Thanks so much for engaging my thoughts and struggles regarding the process of learning. Your articulations about what it means to be a lifelong learner, which you raised so well in your last letter, beautifully describe what I have always admired about you. You keep learning every day—every hour, really—of your life journey, and it shows in the way you approach topics with creativity, flexibility, and a vast array of knowledge. You have well thought out positions, but you are not rigid—you always seem so willing to engage another’s unique thought process. You embody your own excellent advice to “think critically, question constantly, learn continuously, and see connections.”
You’ve been such a support all year as I have transitioned into my experience at Yale, being there every step of the way as I have immersed myself in the academic life while simultaneously questioning the academic life. As you know, at one level, I’ve found the production of knowledge inside the academy to be simply gorgeous; but at another level, it often comes freighted with serious problems: namely, a mind/body split that effects self-care, and an elitism enmeshed with racist/classist/sexist structures.
As I build on your thoughts in your last letter, and contribute my own thoughts on ways to improve higher education, first, I want to reiterate how much of a blessing it has been to be in school this past year. My critiques of higher education are not so much about Yale, but rather about deeply ingrained western values that are part of the air we breath in the academy. I’ve been incredibly blessed by my classes and my professors here—I just think that in all that I am learning, especially some of the principles within feminist theory, I am being invited to think in news ways about how education could look different as we press into a new century.
A New School
In terms of thinking through pedagogy, you had asked if I have read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Yes! I love this book. My copy is well-worn. He’s the one that first stimulated me to think pedagogically when I read his book several years ago. I just reread him this semester as I’ve wrestled through feminist theology and Letty Russell’s use of his ideas. Through Freire and other writers, I have come to believe (rather passionately!) that there are Copernican-sized revolutions that we are on the verge of as a society that will require different approaches to learning.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to have dialogued at length with my good friend Nick Vu about the meaning of education. Nick is a longtime friend from Seattle and a former full-time teacher. Now, his main job is working for Intellectual Ventures, a company in Seattle with funding from Bill Gates that attempts to invent all kinds of amazing things, like lasers that kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes (click here to see their Ted talk on malaria). Check out their website to see more about their range of projects.
Nick and I both care a great deal about learning, and we have had a series of stimulating conversations about a hypothetical school we would like to start one day. Imagining creating a school has been a good exercise of the imagination for me. As my phone conversations with Nick have intersected my classroom learning, I have come up with the following working principles that seem important to me about the process of learning. They seem to connect with ideas you raised in your last letter.
Recognize that Intersectionality Requires Interdisciplinarity
As your link about Bolivian activists and coal mining showed so well, the pressing issues that need to be solved in our world are intersectional issues. (I recently blogged on this idea for Sojourners.) Complex issues will require people who are not just trained in one specialty, but also people who can draw connections across various disciplines. There are problems waiting to be solved that need the combined skill sets of a historian, a poet, a theologian, and an environmental scientist.
Of course, there will always be something invaluable to being highly specialized in one subject matter, but often specialists are not trained in the art of collaboration. We need people who are trained in collaboration—who can connect the dots among various ideas. But connecting the dots is difficult, especially because each discipline has such different—and ingrained— ideas of what constitutes knowledge in the first place.
For example, while taking classes in feminist philosophy of religion, African American poetry, and U.S. religious history this semester, I realized how each field has its own assumed values system and epistemology. The ways of knowing utilized in each discipline are not necessarily named up front, but they are part of the machinery running the methodology. Because of the different approaches to knowledge I was experiencing, I felt a kind of culture shock as I went to classes everyday. I had to give myself little reminders as I walked into each class. For instance, if I was in a class that used a lot of feminist theory, I knew I could talk about my own social location in my work. If I was in a class that was all about being “objective,” I knew I would have to push knowledge of subjectivity to the margins and draw on other ways of looking at data.
Being amongst various departments, I experienced why it could potentially be so difficult for specialists in different disciplines to work alongside one another. First, one has to be multilingual among the epistemologies, terms, assumptions, and archives. Therefore, someone trained in connecting the dots might not be “the” expert in quite the same way as another specialist. Instead, expertise would be found more in one’s ability to ask questions, collaborate, and synthesize subsets of knowledge.
Regain the Practice of Being a Beginner
Which leads me to one of the most important aspects of interdisciplinary work: it fosters the practice of being a beginner. If I were to hypothetically devise curriculum for an experimental school, I would place a great deal of value on the art of practicing being a beginner.
In my friend Nick Vu’s lab, he works with a diversity of leading experts in their field who are working together on major projects; the experts love teaching one another about their respective lines of work. It is assumed that they have to ask questions all the time. This lab seems to be a good example of specialists who are not afraid to be beginners everyday.
Within the academy, though, I suspect that it is harder to ask questions and reveal oneself as a beginner. It is easier to stay in the comfort of our own field, so that we don’t have to admit what we don’t know. Specializing grants the feeling of security and confidence. Working between disciplines means we must be brave enough to ask questions and patient enough to embrace interdependency and collaboration.
View Relationality as Being as Important as Rationality
Collaborating well across the disciplines thus also requires a kind interpersonal agility, a skill which is connected to self-knowledge. If we don’t know ourselves well, we won’t have an awareness of our patterns of relating to the other. Knowledge of interpersonal styles of relating, though, does not seem to be a primary point of concern in many forms of higher education. The emphasis on rationality in the western, intellectual traditional often leaves behind the skills of relationality.
Before my current program, I came from a small school in Seattle that trained students to be therapists, and thus it placed primary value on inter-personal and intra-personal knowledge. My professors were psychoanalysts and therapists, and they asked their students to delve into the unconscious self and figure out what was there and why it was there. We did intense work understanding our own families of origin and personal narratives, and we received a great deal of feedback on how other people experienced us while in relationship with us. While the program lacked academic rigor in the traditional sense, it demanded a kind of inter-personal and intra-personal rigor that was invaluable.
While I love the rigor that is applied to critical thinking at Yale, I am left envisioning what Yale would be like if that same kind of rigor were applied to self- and inter-personal knowledge. For instance, in my U.S. religious history class, one of my professors shared with us that it took him quite a while in his career to realize that he hadn’t picked his research “objectively.” His research came out of deeply rooted questions based on very personal life experience. Yet, in his graduate training, he had not been encouraged to see the connections between his “objective” research and his own life story. This discussion in class came at the very end of the semester, and it was a relief to me. I had often felt as if historians maintained a pretense of objectivity. It was nice to finally hear that we can actually do better research if we are self-reflective in the process. Knowing ourselves better will also translate to being better collaborators.
Place Value on Self-Reflection, Self-care, and Play
Finally, I see it as a significant problem that the schedule of a typical academic life leaves little space for self-reflection, simply because students and professors are usually rushing from one deadline to the next. I can count on one hand the Friday nights this year that I’ve spent not in my books. There is always more reading and writing to do. It is so difficult to take a Sabbath—to spend a day journaling, or an afternoon having a tea-party, or a lingering Saturday with no agenda.
I remember your telling me once, Letha, that maybe I should take a break from my writing and go to one of my favorite vintage stores and just try on hats for fun. (I love hats!) You suggested that in giving myself time to play, I would be fostering space in my life to reflect creatively and potentially synthesize ideas in new ways. I think that in giving ourselves spaces to rest and play, we also allow time for self-reflection that is actually critical to our academic work.
Letha, these are all just beginning thoughts on the principles that I want to inform both my learning and my pedagogical approaches. These ideas are nascent, and seem always to be growing and changing in my mind. But your previous letter stimulated my thinking and encouraged me to share.
I can’t believe I get to see you this week at the EEWC conference! I look forward to continuing these conversations in person. I also look forward to participating with you and Erin Lane in our intergenerational feminist panel on Friday night.