"How Far Down the Rabbit Hole are We Gonna Go?"
This was a question asked of me by an earnest young White man at the beginning of the semester one year. This subject matter is difficult to teach and difficult to learn. It is very provocative. It provokes strong feelings and strong ideas and opinions from just about everyone. When beginning this journey, students need to know that they will be expected to look at themselves, not just at the “other”.
Students often say that they are exhausted after this class. Or, alternately exhausted and exhilarated. Particularly for white students, this class evokes feelings of shame, danger, and at times betrayal. They feel betrayed by their schooling, their teachers and often by society itself.
This topic is impossible to teach in one class, thus, we need to do the best that we can with what is available to us at the present time. I have taught this content in one class and have addressed the content over two classes. The information is so vast that it can seem overwhelming both to students and to faculty.
A process-oriented structure contained within a “pedagogy of community” (bell hooks) carries the content to students in a way that they can engage and feel heard and respected. Because we are dealing with information that has largely been at best, ignored and often overtly suppressed, students are frequently shocked by the facts: apartied, internment, boarding schools, operation wetback, all terms that are new to the majority of students enrolled in graduate programs of psychology today.
It is essential that within the classroom community of respect and mutuality, the instructor is a full participant. I have often had to be willing to admit my mistakes and breaches of relationship while teaching. In one class, while discussing Barbara Eherenrech’s Nickled and Dimed, a book about the working poor in the United States, I asked students to talk about the emotional impact of the book on them. As the discussion continued, there were a number of students that commented on how the author was just “playing at being poor” which felt disrespectful. Wondering out loud about what was safe about attacking the credibility of the author, I was attempting to steer them to seeing that they were distancing themselves from the painful impact of the reading. Because all of them were white and a number were men, I assumed that they were falling in to the usual traps and pitfalls in an attempt to protect themselves.
As the conversation continued, I sensed a shutting down in the corner of the room and asked myself what I might have had to do with that. What became clear was that I had asked them for their experience and then did not listen or affirm their experience so that I could not hear their stories. What emerged as I revealed this process to them and apologized for my part in it, was a beautiful opening and strengthening of the relationships in the room. Two of the young white men explained that they grew up, one in the deep south the other in the lower midwest, in severe poverty, to the point of living in the family car for periods of time. As their stories unfolded, they were able to speak of feeling like “imposters” in the graduate setting, and often experiencing that they did not completely get what was happening because of growing up with a different set of class values and assumptions than the vast majority of their graduate peers.
The point here is that it was my stopping and examining my role in the break down and then coming back to the relationships that provided the safety for these young men to reveal their vulnerabilities. It also provided an example of reaching across culture and staying in relationship even when it was painful. This type of self-reflection and self exposure is integral to maintaining the type of setting where this learning can occur. Teachers need to be willing to go to the places that they expect their students to traverse.