Wednesday, November 8, 2023

A Pedagogy of Care in Troubled Times

Many of us have likely seen a copy of the UBC's new President’s statement on ‘respect and compassion’.


I take this as an opportunity to reflect on how we as educators carry on discussions and lectures in our classrooms.  


Anthropology can be an emotionally fraught subject, especially for new university learners. I am quite public about learning being a disruptive -potentially transformative- process. See, for example my comment on discomfort in learning. But this doesn’t mean we compel learners into being unsettled. They need to meet us on that journey, at least partway.


Educator Nell Noddings  said over the course of her career, that educators have a duty of compassion and should subscribe to a pedagogy of care. This means that we need to reflect on our relationship with students from our position of authority and control, and act within a duty of care.


We need to reflect very carefully on the subject matter we present, especially if it deviates from the core content of our course. What purpose does it serve to discuss an issue that might inflame emotion and lead to upset? Is there a pedagogical reason to do this? If there is a solid reason, then what mechanisms do we have to manage the discussion? Are there ways to achieve the same learning outcome by use of different subject matter? 


When I teach First Nations issues I tread very lightly on issues of trauma and the cultural genocide my ancestors and family were subjected to. Not because it is unimportant. Not totally because I find it triggering. But ultimately because I question the utility of moving into subject matter that most likely requires a professional therapist present to facilitate healthy dialogue. Every instructor is different, but in classes in which I am the instructor of record and am working with TAs I structure things to minimize discussions of trauma. I find there are ways to meet my learning objectives without derailing a class by a detour through trauma.


In our role as educators, we need to ask ourselves whether we have provided the learner with an opportunity to consent and remove themselves if they feel unsafe in the discussion? I don’t mean with formalized trigger or content warnings.  I mean with a constant self-critical inner gaze gauging what we are saying while we attempt to ‘read the room.’  We also need to pay attention to what students say and when it is necessary to interrupt, correct, or even refute a student speaker. It’s a tall order indeed. To do this well rarely comes naturally, it takes practice and our own willingness to engage in learning opportunities to improve our teaching arts.


Of course, we can all make mistakes, by accident or intention. Here we need to appreciate that, as with human rights issues, it’s not the intent of an educator but rather the effect of the educator’s action on the person feeling unsafe and the educator’s response. The classic example is a male colleague telling a sexist joke “I was just joking around,” he says. But the female colleagues in his workplace feel harassed by his comments and find nothing funny in his joke. As educators we have a higher burden, than do our students, to consider the effects of our teaching and in class commentaries. 


These are emotionally fraught times. It is likely that many of our students will be affected by global news. We ourselves will be affected. In this space as educators, always but particularly now, we have an obligation to teach with care and compassion as best we can. We can never truly know what is happening in the lives of those in our classrooms and how a causal comment from us might trigger emotional upset in others.


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