Steve Volk (GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning and Oberlin College), December 11, 2019 (a version appeared in “After Class” on December 30, 2018)

Semesters can feel like ocean journeys. Sometimes the seas are choppy, sometimes calm. Sometimes you’re relaxing on an ocean liner, sometimes pulling the oars of a rowboat. And when land is once again in sight, it often feels that it’s you, teeth gripping a tow-rope, hauling the ship into port. I was reading something the other day, I can’t even remember what, that called attention to the way we talk about what it is we do as faculty. When asked about our “load,” we understand the question to be: “How many courses do you have to teach each semester?” When asked if we’ve had a chance to get to our “work,” we know we’re being queried about our research, writing, or other creative production. Outsiders could ask why we have developed that vocabulary to talk about teaching, but we know the answers, so I won’t bore you with them.

Wellcome Library, London. “A large mule carrying a heavy load,” Etching by J. E. Ridinger. CC.

Teaching, of course, is far more than a “load,” the equivalent of an 80-pound pack that we hump up endless hills, and the end of the semester is always a good time to remind ourselves what it is we do, most days, during the semester. Teaching, as Maxine Greene once put it, is possibility. My wife, a professor of early childhood education, turned me on to Greene some time ago, amazed that I was ignorant of her writing. As much a force of nature as a human being, Greene, who died in 2014 at the age of 96, taught for nearly 50 years at Teachers College (Columbia University). TC proudly claimed her as their “Philosopher Queen,” and a rightful heir to John Dewey.

In a 1978 essay, Greene observed that too many people in modern society feel dominated and powerless. But rather than become pessimistic,  she suggested that “such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.” She called this sense, “Wide-Awakedness.

So this is my end-of-2019, thank-goodness-it’s-over, bring-on-the-new-decade post, a few words designed, hopefully, to keep us wide awake, in Greene’s sense, as we pull into port after a semester on the open waters of teaching and learning.

Maxine Greene inaugurated the Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice in 1997 with an article titled, “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times.” She opened the piece with a quote from Hannah Arendt (Men in Dark Times), who observed that even in the darkest times, we still “have the right to expect some illumination,” although it will likely come less from theory “than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under all circumstances…” (p. ix). Greene described those dark times (times that now seem darker than ever) as follows:

I view our times as shadowed by violations and erosions taking place around us: the harm being done to children; the eating away of social support systems; the ‘savage inequalities’ in our schools; the spread of violence; the intergroup hatreds; the power of media; the undermining of arts in the lives of the young.

We could, of course, add to the list. But she also observed that she “thinks of the ‘light that some men and women will kindle under almost all circumstances,’ and that makes me ponder (and sometimes wonder at) the work that is and might be done by teachers at this problematic moment in our history.” To reference what we do in this fashion is to talk of teaching as possibility, not “load.”

Teaching, for Greene, meant imagining “not what is necessarily probable or predictable, but what may be conceived as possible.” And she continued,

All of those who have parented children or taught the young may resonate to this on some level, particularly when they recall the diverse, often unexpected shapes of children’s growing and becoming. Many may find a truth in Emily Dickinson’s saying that ‘The Possible’s slow fuse is lit/ By the Imagination.’ Imagination, after all, allows people to think of things as if they could be otherwise; it is the capacity that allows a looking through the windows of the actual towards alternative realities.

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello,

All fine and good, Greene would add, but poetry and possibility can’t do their “persuasive work” in “what strikes many of us as a backward leaning, inhumane tendency in our society today…Yes, there are distinctive moments made possible by the poetic imagination; but the social and ethical imagination is concerned for using ideas and aspirations to reorganize the environment or the lived situation.”

This is what Paulo Freire meant when he wrote that “Imagination and conjecture about a different world than the one of oppression are as necessary to the praxis of historical ‘subjects’ (agents in the process of transforming reality) as it necessarily belongs to human toil that the worker or artisan first have in his or her head a design a ‘conjecture,’ of what he or she is about to make.” For Freire, Greene notes, a democratic education “required enabling ordinary people to develop their own language, derived from their readings of their own social realities, their own namings, their own anticipations of a better state of things.”

If the only things we are teaching are technical efficiency, abstract skills, or knowledge without context, even if we pride ourselves at having met “world-class standards,” we will not be teaching as we should. “Teachers,” Greene reminds us, “may well be among the few in a position to kindle the light that might illuminate the spaces of discourse and events in which young newcomers have some day to find their ways.”

Maxine Greene, Art Museum Teaching

…Teachers concerned about illumination and possibility — she continued — know well that there is some profound sense in which a curriculum in the making is very much a part of a community in the making…The common world we are trying to create may be thought of as a fabric of interpretations of many texts, many images, many sounds…In a classroom, this would mean acknowledgment of and recognition of the different biographical histories that affect the shaping of perspectives. More than in previous times, teachers are asked to confront and honor the differences even as they work for a free and responsible acceptance of the norms marking whatever community is in the making: concrete responsibility for one another; respect for the rights of others; solidarity; regard for reflective habits of thought. At once, there are the ways of thinking and seeing that enable various young persons to decode and interpret what is made available: the ability to distinguish among the discourses in use, to have regard for evidence and experience, to be critically conscious of what is read and heard, to construct meanings in the diverse domains of their lives.

In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (Routledge 2003), bell hooks warns that “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy. Progressive education, education as the practice of freedom, enables us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connection. It teaches us how to create community.”

Greene concluded similarly: “…teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times… is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world. At once, it is a matter of enabling them to remain in touch with dread and desire, with the smell of lilacs and the taste of a peach. The light may be uncertain and flickering; but teachers in their lives and works have the remarkable capacity to make it shine in all sorts of corners and, perhaps, to move newcomers to join with others and transform.”

How we do this, how we transform “load” to “possibility” is a question we face in every semester and every class. It is about community, hope, democracy, empowerment, illumination. It is about affirming, with Walt Whitman, that “By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” It is about, as Toni Morrison wrote of the child Claudia in The Bluest Eye, asking our students what they want to feel, not what they want to possess.

Jane Tompkins, in her memoir, A Life in School (Addison-Wesley, 1996), reminds us, ultimately, that it is about what we share with our students: “What I would like to see emerge in this country,” she writes, “is a more holistic way of conceiving education – by which I mean a way of teaching and learning that is not just task-oriented but always looking over its shoulder at everything that is going on around. Such a method would never fail to take into account that students and teachers have bodies that are mortal, hearts that can be broken, spirits that need to be fed.”

Skip to toolbar