Like many University faculty members around the US, the last days of July bring with them a palpable realization that summer is drawing to a close. Those elusive three months of summer…you know, the ones the rest of the world actually believes we are “off”…are when we have been writing, researching, and possibly cleaning through stacks of papers to find our desks again. I actually enjoy being an academic, so that is not a complaint. But, academic life has a unique cadence of heating up without ever really slowing down on its own. Academics exercise a lot of free will, including working ourselves into a nonstop frenzy. Admittedly, “August” has the same effect on me as a yellow stop light. I know I either have to speed forward, eyes ahead and get through the intersection as quickly as possible, or brake now and come to a complete stop, convincing myself that I can step on the gas when the light turns green and make up my speed later.
Pardon the pun, but this year I need a break.
Since I am planning to indulge in some time off for a few weeks, this has been my week to prep my course syllabi and wrap my thoughts around my teaching next semester. I will have a new course to prep each semester this year, but both are courses I have looked forward to teaching for a while. Readings, assignments, textbooks, grading scales, learning management systems vs. open sourcing…these are the thoughts that are occupying my days this week. But, as I was prepping, a different thought crossed my mind: what are my most memorable moments from being a student? What sticks??
It’s funny what crossed my mind. I vividly remember to this day than in 1990, a family of four in the United States was at the poverty threshold if they made less than $13,359. Dr. Shirley Lord made that point clear in my Social Dynamics of Poverty class in my BSW program. She wrote it on the board, said it out loud, and made us repeat it like a mantra. We were becoming social workers…we needed to clearly understand the number and its significance. When she made us take that number and consider it within our own finances and our own family of origin’s finances, it really hit home. I was a self-supporting undergraduate, and I made $5.85/hr working at a skilled nursing facility for 24 hours per week. That brought me to a whopping $7,300 annual income. I shared a two bedroom apartment with three other people, drove a junky car, and ate ramen noodles for dinner often barely making ends meet without any social life other than free concerts in the park. That was just me, not a family of four.
That lesson stuck with me.
Then, I remembered a moment from high school. It was Mr. Hardy’s 9th grade social studies class…which in New York State at that time was Asian and African studies. I remember exactly two things: first, watching a film about cultural groups on the African continent where he pointed out repeatedly “these are the people with the peppercorn hair!” (I think that stuck because I kept thinking: is that what this culture really wants to be known for?). The thing that really stuck, though, was at the very end of that year. Mr. Hardy pulled a stunt that I have replicated on occasion in my own classes. He gave us 15 minutes to ask him any question, whatsoever. He was trying to see if we could stump him; I am generally trying to get the emerging social workers in my classes to ask a really solid, probing question. Either way, it has a similar effect. After a few stupid questions and wise cracks, and a couple actual review questions about the material, it was one of the brightest students in the class who asked, “when will I die?” He immediately said, “everyone be quiet.” The room was completely still. We wanted to hear what he would say. After what seemed like a long time, the big, white wall clock let out a loud, “click” as it moved one more minute forward. “You’re all one minute closer” was his reply.
That also stuck.
There are other important moments and lessons from across my classroom learning over the years, too. But truthfully, I don’t actually recall most of what I wrote in the graded papers I was assigned, and I would be hard pressed to remember any specific test question that ever came before me. There are whole semesters of classes where I either apparently integrated everything I learned seamlessly…or retained none of it. But there are also moments like those I just described that stick, seemingly hot-glued to my cerebral cortex.
I am looking at my own syllabus now, and pulling myself out of the forest. What is it that I really want to stick for my students with this course?
I write myself a mantra across the draft syllabus for Social Work with Oppressed Groups that I will be teaching in the Fall. It says:
Liberation = Praxis
This is my shorthand for what I think is one of the powerful quotes from Paulo Friere in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Liberation is a praxis: action and reflection upon the world in order to transform it.” I will write it, everywhere. We will say it, breathe it, practice it, live it in the 2 hours and 40 minutes we share each week. The rest of the course…assignments, grades, lectures, discussions…that detail will fall into place weekly as it needs to. But, as an educator, I know what needs to stick.
So, as I drift through a couple weeks of leisure time before I am in the thick of my semester, I will keep that mantra close. Liberation…the kind of liberation we need in a world so deeply impacted by oppression…that liberation doesn’t take a vacation. It is my praxis not only when I teach, but also when I beach. It is my praxis in the grocery store and the food pantry, at the movies and on street corners. When the praxis of liberation becomes that which we engage in with all of humanity, we will truly be both educators and educated at all times.
That, across my career, is what sticks.
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
-Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed