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On Being Transparent: Notes Towards Day 4 (Thurs, Sept. 8)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. coursekeeping
sign up, please, for a conference (on the board)
for next Tuesday, read Part "Two" of Beloved (through p. 235);
I'll ask you to finish it within the week, by next Thursday...

II. eager to get into a discussion of Beloved…
and/but have a maybe 10-minute preface.
surprised by where conversation went in Tuesday’s class:
had invited a discussion of curriculum,
thought we’d end class w/ some lists on the board:
1) books you’d read,
2) books you thought you should have
been told to read/wanted to read;
3) maybe books you thought should be banned.

what we ended up with, instead, was a discussion of pedagogy:
a strong shared belief that teachers should facilitate
anti-racist discussions about any/all books….

the real punch line, for me, came @ the end,
when Olivia said that she wanted teachers to
be transparent, to say why we are here,
in any particular school; why we are teaching
any particular course; & why particular texts.

in response to my very direct question, she said that
I had not been transparent in any of these ways.

I understand from Alison Cook-Sather that, in her
course last spring on Advocating Diversity,
transparency was  held up as a goal
and value in classroom work.
Olivia, Nkechi--anyone else?—took that class.

Full disclosure: transparency is
not an unmitigated value for me.

I think that we are all complex—I know that I am.
I think that none of us know ourselves fully.
I know that--after decades of self-reflection, therapy,
intense conversation w/ friends and family--
I still surprise myself: in my dreams,
in what I think and feel,
in what sometimes comes out of my mouth.
I think we all slip (I’ve written a book chapter
called “Slipping,” which some of you--Amaka,
Beatrice, Creighton, the Hannahs--read in ESem
last fall, that spells this out in some detail…)

I don’t always like what comes out of me;
but the point is that I oftentimes don’t know,
ahead of time, what I will think or feel or say.

So though I want to try and be transparent--and am
thinking of what I'm about to say as my version
of the “race journal” you just wrote for Jody--
it’s on-line, both in my course notes and
linked to from the on-line conversations in Education--

I also don’t believe that I can be fully transparent.
The great educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth writes that
the “self” capable of the kind of rational performance
most often sought in classrooms is illusory:
“The fact of the unconscious…explodes the very idea
of a complete or achieved identity’--with oneself
through consciousness, or with others through understanding.”

So when—trying to be transparent--
I introduce myself as a “white woman from the South,”
in the way that Nyasa said threw her on the first of my classes she attended,
I realize that I am saying some things clearly, some things not;
that what I intend to say--about how my experiences growing up
in the South during the era of massive resistance to integration
has everything to do with why I want to talk about race--
what I intend to say is exceeded by what I don’t,
and by what you hear, the presumptions each of you
bring to that statement.

Still: let me fill in some details.

I was raised in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia;
my husband (who is an orchardist) lives on our farm there;
my parents are still alive, and I still have
a huge extended family in that area.
So--though I have been teaching at Bryn Mawr,
and living in the Philly area, for more than 30 years--
I still spend every other weekend, most of my semester breaks, 
all of last semester’s leave, in this part of the South;
I return, too, for several months each summer.

There is much that I love there; there is also much that I loathe.
Because I was raised by a patriarch
(Linda-Susan: gave patriarchy a new meaning),
I developed a hatred/resentment of hierarchies early on; though
this started w/ gender, it quickly grew to encompass sexuality, class, race.
I was always noticing/lamenting/resenting the policing of those with less power.
I have lots of race stories--the integration of my h.s.
in 1963, when I was in 8th grade; my father's forbidding
me and the other cheerleaders (!) to host a party in our home
for the basketball team, because it was mostly black guys
(thought the races should not mix); my learning, very belatedly,
about race riots that happened in our area in the early 20th c,
and about about cross burnings that happened during my childhood,
just down the street from my grandparents' house.

I am very much still in that place--and not.
I left the rural south in 1972 for all the reasons
you might guess:
wanted to live in a city, be anonymous;
wanted to leave behind racism, homophobia,
misogyny, Methodists, Republicans,
all the other dimensions of small town life,
where everyone knew who I was,
who my family was, where I was fixed;
thought there were more possibilities for me—
and for me to do social justice work--
to work on those hierarchies I hated--
in the urban north.

long quipped that the longest trip I ever
took was crossing the Mason-Dixon line—
but of course I didn’t leave any of
those forms of oppression behind…
skipping forward now 30 years,
and lots of other race stories gathered in the north,
when the Confederate flag was flown, and the
Mason-Dixon line drawn, on this campus, in fall 2014 
I thought again that I hadn’t gone far enough.

teaching my Critical Feminist Studies class that semester
(Sula, Abby, Gabby & Nkechi were there);
had designed a syllabus centered on trans identities,
as ways of questioning/unsettling/refusing the gender binary;
in late September, in response to display of the flag,
I overhauled the reading list to focus instead
on the intersections of race and gender.

and/but: one of the students who displayed the flag
had actually taken this course a few years before;
re-read her papers, began to see how the ideas of 
identity, intersectionality, representation, signifying—
specifically the idea of proudly claiming one’s identity--
which we had talked about so extensively in that class,
had been taken up very differently than I intended.

humbling for me to acknowledge that I do not know
how my students will make use of what I give you;
how huge the gap can be between intention and uptake--
as you struggle to make sense of your identities,
as I struggle to make sense of mine.

And/so/but…because of this long history in south and north,
because of the Confederate flag, the murders and non-indictments,
I became convinced that i needed to
create a cluster of courses focused specifically on race;
talked w/ lots of colleagues about this....
eventually, Jody, Monique and I took on this shared project.
That's why I am here

My particular part of the cluster has a particular shape,
the result of my Ph.D. training in 19th c. American literature,
and of the various political and academic
interests that I have developed since grad school.
As I explained when we met in April,
I used to teach Big Books of American Literature w/
the books I was taught, the mainstream canon--
of dead white men--Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman--
plus some dead white women--Dickinson, Stowe
(Beatrice told me she had her computer open, on Tuesday,
to a 15-year-old version of that course, archived
on Serendip :)

When I went to re-design it this summer,
I followed the principle I described in “WTF”:
starting where I thought you might be.
I knew that many of you love Beyonce:
I don’t know her work well, know
nothing about music video as a genre,
so thought it would be great to start
in a place where you knew more than me--
to lay it out early on that your views matter,
will direct the course of our conversation.

Then my oldest daughter, who teaches 6th grade
Spanish in a charter school in Brooklyn,
showed me #Lemonade syllabus,
and I got the idea that I could start w/ Beyonce,
then dig back into earlier texts that would
help us to understand where the video had come from,
what its geneology was…

As you’ll see later on, though I centered the syllabus
on texts by black women in the U.S., haven't limited it to those—
there’s work by several Native Americans and Asian Americans,
and one non-American black woman. Did not want to start w/
the canon and add in some books by people of different races,
but to completely re-center it, to foreground the experience
of black women in particular, because they have been
so absent in conventional curricula…

hoping that this is some of what Olivia and Nyasa were asking for on Tuesday…
would be glad to talk w/ any of you about any of this, or related things,
in our conferences, and there will be more to share @ other points...
but now want to use my enactment of non-transparent transparency
to introduce our discussion of Beloved

In the course on silence I did last fall with Rosa, Sula and Abby,
we read part of a book by Doris Sommer called Proceed with Caution,
When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas
Sommer reads texts like the testimonio of Rigoberta Menchu,
an Indian activist in Guatemala, to argue that "inhospitality
toward the reader...merits a pause long enough to learn
new expectations," releases us "from the exorbitant and
, but usually unspoken assumption that
you should
--and can--know the Other well."

Sommer says that educated readers (like us) "usually expect to enter
into collaborative language games with a range of writers...
in stories that become ours," but cautions us that
"differences coexist and do not reduce to moments
in a universal history of understanding."
"Access is limited," but those she calls
“sentimental readers” miss this point:
“they prefer the illusion of immediacy,"
are reluctant "to question their own motives
for requiring intimacy."

Sommers says that we should give more regard to a
text's "performance of keeping us at a politically safe distance."
"Why should we assume that our interest in the 'Other'
is reciprocated? Could we consider that sympathy is
not bilateral in an asymmetrical world? Secrets can cordon off
curious and controlling readers. Secrecy is a safeguard to freedom."

A lot of what Sommers has to say about "marking frontiers"
and "limiting access," about acknowledging "the
alterity of the other” and "a particular kind of distance
akin to respect" speaks directly texts that keep us out,
or at least—like Morrison’s-- demand we do some
work to understand them: "So simple a lesson and
so fundamental," Sommer says "to acknowledge
modestly that difference exists...this defends us
from harboring any illusions of complete or stable knowledge."

In the language I’ve been using so far, Sommer advises us
not to expect, much less demand, transparency, and
asks us what we are assuming about our right to
knowledge of others
when we do so.

So: more than enough of a prelude!

III. Hold up your hand (again) if you
have read the novel before in a class.

Gather into 6 groups, each w/ one second-time-around reader.
New readers: talk about your initial reactions;
“old” readers: describe how the book seems different to you (or not),
this time ‘round--and why (if you know why).

Then focus on the question of transparency:
* what is crystal clear to you about this novel?
* what is opaque/confusing? (Why?)
Write these things on the board.

At 3:10: return to the large group.
Take a few minutes in quiet to review the board;
write down one or two sentences—a sentence that’s up there,
or a sentence you want to make out of words that are up there,
or a sentence that arises for you, reading these words.

Let’s go around and read these sentences:
1, no more than 2, apiece.
I know Jody intended to talk in her class today about
how challenging the practice of listening can be,
how each of us listens for some things, not others,
often foregrounding what we already know/believe,
backgrounding/not listening to other things…
I’m hoping, having written down your own sentence,
having it easily to hand, you can really be open
to hear what others are saying.

Then, pause: what did we hear?
What are the keynotes?
What was repeated?
Are there shared observations?

To close: where does this leave us?
Where/how do we want to pick this up again next week?