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Grad Idea Forum
Explorations of Teaching

April 23, 2004
Workshop with Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy
Bryn Mawr Now, April 29, 2004: "Influential Psychologists Featured at Seminar"

Summary by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, Jill Mattuck Tarule. Chapter 10, Women's Ways of Knowing, New York: Basic Books, 1986: Chapter 10.

Blythe Clinchy. "Connected and Separate Knowing: Toward a Marriage of Two Minds." In N. R. Goldberger, J. M. Tarule, B. McV. Clinchy, & M. F. Belenky (Eds.). Knowledge, Difference, and Power: Essays Inspired by Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books, 1996. 205-247.

Digging down through piles...I've arrived back @ the notes I took during the lively workshop we held w/ Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy on April 23, 2004--and want to archive here some of what I found so useful and important in that session. Mary Belenky opened our discussion by describing her own education (at the School of Social Thought @ the University of Chicago and the Lab of Human Development @ Harvard...) as offering "a collection of little fiefdoms," instead of the "dream of interdisciplinary work which is so rare to find." Blythe Clinchy followed with an invitation from Ursula LeGuin's 1986 Bryn Mawr Commencement Address: "offer your experience as your truth." LeGuin speaks in that address of "feeling our way into ideas," of listening to one other not for what each of us is "claiming," but for what we are all "offering."

Much of the "offering" which followed was about "integrating the poles," about "making a safe space where people can be @ the edge." How can we help our students (hey! how can we help ourselves??) assimilate new ways of knowing without being terrified? In what ways can we give them, and ourselves, the structure and security they--and we--need to engage in new ideas? Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy had a number of ideas, including the suggestion of responding to a student (who asks "what do you want?") with the counterstatement, "It's what YOU want that matters." Students have "so little awareness that they have a mind to be in the world with"; the goal is to "get ideas to bump up against each other." But the process is "not all positive" (or: does not always FEEL positive); "deformation is required."

One participant spoke of the "schizophrenia" of moving away from the "adversarial" teaching of law to the more "connected" teaching of social work. There was also an amusing interchange about the name of the degree awarded in the Graduate School of Social Work, which was offered to us as a "model of vague thinking": "I don't really care what the degree is called. I just want to do this work." In response, Mary Belenky told a story about Carol Gilligan changing her mind in the midst of a public lecture, and a student's distressed response: "Gilligan doesn't know what she thinks!" A participant in our workshop, who had heard similar laments from her students, claimed, "They get angry if we don't know the answer!"

Belenky and Clinchy told us quite a bit about their interviewing process--and its results. They described, for instance, the interviews they conducted with women who had undergone abortions. One subset of the interviewees told the same story, in almost exactly the same words, a year apart. In sharp contrast were another set, for whom the abortions had been developmental experiences. Their accounts of what had happened changed dramatically over a year's time: in their changed stories, they could hardly remember what they had said a year earlier. It was as if their minds had "re-organized themselves," destroying the "system for memory which had been in place."

Mary Belenky offered stone walls as a metaphor for how, as their research team conducted interviews, the conversation became very layered; they found themselves piling ideas atop one another. Certain interviews rose to the top of the stack, because they offered stories that "named something." In sharing with us excerpts from several interviews which did that, Belenky and Clinchy acknowledged that, if they had taken notes (rather than taping) the interviews, they wouldn't have written down what didn't make sense to them at the time--but which later taught them things they had not been looking for. They came to listen for the "growing edges" of the women they were interviewing, trying to hear what their practice in the world was and how they were trying to change.

We had a very rich discussion about several of these excerpts, which ranged from a pure "received knower" (who granted all authority to the experts) to a "total empiricist" (who believed only what she herself saw); the selection concluded with the words of a "connectivist" who had been able to integrate what she received from others into what she herself felt and thought. What, we asked, are the social contexts of these various ways of learning? What structures and categories did each speaker use to construct--and to silence--particular authorities? How can we share with them the "hidden secret" that "science is a "construction of the human mind"? How can we teach our students "an" (vs. "the") authority?

Discussion also entered into the charged territory of ways of knowing that seem to be differently gendered. We considered the different "display rules" which govern what each gender allows each other to say. We acknowledged that the separated knowing practiced by many men--"they say it, and are done with it"--differs sharply from the conversational practice of women who, by and large, are more likely to talk, listen and exchange ideas. Men's assertive ways of talking, Belenky and Clinchy suggested, are--as much as women's received knowings--expressions of uncertainty about their own authority and sense of self.

Mention was also made, during this session, of the work of Eleanor Duckworth, whose theory and pedagogical practice is very much aligned with that of Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy, and who was visiting campus the next week under the auspices of a Lecture Series on "Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science Education." I append here what I found of interest in her workshop, which asked us to explain to one another--without using numbers--that 3/4 is greater than 2/3. Her goal was to get us to think very deeply, to really understand--and really articulate to others--the fundamental concept of proportional thinking, without using any shorthands. There was considerable discussion about how long it took to do this. Eleanor Duckworth did ultimately function as the arbiter of when the problem was solved--and there was a challenge to her insistance that only one logic was appropriate. But, claiming that "given an answer, kids stop thinking," she did not, in the course of 1 1/2 hours, ever use her authority to stop the discussion. She observed that, if kids are really working, it's important to pay attention to what they are thinking, to invite them--as in the title of her most recent book--to Tell Me More, because "the more you know of what's really going on in their minds, the better a teacher you can be." Eleanor Duckworth suggested that, although "there is not an hour in the school year to do something without immediate payoff," the most important way to deal with important problems is to make them important."

Thanks to Eleanor Duckworth, Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy for a week's worth of important thinking about not just how but WHY we teach. And many thanks to the Center for Science in Society for funding both visits.

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