Monday, October 17, 2011

Reflections on teaching

(यह लेख अम्बेदकर विश्वविद्यालय की प्रोफ़ेसर हनी ओबेराय ने लिखा है और मुझे बेहद पसंद है चाहता हूँ आप भी पढ़ें )

I have an image in my mind that I have nurtured for a long, long time and often, when I have asked myself what it means to me to be a teacher, this image has returned to me. I see a landscape, perhaps a wild garden, perhaps a part of a forest- an open piece of land, strewn with invisible but nevertheless living seeds that sprout here and there into tiny leaves and grass, little shrubs, moderate size plants and also magnificently looming trees. This non homogenized garden grows at its own pace, facilitated as it is by the life imparting sources of nature within whose lap it resides. It is undoubtedly true that the forms of life that grow within this piece of earth have an intimate relationship with the seeds that they spring forth from, as much as they do with the provisions of care and facilitating conditions of nature that make it possible for each of the seed to reach its potential flowering.

Hidden in the thick shade of the grove, the tiny climbers need an extra amount of sunshine to reach their possible height, they struggle towards it and when they receive it they grow quickly and happily. However when the taller plants cover them with a dense shade or the nutrients of the soil fail to sustain them, though they still try to tilt themselves towards the source of light yet sometimes they survive and sometimes in that ongoing striving they are crushed under the weight of the heavier plants. The little shrubs that reside at the dense corner too try to turn their heads towards light and the source of water. If the undulating terrain of the earth helps them access the richness of earth and air, they survive else some of them begin to perish. And what about the well placed plants that will soon grow into full sized trees? The place where they are located in the garden, the ability of their roots to firmly grow deep into underground and their well formed supple branches, help them to quickly attain height and strength. With just a little help they can absorb the sources of life, find their way upward and enjoy standing tall and upright.

Our classrooms too are like this piece of earth. Students come to us with varying potentials- the inlaid seeds in each one of them that desire fructification and life. They come from different families, class backgrounds, economic possibilities, social, gender and cultural set ups and personal life situations. For some, generations behind them have enjoyed reading, writing and thinking. Education for this set of students is a natural path and a taken for granted reality. Others come from familial contexts where no one has ever reached a college or seen what a university is really like. For them the idea of education is an alien struggle. A few in the class reach concepts and thoughts only when they have effortfully traversed through many taken for granted steps and so called “ordinary struggles”, access to English language being a major one.

The fact that our students have reached so far, invokes a promise from us as teachers to take them through this special journey. In order to realize it we will have to become an organic gardener who is not uncomfortable with growth amidst non-uniformity and wilderness. Our plants will not grow in harmony, nor will the hedges be well trimmed, nor all the flowers bloom at the expected time. If we desire a beautiful garden, uniform and well kept, we will uproot and kill many small plants. We will cut off the unequal edges and trim them to size. In doing so, we will end up destroying many seeds that do not fit the uniformity of the terrain.

However as an organic gardener, as an involved teacher, our role is more like that of an “ordinarily devoted mother” (D.W. Winnicott) who knows what each of her child needs. We do not have to be exceptional human beings to be good mothers. A mother feels the specific needs of each of her children. Ask a mother and she will tell you how she was intuitively a different mother to each of her children. Similarly as teachers we need to see the classroom as a differential space and know that there is no one measure, no one uniform pace for the class’ growth.

Many of us as teachers become too attached to “a kind of student” or a “set of students” in the class. More often than not this subset of the class is defined by the proximity with which they make sense of our own minds, approximate our intellectual quests and mirror our concerns. They may be the students who can think through complex issues. They become our narcissistic extensions. We begin to experience the class as incomplete when these few students are absent. Sooner than latter it seems that our most important thoughts are directed towards this subset of the class. Most of us find ourselves in this situation. We all identify deeply with our students. But the important question for us to ask ourselves is whether the class is becoming a narcissistic extension of my own thoughts and their resonances for me. To some extent it will always be so but as teachers we need to go beyond locating our students as our extensions. Parenting is a similar exercise. We want our children to extend our life beyond our mortal span but we also need them to go to their own paths. So does a teacher need to be attentive to concerns and voices of various tunes in the class room. Let us not be too closely identified with only those students who speak like us, think like us are bright and articulate. If this is so then we have already become the perfect gardener in search of a perfectly uniform garden. If the organic garden has to thrive, a variety of plants and voices in the class have to be heard.

The teacher thus has to be self reflexive and deeply introspective. Like the good enough mother, she needs to acknowledge the existence of each of her students differentially- brilliant, bright, dull, slow and resistant. The class room as any other social and political site is laced with differential histories of privilege and discrimination, access or denial to resources. How often do we ask ourselves the introspective question that what are the kinds of voices that I like to hear in class and which one’s do I put down? What are the kinds of questions that I feel enlivened with and which ones I find routine and boring? Who are the students who often speak in my classes- mostly those who are expressive and bright? Why not others? What are the special conditions of nurturance, tolerance and love that I create in the class to evoke responses from the hesitant ones? Am I aware for the larger part of my interaction with the class that it is a non-uniform space and I can either facilitate or inhibit the expression of different forms of expression?

As a teacher I too come from a particular set of subjective locations. They frame the lens through which I listen to and receive the classroom world. None of us is able to allow for expression of all kinds. We need to become reflective of the emotions that are evoked in ourselves in classes. Some students challenge us and we feel irritated. Is this student bringing up something that I am not ready to receive. In order to defend myself do I place the student into a preconceived biased slot- of not being a good or bright student? Have we ever wondered as teachers why students, as they enter universities are so scared and hesitant of approaching teachers even before they know our particular temperaments? What are the images and fantasies about teachers they carry from their socialization and experiences in schools to colleges to universities? It is no wonder then that as transferential figures we often come across as symbols of authority, even if our particular temperaments encourage dialogue. This adds to the task of us as university teachers. Not only must we be involved in the inculcation of knowledge but we need to create the classroom into a space encouraging dialogue and whatever little healing of - past structural wounds inflicted by the educational process and institutions.

Our classrooms can also become spaces where a nascent articulation of internalized political and social oppression could be encouraged. Each student brings personal familial, socio and political histories into the classroom context. The teaching process itself is a living site laced with power and its dynamics. The classroom too is an extremely critical avenue where struggles of power and their transformation take place as an everyday process. Today the entire world is thinking about how can we work with structures of power and evolve alternate responses to the widespread terror of violence. As teachers we need to bear in mind that power and our agency to creatively negotiate and transform it is ever present in the classroom situation. In fact as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson appealed, we need to think about power not alone from the angle of social structures but also from the inevitable hierarchy that we all universally participate in- i.e. the relationship between infants and children and parents. Our infancy thus becomes a phase of life in which for the first time we are made to feel how our smallness and vulnerability is either held and respected or violated and exposed and put to shame. To Erikson’s idea, I wish to add a second, if not universal, then widespread hierarchy in which millions participate- the relational dyad between the teacher and the growing child and young adult. Cognitively and intellectually we may be able to think about power and violence in many ways but schools, colleges and finally universities become real life fields where as teachers we demonstrate the ways in which issues of power, structure and hierarchy are mediated. Therefore a teacher becomes the guardian of the society’s youth. How do I make my students feel in classes? Am I aware of the power I hold? Do I inculcate in them the feelings of smallness or the confidence such that one can be confident about one’s doubts too? We will be the ones from whom they will learn to handle power, negotiate with differences and learn to either have space for dissenting voices or to cut them down. The classroom in every school, college and university is an experimental field where our hesitations, doubts and growing thoughts are either held with respect or crushed under the garb of intellectual inferiority. The issue for each one of us thus becomes an inner turn to self awareness and introspection.

As Prof Menon had said in one of his lectures on the role of education in generating a culture of compassion: “The popular conception about School and the university is that they are spaces where young people pick up their skills, their language, their knowledge capital and their friendships networks. What we often choose to ignore is that School and the university are primarily the nursery of memories – memories of experiences of intense human engagement, communion with self and environment, inter-personal spaces and social spaces – good memories and bad memories. And we know that we have a selective memory. As Maya Angelou says, 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. 'It is often the memories of how school and university made one feel, or for that matter, how one’s family made one feel, that eventually determines the extent to which one accepts certain aspects of oneself or live in constant shame and denial of those aspects. Seeking of violent solutions to crisis in life also depends on how we were made to feel during our infancy, childhood and youth. The seeds for taking to violent ways later in life, whether it is physical violence or emotional violence, whether it is violence in a larger social or political context or violence within the family, these seeds are sown often in the manner in which our vulnerable childhoods and youths are held, respected, ridiculed or exposed. It is not rare that people who as children have been psychologically injured at home or at school and university, take to violent ways of life. When we expose and humiliate little children and young adults in schools and universities we make them crippled for life and also teach them that the only way to respond to violence is through counter violence. Humiliation at educational institutes may not have to be overt and explicit. Indeed, it is often subtle, but injurious all the same” (March 2009).

Thus we need to reflect on the divide that so often characterizes intellect which becomes akin to cognition and emotion which is seen as personal, soft, non-objective, less worthy and outside the space of learning. If teaching is a relational exercise, which we all agree to, then, learning no longer remains the acquisition of knowledge and skills of the profession but equally so, and perhaps more importantly, the inculcation of ways of being and living life. As teachers of a university we need to ask ourselves this question, what kind of knowledge do I facilitate in classes, how will it help my students to become more humane, how will it help them to know themselves somewhat deeply, to become better in their relationships, to be able to sympathetically imagine life situations other than their own. How will this knowledge help them to live their life and through them to participate in the problems of the world?

This becomes a central struggle; especially in a country like ours where gross poverty, socio-cultural, caste, gender related and economic discrimination and suffering remain widespread. Am I helping my students acquire a perspective such that some tension, some discomfort and some questioning of the mainstream modes of existence in society begins to resonate in their mind? How far will the education they receive in the university upset the complacent modes of life into which all of us as the modern middle class are likely to slip into? Do I introduce some ripples into silent waters, do I perturb a sense of easy balance within myself and my students, so that together we develop a critical perspective towards the privileges we enjoy? Are we making our students more sensitive to marginal spaces and experiences within the self and in the surrounding social order? I think we would all like to consider teaching and learning as ongoing processes of questioning society, finding creative possibilities to resist inequality and oppression and not to simply endorse social givens.

Today the problem we call inequality and discrimination and the consequent need for liberation is so serious that it is time enough we asked ourselves the question - what would be the future path that Ambedkar University needs to tread on if we want to consistently engage in the struggle to create a more just and peaceful social order? Beyond initiating a few programmes of study (which are extremely significant in themselves) how can we, a community of teachers and students, enter into a sustained solidarity with the poor, displaced and marginalized sections of our society? How far have we thought about a new standard for measuring the depth of our success as it remains reflected in our ongoing commitment to justice, equality, non-violent protest and peace? What are the most appropriate pedagogical modalities that may help us in enabling ourselves and our students towards developing a sympathetic imagination or if you may, an empathetic ear and eye for conditions and states of life different than our own. Are we as yet ready to tread on this joint journey with our young companions?

If universities are sites of an alive interface where we learn our first few serious lessons about the kind of civil society we want to create and participate in, then our classrooms become the practice spaces of imagining, dreaming and fantasying about society in more emancipatory and equal ways. Does our curriculum have a space for opening up subjective processes of inquiry within the students? Do we see the intricate linkages between self and the world? Do we as teachers encourage a form of relational knowledge where intellect and experience are in a dialectical relationship with each other? Do we realize that in order to learn, the learner has to go through an experiential process of self enquiry? As teachers are we open to this or do we see knowledge, cognition and intellect as divorced from personal processes, the vicissitudes of subjectivity and the unanticipated flows of disturbing emotions? (Let me share a pedagogical issue here- psychoanalysis a discipline with which I am closely associated, has a unique take on training and studenthood. Like medicine, psychoanalytic students too aspire to become clinicians, involved in the healing of the psyche of their patients. However in contrast to medicine where the future doctor is asked to objectively observe the other-the ill person- and to keep a safe distance from the states of illnesses that ail his/her patients, the future psychoanalyst is trained to experience all affects and emotions, complexes and psychic states first and foremost in oneself. Thus to train to become a psychoanalyst, the future professional has to go through a prolonged process of Self work, where one becomes one’s first patient. Howsoever brilliant or knowledable a candidate maybe theoretically, yet to train as a clinician one has to first of all scrutinize, empathize with and observe one’s own internal processes. This training process takes years of rigorous work and only subsequently does one become capable of working with the psychic suffering of others. In my opinion, a route to training that takes us towards objectivity via the recognition of our subjective processes has much to contribute to issues related to pedagogy in various social science disciplines). How do we deal with the non-anticipatable and the unexpected human processes that classes can sometimes trigger off? Is there scope of doubt and uncertainty, some space for the non-resolvable and the unknowable in our classes or do we need the certitude that seeks to settle issues and close them in a final manner?

The response to the above would also depend on the ability of the teacher to be open to one’s own issues and emotional processes. The more we defend our vulnerabilities and insecurities, the greater will be our need to exercise control and power in the classroom context. Instead if we can be in touch with a range of feelings and complexes that belong to our personal life, we can be more accepting and open to receive the emotional world of our students. To foster an empathic and compassionate climate in the classroom, a teacher needs to work with oneself, to become a somewhat integrated person, in touch with and flowing with ones emotional life. This will enable us to accept our contradictions and falls more gracefully and also those that belong to our students. Are responses would become more flexible and less rigid, more accepting and less rejecting vis-à-vis our students.

One last concern that I wish to mention here before I go on to share a few thoughts on curriculum development and flag some questions related to the learning process. Almost all of us have wished that our education system be less competitive, divisive and stress inducing for our students. It is true that our bright students make us feel proud. Yet many of us feel uncomfortable in being part of a system that can at best acknowledge the effort of only a few selected participants/individuals in our classes. Several times we have felt the need to build a climate/ambiance of teaching that recognizes and nurtures the potential in each one of our student. We wish that the quality of education and the attention we can devote as teachers in Ambedkar University could be of the kind where we can acknowledge and appreciate the best in every one of our student, rather than reward only those few who excel in academic work. As an illustration, let me share that in the Psycho-Social Clinical Programme we have been deliberating on providing a qualitative-descriptive transcript to each of the 42 students who will complete their Master’s degree in Psychology this year. As teachers, our search will be to identify aspects in which each of them are differently gifted and unique in their own particular way. In our school we hold this as a precious thought and it is our wish that it can translate into a reality in not only the psychosocial clinical programme but in all programmes at our university. To us it seems like another way of subverting the individualistic, alienating and competitive ethos of the historical time of which we all are a collective part.

I hope in the following discussion we will share experiences of teaching, highlight significant moments in classroom and also talk about our struggles and successes as teachers.. I am hopeful that all of this will strengthen the avenue for us as a collective to appreciate the kind of work that our colleagues and friends in our respective and neighbouring schools are involved with. It is earnest hope that we be successful in creating a culture in AUD where we can genuinely appreciate one another, and even in spaces where differences prevail, approach and communicate in an open, non defensive and respectful manner ,

Issues related to the learning process

I will now move in the direction of raising certain issues related to the kind of dilemmas and issues that we often find ourselves facing when we think about curriculum development. My experience here is limited and I would solicit our collective effort in projecting concerns in this sphere.

  • How best do our students imbibe the study material that we expose them to during the course of a semester? How much can they read and internalize? At the time of curriculum development we somehow want (and I belong to this category surely!) to create a vast and extensive syllabus, ambitious to the extent that it covers all we consider relevant ( and there isn’t any limit to what each one of us wants to expose the student to). But how much can the student at the receiving end really internalize. I think we need to deliberate on this aspect, especially as we are working within the limits of time that the semester imposes on us. What is the optimal amount of information which can be registered and experientially and cognitively made sense of in twelve weeks? is learning a mechanical process of knowing facts? We could not disagree more with this and yet all of us are a prey to the need of overloading the semester?
  • How many teachers should ideally participate in the delivery and teaching of a single course? Often one has heard students say that when there are more than two teachers teaching a particular course, the experience for them is chaotic. Can we reflect on this from our respective positions and disciplines?
  • Do our programme structures inspire curiosity, creative exploration or have we overburdened the students with readings, assignments and the taught dimension of the curriculum? Are we providing them and also ourselves with time to reflect and think or are we progressing mechanically through the semester. In other words, is there some scope left for joy and freedom in the teaching-learning process? What could help us make room for the above?
  • What about the university level mentorship? Given the tow campus situation, how can we rethink this very important concern for the next academic session?
  • How can Ambedkar University become a cooperative and growth facilitating collective that protects and nurtures the needs and rights of both its students and teachers? Some institutions are very friendly vis-à-vis the students and non-responsive to the concerns of the teachers. Others reflect an institutional process just in the opposite direction. We want our University to grow into a place that respects and nurtures the concerns of both and lends an empathetic ear to the lived realities of teachers and students, even as they try to give their very best to the University.
  • And finally how can we create a climate of respect and deep listening amongst ourselves as colleagues. Many of us come from former institutions where staff counsels were characterized by unbridgeable difference. Even before a colleague had completed saying what he or she had to, the force of opposition and prejudice had drowned the voice. We want to be different in AUD. We are keen to foster an ambiance here which will remain characterized by patience in communication, deep listening and loving care. How do I respond in moments when someone brings up positions and perspectives which are very different than my own? This becomes an important dimension to reflect on as we are all a part of a historical time where self-assertion is considered as the most obvious sign of having reached individual identity, even when it is at the expense of another colleague whose voice we are rendering voiceless. I think it will take a lot of spiritual practice on our part to listen deeply, to respond lovingly and to make room for one another’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it may be more important for me to give up a thought or idea that I hold dearly, if only that allows for the accommodation of another members’ point of view. Can we work to make this place different? I think there is a lot of strength in receiving and containing and not just in asserting alone. A balance between the two can open doors to a mode of communication between colleagues such that the future mental health of this university can be based on deep foundations of love, care and mutual respect. So the introspective question for each one of us to also carry back home is- what is the quality of my listening? Do I react too quickly or do I respond after internalizing the point of view of my colleagues. Let us strive to create a collective ethics of care and non-defensive communication in this toddling experiment in education that we are all together immersed in.

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