The final paper prompt for T008: Power and Pedagogy taught by Professor Houman Harouni in the Spring 2018 term at the Harvard Graduate School of Education was to write a reflection, framed as an action, on the themes and experience of the class. At some point in the long hours spent on its composition it became a meditation on my entire first year in divinity school, which is why I’ve chosen to share it with you.
Woven throughout are actual emails I exchanged with a classmate, whose name has been changed for publication. The oft-mentioned “reflection papers” were regular free-writes to the fixed prompt “What keeps you up at night as an educator?” To the extent that this class addressed itself directly to those sleepless nights, to the moments of self-reckoning that permit no performance or excuse, it is where I did my most faithful work this year as an educator, caregiver, witness, steward, agitator, and guide in perpetual training.
CLOSE TO THE GROUND AND AT ARM’S LENGTH
1. Refuse to annihilate the complexity of others.
“I think the purpose of consciousness is other people.”
She might just as easily have said, “Let’s go to Mission Dolores today.” It was that casual. Eyes off me, tracking dust particles in the noon light. Mouth half-full of burrito. But my friend’s words were nevertheless oracular. She was speaking my future in her breezy hunches.
Not long after I returned from my visit with her in California, though, I realized the problem she had surfaced for me. “People are my future, but I’m afraid of them,” I told myself. It was like having a lifelong fear of snakes and suddenly feeling called to herpetology.
The political philosopher Jill Stauffer traces this kind of conflict to the impossibility of pure autonomy. Echoing Emmanuel Levinas, she identifies in “the subject” – in the person as agent – a kind of simultaneous “hostage, persecuted by the other, bearing infinite responsibility and owed nothing in return.”
But to see this as a constraint rather than an opportunity, she implies, is to miss the point. Conceding the limits of autonomy is not an effort “to deny our freedom” but to recognize “the vulnerability that defines us as embodied beings and thus bears on what freedom can be for us.” Subjection is freedom, for the person who no longer fights it.
I have fought it.
In my reflection papers for Power and Pedagogy, I have fought it by making up dilemmas about the world that reduce people to pawns for, and impediments to, an unnamed and unnamable good.
Dilemmas, Professor Houman Harouni writes in the course materials, function this way, creating sweeping, binaristic quandaries that “cannot be lived with, and yet we all live with them.” In other words, they cast life as intractably at odds with some imagined ideal.
Far worse than their apparent unlivability is the fact that dilemmas, adds Harouni, “annihilate the world.” They deny the immensity, ambiguity, and irreducibility of what is. Reviewing my reflection papers, I see that my dilemmas annihilate not only the world but, with it, the complexity of others.
This, I think, is a common struggle among self-styled educators. Education, for all its liberatory strains, still primarily seeks to tame and impart. The complexity of others becomes at best inconvenient to this task and at worst hostile to it.
And yet we know that “Why aren’t people simple enough to tame and impart to?” is an outrageous question, negating the depth of students’ humanity and ours with it. So we create dilemmas that feel like more acceptable ways of asking.
To the extent I have managed at all to abandon the idea that I have anything to impart, it has been tentative, sporadic, and prone to reversals and backslides. The impulse to help someone make use of her own complexity without assisting her in a project to annihilate it, and without annihilating it myself, is the operative one, but runs counter to the impulses that prevail.
This means it must be practiced. But even to frame my final concern of the class this way feels a little too… dilemmatic. Still, it is a place to start.
* * *
April 14, 2018
Over the course of the semester I’ve tried to connect outside of class with people who I’ve clashed with or who I’ve notice [sic] that I’ve started to harbor some negative feelings towards… other than you. But I’d like to lean in to that!
If you have some time this week to connect, I’d really appreciate the opportunity. Some times that work particularly well for me this week are 3pm on Wednesday (right before class), Tuesday around 4, or Friday afternoon, but I’ll try to be flexible if there’s another time that works better!
* * *
April 16, 2018
Thank you for this invitation. I suppose the most honest response I can give you is that I’m not convinced this isn’t an attempt to collapse the tension and make everything alright. And, while I believe that everything is, in fact, alright (there’s really nothing you or I need to change about who we are), I’m not sure I’m prepared to participate in such a project. At least not during finals. Perhaps when they are over. Meanwhile, I appreciate the thought that you continue to give to your words. All the best to you.
* * *
2. Get close to the ground.
In the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Harvard University in December 2017, author, lawyer, and civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson urged his audience to militate against inhuman systems and ally with those they harm the most. One cannot do either well, he cautioned, without proximity. He used the word repeatedly, almost incantationally, exorcising its academic content.
The moment was reminiscent of Paulo Freire, for whom action without theory is mere “activism,” and theory without action is useless. Stevenson invoked “proximity” before a roomful of academics as if joining the hands of theory and action in a kind of historic accord. Get out there, it suggested. You can’t hope to do anything credible or effective unless you’re at the front lines.
This only indicts the dilemmas in my reflection papers further. What gave them their conviction, and powered their performed urgency, was their sense of retreat, their refusal of proximity. The more distance I have gained from my work in schools, which ended when I was summoned to off-site administration (think Siberia, with more self-congratulation) in 2011, the more sweeping and binaristic – and hopeless – my dilemmas have become.
The irony is that proximity reveals a dilemma’s true hopelessness – the impossibility of ever fully solving the real problems it corresponds to – while also exposing its points of workability, which at times feel more palliative than curative, but which anyway let us address ourselves to the thing itself, not the paper-nemesis version.
If I must choose between types of hopelessness from here on out, it will be this variety. I want to stay close to the ground.
* * *
April 18, 2018
There is, in fact, something that both you and I need to change about who we are. Tonight’s discussion prompted me to re-watch video from class, the class where you felt the desire to be provocative by attempting more than once to put me down and took up a great deal of class time explicating. I am also guilty of explicative blathering. I understand that there is a considerable contingency of people in Houman’s class who do not like me and do not like the things I say- so be it. I will continue to try and figure out why that is, and if the ways I am being prompted to change are compatible with “who I am” and what makes me “me.” I hope that someday you arrive at a place where you are willing to lean into your shortcomings and that the people you turn to for help are compassionate with you.
* * *
April 18, 2018
Brittany, I have leaned into my shortcomings much more than you will ever know, and probably to a more excruciating and revealing extent, it seems to me right now, than you are willing to lean into yours. You may feel free to characterize your own commentary as blathering, but if you are inviting me to share that as a characterization of my own, I politely decline. Mostly I just see you filtering every encounter with the new entirely through your self-concept. Which is solipsism.
Best of luck, Joe
* * *
3. Stay at arm’s length.
Proximity, however, does not imply merger.
“Leave room for the holy spirit,” Catholic school teachers are fabled to have said at school dances, prying teenagers apart on the dance floor and forcing them to dance in a Frankenstein arm-lock, as far away as possible while still able to reach each other’s shoulders. I don’t know from holy spirits, but you and I might need the space. The mitigated proximity.
To date, I have benefitted from it in two ways.
Whereas once it enabled me to maintain my illusions, now it gives me room to question them at leisure. In other words, I spent the first part of my life seeking distance from others so I could believe what I wanted, and the second part holding the distance so I could overhaul those beliefs patiently and reflectively. While I have learned to do the latter without need of so much distance, an arm’s length between us can still serve us both well.
When I enrolled last semester in a Spiritual Care and Counseling class, I experienced some anticipatory version of the dilemmas that cause me to annihilate the complexity of others. At the time I couldn’t name them as such, but after a few rounds of counseling role-plays, when a one-page summary of my counseling goals came due, I wrote, “All of my goals feel more achievable to me each time I approach a counseling situation with the mental image of a ‘zone of mystery’ around the counselee.” I had found a makeshift way to refrain from annihilation.
“This zone,” I continued, “feels like a third party in the interaction, one that diverts some of my attention away from the temptation to analyze or take possession of the counselee’s situation. It constitutes her own personal space of narrative uniqueness, an essence that exists through and beyond the words of our exchange, and that I must approach humbly, hoping for the privilege of seeing some of the mystery, but never presuming access to more of it than I am being shown.”
This is the beauty of the Frankenstein arm-lock. It checks the reflex to merge, and it compensates for my myopia, where you are concerned. It is an agreement to uphold your complexity as well as mine. We can both step back to look, feel, and not force ourselves to open or close our borders to each other completely, which would require us to simplify each other first.
Theory lives in this space, Freire might say, but so too does mutual compassion. I want to be close to the ground but also at arm’s length.
* * *
April 18, 2018
Joe, you absolutely blather and explicate. Forgive me for my naïve attempt to try and dissuade myself from the characterization of you that I’ve formed this semester. Good luck at the Div school.
* * *
April 18, 2018
I can tell from these follow-up emails that I wasn’t very far off. You are on an amelioration tour. When I said that “everything is, in fact, alright,” what I meant was: what would it be like to live with your shortcomings while knowing them, instead of trying to eradicate them? I regret that I cannot assist with your project of eradication.
* * *
4. Sacrifice your stated opinion.
In the context of the Frankenstein arm-lock, declaring a strong opinion can be like taking a giant step forward or back: inadvisable, if the goal is to remain in the sweet spot of constructive proximity and distance. This may be especially true for educators.
“What is the highest, most profound teaching of all the Buddhas?” Zen master Yunmen was once asked. “An appropriate statement,” he replied, which I take to mean a statement that holds the sweet spot, the best intersubjective position from which to teach and learn. By this standard there is probably far less that needs saying than we think, and at the same time far more. How does one cultivate the knack for saying it?
I have a small quarrel with the singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who suggests that bravery is about saying “what you wanna say” and letting the words “fall out.” For some whose opinions have been heard too little, or whose reticence comes from terror, speaking up can be a stretch toward wholeness, and, in some settings, toward justice. But, by and large, our words do too much falling out.
Each time I contemplate working with others, I think hard about the value of and place for my own opinions. When they are premature conclusions (which describes most conclusions), they are not worth naming. Or, they may be named provisionally, as one trapeze that flings me to the next. But even when they are astute and bear well on what is being said, their best use isn’t necessarily in their expression. Good opinions can be stowed.
If you want to know the truth, I learned this lesson long ago. What I didn’t learn until much more recently is that stowing my opinion doesn’t always mean stowing it for later and, until then, behaving as though I have a juicy secret. Staying silent is not some kind of bargain with myself to sound off when the time comes, admiring my own brain power in the meantime.
This fundamentally changes the substance of my opinions into something far more expendable and pliant than ever before, which can create the feeling that they, and therefore that I, am ethereal, wispy, unless I choose to believe otherwise.
I choose to believe otherwise. Some opinions I stow, and not for later. And they turn into something else. Or they acquire new dimensions. Or they arise as someone else’s opinions, but far more thoughtfully than I had had them. Or they disappear, making room for others. What does the world need of my mind? More than I feared, and less than I hoped.
But my mind’s most strenuous application is perhaps in showing not telling, and maybe not showing much at that, because then the person in front of me will talk herself out into the open, and my job will be to enlist my wispy opinions, and the intuitions that produce them, for the purpose of believing her.
This feels like a conversational sacrifice, but a worthy one if the trade-off is more dexterity for response and a better ear for the appropriate statement. I want to see me be brave.
* * *
April 18, 2018
Is there a reason in particular you want the last word?
If, in fact, something is a shortcoming, then why wouldn’t I (or anyone) work to eradicate it? And, as a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that you do not regret anything you’ve said to me, whether via email or in person.
I’m still willing to talk to you in person, but I find that it’s really easy to dehumanize someone when you’re talking from behind a screen. But I will not hold my breath.
* * *
April 18, 2018
At the risk of appearing to want the last word, I will say that, to the contrary, I have been utterly humanizing you. Maybe more so than anyone else with whom you’ve had conflict. Which is why I’m unwilling to prop up what you’re doing here. I don’t mind reading more words if you have something to say substantively or lastly.
* * *
5. See yourself seeing.
“For there is no place that does not see you,” Rainer Maria Rilke concludes his brief poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. “You must change your life.”
By “place,” he refers to each contour and crevasse of his subject, the sculpted torso of Apollo, which Rilke imbues with the supernatural ability “to look and return gazes.” Moreover, writes Peter Sloterdijk, in returning gazes, the torso also tests “whether I will recognize it as a seer.”
For a final paper in another class, on Buddhist hermeneutics, I likened this to what the Lotus Sutra does. What does it mean, as a viewer of the sculpture or a reader of the sutra, to be seen seeing by the thing you see? And why is this a reason to change your life?
The power of the sculpture and the sutra is that, though at the outset you may be unaware of the agenda and labor of your seeing, or even the fact of it, they steadily bring it to your attention. Miraculously, you don’t look away. If you look away, you must change your life. The poem dares you, with its last line, to stay where it has placed you.
Only things that gaze at us a certain way can do this. Typically, when we realize that we are seen seeing, we blush and pull back, or grow flustered and too self-conscious to do anything good with the seeing. No, the object whispers. You’re doing fine. Stay with me. And then we go where it takes us, which is out of ourselves.
This is why my eyes welled up with tears frequently in both classes near the end of term. Because I am learning to see myself seeing. With that same gentleness. It is everything I need not to look away. And, thereby, to keep addressing myself to the previous four actions.
* * *
April 18, 2018
Joe, I am only asking because you said you don’t mind reading more words- why do you say that you have been “more so than anyone else?” From where I sit, it seems that you decided early in the semester who I am based upon our limited interactions in class. I also am curious about what you mean when you say “what [I’m] doing here.”
Tonight made me really sad. I know that I am disliked by more than a few people in Houman’s class, which is really frustrating because that course is the place I feel least “myself” this year. This is extremely juvenile to say, but it’s not fair. I do, however, desperately want to figure out what I’m doing that invites the treatment that I have received. So maybe eradication is not the right word, but if I can understand what exactly is happening I can at least choose.
I truly do hope that this is not “lastly.” I understand that no one person holds the answers here, but I reached out to you on the 4/14h [sic] because our first interaction (our very brief conversation about humility) was really thought provoking for me. I still think I can learn from you, even though the frustration is clearly mutual. I want to let go of that frustration and I approached it in a really, really weird way.
I mean this- I am not being facetious or sarcastic:
* * *
April 18, 2018
Brittany, I was being sincere when I wrote “perhaps when [finals] are over.” I would be happy to get together in May if you’re still here.
What I found when I really started diving into my shortcomings – a word I use reluctantly, but then, any better word would have to be at once both far less daunting [to me] and far more – was that no one could tell me what they were or talk me to a place where insights about changing them arose spontaneously, much less actionably.
That is, the answers – not a one – were “out there.”
The biggest transformation in my process came when I treated differently the kinds of things I thought my shortcomings could and would tell me about myself. It gave me much more room to breathe. Which then, of course, became room to change.
See you [in class on] Wednesday, Joe
* * *
6. Compassion begets moral subtlety begets compassion.
What if there is no saving humanity because this is who we are? Have I been acting all along the part of the determined partner who thinks he can change the person he’s dating?
There is too much at stake, goes the implicit rejoinder, not to try. We can leave our partners but not humanity. We do terrible things to each other, and we should make each other stop. And so: “Learn to change the world!” implores the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The moral primacy of this slogan is only legible when embracing the world is viewed as the only alternative. It is not.
We should make each other stop. But we can’t. So first let’s accept, which is not to say embrace, the world as it is. And then let’s see how we can help the people in it refrain from their worst and habituate their best. This framework makes antagonists redeemable, and finds protagonists rife with antagonist tics. There are fewer clear lines than we thought.
In its lack of a fierce and totalizing conviction, this kind of moral subtlety might strike some as moral numbness, a denial of the stakes. I would not agree with them. It is true that the latter can disguise itself as the former, but its incapacity for outrage and grief always gives it away.
“If all turmoil were told, how could anyone endure tranquility?” wrote the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, and he is right that the extent of suffering in the world should induce, in each of us, a panic. That panic, however, must yield, not to tranquility but to whatever brings us back to a state of seeing ourselves seeing, and to the moral subtlety that lets us choose an intervention. An appropriate statement.
Panic cannot do that. Only compassion can. It is the chicken to moral subtlety’s egg. There is no causal order. Only infinite regress. Because compassion is a necessary precursor to effective interventions that accommodate the complexity and humanity of all parties, but then is generated in that process anew.
I can identify in the email exchanges interspersed above, between a colleague in Power and Pedagogy and me, the places where this regress stops running – which, when it happens, instantly takes the air out of my compassion and moral subtlety alike – and where I lose recourse to these five actions I have set forth.
My responses to her cohere, they all seem to flow from a unified theory of what is happening and what can happen next, but I’m not sure I know what that theory is or how to describe it, except as I have tried with this final reflection. The trouble is that this final reflection, a partial treatise on how I wish to encounter others, feels like a brochure from which the uglier details are excluded. Only the presence of the emails recovers them.
I probably could have met Brittany in person and trod more lightly with my intuition about her motives, so as not to put her on the defensive. But I didn’t want to. Which makes me wonder if my laziness ruined the opportunity.
This is not the same as wondering if it ruined the moment. The moment was always going to be ruined. It could only have been pleasant if her agenda prevailed and I didn’t care that much. But I cared. And so I chose an intervention. A set of statements that felt appropriate.
Appropriate statements ruin a lot of moments. This is not in the brochure.
And it brings me back, at the end of this class and this final reflection, to Freire, who I imagine has been widely misinterpreted. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed rests on the principle of trusting the learner. But in the contemporary west this doesn’t mean much more than trusting her to excel, to rise into herself in one fluid motion.
Some educators grant that it also means trusting her to fail, but apart from the basic formulary logic that she will try and fail and try and fail until she tries and succeeds (itself such an oversimplification that it lies), what are the actual behaviors we are trusting, the versions of her that will emerge during this sequence? Can we trust her to hate us, or herself, for a time? When is that time over, and who decides?
I know only that love must bear the message, when her process gets too loud for any other messages to be heard. (Brittany and I, despite clearly wanting to break the Frankenstein arm-lock at several points, each use the word “love” once, sincerely. I can’t speak to her reasons. For my part, I sensed her process getting loud.)
And love, anyway, is already operating in the background. It is what allows us to trust that she can probably tolerate a louder process still.
But it is not, despite what the songs say, all we need.