Roundtable on Pedagogy: Renunciation as Pedagogy

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  • Roundtable on Pedagogy:Renunciation as PedagogyVanessa R. Sasson*

    Grades are like a students drug addiction. We revolve our lives aroundthem, we sabotage for them, we will do anything for the high of getting agood grade. We hurt ourselves for them.

    THE ABOVE QUOTE is from one of our best and brightest students.She put into words a feeling many of our students are intimately familiarwith. It is an awareness of this sentiment that initially encouraged me tostart thinking outside the box.

    I have been teaching at an elite, private, Canadian college1 for twelveyears. I watch students walk into my classroom for the first time over andover again. They are eager, competitive, and often even aggressive abouttheir learning. They take classes because they have to for their program

    *Liberal and Creative Arts, Marianopolis College, 4873 Westmount Avenue, Westmount, QC,Canada H3Y1X9. E-mail: v.sasson@marianopolis.edu. This study is the product of the manyinsightful and challenging discussions that took place each time Virtuous Bodies was taught. Myprofound gratitude goes to the students of those classes most of all. I am also indebted to theMarianopolis College administration for encouraging and supporting this experiment, to RuzbehTamjeedi for his research assistance, and to the Program de recherche et dexprimentationpdagogiques of the Association des collges privs du Qubec (ACPQ) for its funding. I would alsolike to acknowledge the International Institute for studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice atthe University of the Free State, where I am a Research Fellow.

    Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2014, Vol. 82, No. 2, pp. 313328doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfu005Advance Access publication on February 18, 2014 The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy ofReligion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

    1The college system in Qubec, called C.E.G.E.P. (Collge denseignement gnral etprofessionnel), is unlike any other in North America. High school in Qubec ends at Grade 11;students then spend two years in college and three years in a Bachelor program. They therefore do theAmerican equivalent of their last year of high school and first year of university in college.Marianopolis is one of the leading colleges in Qubec, and students are as fiercely competitive aboutgetting into it as they are about getting the grades they seek in order to qualify for the programs theyhope to get accepted to thereafter. It is a very particular interim experience.

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  • requirements, and they go to school because they have to for their liferequirements. They tend to equate learning with grades and to believethat their future potential can be measured by the floating numbers weprovide. My competitive young students have few illusions about whythey are sitting in my classroom on hard plastic chairs. Unfortunately,they have few expectations too.

    I am not sure I had many more expectations of higher educationwhen I was their age. To be honest, I wasnt paying that much attention.Like them, I was there because I had to be, perhaps because I lacked theimagination to envision myself elsewhere. It was only in graduate schoolthat learning became an end in itself, a realm of discovery in whichhumility and personal elevation poetically intertwined. So maybe I amhoping for too much, but as a faculty member, a pedagogue, and a pas-sionate human being, it has become increasingly difficult to accept themediocre level of curiosity I often see in my students faces. I want themto be excited about learning, to see its astonishing potential, and morethan anything else, to appreciate the privilege it is for them to have learn-ing as their primary occupation. They need not make a career out ofevery course they take, and this type of education does not suit them all.Indeed, we do our youth a terrible disservice by imprisoning them with anarrative of academic supremacy. But while they are with us, even if it isnot the perfect fit, for that brief period of their lives I want them toexplore, think, and most of all appreciate the privilege their lives havemade available to them. Perhaps this is a marker of my getting older, butI cannot help it. This privilege is not available to everyone. Whether aca-demia is right for them or not, while they are in it, I want them to give ittheir full attention.

    THE EXPERIMENT

    The experiment begins with a course on renunciation practices inAsian traditions. I entitled it Virtuous Bodies, plagiarizing (with her fullpermission) Susanne Mroziks book title (2007). Given how counter-cultural the material promised to be for the students, the challenge was toget them to relate to it. As Cathy Davidson argues in her book Now YouSee It (2011), one of the most important ingredients in any teaching envi-ronment involves relating. Students need to relate if they are going tolearn. Relating creates interest. If they cannot see a connection to theirown lives, they are not likely to engage. For months prior to teaching thecourse, my mind played with the question of how this could be achieved.

    The Bhagavad Gita was my Newtonian apple. According to the Gita,renunciation is not about giving up material comfort; it is not about

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  • starvation or self-mutilation. Renunciation is, rather, a mental experience.More specifically, it is about releasing oneself from the outcome of onesactions. In the words of the Gita, just as the unwise ones act while cling-ing to action, so the wise should act without clinging (Patton 2008: 4243). To get students to relate to the material, they were going to becomerenunciants themselves. In other words, they were going to have torelease themselves of the outcomes of their actions. In a pedagogicalsetting, that meant only one thing: they were going to have to let go oftheir grades.

    My idea was this: students would produce work in this course just asthey did in their other courses. I would mark their material and providefeedback, but the mark itself would not be revealed to them until after thecourse was over. In return, and because renunciation is about perfection,they would be granted the opportunity to write the same exact papersand the same exact tests as many times as they wanted. They couldperfect their knowledge by writing and rewriting, never knowing theoutcome of their efforts. When the course was over, I would release all oftheir grades to them at the same time that final grades were submittedinto the system. Students would have to sign a legal document, producedby the colleges administration, if they agreed to the experiment.

    When the next batch of students walked into the Virtuous Bodiescourse, they were met with a most unusual proposal. They were handed acontract that they could choose to sign or not (they were given the optionto take the course the ordinary way, with grades and without rewrites). Ifthey signed, however, it was legally binding. They would sign away theirright to see their grades for the duration of the semester. The only excep-tion would be if they failed a submission, in which case I would tell them.Otherwise, they would not see their grades until the semester was over.

    The ritual power of the legal contract is not to be underestimated.They each hold the paper in their hands as though it will speak to themlike the burning bush. If they sign it, there is no turning back. Studentshave described waves of nausea, anxiety, and distress washing over themupon hearing what this course might entail. Many seem at once excitedand terrified by the prospect. One student broke down in tears momentsafter hearing what I was suggesting. The idea of losing control of seeingtheir grades has some of them in knots. I remind them that the only thingthat will change is that they are relinquishing the ability to see theirgrades, but for many that alone is debilitating.

    At the end of the term, students are asked to write about their experi-ence in a reflection paper, and of all the comments they make, one of themost common is their admitting to having thought I was crazy on thatfirst day. One student claimed that every one of her friends, upon hearing

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  • about the course, also thought the idea was madness, and her parentsbegged her to switch out. Another described me as an academic hereticspouting off insanity in public. The idea baffles many students, defiestheir imagination, and sends many reeling with panic despite the fact thatthe odds are hugely in their favor. By just giving up seeing their grades,they are granted the opportunity to virtually perfect their unseen scores.And yet, this simple difference has a tremendous impact on their livesand self-understanding. It is only when the suggestion is made that theylet go of their grades that they suddenly realize how deeply attached theyhave become to them. Grades are academic currency. Students identifywith them and believe their futures are determined by them.

    To some extent, they are not wrong. College scores play an importantpart in the futures the students are trying to carve out for themselves, andone should not underestimate the impact grading has on their lives. Butfutures are the product of many diverging forces and interconnectingrealities; a students future does not rest on grades alone. The powergrades have been granted in student consciousness deserves to be chal-lenged, reconsidered, and possibly even reconfigured. When grades areeliminated from their immediate purview, students are forced to contendwith their education in a very different way. They may ask themselves,perhaps for the first time, what their education means to them withoutnumbers attached. What is an education free of any outcome? Is it possi-ble to teach and to learn in a system stripped of its reward system? Onestudent compared grading to ranking livestock in his reflection paper. Ifthat is what we are doing to students the question certainly warrantssome reflection.

    GRADING

    Grading has undergone a continual metamorphosis since its incep-tion about three hundred years ago. Every institution has wrestled withthe question of evaluation, easy answers rarely presenting themselves. Anumber of historians have attempted to chart the complicated web of his-torical realities that have converged to create the grading context we findourselves in today (Montgomery 1965; Stray 2005; Durm 1993). Thesestudies demonstrate how often universities have oscillated in their conclu-sions as to what constitutes best practice. The oscillation generated partic-ular momentum as student numbers expanded and fields of study grewincreasingly specializedlogistical realities that continue to challengeinstitutions today. In the eighteenth century, these new realities gave riseto the written examination process that remains one of the staples of thecontemporary system. Before that, the classical viva voce (oral

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  • examination) of Oxford and Cambridge Universities was the primarymethod in use; instructors spent quality time with each of their students,challenging them with material that suited each one best, but this waseventually rendered obsolete in favor of the written exam.

    Logistical concerns were not the only driving forces behind thischange: new cultural norms emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenthcenturies that rendered the development inevitable, such as the idea thatall students must be evaluated equally. No longer would nobility betreated separately from the ordinary undergraduate, but all studentswould have to pass through the same process to gain and maintain theirprivileged seats in the university classroom (Stray 2005: 96; Hoskin 1979:13546). The rise of the individual as a concept had as much to do withthe transformation of grading over the centuries as did logistics. Raisingthe issue today may therefore be a way of paying homage to what hasclearly become an age-old academic tradition.

    Michel Foucault (1977) argued for the direct correlation betweenknowledge and power, drawing a parallel between the development of theprison system and the development of the classroom as we know themboth today. He considers the eighteenth century model of punishment asone of spectacle and performance, citing in his opening pages theexample of Damiens, who was brutally and publically tortured forattempted regicide. He sees in Western history a move from the spectacleto surveillance, a technical mutation that individualizes and normalizesevery citizen, rendering them a subject of intense scrutiny in which everyact is observed and controlled. The classroom is, for Foucault, an exten-sion of the same mores that gave rise to the prisona realm in which anauthority figure exercises control over a large group of individuals, per-petually screening, evaluating, and examining them, normalizing them asthey internalize the power structure to which they are subservient.

    Foucault uses the expression the punitive city (1977: 113) todescribe the world we find ourselves in today, where an unyielding list ofpossible infractions threaten. As I read his work, I cannot help but thinkof my list of classroom policies that ceremoniously seal every syllabus Idistribute. I think of the college requirements we face as we are asked toensure a regular litany of performative submissions punctuating thesemester. Foucaults words have made me wonder whether the classroomreally has developed into a normalizing prison with me as its taskmaster.

    Perhaps it is. I am quite certain that a number of our students experi-ence education in this way, as a punishing city in which they feel perpetu-ally cornered. Grading certainly has an element of punishment to it, andas enrollments continue to surpass those of previous generations, thefactory-feeling of educational institutions is bound to grow. But Foucault

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  • did not see the development of surveillance as exclusively negative. Hesaw in it the seeds of creativity as well. As he writes,

    We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in nega-tive terms: it excludes, it represses, it censors, it abstracts, it masks,it conceals. In fact, power produ...

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