Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Some Thought Fragments About Freire & The Banking Model of Education Revisited

A follow-up from a post I made last time I read, studied, workshopped Friere.


When I was in college I loved good lectures.  There was a particular professor who had radical politics and expressed a humanizing kind of indigence whenever we were talking outside of the classroom.  He left his politics at the door, and we were all thankful, because without ideology in the way, the whole performance, the delivery of facts about the most distant reaches of our universe, the warp-speed at which equations were scribbled on the chalkboard, kicking up clouds of dust, the dust synchronizing with the tempo of spleen-exploding jokes--asides--explanations-resolving back into jokes without so much as an "um"... the whole performance was worth the price of admission! (forty grand for those unlike me who had to pay tuition).  

Of course, this is ideology at work, an example of "banking education," to use Freire's term. The ideology of neo-liberal, quietist education a la Stanley Fish, to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for his poking me on facebook (click on "Reading Instructions" below the poem and its dividing line, and watch the movie!). 

Preparing for my first lecture of the semester, investigating Freire with respect to radical poetry, politics, & pedagogy, I suddenly remembered what I'd told my partner a couple years ago.  It was an observation born of the experience above, but also of my teaching at three institutions, all in most respects completely different in terms of stated mission, philosophy of education.  Whenever I lectured in a traditional, "banking" sense, whenever I performed teaching, e.g., giving a prepared, polished, delivery of some kind or another, students seemed to love it, always wanting more.  "David's lectures are uniquely performative," one student wrote in an evaluation of my teaching a couple years ago.  And yet whenever I entered the classroom with my vulnerabilities, my ideology, my anxieties exposed--whenever opening up the two hour lecture space to discussion, mutual problem solving, a "student-teacher, teacher-student" environment, students would often complain.  What's with that? I asked.  

My partner half-joking, but I think rightly, said that I probably was none too good at helping shape a good discussion, making a safe space for dialogic pedagogy to take place.  Rightly, because another student not too long ago wrote that I need to "trust the students more," which I take to be a really sharp observation/critique: I don't, in other words, trust myself (my humanity, my subject-ness among other subjects) enough to be trusting.  In a dialogic classroom, were real thinking to take place, to fail oneself in this regard is to fail others, to paraphrase Rodriquez.  

There is something different at work, tho.  Or beyond my failing to trust the total context, as it were, and lay bare here.  A different failing, one that speaks to a systemic failure, his problematic points aside (romanticism, side-stepping functional difficulties in cognitively activating brains, etc), that Freire grapples with, making Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed,especially chapter 2, so crucial for educators--"students" and "teachers".  I distinctly remember being an early college student (1st and 2nd year) and loving a good lecture.  A "good" lecture has all the markings of a "good" performance: eloquence, mastery of facts, and flare entertains here, and the larger narrative is completely predictable (like a Broadway show or realist Hollywood movies), yet the smaller narratives within it, like epicycles, are filled with surprise, schisms.  As such, as student I was spectator.  I got to play the passive audience member, and now that I think of it, if I only had 3D glasses and popcorn and a date, it would have been (me many years ago saying this) rad.  Or conversely, off the hook.  What do you remember about those lectures? I asks me.  That they were rad slash off the hook.  What else?  The universe is vast, statistical mechanics is hard!  What a disservice, I think now, for this professor to have left his humanity at the door, or, in performative terms, to have tried on a roll and stuck firmly to it.  This realistically thus downright anti-realistic caricature god / entertainer was so good at entertaining / throwing whole libraries of knowledge-systems at me that he inspired me toteach, instead of learn with.  This is an example of "taking the low road," as Fish puts it, which though seemingly difficult, is much easier than finding one-another's humanity in and through the world that has shaped us, but that we can equally, even if slowly, reshape.  What's gained here from being uniquely performative, scripted in ways that surprise?  To entertain and maintain classroom hierarchies?  And all the worse when it's a teacher in the arts (me, say) who is double-reinforcing that "fourth wall" between student and teacher (these respective roles) all the while espousing the efficacies of praxis-oriented post-realist theater that, thankfully for us revolutionaries, "knocked down that fourth wall a long time ago!" 

Questions I have now, and I suppose will be grappled with in various ways throughout this new semester have to do with the lecture format, its mirroring the control-oppression mechanisms of capitalism, where students become either passive audience members, or functionaries for one particular narrative (without cracks!) building.  The central question, as I write this, is this: does the lecture format, within a comparatively alternative educational model such as Evergreen State College (one of the places I teach, born out of the alternative education movement, where the norm is team teaching, open classroom, alternative education) have any use value?  Does it have pedagogical value---i.e., does it help in any way whatsoever in facilitating a collaborative and dialogic co-learning process?  My suspicion is that there is something the lecture model, the performative mode of the professor doing most of the talking, controlling a room in a certain fashion, etc, that does, in some environments, help facilitate. And my suspicion is that this can only be the case where the lecture model is the exception and not the rule.  And yet, where is this use value to be located?  And if my suspicion is correct, why is it correct?  I think one fruitful way to interrogate this question is to ask it differently: if the dialogic model that Freire proposes as revolutionary were to be the norm, and not the exception, how would the lecture be perceived, and what end would it provoke, if any?  A beautiful dream of a counterfactual, this.  Not unlike the question I often propose in the classrom, albeit in more particularized contexts, a question which lies parallel, here (posed often enough by Adorno): what would art's function be (or functions, potentially), were we to form a social system that, at very least, was one in which power is equally distributed, we treat one another equally as subjects, and we are recognized and celebrated each to our own desires and abilities?  Certainly there would be "art," but its various functions, let alone conventions, would in some way drastically shift. What might be some of the ways this term, and its supposed indeterminate but very real set of referents, would shift? 

Last, I suspect that the question central to me--that regarding the performative aspects of lectures so-called and their potential within a Freirean framework--has a lot to do with aesthetics.  That is, one might (I might) argue that rather than separate from aesthetics, repositioning education as an aesthetic event could help to flesh out what, in part, I take to be implicitly going on in Freire's critical pedagogy, the lecture having some potential as non-normative performance (hence requiring for a non-normative lecture).  Question then becomes: what would this look like?  And in what sense can the lecture become praxis-driven? Ranciere, I take (for example) to be fleshing these questions out via redistribution of the sensible.  More on that as our class looks at Ranciere's work a couple weeks from now.

Meanwhile, for any interested, here's a cross-wiring of blogs.  Our radical poetry, politics & pedagogy course blog is now up and running once again.  And how how ugly and problematic wordpress is proving to be thus far...  


  1. look at me, i'm getting into the habit of actually reading your blog!

    anyway, this post is really great, especially when you're getting to the

    "education as an aesthetic event" question. having taken many classes with you, i feel like your most successful "lectures" are those that are really performances and 99 times out of 100 collaborations with former/current students. this is because it ruptures what students expect from a lecture format, obviously, and it inevitably gets some minds moving. it's particularly effective early in the quarter, i think.

    discussion is hard to stimulate, especially when we've had so much discussion within a broken academic context with people who have no idea how to create an active and healthy conversation. i think experimenting with different models of discussion is good for that. i actually have a few resources from my yruu days that could be worth exploring here...

    a combination of doing and processing seems to be ideal. assignments that actively require classmate participation (collaborative teaching, performance making, book making, etc.) are also really good, even with their failures. i feel like that sort of collaboration is generally better than any seminar conversation about a specific book.

    i probably have a lot more thoughts about this, but i am starving, so i have to eat.

  2. ok, on second thought, maybe the only reason that those performances work is because of the context given to them by the more traditional lectures. in that regard, what i said before is hard to get behind's hard for us to take in something counter to what we know without giving it context in what we already know.

  3. thanks for the very thoughtful response, kate. i think both posts are mutually supportive. that is, i do think it's right that trying on different modes of interaction is important, especially when one takes "lecture" as something other than what it usually refers to, the 200 person auditorium style listening party. thinking of lecture as "reading," where again, as stephanie young noted in her conference talk this year, the "reading" can be thought anew (and is more and more lately) such that senses are cross-wired, as are the backgrounds of the various participants--class, ethnicity, institutional tie or no, etc. at the same time, it's right i think that all of this counterweight is counterweight precisely because of the normative institutional models/systems, or as foucault terms it, "analytical systems." what needs happen it seems to me, is for this binary to be taken out, which would mean the--albeit fantastical--disassembly of the pay to play analytical system of education. overhall on the ground floor that seems, and maybe is, impossible...