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Notes on Teaching Self-Consciousness

Pedagogical-talk appears reluctant to think out the connection between better teaching and 'better' students.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #1, September 1992

Talk about pedagogy tends to center either on how we teach or who we teach. We are urged either to reconceptualize our authority in the classroom or recognize the increasing diversity of the students we teach. This is good advice. Too often, however, it is not made clear how we teach affects who we teach. In other words, pedagogical-talk appears reluctant to think out the connection between better teaching and 'better' students. How does our teaching improve our students' ability to manage their often radically fractured identities? Assuming that we do help our students learn to better manage themselves, does it necessarily follow that they will gravitate towards political positions like our own? Formulating good answers to these questions requires a closer look at the relation between teaching and self-consciousness.

It is very difficult to find even a liberal teacher, much less a leftist, who does not think it a noble aim to make students more conscious of their relation to the world. Again and again teachers say they want to make their students more 'aware,' often as a justification for 'alternative' teaching methods. All too often, however, teachers fail to push their own pedagogical self-consciousness any further. However 'radical' the teacher's own politics, she or he assumes that it is enough to expose students to alternatives, that to implement a more coherent pedagogical strategy would be to indulge in indoctrination. To proponents of a truly radical pedagogy, however, it is immediately apparent that making students aware of alternatives is not enough, that there is an enormous difference between 'awareness' and true self-consciousness. It is possible to be 'aware' of the presence of strange, new, 'unamerican' vegetables (often large tubers) in Safeway's produce department without being conscious of their cultural significance: that there are Americans originally from lands where those vegetables are eaten who have opted to earn first-world wages;that the 'New Class' of baby-boomer professionals prides itself on being able to digest as many foreign items as it can, and so on. In other words, it is one thing to know that there are 'alternatives': any shopper deals with them on a regular basis, usually without thinking much at all. It is quite another to perceive the relationship between oneself and the social worlds that self is constructed by. 'Awareness' is only the first easy step toward self-consciousness; realizing that there are many more is crucial to radical pedagogy.

The first thing to realize is that the sort of self-consciousness we aim to teach picks up where the self-consciousness of the socially uncomfortable, alienated individual leaves off. Our task is to help individuals map their relation to the social worlds around them, to comprehend the connection between 'personal' problems and social ones, to realize the complex ways in which they are connected to both people like themselves and those radically different from them. We will often encounter students, especially from the dominant classes, who are largely unconscious of their race, class, gender and sexuality. It is particularly important to teach these students the specific determinants of their societal positioning. We must make them understand, for example, both the concept of class, and the fact that they stem from a specific class themselves. In summary, then, we aim to teach them a self-consciousness that reflects on the inter-relatedness of individual and group, part and whole--a relational self-consciousness.

This returns us to the difference between 'awareness' and self-consciousness. A student can be aware on an informational level of the existence of different races, classes, and forms of sexuality without perceiving any relation between them and her or his own identity; radical pedagogy steps in to make the connection. This is not easy. Initially, many students will react in either an overtly or covertly hostile manner to our teaching. Others may appear magically transformed one minute, only to revert back to their old attitudes in the next. Furthermore, even once students have become reasonably self-conscious, there is no guarantee that they will act in accordance with their new relational self-mapping. On the contrary, it is probable that they will not do so at first.

It is easier to understand this problem if we think in terms of ideological 'habits'. This might seem an odd notion at first, but if we think about it, we realize that the basic function of ideology is to ensure that individuals act 'habitually', i.e.. automatically, without conscious thought. In psychoanalytic terms, ideology constitutes a sort of 'repetition-complex' that dooms us to perform the same destructive acts over and over without end, unconsciously. If we are likely to be unconscious of our strange 'personal' habits, we are even more likely to be unconscious of our ideological ones. Before we can break them, we have to have them pointed out for us. But even once we realize what they are, it is a struggle to retrain ourselves to act differently. It takes time. Our first task as teachers is to always bear this in mind, for the worst thing we can do is assume that our pedagogy will transform students overnight. Becoming impatient with a student caught up in the struggle to break ideological habits is unlikely to accelerate her or his progress and may well retard it.

Our second task as teachers is to always remind ourselves that the breaking of old ideological habits does not necessarily entail the formation of new ones. Indeed, how many of our own teachers and peers have made it painfully clear to us that they are conscious of what they should not do, but have no idea what should be done? Initially, then, we cannot expect much better of our students. When our students start to become more self-conscious, they may well be able to break most of their old ideological habits, only to succumb to this sort of despairing paralysis that prevents them from forming new ways of actively engaging with the world. We will surely be able to recall similarly paralytic experiences. It is paramount that we both share these experiences with our students and offer them encouragement by telling how we worked or are working through them. It will be difficult to keep our students from backsliding into their old ideological habits while they are in the throes of this 'paralysis of self-consciousness'; we as teachers need to avoid becoming discouraged by recognizing in these throes the birth of something revolutionary.

Bearing all this in mind, how do we teach relational self-consciousness? Obviously there is more than one way to go about it. We can, however, sketch out some general guidelines. Teaching relational self-consciousness means drawing attention to the institutional framework in which that teaching takes place, including the grading process. It means drawing attention to the various privileges (racial, economic, gender-based, institutional--the list goes on and on) that have helped bring particular students and a particular teacher into a particular classroom. It means reminding students and ourselves that many of the people who work at the university are neither students nor teachers, that the institution does not run itself, but must be maintained. It means picking course materials that deliberately cut across generic and disciplinary boundaries, so that it is easier for students to perceive cultural texts in relation to each other. It also means giving students the opportunity to consider the work they are doing in other classes valid background material for our own. Above all, it means encouraging students to think and write critically about their own societal positioning and the way it relates to their coursework. Of course, many of us already do some or all of these things. Nonetheless, it helps to perceive them as part of a long-term pedagogical project in which we are patiently helping students to break old ideological habits and begin fashioning new ones.

Returning to the questions we raised at the beginning, we have an answer for our first question, a partial one for our second. We help our students manage their identities by making them relationally self-conscious, that is, conscious of their specific positioning in terms of race, class, gender and sexuality. In so doing we also make them realize just how contingent that positioning is on a network of seemingly unrelated phenomena. Certainly it would be possible for a student to repress these insights, although at a heavy psychological price. Far more often however, we are likely to find our students overwhelmed by them, caught in a paralysis of self-consciousness. It is important that we don't give up on them, however long they refuse to actively engage with the world, for our teaching's commitment to revolutionary change should ultimately make them gravitate to political positions like our own: it just might take awhile.

Copyright © Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.