Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Day 3: How oppression is practiced and perpetuated at universities

Linda here again. Sadly, I had great trouble following today's dialogue. Below is my best effort to piece together my notes, but it leaves out a great deal. Regrets...

Homework: See if you can notice a place where you're contracted--you're in a state that is stimulated by  a feeling of necessity/urgency/demand in the world.   See if you can shift through following your breath.  See what happens.

Recalling last week's experience of homework. 

Our homework last week was to notice structures of oppression.  In what ways are you benefitting or participating in such structures?

Someone noticed that the classroom is such a structure of oppression.  There is a grading system by which some people benefit; there is a presumed (and shared) model that the "expert" has something more valuable to say than those who are taking the class. This is not exactly "wrong," but what was noticed is that by virtue of being the assumed expert, you wield a great deal of power; just standing in the room while people are sitting causes people to be quiet and pay attention (notice the act of what you might call "worship" or "sacrifice"--pay attention).  What does one do or not do with such power?

Incidentally, someone who is a recent alumna asserted that if you think you don't have power, you're wrong.

Even the act of not recognizing or naming something in a power dynamic, subtly imputes value.

This reminds me of the situation of an engineering colleague of mine at Purdue. Recently, an engineering student murdered (shot) another engineering student in a classroom. It was not clear where the gunman was in the building, but all went through a lockdown in case the gunman was in the building. This was an extraordinarily traumatizing occurrence for the entire engineering student body (~9000 engineering majors), as you can imagine. Oddly, some of her engineering colleagues simply held their classes the next day as if nothing happened--most of them said they just didn't know what to say.  They didn't mention it or refer to it. I wonder what the students in those classes took away from the silence. 

A faculty member confessed that they felt a pressure to get so much work done, yet didn't know how to make the students do the work.  He reflected that, students are "committing" themselves to learning what is in the course by virtue of their signing up for it.

As somewhat of a counterpoint, a current student (by the way, I'm rather artificially using these categorizations out of convenience, rather than anything real--I'm attempting to make clear something about their institutional point of reference) revealed that when she is signing up for a class, she doesn't really know what she is signing up for.  But the experience is that of being subjected to an oppressive grading system, much of which is experienced as not being chosen by her.

The general pattern in the institution is to treat the humans we call students as fungible objects in the assembly line of courses; we then ensure that our pre-determined set of nuts and bolts get attached to the "product," since we believe that these are all necessary to the proper functioning of the "product." Of course, we know very little about the "product" except that we have used a system of intake that is meant to ensure consistent properties between them (SAT scores, grades, etc.).

This disposition of prescribed assembly-line alternations does not leave room for the simple fact that the people we call students are not objects--they are humans with their own interests, values, and inherent impulse toward learning and freedom (autonomy).  It is our institutional habit to presume that the taking of a course is a transaction in which the consumer (formerly "product") pays for the experience of going though the assembly line and emerging with the necessary alterations, to include a quality certification (called a grade).

If students have interests outside the pre-scribed content, it presents itself as a great inconvenience to the faculty; someone proposed that one's interests outside of the class need to be kept separate from the class, as they are not part of the professionally-accepted scope of things.  Roger put it this way: "I don't want to encounter you as a human being in the act of our transaction."

Extending the metaphor of the factory model, we use statistical methods of quality control to "grade" the product (formerly the "consumer") in terms of its quality.  It is often the case that one's self gets conflated with the proxy indicator of their performance on a series of "tests", as revealed in the phrase, "This is the grade I received in that class."

Some departments, it was revealed, have a culture of expectation by other expert faculty that, on the average, the students' grades from a faculty members' course should adhere to a "normal distribution." Anything otherwise would be interpreted as either grade inflation or some other insufficiency on the part of the teacher.

What is interesting about the belief that every classroom "should" represent a normal distribution of performance, is the assumptions embedded in the math of normal distributions: all variation within the population must be random. The normal distribution arises from "common cause" of variation (i.e. randomness or "noise"). What this presumes is that the faculty member is assumed to have no influence whatsoever on the measured performance. In other words, the mean and spread in the performance is sourced in random variation within the population, not in their learning experience--an odd assumption.

Learning from Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Roger recalled the dynamic asserted by Paulo Freire in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. But first, what do we mean by oppression? The primary quality of oppression is that it dehumanizes the oppressed--it displaces their vocation of freedom. Another way of saying this is that it objectifies the human, failing to recognize that they have interests, values, and possess the human need for autonomy (freedom). At this point, you may recognize the parallels between this description of oppression and the factory model of education.  

The means of oppression are taught and handed from one generation to another.  How does this happen? A slave working on a plantation is oppressed by virtue of his role as fungible object and means to someone's profit; his human needs are disregarded.  This same slave becomes the foreman. In a way, he has been "freed" from his oppression as a slave. But now his "freedom" is dependent upon that same system of oppression. Without the slaves, where does that leave him?  So, he is invested in the system of oppression as part of his own freedom. In fact, it is this former slave's experience that the means of freedom is the oppression by which he became a foreman.  Unless something happens to the foreman, he is replicating the system of oppression (to his benefit) and possibly amplifying it. 

Can you see the faculty in this? They are in a system of oppression (students/slaves) in which they work hard to create their own freedom--faculty/foreman. Their status of power (faculty/foreman) now relies on that very same system of oppression. 

The oppressive system looks like a state of nature--the way thing are.  To interrupt this system looks like heresy.  

Our inability to function in it usually creates a narrative that there is some inherent flaw in us that prevents us from doing so ("There must be something wrong with me that I can't pass this calculus course.")

What do we do when we see that the oppression is actually enacted, rather than a state of nature? 

Well, there were a number of responses to this question. One person described the five stages of grief, a la Kubler-Ross. This moment of insight, is of course an existential crisis, where one realizes that "things are not as they appear," or worse, "I've been contributing to the very thing that I detest." (As an aside, I confess this latter one happens to me a lot,...alas! )

Roger again reminded us of Freire who says that anything you do, absent a condition of solidarity with the oppressed is "false charity."  

Examples from the faculty vault: Imagine that I am a faculty member who is of course invested in the system of oppression because I derive a great deal of (assumed) respect and power from it. Of course, I have pity on those humans we call students, but am resigned to the fact that my role as oppressor is just the way it is. I make up for this through charisma.  I don't want you to be oppressed, but hey, what can I do? 

In my place of power, I must be genuinely willing to give up something (power? ). What is hard is that as the oppressor, you actually cannot liberate the oppressed through any acts that draw upon the power that you have in your role as the oppressor.  For example, by announcing that everyone gets an "A", you have just reinforced your powerful role, rather than liberating anyone from oppression. 

How do you act authentically in your role as oppressor? 

One process that you might try is this: do nothing. Fast.  Let your non-action allow impulses to arise in yourself so that you can see where you are enacting oppression and interrupt it. 

Often the first response in fasting is to use force (your power) to manipulate. 

I'll give an example from my harrowing (first world) journey of egoic dissolve. I began experimenting with student-centered learning a few years back.  What I noticed was that in the giving of freedom of choice, people not only gladly take it, they make choices that you would not want them to make. I found I really struggled to watch them make these choices and had to watch my own impulses to want to direct their behavior toward things that I believed would be more "productive."  Eventually, I have come to see that in the face of freedom, people actually accomplish FAR MORE than you would have set out for them to accomplish. Of course, this is not universally true. In fact, most traditional "A-students" accomplish is almost as if they relax into the freedom from constantly driving themselves. In any case, it was interesting for me to see within myself that I wanted to reclaim my "expert powers". To me, this has been a practice of learning to accept diversity in all its forms. 

Another person described a process where she acknowledges what is happening and then asks, "Who do I want to be?" "What would that look like?" "Does it look like who I am in this moment?" For her, this is a principle that she is practicing--being loving in the world. 

Another person described the release of energy that comes from internally "aligning" with "what is."  This is an idea that Eckhart Tolle talks about and is distinct from "condoning" or "agreeing" with what is happening. She (it was me) likened this process to what happens to a magnetic dipole in a magnetic field. Oh, a simpler analogy is the flow of water in a stream.  You can get that if you are in that stream, with the energy of water rushing by you, it takes energy to misalign your body to the stream. Say there was a stationary pole in the stream. Imagine what kind of force it would take for you to misalign your body with the flow of that stream--this is equivalent to internally saying "No!" to whatever is happening in the moment. Your mind is working desperately to hold yourself at odds with the flow of the stream. 

If you instead remove the energy that you are applying to fight the tide, that energy then becomes free for something else: usually creativity. 

I recounted a story of a former student of mine who was being mugged in Massachusetts. There was a moment when he realized he was going to be punched in the face.  He said to himself, "Oh, I'm going to be punched in the face. Okay."  And that gave him the presence to simply and calmly step out of the way of the punch (probably several milliseconds, but enough to respond when his mind was free of fighting the idea of being punched). 

Both of these stories (the one on "Who do I want to be?"  and "Aligning with what is") are a way of optimizing "consciousness" rather than "force/power." 

And they beg the question---How does change happen, is it through the application of force?  Or, can change happen through conscious acts, freely chosen? 

This is probably not an either/or question, but a question about our own change models. 

Roger suggests that these ideas point to an exploration of "states" of being.  You can imagine being in a state of emergency or urgency.  This is a state where your being is "contracted." ...tight. 
To alter a contracted state to one of relaxation, you suddenly discover that there is more space, more time. 

You cannot think your way to another state.  (Ironically, thinking is probably the thing that produces contraction). 

In many traditions, following the breath is part of a state of presence.  Why?   Perhaps it is because the breath itself is the sign of the thing that is breathing us...we are not ourselves breathing, it is involuntary. So by paying attention to the breath we are paying attention to "consciousness".  What then? 

You are invited to try it out. 

Homework: See if you can notice a place where you're contracted--you're in a state that is stimulated by  a feeling of necessity/urgency/demand in the world.   See if you can shift through following your breath.  See what happens. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Linda, these are great notes.

    I remember a question Roger asked that has been with me all week. I wonder if others heard it (I might have dreamed it): How are we, as faculty, benefiting from the grading system?

    Also, I have been thinking of your analogy of magnetic fields and aligning to free up energy. I think why this is often hard for me is that I have seen multiple times in my life when I had to use a great deal of energy to change my state. Instead of talking in generalities, I will give an example. In order to leave a bad marriage, I needed a great deal of bravery, and effort. I think if I had aligned myself with what was happening, I think I might have stayed longer. There is something in the fighting that gives energy to change a state. Like the energy needed for H2O move water to steam. Sometimes things are just hard.


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