I have served as a teaching assistant and instructor in my time for several courses at the Virginia Tech. The Contemporary pedagogy class has helped me to reflect on my teaching method, style, and strategies. But it has also made me think and rethink whether I want to continue teaching in my time in the United States. This brought me to crucial question what purpose do I seek from teaching and what should be my politics?
During my time at Virginia Tech, I heard several stories by Ph.D. graduate students of the experience of teaching undergraduate classes. The teaching experiences of my colleagues differed based on discipline, gender, nationality, race, etc. My best friend, who I spent almost every single day of my academic life working on several projects together, also taught classes in the political science department. He comes across as a white male with a mid-west English accent. His experience of teaching hugely varied from mine. He often got outstanding SPOT scores, good comments; students sent him to thank you messages, etc. My experience was the opposite. Being a woman of color, speaking English in desi accent, acceptance by the student remained a significant difficulty. I always had to try harder from him, and I had a lot to more to emotionally process. The rolling eyes of the students, rude emails, and not following instructions properly are a few things to mention. I vividly remember when one of my students used a racial slur to address me in front of my class. I also want to acknowledge, I have got good responses and acknowledgments of my work in the class from students of color, international student, and students coming from the immigrant families.
I kept saying to myself, “It’s not me; it’s them.” But then I always questioned myself why to get into this emotional ordeal every year. What purpose do I achieve? As an advocate for subaltern rights, I have been a firm believer of the fact that education is the most empowering tool for the marginalized population. It gives the ability to recognize oppression and the ability to act over it. But as a social movement theorist, one of my key learnings have been to be strategic. ‘Being Strategic’ means when and how to act in a manner that you can be most effective in achieving the intended goals.
My best friend graduated this semester, and we talked over our aspirations for the future. He wants to focus on teaching. He enjoys teaching and feels that he can be an effective teacher. In my case, if given a choice I would not like to teach again in a predominantly white school. (But if I have to, I teach, to sustain myself). Students in these schools have a sense of entitlement and instructors like me struggle to be more effective. I think if I have limited time in the United States I want to focus on research then teaching.
I want to explore the idea of ‘critical’ for this blog post. The example discussed here is to exemplify the importance of critical pedagogy.
Over a period of eight years, I have worked as a grassroots activist with several marginalized populations in India. The rural Indian society encompasses many different communities including marginalized populations like the Dalits (lowest in the rank of Hindu caste stratification) and Adivasi (indigenous groups). Both the Adivasi and Dalits are a part of a socially and economically backward part of Indian society.
During my work and stay in the villages, I often questioned the Dalits, “why don’t they as a whole community does not protest against the caste oppression?” The most common reply was, “we have done bad Karma in our past lives, and we deserve to be treated like this. This is our fate and we will have to live it.” Families belonging to Dalit communities are often treated as outcasts from the larger village. They were considered as untouchable which meant the higher caste families did not want to socially and economically intermingle with them. The harshest part was these communities not allowed to come close to any proximity to higher caste designated areas leading them to be excluded from access to necessities like food, water, schools, shops, etc.
My work with the Adivasi (indigenous groups) was a different experience. The Adivasi communities in India are considered to be Jungli (barbaric and savage). They often look down upon the rest of the communities in the society. These are communities who practice subsistence agriculture, a minimalist life, live in the jungles and have a strong history of resistance against the outsiders who were trying to invade their lands. The exciting part was the sense of pride they have in who they were despite outsiders always saw them poor, uncivilized people.
Paulo Ferrier’s work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” helped me to understand the difference between the two communities, i.e. the question of why some communities resist and some do not.
The Adivasi groups were proud of who they were and could recognize the social and economic injustice. That led to a strong history of resistance among them against the Hindu Upper elite class in India. This resistance became part of Adivasi history and consciousness. On the contrary, the dalit community was even unable to recognize what’s happening with them is social and economic injustice and is unacceptable. The idea of Hindu Brahaminical philosophy which celebrated the caste system and advocated for practicing untouchability became the part of there consciousness. They accepted their reality and never questioned it.
Paulo Ferrier has aggressively talked about teaching people to understand their realities and question them. He emphasizes understanding teaching as a political tool for self-empowerment that can lead to social change in society. Here it is important to recognize we as teachers/ instructors can help students to create an imagination which doesn’t exist for them. This imagination can be a powerful tool for them to recognize patterns of oppression around them.
As I started going through the readings assigned for the week to understand and dismantle the terminology “diversity and inclusion”, I am reminded of my experience of studying social sciences in India. During my master’s education in India at the Tata Institute, several of my classmates were from various diverse backgrounds: gender, socio-economic,religious, linguistic, and historically marginalized communities and cultures. These students came from different geographical locations of India. Throughout the master’s program in Rural Development studies, we were required to talk about various socially sensitive issues which could result in emotive responses.
During the first week of the classes, to prepare us a class to grapple with socially sensitive issues we were both individually and in the groups, made to go through various “sensitivity” workshops. At that time I could n’t understand the rationale behind undergo these mandatory workshops, etc. After I have started teaching as an instructor in the U.S. who is a woman of color, petite, and has a foreign accent, I realize the importance of those workshops and my master’s education. These “sensitivity” workshops made me understand the criticality of knowing and understanding diversity. They played an integral role and set up the tone for the entire class during the Master’s program and for sure made the difference on our learnings as we grapple complex social issues. These learnings went with me a long way and contributed both personally and professionally in my growth.
We at Virginia Tech have tried to make our classes as inclusive as we can. We attend courses, workshops, scholarly talks, etc. which helps us to assemble various strategies and methods to make us class inclusive and better handle the sensitive issues in the class. These learnings have been very useful for me as I teach my classes as a woman of color with a foreign accent. But my experience of teaching also has made me realize the importance of the sensitivity workshop I had to undergo as a student during my Master’s program. Having said that, I strongly feel Virginia Tech has a large population of international students and so, considerable diversity. The onus of making a class inclusive should not be just on the instructor but also on the students. As a small suggestion, we should take a step further to make students enhance their learning experience by teaching them to cherish diversity on the campus. Maybe more workshops, seminars, and discussions around the university can help immensely both the instructor and the student to enhance their education.
Can Networked Learning Foster Critical thinking among students?
When students think critically, they actively engage in these process of learning. One of the ways to do it is to encourage the expression of diverse opinions, and involve students in a variety of hands-on activities that force them to be involved in their learning. Blogging can be a useful tool to enhance critical thinking. Once a student posts a blog, others in the class can respond, provide supportive feedback, and offer additional suggestions or perspectives. By writing and commenting on blogs, students can get a diverse perspective, they can reflect on their work. The process of writing down your thoughts helps to straighten out your thinking, develop your thinking and help you work out what you think. In my own experience, I often have vague thoughts which develop and come to life as I tap away at the keyboard. Students also learn to communicate their ideas more clearly, and they get immediate feedback on whether they communicate effectively. Blogging is also a useful tool for shy students to participate in the class discussion.