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.

To Pimp a Butterfly: The Blog Series Intro

I asked my partner to play Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly through my speakers last weekend while on a road trip. Despite its March 15th (2015) release date, I’d waited almost 6 full months to give it a first listen. I hadn’t heard Lamar’s previous album, “good Kid, M.A.A.D. city” (#dntjudgeme) and only knew about his single King Kunta through the radio’s rotations.

I honestly don’t know what I was waiting on. I always start off skeptical about artists with mass appeal, but when my partner (who is a singer / songwriter & guitar player) put the album in his iPod rotation AND when my PhD carryin’ ethnomusicologist / musician e-friend began listing tracks and liner notes (that included some of my favorites such as Robert Glasper, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway & talents such as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and more) I knew I’d better take some time and listen to it. A road trip was the perfect atmosphere.

I felt the influence of George Clinton’s funk on the first track, “Wesley’s Theory”, before I knew Clinton was actually on the track. Yet, I also experienced a lot of dissonance with the lyrical content. At the time, I was primarily focused on finding the right roadside exits but his flow was absolutely undeniable. It didn’t take long to realize that he was creating lyrical dissonance in order to unpack a learning experience with the project. Nonchalantly, I asked my partner to tell me what he thought this song was about (he’s brilliant with things like that), and after hearing / comparing his analysis with my own, I knew this was a project I needed to dig into. I have been listening to it every day, twice a day, since then.

I don’t usually do music reviews on although I have done them before & have some background in music / vocal performance. This isn’t a review per se. It’s an acknowledgement / compilation of the thought processes that TPAB set forth for me. As I listened, I began to think about how this project would help:

  1. In discussions on memoir writing and telling authentic stories
    (TPAB puts me in the mind of memoir-writing in dialect and without prioritizing “standard” forms of English expression as better than any other dialect of English)
  2. In discussions on mental health & wellness
    (The song ‘u’ gives us a lot of space and text to discuss cognitive distortions: problematic thought patterns which lead to negative symptoms. Conversely, the song “i” gives us text to discuss challenging problematic thoughts and building resilience)
  3. In discussions on spirituality and writing / rapping / creating through a few broad spiritual themes: In many interviews, Kendrick Lamar talks about his art as a spiritual discovery for himself. In good Kid, M.A.A.D. city, Kendrick begins the dialogue by using what some might recognize as a version of “The Sinner’s Prayer”. In TPAB, Kendrick then starts unpacking broader themes of spiritual formation & processing including struggles with good & evil (i.e. For Sale?), loving & serving others genuinely (How Much a Dollar Cost), & self-love (i).
  4. In discussions surrounding navigating two communities: This theme jumped out immediately to me because of the work that I do with many first generation (first in the family to attend college) students, students of color, and students w/ financial needs as they enter academia / higher ed.

Two days later, I wrote a private Facebook post for a few friends in the field:

“There are just TOO many ways to utilize To Pimp a Butterfly as a supplemental illustration / text to discuss first year academic transitions, navigating home community and academic community (and the emotions that sometimes come along with that transition esp for 1st gen students or students anticipating accessing a different socioeconomic status than other family or community members after college), memoir and telling our authentic stories, financial literacy, managing debt to income ratio and credit in college, self efficacy / seeking help, accessing and contemplating the importance of studying abroad… like… just too many ways. Ain’t gone do it till I got that good ole academic freedom…… but I’m sayin’ doe….‪#‎Kendrickdonegaveusawholesemester‬

So, in the days, weeks, (and perhaps months if it takes that long), I will be unpacking To Pimp a Butterfly with attention to those four points. It’ll be the first full series on!

As I entertained the idea of using TPAB for a series, it was uncanny that the refrain, “I remember you was conflicted” replayed through my speakers. For me, the conflict occurred in mining through some of the more explicit songs and language in order to piece together helpful threads. A vague memory of the high school teacher, Brian Mooney, who used TPAB to create dialogue around race, privilege, and oppression alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye came to me. In an explanatory post, he left a note about his “pedagogical decision to provide the edited or clean lyrics to a select group of songs on the album and… even post(ing) a link to the “edited” version on iTunes

So, LET. ME. BE. CLEAR: I listened to the explicit version upon my first listen. In my personal process, as a writer, professional, and artist (trained in Theater & Creative Writing), I thought it was important to work through an unedited script and body of work. Yet, I, like the high school teacher Brian Mooney, honor the “pedagogical practice” of using clean versions for this series as well – but for differing reasons. Many of the themes were so hard-hitting & the analyses of race, bias & systemic oppression so raw that if you lived it… or even some shade / form of it… the language can and could be equal parts mirroring and / or triggering. Working through the unedited text is a highly personal choice and endeavor for those who would LIKE to take that on.

I have absolutely no idea how long this series will take (full disclosure :), but I do know it’s worth doing & thinking through. Stay tuned…

Image Credit from Wikipedia