one's point of departure at every turn so that strategies (such as replacing rationality with emotions) do not become end points in themselves (Trinh, 1989a, p. 43).

Trinh Minh-ha is optimistic about her proposal to engage in the ground clearing activity of radically calling into question:

The questions that arise continue to provoke answers, but none will dominate as long as the ground-clearing activity is at work. Can knowledge circulate without a position of mastery? Can it be conveyed without the exercise of power? No, because there is no end to understanding power relations which are rooted deep in the social nexus--not merely added to society nor easily locatable so that we can just radically do away with them. Yes, however, because in-between grounds always exist, and cracks and interstices are like gaps of fresh air that keep on being suppressed because they tend to render more visible the failures operating in every system. Perhaps mastery need not coincide with power (Trinh, 1989a, p. 41).

The mestiza consciousness described by Gloria Anzaldua in her book Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) requires ground-clearing activity. The future belongs to the mestizas, Anzaldua writes, "because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos--that is a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave--la mestiza creates a new consciousness" (Anzaldua, 1987, p. 80). Anzaldua makes concrete the tolerance for ambiguity called for by Bettina Aptheker when she situates it in the radical calling into question of all our subject positions. The first step of the mestiza is to take inventory: to ask critically, "Just what did she inherit from her ancestors?" (p. 82).

Pedagogically, then, ground clearing activity is my suggestion for reshaping education for social change. In one way this is not any different from the axiom to continually critically reflect. What it refers to, however, is reflecting critically on how we hear, how we speak, to the choices we make about which voice to use, when, and, most important of all, developing pedagogical practices that enable us to pose these questions and use the various answers to guide those concrete moral choices we are constantly being called upon to make.

Concretely, I envision a more complex mapping of our differences than we have ever tried before. In the case of the summer college, for instance, it will mean that more space is cleared in the curriculum for exploration from our various subject positions. Colonisation from within and without will become a major theme and not just in terms of what colonisation means for Third World peoples but also how it constitutes the colonisers themselves. The project at hand is Spivak's "unlearning privilege" (Spivak, 1990, p. 30) so that "not only does one become able to listen to that other constituency, but one learns to speak in such a way that one will be taken seriously by that other constituency" (Spivak, 1990, p. 42). In the past, it seemed such an enormous task to enter into the classroom some of the realities of various oppressed groups that it did not seem possible to concentrate on how we are `processing' this information differently based on our respective subject positions. In effect, were I to redesign my pedagogical approach in the summer college, I would want to pay more attention to how we know rather than primarily to what we know. It seems simple enough but the complex ways of telling stories act as a reminder that the task is anything but simple.

In law, maintaining a similar vigilance about how we know what we know requires that we pay attention to "the interpretative structures we use to reconstruct events." (Crenshaw, 1992, p. 404). As feminists, for instance, we will need to devise alternatives for telling about the lives of women of colour that transcend the narrative about the white woman or the one about the black man. Since the stories of women of colour fit into neither, telling them will require attention to multiplicities, contradictions and relations of power embedded in interpretive structures.

To conclude, I endorse Trinh's passionate plea for a movement away from defining and boxing ourselves into one subject identity:

You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what I am not. The differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences--hence the notion of pure origin and true self--are an outgrowth of a dualistic system of thought peculiar to the Occident... (Trinh, 1989a, p. 90)

Without absolutes, no true self, no pure origin, it becomes all the more imperative to pay attention to how our multiple identities are constructed and played out at any one time in any one context. The white disabled student might then have not asked for the stories of the black South African; she might have focused on critically examining her own need to hear those stories (to what end?) Similarly, we would not have been paralysed by guilt upon hearing Native women call for a particular form of action which did not meet our rational criteria. We might instead have asked what was affecting our comprehension of events (as indeed they might have asked themselves). In the same way, feminists who go to court might question their choice of narrative strategies before they go to court. More secure in our respective commitments to probing beneath the surface of what we know, to how we know, alliances might then be possible between white, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-class women and women on the margins. In the court-room as in the classroom, ours "is a responsibility to trace the other in self' (Spivak, 1990, p. 47), a task that must become central to our practice.

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