I am trying, and failing, to get my cat to stay off the kitchen counters.
She is a fluffy, spoiled, ginger princess who has never quite got a handle on the whole “no means no” thing, let alone the “no means no now, and also no in every conceivable instance where you might want to do this in the future” thing. She is reluctantly getting better at the distinction between cat food and people food, and polite manners if you want to share someone’s bed, but the counters remain our biggest battleground.
Half the problem is her sweet temper, which seems to shrug of any attempt at discipline. She never bites or claws. But no raised voice, spritz of water, time out in a closet, loud noise nor any other disincentive seems to put the slightest check on her desire to snuggle and love… or her desire to be on the counters.
And yes, part of the problem is me. I am no disciplinarian. From small children to large children to adults to cats, there are some strategies I just don’t want to employ. I don’t want my cat to ever have reason to be afraid of me, and so I won’t teach a lesson through fear.
Which finally brings me to the point of this blog post, which has been germinating for a few weeks know in response to the pronouncement of one of my very smart colleagues. We were looking at an unsuccessful pedagogical instance (which I will not describe), and trying to pin down why it had failed: “It wasn’t the lesson taught that was ever the problem.” My colleague said, “It was the fact that it was taught through shame.”
Teaching through fear. Teaching through shame. In the dance classroom we’re no strangers to these strategies. Stereotypically it’s ramrod ballet mistresses who do the worst damage, particularly around size/food and yes, I met that problem… and I also met the ballet teacher who taught me how to think better than that. But while we can all imagine how shame and fear might be mobilised in that scenario, a more complex problem arises in the tangling of academia and ethics going on in humanities classrooms, and I want to think about how shame and fear are coming into play in the shaping of student’s beliefs about themselves and the world.
For those of you outside of dance in academia, let me back up a little and say that dance is providing the language and techniques for some of the best social scholarship being done at the moment. You’re probably familiar with the term “social justice movement;” what is the choreography of that movement? When a politician makes an ineffective gesture, what shape did they attempt to trace on the world, and why was it interrupted? How has dance been used to represent culture, and how could it challenge the representations that do harm?
So in dance classrooms, and especially dance theory classrooms, there’s a weight given to certain beliefs and attitudes, and certain conclusions that get implied in scholarship. Those conclusions are not bad. They are often demonstrably true. At other times they are more tenuous, or have holes themselves. But when we encounter students who do not already share those conclusions, there’s a temptation to skip the demonstration of the facts and jump right to the “but why don’t you know this already” teaching that’s extra dangerous now because it involves a value judgement about someone’s ethics.
From the opposite perspective, students face massive obstacles to critical thinking in these areas where scholarship and ethics intertwine, because there are certain question they’re afraid to ask their professors. A challenge to knowledge can all too easily become a challenge to ethics and a challenge to personhood – are we being clear about where we’re drawing the line?
An example from my own career: a few years ago I taught a group of students in their 20s who claimed to have never heard the term “patriarchy.” I really hope that the “Dear Lord, really?” didn’t show on my face as I put my lesson aside for a while to go over that term. Maybe it didn’t, because as I discussed household gender values a student interrupted me to point out that “actually, in my experience of Jamaican households and neighbourhoods the power structure looks very different to that.” I’m glad that I was young enough and unsure enough to admit the incompleteness of my argument then. I also wonder whether my students would point out that additional perspective now.
In a liberal climate, my identity categories mean that I am rarely told to check my privilege, and on a lot of subjects my experiential knowledge is accepted as a kind of truth. But I don’t want my students to accept things because I say so, or because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. I want them to have the tools to decide for themselves whether something is valid, and yes, I hope that often our views will align. On a very basic level, I want them to do homework because they believe it will help them with school and the world, not because failing to do it will result in funding, security, or future opportunities being taken away. I want them to speak up in class because the material is interesting, rather than because they don’t want to fail on a participation grade. I’d rather teach with carrot than stick.
In the outside world, where I also teach dance, the same logic applies. Our organisation expects people to dance in ways that make their partners feel uncomfortable, and that is why we have a safety policy: so that teachers and organisers can fix people’s technique and make that happen less. What that policy is not is a statement of what all good, decent people should be doing automatically, and anyone who falls outside it is a terrible human being. In my learning-to-dance trajectory I have accidentally grabbed breasts, dipped myself against my partner’s consent, knocked people flying… and I am in CHARGE of dance safety on my scene, in part because I’m good at judging when someone is still learning, and when someone has learned that it’s fun to cross lines. My ideal is when I can tell someone that the way they’re holding me is hurting, have them change their grip, and still happily ask to dance with me again 20 minutes later.
In the outside outside world, where I happen to live as a human being, my pronoun is often a cause for contention, and other people feeling ashamed. I wish that weren’t the case. Yes, I wish they’d get the pronoun right, but I also think they’d be more likely to get it right, and less defensive about their mistakes, if they could feel calm about what the consequences of a mistake would be. Hugs and high fives and thanks the first few times they get it right are, I’ve found, not a bad way to start the switch from stick to carrot, and I’ve had all sorts of people ask me all kinds of cool gender questions as a result. (I don’t always have time or energy to answer, but that’s another matter).
I am by no means perfect, especially just after I’ve watched the news. A few weeks ago a dear cis friend said something about queerness and I snapped back “well that’s just factually wrong.” Luckily we know each other well enough that after a break to breathe we could come back to the conversation, and listen to the point being made and why it might or might not work in context. I’m glad that my abrupt closure of the discussion – shame is a really quick way to shut down a discussion – wound up not preventing that. I need spaces in my life where I am not playing teacher, and where I can yell and judge and be angry to my heart’s content. I know there will be consequences for that anger if I let if fly at the wrong place and time. I’m glad I have people around me who can forgive me when I do.
Yes, this is all a very idealistic perspective. As John Molyneux says, the argument that there’s always some right on both sides is, in itself, a bias that there are only two sides, and the truth is always split between them. That’s just factually wrong. A lot of things are. Ignorance, however innocent, does not have the same rhetorical validity as truth, and I am not arguing that it does. Nor am I pretending that people don’t go into situations wanting to create shame, fear, and other bad feelings of their own, they do.
But in classrooms, where we’re trying to prepare students for the world, I’m trying to be extra careful about the persuasive strategies I employ as models for how people might go out and persuade others. I try not to make it so that the views I value most highly are the ones that make my students feel afraid. I ask myself: if the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is shame or fear, why do I believe in it? If the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is by making my students feel shame and fear, is it really a lesson I want to teach?