Educator’s Heart-Check: Resisting Complicity in the Dehumanization of Students

It’s been a while since I’ve written here and I truly miss it. However, it’s the start of another academic year, and the place that I go from 9 to 5 (and sometimes later) is a university. Typically, my after 5 life involves writing, but at the start of an academic year – my after 5 life involves carbs and early bed times.

In the university context, I work with students who are far too often pushed to the margins and treated as the afterthought in higher education practice and policy. You can see that trend nationally. So, I work. Hard. To bring their concerns to the forefront. To mine the institution for resources that will get them through to degree attainment. To explain the labyrinthine processes that institutions hold.

We do what we can, “from where we are”. We open our doors. We come early and stay late, sometimes. We look at their faces and we are deeply familiar with the tight spot they are in: the crux of opportunity and consistent microaggressions. We empathize because it was us. If we are people of color, it often is us.

I’m always thinking about the ideas of institution, academia, and education. I’m always thinking about the similarities and differences of those words, especially as someone who a) spends a lot of time assisting students in navigating academia and b) as someone who spends quite a good amount of time around academics in my personal life.

I believe that there is an opportunity for growth and change wherever knowledge, education, and educational services are being created and critiqued.

So, in this context, ‘institution’ is a space where, as my colleague often says, we co-labor with students in navigating “the world as we wish it were, and the world that is”. And it ain’t always easy.

The words of Paulo Freire always challenge me. I read them in graduate school and each year, they come back and hold me accountable to what my eyes have read:

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept*, and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate.

Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1993 p. 66

(*Freire uses the term “banking concept (of education) to explain the type of education which asserts that the “teacher” knows all, and the students’ primary job is to learn from the teacher. The banking concept is an extended metaphor where the educator “deposits” knowledge into the pupils, and the pupils are expected to regurgitate that knowledge. Freire argues that this is inherently oppressive. On the contrary, education that asks students to question, solve problems, and engage in continued dialogue around what they learn, is liberatory. I’ll be transparent here – I’m making an argument that student services work very similarly. See Ch. 2 in Pedagogy of the Oppressed

It bothers me when I encounter academics who say they are here for educational equity – yet also want to be seen as the sole purveyor of knowledge (or, a certain kind of knowledge). I attended a recent meditation on the topic of “The Call-Out Culture”. In this meditation, I realized that it is far too easy (for me) to call others out.

So, I’m not focusing deeply on what is already easy for me to do. This year, I’m doing my internal work. Beyond the programs, the tasks, & to-do’s, I’m asking my “ownself”:

  • What are the ways (in which 😉 I perform academia in order to alienate others? How can I anticipate the ways that academia can alienate students and what can I do to foster a more equitable experience?
  • Are my own initiatives / educational practices / ways of providing student services inherently humanizing –
    • Do they recognize the identities of my colleagues and my students – and make space for their expertise?
    • Have I diversified my knowledge sources in order to foster more humanizing initiatives?
    • Do they implicate that someone else’s liberatory learning experience can only be found in me / my initiatives / my work / my knowledge base? If so, what can I do to rectify that?
  • In what ways have I been “influenced by the climate that generates a banking method” not just of education, but of student services as well (Freire, p. 66)?
    • As I provide student services, am I expecting that students will simply parrot back to me what I have already told them?
    • How can I engage in deeper dialogue with students about “the world as we wish” and “the world that is”?
    • Have I taken a sufficient pause – have I soaked in their wisdom about the tension between these “two worlds”?

This is not about diminishing or decreasing the value of the work that I already do. This is about a heart-mind-work check. These are questions that flow out of my personal way of doing student affairs work I’ve gotten clear on a personal conviction – if my initiative forces a student to rely on me as the “sole” anything, then I’m not empowering them. This brief reflection is about making sure that, at the very least, the experiences that students have with me – are ones that honor their experiences and the knowledge that they already hold on before they’ve encountered me.