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When Students Have Power
Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy
By Ira Shor
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1996 Ira Shor
All rights reserved.
The Siberian Syndrome: Students as Exiles in the Culture War of the Classroom
A Utopian Hole at the End of the Universe: Encountering the Unlikely, the Unruly, and the Unpredictable
It was a day of high anxiety. It was a day of high hopes. And it was a day of low architecture. Once more it was the first day of class at my budget-broken, concrete campus for working students on Staten Island, New York City's faraway forgotten land, the outer fifth borough on the edge of a decaying urban universe. After twenty years of teaching there, I was about to offer again a course called "Utopias," which I had been tinkering with for over a decade. I had no clue that this course, this semester, with these students, would teach me disturbing lessons not only about power and knowledge but also about critical pedagogy, in whose experimental arms I had grown up as an educator.
Around me loomed conditions that were slightly less than paradise. My cement and weedy campus bordered a roaring expressway, with tractor-trailers zooming by and huge, white City sanitation trucks rumbling to the world's largest garbage dump just down the road, aptly and ironically named the "Fresh Kills Landfill." (This legendary noxious dump joined the also-famous Great Wall of China as the only human-made structures on Earth visible from the moon.) On the first day of the term, I could hear the straining engines and smell the diesel of the garbage trucks as I made my way to one of the College's windowless rooms, my venue for the next class in Utopian vistas.
Thinking of the cinderblock room I was approaching, I felt only more uncertain about my plans for the Utopia course. New York and the eighteen campuses of the City University were writhing in a nonstop fiscal crisis that began in 1972 and grew desperate in the 1990s, forcing thousands of nonelite students out of classes they needed and pushing hundreds of professors into early retirement. Students, teachers, and their families were under attack, unable to fight back effectively, losing ground and feeling pain. We became a phantom university as full-time students and faculty gave way to less visible part-time students and adjunct instructors, the first paying too much for too little and the second being paid too little for too much.
To make matters only worse, most of the students at my College of Staten Island had grown up in some of New York's most conservative neighborhoods, very white enclaves where the men don't eat quiche and neither do the women. They tend to be achingly traditional and proudly insubordinate at the same time. Furthermore, as conditions declined year by year on campus and in the City, a regressive political climate hung like London fog on a windless night. The degradation of New York encouraged in people a siege mentality of self-centered anxiety, impatience, and intolerance—not a good emotional base from which to inspire spacious Utopian vision. In such hard times and narrow political circumstances, I felt uncomfortably obliged to test civic values and critical pedagogy, because the moment required some challenge to the social forces pushing dehumanized thought and feeling.
But, conflicted and uncertain, I asked myself, "Does 'Utopia' make sense in such a time of malaise? What could this airy theme accomplish in a stridently conservative age?" Banging against cemented walls could weaken my most important resource—hope—which I felt evacuating my heart and fleeing south to my toes. I searched for the optimism which had pulled me through two decades of critical experiments during a time I call "the conservative restoration" (see Culture Wars, 1986) following the activist sixties. I worried, that first day, about inviting students to question business as usual, to imagine and implement alternatives, to share authority with me, to codevelop the syllabus, to disrupt our routine roles and expectations, to talk back to the reactionary age. In a time and place whose dreamcoats are embroidered in the colors of the status quo, I would have to say that Utopia is not a sensible theme and that critical questioning is unlikely. But ...
A common weakness of intellectuals who receive more education than is healthy for human beings is our trouble recognizing the obvious and doing the sensible. So, without a rational reply to the apparent inappropriateness of Utopia in such a time and place, I could only turn to my toes where my residue of hope encamped. An intuition came to me when I did, as I was stepping to that first Utopia class—namely, that I should count on the unpredictable and the unknown, even on the unruly habits of some students, because human possibilities are not fully occupied by the dominant forces or trends of any age. There is always a shadow life evolving marginally or awaiting renaissance, I counseled myself (wishing I had a confirming mirror in which to read my lips). These hoped-for and worked-for possibilities which seek unexpected openings despite the limits of an age have been called "untested feasibility" by Paulo Freire (1994). Freire described "limit-acts" which push against the borders of what's possible, to test what is feasible. His notion of "untested feasibility" was formulated differently by Michel Foucault (1980), who wrote that "there is indeed always something in the social body, in classes, groups and individuals themselves which in some sense escapes relations of power, something which is by no means a more or less docile or reactive primal matter, but rather a centrifugal movement, an inverse energy, a discharge" (p. 138). Put yet another way, Raymond Williams (1977) emphatically argued that "no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention" (p. 125, italics in original).
Thus, I advised myself to search for the untested and unpredictable openings at the margins and in the cracks of the group I was approaching, where I might find territory less captured by the status quo, where some critical thought, civic ideals, and democratic relations were possible even in conservative times. For teachers like me, this experimental search for transformative openings involves a risk-taking "praxis" (action relating theory to practice, in a specific context that challenges limiting situations). The story in this book is about the surprises I encountered as a result of some action against the limits.
Testing the limits by practicing theory and by theorizing practice in a real context is harder and more risky than theorizing theory without a context. So, on the first day of class, as a long-term resident of academe's low-rent district, I feel especially uncertain. The context of Day One in class recycles the problem of making critical knowledge with the students, not handing it to them (as if such a thing were even possible). In this project, the dissonances I feel with the institution, the students, and the political climate take shape as a clash between a restrictive present and a reinvented future—call it, if you like, the hopeful challenging the actual in the name of the possible.
As it turned out, I couldn't imagine that my offer to negotiate the curriculum, to relinquish unilateral authority, to share power, would threaten to dissolve the Utopia class itself. Not to get ahead of the story, but I should say that I nearly lost the class. Perhaps life and learning are too full of surprises, but that Utopia class focused a spotlight on how critical pedagogy is a constantly evolving process which calls for continual change and growth, in me and the students. The Utopia class obliged me to become more critical and experimental than I had been before. It called out from me and the students some mutually transforming actions I hadn't seen before. Student resistance and acceptance drove me to test new methods I hadn't imagined. This, then, is a personal story about what happened when students shared authority in some disturbingly unexpected ways, when the power of knowledge was connected to the knowledge of power.
The Possible Confronts the Actual: Situating Utopia in a Place and a People
I mentioned that the Utopia class met in a dismal windowless room I knew all too well. It was more like a buried chamber than a classroom, deep in the bowels of a gray and aging three-story structure called B-Building. "B," never honored with a proper name, was the middle link connecting equally unnamed buildings "A" and "C," all set in a concrete quadrangle. This drab architecture and design—cold, colorless, unadorned, uninviting, nameless, uninspiring—communicated an environmental message of low status and minimal expectations. Such a space had no apparent history to pass on, few glories to savor, and small futures to offer most of the working students who passed through its chain-link fences and stainless steel doors, unlike the empowered aesthetics radiating from the pampered grounds, distinctive gates, and architectural adornments of elite campuses. This typical working-class campus on Staten Island, a humble abode of slightly higher education, originally opened in 1967 as a community college built for a mere 2,200 students, but was soon stretched and strained to accommodate a raucous 10,000-plus after the determined student protests of 1969 brought Open Admissions to a reluctant City University, which had no tuition and no budget crisis until large numbers of working students and students of color enrolled in the 1970s, after which we were upgraded to senior college status and downgraded to poverty status.
Sometimes, in my other encounters with legendary B Building, I had at least lucked out and taught on the top third floor, with light coming through the unwashed windows. But this semester it was back to the dungeon. Down a dimly-lit florescent flight of stairs, I found B-34, a windowless box.
Fortunately, my time in such rooms was drawing to a close. A new campus was inching to completion like the beast in Yeats's poem, in a remote part of Staten Island, even closer to the dump, on the former site of the old Willowbrook Center, a notorious bedlam for the mentally ill until it was exposed, condemned, and closed a while back. With the lives once tormented there gone, the vast grounds and buildings lay in ruins, until my College seized them with imperial plans and a fistful of New York State bonds to renovate the acreage. I tried to imagine teaching Utopia at a place famous for mistreating the unfortunate, after all these years in my present shabby quarters. In another way, I read the move to scandalous Willowbrook as an unintended vote of confidence in the students and faculty, who had stayed borderline sane despite impoverishment across two decades of conservative assaults on the public sector.
Knowing my way, I got to B-34 a little early, expecting a big class and the usual small troubles—lost students, unregistered or late students, perhaps a last-minute room change, perhaps another class showing up at the same time, etc. Going through a brown-painted steel door with a wire-mesh window on it, I found myself inside, watching thirty-five mostly white young college students enter and seat themselves (twenty-four women, eleven men, including three female Hispanics, one male African-American, and one young woman from Greece). They looked like the people I've come to know in this predominantly white working-class campus, unlike the students I meet when I'm invited to speak at more elite colleges around the country.
It's hard to fix the "working-class look" of these students without falling into stereotypes. Their human variety is wonderful and substantial from student to student, not just in their "look" but also in their personalities, levels of maturity, academic desires, ethnic family histories, work conditions, voices, and intellectual development. Still, I know them when I see them and I can see them with my eyes closed by now, after twenty years plus at this job. I would describe these students as:
predominantly white ethnic (largely Italian and Irish, the hyphenated Americans appealed to rhetorically by traditional politicians);
first-generation collegians, first in their families to come to college, with few books at home and few academic traditions in their backgrounds, often baffled at the language, requirements, and rituals of higher education (described like this by one adult woman graduate in her College commencement address: "I had no idea of what classes I needed, or even of what all those abbreviations and numbers meant. No one in my family had ever attended college; there was no one whom I could ask for help in deciphering the words that were stranger than Greek to me: pre- and corequisites, core and distribution requirements, credits and equated credits, GPA's—I almost gave up.");
traditional, family-oriented (living at home, dating, married, divorced, or marriage-minded, with the older students often raising families of their own; invisible homosexuality, vocal homophobia, especially among the male students);
younger in day classes and older in the evening and weekend sessions, with significant generational differences between the two constituencies;
occupying a very narrow political spectrum from dominant/aggressive conservatives to marginal/moderate liberals, but often cynical about "politics" as a waste of time and a feedbag for corrupt officials;
more numerously female than male, with unorganized/nonideological feminism increasing among the women (since the 1980s, women have been outnumbering men in general at U.S. undergraduate colleges and the number of female Ph.D.'s graduating each year from U.S. universities will soon equal the number of male Ph.D.'s for the first time among Americans);
moderately ambitious (hoping for midlevel careers in business, government, communications, health care, engineering, education);
often employed in low-to-middle wage jobs while going to school (fire, police, sanitation and parks departments, nonuniformed municipal offices, sales, clerical, security, delivery, direct mail, health care, small business employees in bars, restaurants, home services, cleaning and clothing stores);
hardworking (often raising kids and employed twenty to sixty hours a week, moonlighting, while enrolled in several college courses);
pride on the job in doing their work well; knowledgeable about their jobs (quick learners when it matters to them in real contexts);
wise about earning a living, resilient in making a life in hard times, don't feel that life has been easy for them but not inclined to complain about it, suspicious of affirmative action as "going too far" (they figure out the angles, try to "beat the system," don't whine or feel sorry for themselves or for so-called oppressed groups);
smart but not sophisticated or academic; intelligent but not belletristic, scholastic, bohemian, or cosmopolitan as students tend to be on elite campuses (my students are in college but not of college insofar as the elite discourses of professors and high culture are alien to their ways of knowing and speaking);
media-drenched but not well-informed about events (watching TV more than reading newspapers, some ignoring public events altogether for lack of time or interest, with virtually no access to alternative media except in a few classes like mine);
unpredictably literate about special subjective interests (car repair, home-building, World War II battles, adoption, crime, religious cults, intermarriage, specific diseases like lupus, the multiple uses of hemp, taxidermy, etc.);
shrewd and manipulative when they need to be, largely unimpressed by professors and intellectuals, not easily persuaded, not pushovers (my doctorate, rank, authority, politics, and publications don't awe most of them);
eating a bad diet (hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, processed food, beer, soda, coffee, sweets, cigarettes) and displaying poor health (frequent flu, coughs, colds, bloodshot eyes, bad complexions, allergies, obesity);
enjoying good stories, a good laugh, and comradery, which display their generally resilient temperaments.
Even though these general identities fill the classroom, I would say that there is no stereotypical working-class student. Their typical traits and social conditions are identifiable, but this general reality does not exhaust their individual differences. Their diversity can produce a group personality in one class very different from the personality of another class. In any small sample of students constituting a single class, they can display widely varying age spans, employment profiles, gender mixes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, skin colors, family situations, career choices, academic development, and resistance/openness to critical-democratic pedagogy. In fact, these mostly white working students are striking in their individuality (and belief in individualism). On the one hand, many have internalized the corporate religions of consumerism ("being" is "buying") and self-reliance (making it on your own, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, looking after number 1, you have no one to blame but yourself for your failures and troubles, the world doesn't owe you a living, etc.). On the other hand, they have multiple voices and body shapes, many facial expressions, skin colors, and speech mannerisms, diverse hobbies, tastes, job experiences, attitudes about gender and racial prejudice. Still, some things always make a global impression on me as I look out at a large group of students like those in the Utopia class—the makeup, jewelry, and perfume used by some of the women, the look of the men's and women's hair, the cut, color, fabrics, and quality of their clothes, the corporate and celebrity names on their shirts and jerseys, the particular femininity and masculinity in the way men and women carry themselves, the heaviness of their searching gazes as they fix their stares on me (wary, wondering what to expect from this teacher), the great range of the apparent "whiteness" in their ethnic skin colors and the ill-health reflected in their faces (reminding me of my own bad complexion and stringy hair when I was a working-class teenager), the frequency of bad teeth (discolored, uneven, broken, recalling for me the teeth I had lost from my own working-class mouth in a society where good dental care is very expensive). All in all, they look and sound like people who come from working homes, whose fate it is to sell their labor every day to make ends meet, working too many hours and earning too little, able to save peanuts and to invest less, with little or no authority on the job or in the halls of government, little or no power to control the decisions that affect them at work and in their communities. These are some of the "working-class" markers to me, recalling for me the looks, sounds, and laboring conditions of the people I grew up among. With little power, or wealth, or cosmopolitan flair, the students staring back at me in the Utopia basement did not remind me of the Stanford or Berkeley undergraduates I have met.
Excerpted from When Students Have Power by Ira Shor. Copyright © 1996 Ira Shor. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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