On Feeling and Knowing: Radical Conversations about Teaching and Learning
August 15, 2021
Even within a historical moment when diversity in higher education is being spoken about with unprecedented frequency, certain core assumptions and traditional norms continue to govern our understanding of what constitutes deep learning. Classrooms are to be safe spaces, we’re told. Yet educators working within complex realms, where the tensions and discomforts of human experience offer no safe havens, know that deep learning often elicits strong feelings.
In a brave effort to move us beyond our attachments to making classrooms comfortable, Dr. Tara Mayer created On Feeling and Knowing, a series of seven recorded conversations with seasoned educators like Dr. Jasmine Harris, Dr. Annette Henry (2021 Wall Scholar) and Dr. Ross Gay – all working at the creative frontiers of their disciplines.
Funded by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, the series will launch on the PWIAS website in September 2021. On Feeling and Knowing will serve as a point of departure for anyone – accomplished educators and graduate students alike – seeking to expand and grow their teaching practice.
The initial idea for the series was conceived during Dr. Mayer’s time as a 2019 Wall Scholar. While connecting with her diverse cohort, she came to realize that, no matter how disparate their fields of research, they all shared a vibrant and time-intensive role as educators. She became interested in how the conversations they were having as scholars might inform not just their research, but also their understandings and practices of teaching.
Dr. Mayer has always been skeptical of the immense schism we’ve constructed between research and teaching. She points to the common experience of introducing conclusions drawn from archival research or the field into the classroom, where student discussions and insights offer us fertile re-evaluations or new perspectives on our own work.
“Their questions and insights really force us in beautiful ways to reevaluate our own perceptions and assumptions,” she says. “It’s less about striving to secure for teaching the same status and prestige we give to research, as it is about recognizing how these scholarly spheres very obviously inform one another. They exist in constant conversation.”
Dr. Mayer began to think about her own teaching practise as a scholar of race and gender in colonial South Asian history, a field which explores episodes of incredible violence and human tragedy as well as resilience and continuity. Bringing these complex, multi-dimensional histories into the classroom can be a powerful, transformational, yet deeply unsettling experience for students.
Her goal is to engage with these difficult histories in ways that help students feel invested, at times even personally implicated, in the narratives. “These are not just artifacts of the past,” she argues. “These are stories of human experience that continue to shape present day landscapes and realities”
Yet that deep investment is often accompanied by corresponding emotions, which can put an instructor in a challenging position. “When you teach about a topic that is difficult, it brings up strong feelings,” she says. “The question becomes, what does one, as an educator, do with the emotional experiences of students in our classrooms? How do you engage with students who feel shocked, guilty, embarrassed, upset, angry, or grief-stricken?”
“Likewise” she adds “how do you harness feelings of wonder, generosity, compassion, and inspiration when those arise?”
Rather than talk past or sideline strong emotions, when they arise in the classroom, Dr. Mayer has come to see them as part of the learning experience. “There’s this idea that has traditionally existed, that if you feel too much, then you can’t know accurately,” she explains. “What if our emotions could be a pathway to deeper, more expansive ways of knowing? What if our empathy could actually be a catalyst for curiosity or connection?”
To further explore this idea, she reached out to seasoned scholars whose own lived and embodied experiences actively inform their research and teaching practices, to speak with them about their pedagogy. The resulting conversations are intimate, candid, and wide ranging, often touching on the realities of teaching fraught material in complex times.
In one interview, Dr. Jasmine Harris an Associate Professor and Director of African-American Studies in the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio, whose research focusses on the impacts of racism and racial inequality, talks about how she chose to speak from personal experience in classroom conversations around the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against police brutality after the murder of Michael Brown.
“We could have had this very high level abstract conversation about race in America,” she explains. “That, frankly, isn’t useful for students’ learning because it perpetuates what they’ve already learned about race in the United States as white students, which is to avoid conflict and to talk about it as removed as an individual from it as possible.”
Instead, Dr. Harris chose to speak honestly as a Black woman about her own family’s experiences with policing. She sees this personal connection not as an incidental detail within her research or teaching practice, but as a core asset in that it can help her students connect with these urgent conversations more deeply than theory alone might allow. “Race doesn’t happen in the United States that way,” she explains. “It’s a scary, harmful, traumatic emotional institution, and I think it needs to be taught in that way as well.”
In another interview, Dr. Annette Henry, who holds the David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education at UBC and is a 2021 Wall Scholar, speaks of her experiences in the academy and how student bias can undermine authority in ways that create professional barriers for Black women scholars. “What happens out in society happens in the classroom,” says Dr. Henry. “There are people who just cannot fathom a Black woman being in the front of the classroom.”
In some cases, the interviews challenge the very foundational assumptions of university pedagogy. Poet and essayist Ross Gay, who teaches at Indiana University, talks about challenging the workshop model of creative writing classes and the magic that can happen when eschewing the pressure of grades altogether. Without traditional assessment, “your objective is not to do it right or do it the best,” he explains. “It is really to get lost and find something. It’s really to experiment and to practice.”
Dr. Mayer’s goal in this body of research is to help build an openness and musculature around emotional expression that will prepare educators to support each other and their students through difficult conversations. “What we’re saying, many of us as educators, is that deep, transformative learning doesn’t always feel good,” she says. “It sometimes feels really difficult, or it feels really painful, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.” She adds “Very often there’s deeper knowledge beyond and behind all these emotional experiences, knowledge of oneself and the world that our students cannot access without educators offering them spaces to move through discomfort and uncertainty.”
One powerful lesson she learned in all these conversations is that she’s not alone in this work. “These seasoned educators, experts in their field, decorated with teaching awards and accolades, are still figuring it out every single time they step into a classroom,” she says. “They don’t know that it’s all going to work out, and that’s okay. Not all experiments need to have a determined outcome. We don’t always know what’s going to happen in our classrooms. That sense of not knowing in very experienced educators is really inspiring to me.”
Dr. Mayer insists that the classroom is a place where everyone should feel they have something profound at stake, including instructors, and where we’re interrelated through our care for one another.