On Being Iconoclastic

I experience varying degrees of dissonance with the literature as it relates to pedagogical approaches in the teaching of reading and writing. This dissonance stems from my enthusiastic embrace of approaches that seek to treat students as individuals with diverse knowledge, backgrounds, experiences, skills, interests, and goals; however, these same approaches often advocate an oppositional stance on the part of students that seems to coincide more with the goals of individuals within academe, than with the goals of individual students. We want to empower students, and yet theoretical debates about how to approach the relationships between knowledge and power risk further disenfranchising students when we fail to account for students’ goals.

Mickey Rooney famously assailed the state of our civilization by attacking the plastic cows that, at the time, passed for art. His argument was that only people that had become a master of one’s craft could lay claim to their work as “art”. He illustrated his argument by showing several works by Picasso. This painting is fairly representative of Picasso:

This is probably not what you think of when you imagine a work by Picasso:

But they are in fact both works by Picasso. And the crux of Rooney’s argument is that in order to establish his authority to call the former art, Picasso first had to learn how to paint the latter.

Now before you skip to the comments and accuse me of perpetuating the prevailing power structure, I won’t go so far as to agree with Rooney. I do however argue that in learning how to create the torso in the second picture, Picasso actually became capable of creating the iconoclastic work that he produced later in his career. I believe the same is true of my students, particularly because of their status as English language learners. Many of them have only ever been exposed to the banking model of education and asking them to situate themselves critically within academic discourse as they are learning English within a student-centered classroom is akin to asking them to bake an apple pie by showing them a picture of the final product.

The closest thing to a discussion of these difficulties I have found so far is in Farida and Honeyford’s chapter, “Academic Literacy,” in Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research. On page 43, they quote several people on both sides of the question of critical pedagogy. One side says essentially that a critical approach in itself privileges a culturally-specific pedagogy and excludes all others. The proponents of critical pedagogy decry the acceptance of the notion that by acquiring prevailing discourse practices, a student will inevitably acquire power.

There are clearly two ideas at work here, one in which students are initiated into a discourse through the use of its accepted conventions; and the second in which students are asked to question the relationships of power inherent in the institutions to which we all belong. I agree with them both, and that brings me back to the dissonance I experience when reading the literature. I am in no way arguing against the use of critical pedagogy in the classroom. In fact, I think it is the only viable road to the higher order thinking that we, and other teachers, will continue to ask from students as they progress through their academic careers.

So I’ve admitted to being an “access” sympathizer, a teacher that wants to help students feel comfortable in the academic discourse communities that they aspire to join. I also want to empower them to identify, navigate and when necessary change or dismantle the power structures in which they find themselves. But I always want to do what will help my students achieve their goals. I know too that students sometimes need help to reevaluate their goals, but I don’t think its appropriate to impose a critical pedagogy that fails to address their language needs. I think the people best situated to effect change within an institution are those that can get inside of it. And to that end, I don’t see access and critical pedagogies as mutually exclusive. Indeed, one supports the other.

True iconoclasts aren’t outsiders, Paolo Freire was a member of the academic discourse community that continues to evaluate, interpret, reevaluate and reinterpret his work. I don’t think it’s too much to ask our students to balance their increasing fluency in academic discourse with a healthy suspicion of its underlying structures. Why is it that they are always discussed as an either/or proposition? And most importantly, why is it that the goals of students are nearly always absent from the conversation?

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4 responses to “On Being Iconoclastic

  1. I really appreciated your post, as I’ve also been uncomfortable at times with “liberatory” aims in the critical literacy field that in truth seem more like indoctrination. Students have the right to their opinions, even if they are contrary to politically correct doctrine. In fact, the very term political correctness comes from intolerant, leftist academic discourse. I personally feel that students should be offered the tools of critical analysis as well as the freedom to disagree.

  2. Bravo, Josh. I agree with everything you said. I especially love your comparison of asking students to situate themselves in the academic discourse community when they have never done so before, to asking them to bake an apple pie by looking at the final product. Brilliant. It seems like many of these theories fit neatly into situations of learning by native speakers who come from a certain type of background. With ESL students, the situation gets much more complicated…. Thanks for your insight!

  3. I’ve always noticed that sharp chasm between the “converting the natives” (Shaughnessy) approach and the idea, however vague, of “meeting students where they” are in order to familiarize them with academic discourse. (What does that really mean? Can we really meet all of our students “where they are?” At some point, by necessity, we are tailoring our instruction to a general audience.) It does seem as if, today, many teachers are combining the two approaches in an attempt to promote the lesser evil. But no one can escape the fact that we, students and teachers alike, have willingly, wittingly placed ourselves in the context of an institution! And however dearly we wish to change the system, by inviting students to use their background knowledge and experience as lenses from which to view this new discourse community, with its unfamiliar structures and expectations (namely, that students are asked to think critically while being “indoctrinated,”), we are teaching students to be critical of academic power structures and, at the SAME time, come to terms with this notion of dominance and its appropriation. It is quite the conundrum! I still haven’t quite reconciled it for myself. Thanks for bringing this up.

  4. I, personally, like to think of the definition of the word “art” as the ability of an individual to achieve a desired outcome. That is what we need to teach students- how to identify what their goals is and to achieve it. John Lennon was never going to be able to play the guitar as well as Eric Clapton, and had he spent all his time trying to then he wouldn’t have had any room left over to write “Imagine.” Too much emphasis is often placed on the technical skill applied, and not on reaching the desired effect.

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