Pedagogy Q: Teaching In-Between
A Statement of Teaching Philosophy
I have been most inspired by those teachers who have had the courage to transgress those boundaries that would confine each pupil to a rote, assemble-line approach to learning.
- bell hooks, “Engaged Pedagogy”
In the fall of 2007, while I was an undergraduate student, acclaimed journalist Thomas Friedman delivered the tenth anniversary address at the University of Mississippi Honors College convocation. A few weeks later, following his speaking tour at colleges like Ole Miss and Auburn, Friedman published an op-ed column in The New York Times entitled “Generation Q,” a term he coined for my generation. According to him, we are “Quiet Americans,” nobly and “quietly pursuing [our] idealism, at home and abroad.” Yet, Friedman feared that “Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good.” For Friedman, our idealism needed to be matched by a form of radical activism that was not digitally located, powerful only in the finger’s click of a mouse. We needed both a “jolt of idealism” and a sense of “outrage” that would pull us out from behind our computer screens and into the frontlines: “Virtual politics is just that – virtual.” Friedman concluded:
Maybe that’s why what impressed me most on my brief college swing was actually a statue — the life-size statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Meredith was the first African-American to be admitted to Ole Miss in 1962. The Meredith bronze is posed as if he is striding toward a tall limestone archway, re-enacting his fateful step onto the then-segregated campus — defying a violent, angry mob and protected by the National Guard.
Above the archway, carved into the stone, is the word ‘Courage.’ That is what real activism looks like. There is no substitute.
I begin with Friedman’s column because in many ways it perfectly encapsulates what both my teaching philosophy and practice work to trouble: what Susan Cain calls the quintessential American “extrovert ideal,” the idea that quietness or even silence is ineffective and undesirable in a society that privileges participation in the form of speech. The extrovert ideal is the “omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight” (Cain 4). Far from meeting the extrovert ideal, the quiet American (and therefore the quiet student) fails to meet the expectations of an active, courageous, and purportedly engaged participant.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Cain describes research that “suggests that the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert” (6). Numerous times in my academic career I have witnessed such preference. Realizing that “our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race [or sexuality or religion or family…]” and that “the single most important aspect of personality—the ‘north and south of temperament,’ as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum,” I believe we must work to attune ourselves to who our students actually are (2). We must allow for the spectrum of student personalities and not only the problematic poles of “north” and “south.” Idealistically, we need to trouble the notion of the “ideal,” extroverted student.
This overall philosophy has many sources. First, many of the scholars of pedagogy that I admire—such as the “engaged pedagogy” of bell hooks, the critical pedagogy of Henry Giroux and others, and the more recent “contemplative pedagogy” of scholars like Arthur Zajonc, who in a recent special issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning deemed the practice of contemplative pedagogy a “quiet revolution in higher education”— posit a pedagogical practice that challenges such reductive dichotomies of “quiet/introvert” and “talkative/extrovert” that ultimately privileges one (usually the latter) over the other. This queer amalgam of influences—an engaged-critical-contemplative pedagogy—forms what I call my “pedagogy Q,” which finds pedagogical practice located somewhere in the hyphenated theoretical space between engaged-critical-contemplative. Pedagogy Q in practice works to valorize the quiet student as much as the loquacious one in an environment of mutual respect and cooperative learning.
My philosophy also stems from my research interests and my teaching. As a scholar of Southern-Caribbean literatures and the Global South, I operate under the assumption that nothing is as bounded as we think. Whether it’s my course “Southern Currents,” which asks students to think about the South as a historically porous geographic site with an endless ebb-and-flow of influences, or other proposed courses, such as my American Literature survey and “Texture and Text: Literature, the Quilt, and the AIDS Years” developed in consideration of an increasing lack of course offerings in queer theory and AIDS literature, I consistently ask students not to think in terms of black and white, “north and south,” gay and straight, male and female, but along spectrums where there are no absolutes, no definitive poles, no boundaries to what can be known or thought. I hope my endlessly evolving course practices follow the recommendations offered by Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren in Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies, where “pedagogical practices” should be “engaged in creating a new language, rupturing disciplinary boundaries... and rewriting… institutional and discursive borderlands” (Giroux ix).
My philosophy is also rooted in experience. Having taught in a variety of settings—from summer camps to private preparatory academies to ESL summer courses to the classrooms of The University of Mississippi and Emory University—I can attest that though there may be noticeable patterns, no student is like any other. As a teacher, the goal should not be to hold every student to the same strict standard that produces the “assembly-line” learning bell hooks mentions (13). The goal should be to meet students where they are and, more importantly, as who they are so that learning can occur. A brief practical example of Pedagogy Q: during consultation, two students working on a 5-minute visual presentation of the characters, plot, and themes in Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh” expressed concerns. One of the students was extremely shy and preferred not to talk before the class. Instead of forcing the student to talk (and potentially losing the student’s own form of engagement with the material), we collectively found a solution; the students worked on a digital whiteboard presentation that allowed each student to narrate and simply press play once in the classroom. More importantly, we were able to discuss how the students’ communication concerns echoed some of the central issues faced by the main characters in “Shiloh.”
As scholars of writing and literature, we are both accustomed to the solitary, quiet hours spent reading a text and the often lonely writing process. We are also aware of the challenges many of us face in both unplugging from all of the various distractions that drive our world today and attuning our minds to the deep concentration, sustained close reading, and often prolonged process that is reading (and re-reading) literature in order to form both oral and written critical analyses and interpretations. As teachers, when we privilege the loquacious student over the quiet one, we inevitably privilege a behavior that forms only half of what we do as professional literary readers and critical thinkers. Our students echo this when they practice rehearsed readings (via Wikipedia or Spark Notes) in class discussions and offer cursory interpretive analysis in their written work. Instead of worrying over the terror of silence (the problem of the quiet students) and implicitly praising the willing talker, my Pedagogy Q works to bridge the gap between the two so that the poles of what is expected may recede and the pleasure and joy of literary study may emerge. For such boundless pleasure, there is no substitute. That is the privilege of teaching.
Pedagogy Q is neither Pedagogy A nor Pedagogy Z; it lies somewhere in-between. It takes voices big and small, loud and quiet, and all decibels along the boundless spectrum. It may be an idealistic pedagogy, but it takes conscious action and boundless courage. Courage. What moved Thomas Friedman most on his college tour was not a speaking man but a silent statue: a symbol of the courage of a man who made quiet steps against a loud, violent mob.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop
Talking. New York: Broadway Books, 2013.
Friedman, Thomas L. “Generation Q.” The New York Times, October 10,
Giroux, Henry and Peter McLaren, eds. Between Borders: Pedagogy
and the Politics of Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1994.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of
Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative Pedagogy: A Quiet Revolution in Higher
Education.” New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 2013.134: 83-94.
 Thomas L. Friedman, “Generation Q,” The New York Times, (October 10, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/opinion/10friedman.html?_r=1&.