I see my teaching practice as an endless process of learning how to make space. When I am teaching in the college classroom, or at New Folsom Prison, my ultimate goal is to create and tend a space for students to contemplate, challenge, and create in ways that validate their roles and responsibilities as co-creators, always already in relationship with everything around them (Deloria, Cordova, Hampton, Kovach). Viewing students as co-creators is a rejection of deficit rhetoric and the teacherly impulse to romantically infantilize students (Hunter). This philosophy also recognizes that acts of co-creation exist within complicated and often constraining institutional structures (Miller) and that the relationships between the teacher and the structures themselves must be tended. Considering such institutional constraints, and taking stock of the ways I, as teacher, am always complicit in the structures that I want to help students critically engage with, is tightrope work (Branch, Sanders). Nonetheless, I see that authentic and safe space for learning is predicated on the teacher learning as much as possible about the social locations of students and also being able to critically reflect on his or her own subject position inside complicated, overlapping systems.
In sum, it is important to me that the study of decolonial theories and rhetorics also employs a decolonial or decolonizing teaching methodology. I take seriously Cushman’s call for “scholars and teachers to consider seriously what methodological and pedagogical possibilities for decolonizing knowledge” might be available (234). In constructing such a methodology, I have relied particularly on the guiding questions and principles articulated by Haas and Kovach.
In an effort to draw this philosophical sketch down to concrete practice, please allow me to tell one story from outside the college classroom that continues to inform my teaching on campus, particularly as I reflect on what it means to invite students to spaces that recognize, challenge, and maybe even transcend institutional parameters.
One of my favorite stories about engaging students as co-creators was published by Teaching Artist Journal. It is the story of Adam, a young man, with tattoos on both arms made to look like Celtic armored sleeves sewn into his flesh. Adam had expected me to bring an authoritarian posture to the prison classroom. When I didn’t, he was unnerved. Yet, by the end of class, he had suggested the writing topic for the evening, and when he read his piece the next day, he cried. So did some other writers.
That was a few years ago. Subsequently, Adam was offered a position as a contract writer with a respectable publisher. Furthermore, his mom, Carol, reached out to me and from that initial contact, she and I have begun a professional relationship (sanctioned by the prison) that has included co-presentations at multiple national conferences and two invitations for Carol to speak at the university. This story reminds me that every move I make as a teacher is an invitation. Even commonplace invitations (choosing topics, speaking up, responding to reading) can be invitations to dignity and deep human connection that challenge overdetermined narratives and troubling rhetorics about who students are supposed to be. If I had shown up that first day with my yardstick, I imagine my relationship with Adam would have simply retraced a well-worn and unproductive path that would have short- circuited the development of a web of relations that continues to grow.
Making the Road:
Incarcerated writers are not the only writers who need safe space and invitations to connect deeply in ways that encourage dignity and deep, critical reflection. I find that the students I teach on campus also bring complicated and layered experiences to the classroom and respond well to purposeful invitations. I see that such invitations can infuse every aspect of the course. I take seriously Adrienne Rich’s haunting suggestion that we are tipped off-balance when we look around and cannot see ourselves is the world as those in power have described it or worse, see ourselves described in ways that are caustic, hurtful, and marginalizing. In response to Rich’s admonition, and drawing on Claude Steele’s (2011) work on stereotype threat, I work to explicitly and implicitly invite students to a relaxed, open posture for learning that attempts to mediate some of the psychological stress of managing identity contingencies.
Miles Horton and Paulo Freire (1990) say “we make the road by walking.” I think this is true and I see that this sense of relationality in motion—the we that is making the road—draws together the intersecting philosophical strands of relationality, invitation and creation in ways that encourage dignity and agency. Said another way, I am committed to participating with students in ways that encourage them to see that they are always already in an on-going process of co-creation with others. This process is not a teleological one, but rather a constant gathering and going deeper, a practice of making connections that help each student make a place for themselves and others in a world that is always coming into being.
Branch, Kirk. “Eyes on the Ought to Be”: What We Teach About When We Teach About Literacy. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2007. Print.
Cordova, V. F. How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V. F. Cordova. Ed. Kathleen Dean Moore, et al. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007. Print.
Cushman, Ellen. “Translingual and Decolonial Approaches to Meaning Making.” College English 78.3 (2016): 234-242. Print.
Deloria, Jr., Vine. The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Ed. Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner, and Sam Scinta. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999. Print.
Hampton, Eber. “Memory Comes Before Knowledge: Research May Improve If Researchers Remember Their Motives.” Canadian Journal of Native Education 21 (1995): 46–54. Print.
Haas, Angela. “Toward a Decolonial Digital and Visual American Indian Rhetorics Pedagogy.” Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015. 188-208.
Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. We Make The Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Ed. Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters. Temple University Press, 1990. Print.
Hunter, Ian. Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, Bureaucracy, Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Print.
Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.
Miller, Richard. As If Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.
Plemons, Anna. “The ‘Worst’ Teacher Ever.” Teaching Artist Journal 11.3 (2013): 175–176. Print.
—. “The ‘Worst’ Teacher Ever.” Teaching Artist Journal 12.4 (2014): 251. Print.
Sanders, Mark. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Print.
Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.