What’s in a Name? Course Design Bootcamps and the Need for a Non-Violent Language of Pedagogy
Markus Reisenleitner, Department of Humanities
Figure 1: U.S. Army recruits practice bayonet fighting skills at Fort Benning, Georgia in March 2004. Photo: U.S. Army PFC David Foley. Public Domain. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BasicCombatTraining.jpg
Figure 2: Officer Candidate School aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. 8 July 2009. John Kennicutt, U.S. Marine Corps. Public Domain. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drill_instructor_at_the_Officer_Candidate_School.jpg
1 : a navy or marine corps camp for basic training
2 : a disciplinary facility or program in which young offenders are forced to participate in a rigidly structured routine
3 : a place or undertaking that resembles a military boot camp especially by requiring one to endure intensive training or initiation
This blog post stems from an email conversation I had with Celia Popovic when the Teaching Commons announced their “course design boot camp” for Dec 6, 2017, “an intensive workshop … [on] the process and principles of good course design, assessment and feedback, active learning and engagement strategies” (http://teachingcommons.yorku.ca/event/course-design-boot-camp-wednesday-december-6-2017/?instance_id=1915). Coming from a country where military service is still compulsory and having undergone military boot camp as a conscripted teenager, this description — a pedagogical event as a boot camp — not only conjured up somewhat distressing memories (which, I am fully aware, pale in comparison with others’ experiences with the military and armed conflict). The invitation to this event also made me aware that I would never attend something calling itself a boot camp and motivated me to challenge the use of this metaphor in an educational context and advocate for questioning aggressive language in pedagogy in order to actively promote peace education.
A military bootcamp, the vernacular reference to basic training, is designed to shape the behaviour of recruits and facilitate the exertion of violence towards designated enemies. It involves the suppression of individuality and personal space, development of physical skills, and insertion into strictly hierarchical structures of command, a model that has also been used in correctional contexts. Obviously, it does not describe what constitutes the educational context of a university.
One could argue that the word has now lost its military connotation and been applied to a much wider context. Apple calls its software for booting Windows on a Mac “Boot Camp”, Queen’s University is offering “dissertation bootcamps” (http://www.queensu.ca/sgs/current-students/writing-support/dissertation-bootcamp), and the term is widely used in fitness and computer-training environments. However, language is not innocent, and words and metaphors are not separable from their lineages and connotations. Arguably, both the fitness and the coding contexts use boot camp precisely because of its associations with a macho culture of toughness and aggression that connects it to its military origins. Used in an educational context, such metaphorical use of language would seem to promote an imaginary of teaching as training that privileges intensity, efficiency, strength, behaviour modification, and outcome orientation over dialogue, empathy, and attention to individual concerns, circumstances and speeds of learners. A critical pedagogy that is based on principles of dialogue and empathy needs to be not only cognizant and sensitive to metaphors of violence and aggression but, I would argue, reflect on the wider implications of such metaphors becoming widespread and commonsensical in a global context of nations displaying their power in military parades and promoting a rhetoric of brawn and toughness while showing disdain for marginalized and less privileged groups. A sensitivity to the language of violence, and the violence of language, is a crucial and necessary step towards creating safe educational environments that are conducive to nurturing mutual respect and the appreciation of difference and diversity, and in which military and colonial metaphors, such as “conquering issues”, “being at the front line”, or “attacking problems”, have no place, or at least give us pause.
I noticed that the Teaching Commons is no longer using the term boot camp, and I appreciate that it takes interventions seriously. I also appreciate how difficult it is to avoid using terminology that is widely used and becomes part of discursive formations. We all find ourselves using phrases whose implications and connotations we are not fully aware of. Training oneself in the hermeneutic suspicion of the language of the everyday, and challenging it when needed, is an ongoing, but necessary process.