Learning outcomes and choosing less harm

Like many people who were #capal15leftbehind, I followed with great interest what people were tweeting at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) conference recently. During Henry Giroux’s talk, I kept seeing tweets about outcomes assessment, and the tone of the tweets seemed negative. It’s hard to get the full context of anything in 140 characters, so I honestly didn’t get what was going on or what Giroux was saying. I tweeted: “And what’s so bad about outcomes anyway? Why is it bad to state what we hope students will learn? #capal15 #capal15leftbehind

People tweeted all kinds of things in response. My friend and collaborator and fellow lesbian-feelings-sharer Emily said: “I think it’s joining outcomes to accountability and power that makes outcomes regimes dangerous.” I totally get this. It makes sense. I think learning outcomes can be used as a weapon: “Here’s what we think you should be learning, and god help you if you don’t get it at exactly the right timetable we’ve prescribed and DEAR GOD if you don’t graduate in precisely four years you’re really fucked.” In the context of individual classroom sessions, or in a program, or for general education purposes, learning outcomes can be wielded to homogenize, to police conformity to hegemonic understandings of what it means to be “educated,” and in this current climate—especially at public institutions like where I work—“educated” is basically a euphemism for “employable” or “future workforce fodder.”

I’ve argued in a bunch of different places that the marginal status of academic librarians, while exhausting and frustrating, can actually be an advantage in cases like this. I know it’s not true for everyone, but in my situation, my institution has defined information literacy as a general education student learning outcome. Students fulfill this outcome by taking a First Year Seminar, which has an embedded library session component. So this makes them instantly “information literate” (whatever that means), right? Well, no, of course not. But the bottom line is that my program has its own internal outcomes, outcomes we are currently revising in light of the Framework. (As I wrote a few weeks ago, I see the Framework as an invitation to rethink what I do and how I do it, and not a mandate to change, and certainly not incontrovertible ex cathedra wisdom engraved on stone tablets handed down from on high.) And since these outcomes are internal, as long as they mostly match up to the very broad, vague institutional definition, I can pretty much do what I want, within reason. This means that I can be creative and critical with learning outcomes and pretty much no one really cares or tells me I can’t. If I want to incorporate ideas about information power and privilege alongside teaching students how to think through an information problem or research need, I can and will do that. While developing activities that invite learners to evaluate information sources, I can also ask questions that invite students to think about who and what are made visible and invisible in information/research environments, and why they think that is.

Ultimately, I think it is irresponsible to not have specific learning goals for a library instruction session. You need to have outcomes and then guide the session accordingly. But if you aren’t required to use pasteurized cheese food product learning outcomes, for heaven’s sake don’t do it. If you can find a way to flatten the teaching/learning hierarchy in a way that puts learners in the driving seat, do it. If you can figure out a way of consciousness-raising about cultures of power and how they influence who gets to say what and about whom—and who gets paid to have the loudest voices—then do it.

If you’re wondering what this post has to do with this burnout blog, it’s this: I get really incandescently mad about unearned power and privilege and how they are deployed to marginalize people. Finding ways of combating and resisting that power and privilege through the library instruction classroom and reference desk makes me feel alive and purposeful. Feeling alive and purposeful gives me reason to hope and therefore resist burnout. The paradox is that critical approaches like the ones I describe are more taxing and draining than traditional modes of teaching, and this can contribute to burnout. But I really honestly cannot live with myself as a person and a professional if my politics do not inform my work.

So I guess I’d rather do what I know and believe to be right, which is ultimately more soul-feeding, rather than reinforce and support the dominant culture through my teaching practice, a culture that actively wants to erase people like me, which is obviously soul-killing. There are no perfect choices, only ones that do less harm. I’m choosing less harm.

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Resisting burnout through the spiritual dimensions of feminist pedagogy

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to wrap my mind around this past semester. My campus has a master’s of interdisciplinary studies program, and I taught a course about feminist pedagogy in this program this spring. The class consisted of seven graduate students and two undergraduate students, since the class was cross-listed with the undergraduate honors program. There was something about teaching a course about feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogical methods that was simultaneously exhausting, to such a degree that it’s taken me awhile to be able to talk about it coherently and without wanting to cry, but at the same time incredibly enriching. Teaching this class opened a door to a way of teaching that embraced the affective dimension of teaching rather than shying away from it or resisting it, and it also provided access to a spiritual aspect of teaching that was unexpected, but still profoundly meaningful.

I think I wrote in my book (I say I think, because writing the book happened a long time ago and my memory is fuzzy) about how sometimes I feel like I have to obscure the feminist approaches to my teaching because I’m afraid of how people will react or respond. So to have the freedom to be unabashedly and justifiably explicit about my politics, and how they inform my teaching, was very exciting and liberating. To witness the power of feminist pedagogy each week, to see students’ perspectives—and even their lives!—transform each week—I don’t even know how to describe how moving and powerful this was for me. It was humbling. For example, I watched one of my students struggle to integrate her conservative Christian worldview with feminism all semester, and at the end of the semester, she wrote a paper that examined biblical passages to argue that Jesus was a feminist teacher. Another student experienced the death of her sister during the semester, and she shared with me that she employed feminist pedagogical methods to help her and her family plan the memorial service. Other students reported integrating feminist pedagogy into their work lives, into their relationships and personal lives, and it was a sincere and genuine privilege to witness their journeys throughout the semester.

I’m reminded of this concept from Celtic spirituality called the thin place or thin space, and it describes the place or space where you can sense and experience the divine more closely than you can anywhere else. This is my own definition of it, and if you Google around, you’ll read all kinds of perspectives on it, but this is the basic concept. I think that the term is meant to describe literal places, according to my understanding, but for me, teaching this course on feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogy was a kind of thin place, where my breath was regularly taken away by a feeling of proximity to something much, much bigger than I, where reading final papers was a spiritual experience, and assigning grades to them felt like blasphemy. The papers still sit in a pile on the bed in my study, because I feel terrible about recycling or shredding or otherwise disposing of them.

I’d like to describe myself as a pragmatic Roman Catholic-turned-Episcopalian who is mostly anti-New Agey or woo woo or whatever. But it is a true fact that I am wordlessly and ineffably drawn to Marian iconography, that I have a Virgen de Guadalupe candle on the desk in my study, that I have the Rublev Trinity icon hanging above my desk, as well as various things I’ve cut out from my church bulletin. But I don’t know how else to express it, except to say that I’m reminded of when I was an undergraduate in college, and one of my psychology professors was conducting research on I don’t even remember what, and we, his students, were regularly asked to fill out surveys about various things. I remember one of the questions, which I think was rated on a Likert scale, was something like, “I feel chills when I see beautiful works of art or read good poetry” or something along those lines. I rated this as a Strongly Agree, and I recall thinking to myself: “Wait, so there are people who don’t feel this way? What’s wrong with them?” I bring this up to try to draw a parallel, to try to explain that this particular teaching experience provoked similar feelings that are difficult to explain: this sense of being unaccountably moved, altered, transformed, just as I am by Psalm 4 or Richard Proulx’s Exodus Canticle.

I think feminist pedagogy can be a deeply healing experience for a teacher. For me, feminist pedagogy, whether in a semester-long course, or in a library instruction one-shot, is more taxing than more traditional modes of teaching. It takes a lot out of me, but the rewards are so rich and soul-feeding that it is worth it to me. And, for me, embracing feminist pedagogy is a way out of the soul-killing dehumanization that is burnout. Feminist pedagogy insists on and honors the humanity of both the teacher and the learner. These feelings are echoed in the work of one of my students, Katie, who gave me permission to use her name and quote from her paper. Katie’s paper argues that feminist pedagogy is a sacred experience, and she notes, “When the personal is no longer considered a valid area of sharing and exploring, both the teacher and student lose much of their personhood.” I believe this to be very, very true, and for me, resisting burnout in the library instruction classroom and beyond means embracing the difficult and demanding but gratifying and soul-feeding work of teaching through a feminist lens. This means being fully present as a teacher, as a person and participant with thoughts and feelings and perspectives and filters and baggage.

On the last day of class, I asked my students to tell a story, using words, images, or both, about their experience with feminist pedagogy. I provided them with sheets of paper and a box of crayons and played soothing instrumental music, and I participated in the activity as well. My image is below, and here is what it means: for me, teaching this class was a way of accessing and being my whole self, and the hole in my self, my soul, that was caused by burnout and depression and all sorts of things was healed and transformed and made new. And as I continue to progress on this journey that is teaching, I need to remember to continually draw upon—and simultaneously feed—my whole self, my whole soul, in order to seek renewal, healing, and joy.

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