Blog 63

Teaching as Activism: A Platform for Social Change

Andrea A. Davis, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities

 My teaching philosophy and practice are framed around a simple concept: teaching as activism. Each September as I stand before a new set of first-year students in Cultures of Resistance in the Americas: The African American Experience (AP/HUMA 1300), my largest undergraduate course, my deepest desire is that this course will change the lives of even a handful of students. I hope it might empower students unsure they belong in the university to find their voice; give students the courage to challenge their own assumptions and reach across their differences; and help them translate the knowledge they acquire in the classroom into positive change in their wider communities through whatever careers they choose. By helping students read and think critically, understand and respect the diversity of human experiences, and develop a genuine respect for human rights, each of the humanities courses I teach seeks ultimately to prepare students for intellectually mature citizenship. It is this deep belief in the necessarily transformative power of a humanities education that frames my approach to teaching and drives and sustains my passion for the work I am called to do. By approaching teaching as activism, I hold myself accountable to my students: to be conversant in the most current theoretical debates; to be prepared and engaged and committed in my teaching; and to share with them every resource available to help them succeed.

As an activist teacher practitioner, I am committed not only to a feminist pedagogy, but also to an anti-oppressive pedagogy that recognizes differences within and across communities (hooks 1994). While classrooms with a majority student-of-colour membership can shift university power dynamics in important ways, the difficult process of rearticulating new ways of looking at the world can sometimes lead to pain and anger. In their focus on their racialized identities, students may be tempted to erect and privilege new hegemonic positions and re-inscribe notions about who is and is not authorized to speak (Lorde 1984). Thus, in encouraging students to be self-reflexive, I challenge them to seek to know (a term offered by a former student) those they perceive to be different. If racism and xenophobia depend on ignorance, then knowing is essential to an anti-oppressive praxis.

In translating my teaching philosophy into a set of concrete teaching practices, my first task is to create a space where uninhibited learning can take place. By carefully outlining learning objectives and goals, I encourage students to believe in and trust the process of learning on which each course rests. In the first set of classes, I challenge my exclusive authority to speak and encourage students to contest their own assumptions about the world. We work together to establish the expectations we will hold ourselves accountable to and determine how we might best work together to facilitate each other’s learning.

In deploying an activist pedagogy, my desire is also to encourage a commitment to knowledge production—the job of knowing—as the shared responsibility of a community of teachers and learners. This community begins with the small group (tutorial, seminar or lecture) but expands outward to include other structured learning environments, and the informal knowledge exchange that takes place between family, friends, co-workers and even strangers. Understanding that teaching and learning are shared and ongoing processes, destabilizes the notion of a singular authoritative source of knowing. My role is not to “instruct” but to facilitate students’ development of their capacity to contribute to a world of ideas. I learn from my students, even as they learn from me. Most importantly, understanding learning as a shared community bridges the gap between the university and the wider society by positioning students as sharers of knowledge, leaders of innovative thought, and agents of social change.

While teaching is a difficult task, it is also enormously rewarding—the research, texts, discussions, all have meaning far beyond the context of the university and the academic requirements of a degree. I believe, as Manning Marable argues in Beyond Black and White (1995), that it is our ability to move beyond racial chauvinism to a recognition of joint social-justice interests that will help us build a nonracist democracy. By understanding this, students will be empowered ultimately to do what I hope they will, which is to transform the world. A humanist and activist pedagogy insists that only critical reflection can lead to action and ultimately to transformation.

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