Fragments of the Full Self: Reflections on Digital Pedagogy Lab
As I sit down to write a reflection of Digital Pedagogy Lab 2019 (DPL) I wonder how I can possibly write about sitting in radical community, a community that genuinely centered the voices of students and women of color, that fed my hope and imagination (and sometimes my cynicism), and offered me the chance to share actual, physical spaces with people who were – for long periods of time – words on a screen, faces on a web call, and voices on the other end of the line.
It’s important to know that DPL is not an academic conference in any traditional sense. As DPL’s director, Sean Morris, described it on Day 1, the week is more of a “gathering.” Sean, the instructors, and others structured the week, but it was up to those of us participating to shape it. Critical pedagogy is not just discussed at DPL; it is continuously enacted. Participants range from faculty on the tenure track, contingent faculty, librarians, independent scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, instructional and educational designers, and administrators. Badges include only participants’ names, underscoring the value of the individual to be more than their institution and their institutional role.
So while I initially expected I’d sit down and explain how you might design an inclusive art history class, I discovered I don’t want to. I want to talk about something else.
My reflections here are inspired by Robin DeRosa’s keynote at DPL, where she spoke frankly about the ways in which we value (or don’t value) labor and community in higher education. She gave us two threads of conversation and allowed us to draw our own connections and conclusions. Similarly, I am more interested in how this reflection is read and received than in how it was intended.
I have to start somewhere, and I want to start with one note I wrote on the first day of our Inclusive Design track:
In case you can’t read that, I am asking, “Why am I not queer when I teach?” a question that became a focal point for my experience at DPL. I started to wonder how I arrived in a place where my classroom didn’t even include me, and if I wasn’t including myself, could my classroom – or the courses I work with others to design – be inclusive? Of course, the short answer is yes, because my classroom isn’t about me.
In progressive pedagogy circles, we spend a whole lot of time talking about bringing our full selves into our classrooms; sometimes that’s a dangerous idea, not only because of a psychic or physical danger, but because bringing your whole self doesn’t mean your students will do the same (or want to.) To paraphrase Jess Mitchell of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University, bringing your full self can be a bad message because people who hear this are the people who least need it. When was the idea of having a full self – let along bringing it to the classroom – a legitimate concern for members of dominant groups? The only people we think need to have, or develop, full selves are marginalized peoples; others get to have many selves, and the opportunity to express themselves differently depending on context.
And this idea of the full self connects to something that Ruha Benjamin said during her DPL keynote: that we need to “acknowledge that most people are forced to live in someone else’s imagination.” Is the entire concept of the full self an idea that lives in someone else’s imagination? And by forcing it on ourselves, our students, our colleagues, are we asking them, and us, to live on the underside of progressive pedagogy’s imagination, the side that compels homogeneity while claiming to fight it? How much room is there for parts of our students, our colleagues, and us, if there is only room for an imagined full self?
We talked a lot about imagination and radical reimagining throughout the week, prompted by Benjamin’s question, “How do we increase our capacity for imagination?” and her suggestions that we name and seed what we want to grow. And we did. We planted seeds. We imagined inclusive classrooms. We talked about how to manifest our ideas. But, if racism is – as Benjamin argues – innovative, if it produces rather than just denies or contains, how can we imagine our ways out of the world we have produced? Because, as Robin DeRosa, stated we all had to go home to our local contexts, with the hope and generosity embodied at DPL in the forefront of our minds. A lot of times implementing the ideas we generated just isn’t going to happen. We have to live in a balance of imagination and reality, and, really, either one can make me cry at any given moment.*
Despite the fact that I don’t want to end this reflection neatly, I can’t help it. Still, I want my everyday practice of the ideas here to remain productively messy. I cannot operationalize the practice of inclusive design and inclusive teaching in my local context, nor do I think I want to. I can plant the seeds. I can remember that, as my colleague Toni Wall Jaudon said, “The classroom is a real world. Don’t screw it up by letting anyone make it something else.” All the time we, and our students, spend in classrooms adds up to a lot of real worlds, and I’d like to make mine count.
*Aaron Adams, one of my colleagues in the Inclusive Design track, made the connection to the movement for prison abolition, which is another post in and of itself. Suffice to say, we can free people by paying their bail through bail funds and fighting to end cash bail and enacting restorative justice and fighting to end incarceration. None of this is a zero-sum game.