Compassionate Pedagogy and “Crisis Ordinariness”

Margaret Ann Miller

Feb. 5, 2018

Look around your classroom: Look at the projector, the many desks, the white boards, the rows of students (roughly the same age, roughly the same level of education / literacy, roughly the same number in attendance each week), the chalkboards, the whiteboard markers, the chalk, the computers, the cords and plugins. Consider the expectations that students have pencils, paper, pens, computers (that they can then put away), phones (that they are not supposed to have in class), notebooks, and bound-books of their own.

Now consider fitting an entire classroom inside a plastic Safeway bag.

No pens. Only golf pencils. Only whiteboard markers. No erasers. Only crumpled pieces of paper. No phones. No wallet (leave it in the car). Just your clearance badge. Just your car key. No books. Only lined white paper and printer paper. Like camping in the national park—everything that comes in must go back out.

How do certain kinds of limitations affect or change your pedagogy?

Recently, I was a volunteer instructor for the nascent and now-unsurprisingly-defunct UC Davis Literature and Writing Workshop for women inmates at the Yolo County Jail. The male officer who had helped us spearhead the new program informed us that it had not gained enough traction with the inmates. What he meant to suggest was that the jail did not want to continue to support the program. He failed to mention that he rarely returned our calls and emails to make sure that the inmates were provided the weekly sign-up sheet for the course since it could not be taken as mandatory. Even without a sign-up sheet, inmates kept showing up, just hoping there would be class anyway. And I kept showing up too, Saturday evenings for an hour, with my plastic Safeway bag full of extra lined paper smuggled in for the inmates and a willingness and absolute readiness to throw lesson plans out the window as soon as I got to B-3, the women’s unit. I never knew how many inmates would show up—would they be inmates I had already met and worked with before? Would they all have roughly the same literacy level, the same level of writing abilities, the same reasons for being there? After my first session, I stopped worrying and settled into a practice of meeting the inmates where they were.

If University of Virginia’s “Charlottesville Syllabus” responded to what should / can we teach in the face of “alt-right” / white supremacist gatherings, Devin Griffiths, Ryan Fong, and V21 have asked me how do we teach now in the face of these things?

Teaching at the jail made me attuned to the ways in which certain benign rules or expectations (as outlined by class syllabi) can and do come into conflict with social justice and feminist pedagogy practices and influenced how I began to respond to student needs.

Overlaid and running parallel with my volunteer stint at the county jail, I have been teaching sections and performing the duties of a teaching assistant for the first time in my Ph.D career. Before each major quarter event—first paper, the midterm—there seems to have been a “crisis”—or so the professor I have been assisting has described these occurrences. Before the first paper was due, nearly ten students of the roughly eighty student class population did not turn their paper in on time. Email explanations rolled in: one student had been evicted from their apartment, another had to pick up extra work shifts, many others were having a spectrum of mental health concerns and at least one was going hungry. By the time the midterm rolled around and I was proctoring my first exam, which was supposed to be highly routine and droll, I had a student suffer a massive panic attack, physically being unable to sit the exam and another student needing to leave their phone on in case the police or hospital called because their friend had attempted suicide earlier that day. After being debriefed, the professor kept noting how unprecedented, unusual, and out of the ordinary these occurrences were. I bring up these specific examples not for shock value, but to attempt to render them ­un-shocking.

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant defines and makes radical use of the term “crisis ordinariness.” Here I quote Berlant at length:

A traumatic event is simply an event that has the capacity to induce trauma. My claim is that most such happenings that force people to adapt to an unfolding change are better described by a notion of systemic crisis or “crisis ordinariness” and followed out with an eye to seeing how the affective impact takes form, becomes mediated. Crisis is not exceptional to history or consciousness but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming…The extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something in the works, a labile boundary at best, not a slammed-door departure. In the impasse induced by crisis, being treads water; mainly, it does not drown. Even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it, and to protect what optimism they have for that, at least. [1]

Simply put, Berlant emphasizes a durational quality that shifts our understanding of crisis from an event, for which there is presumed to be a definitive conclusion, to an understanding of the impasse, for which there is no definitive horizon or end date.

Rather than constituting these student requests, experiences, and needs as temporary crises for which we need to make exceptions (to the syllabus, to the agenda, to rules and expectations of the course), I suggest we consider them as part and parcel of our teaching reality in order to encompass the reality of Charlottesville, of the defunding of higher education, of the GOP tax plan, of homelessness and gentrification, and any number of indications that we are all just trying to tread water and not drown.

There has been a presumption that undergraduate education is all about becoming-adult (to perhaps usefully misappropriate/misquote Deleuze and Guattari), which includes learning responsibility, prioritization, time management and any number of supposedly “adult” life skills and to “tough love” students who fail to meet these alleged minimum requirements. However, in this time of crisis ordinariness, do we, pedagogically, need to reconsider what we deem skills of responsibility and how we meet our students? The fact is, for most students, their education cannot be their number one priority because of the lived realities affecting their everyday survival. Strategic presentism, a mode of teaching and thinking that I find incredibly useful, needs to go beyond the engagement of the very specific textual materials and also engage with the quotidian realities of our students.

The quotidian reality of the county jail included a required walkthrough to understand the institutional protocol for the highest level of clearance a civilian could have (in-person interactions) with the inmates. This level of clearance is typically given to those civilians holding bible study groups and to inmates’ lawyers. I was brought to the room that my plastic Safeway bag of materials would temporarily, for an hour, transform into a classroom. It was smaller than my on-campus shared office at UC Davis, had no windows and no chairs. (Inmates had to bring their own chairs.) During the walkthrough, the officer continued to emphasize that I, by signing the consent forms, had explicitly chosen to put myself and my life in danger. While in the window-less (class)room, the officer repeatedly indicated that there were two landmarks that I should remain near the entire time I taught: the “crisis” button and the door. Though unlikely, he assured me, it was important that I be aware that I may become involved in a “hostage situation” and if I were to hit the “crisis” button, officers would immediately come to my aid.

It was no surprise to me that such tactics of intimidation were used to try to scare me into treating the inmates like criminals. The idea of a “crisis” button continues to reinforce the on/off, event-quality of a crisis and also the who that is in crisis: it gives primacy to the position of privilege as the one in crisis. Perhaps the difference between crisis and crisis ordinariness is not simply one of temporality but also of privilege versus compassion.

My second teaching day at the jail, I planned writing exercises around selections from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Just like I normally plan my fifty-minute sections for undergraduate students, I broke the plan into specific-minute increments. However, quickly into the lesson, one of the inmates interjected with a different need. They wanted help in writing a letter to the judge asking for a sentence of drug rehab as opposed to prison. I quickly decided to oblige the request meeting the inmate where they were that day and at that time. Given that I was in the position of privilege, I chose compassion.

When does a student question call into question one’s own feminist practice as an instructor?

A few weeks before the midterm exam, I had a student come up to me after lecture and ask if they could take the midterm exam early because they had had an appointment with Planned Parenthood for months to get an IUD and explained that it would be difficult to get another appointment without having to wait all over again. Given that I publicly identify as trans-masculine and genderqueer (but also read as butch dyke), I am not surprised that my student felt comfortable explaining to me why they wanted to take the exam early. I immediately told the student yes. I had to. I asked myself: do I believe in Planned Parenthood and do I believe in students having affordable access to practices of safe sex? By answering yes to those two questions, I had to say yes to my student.

In a time of crisis ordinariness, I suggest a practice of compassionate pedagogy. The OED defines “compassion” as a “suffering together with another.” Instead of a hierarchical move that places primacy on my position of privilege and power as the teaching assistant/instructor, compassionate pedagogy places primacy on a lateral move, one that is an act of witnessing and recognition of another’s position of suffering and/or vulnerability. The question was no longer one of holding the student accountable to strictures of a syllabus and/or doling out punishment by making the student choose between a good grade and an IUD. I advocated to the professor on their behalf, offering to hold the early midterm in my office. Even here, if there is pushback, and rightfully so, based in concerns over graduate and adjunct labor, this would be my response: I simply built the student into my regular routine. I did not do extra work, but merely shared the space of my office for an hour and twenty minutes with them while they did their work and I did mine.

Making these kinds of considerations should not be deemed lenient or exceptional, but built into the daily ordinariness of the classroom which for the time being, is in indefinite crisis.

[1] Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2011, p. 10.

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