“Every Step You Take:” Past Transforming Future
The Power of the Theoretical ‘Selfie,’ Pt. 2
April 2, 2014
“I wouldn’t take some of these courses if I were you,” my new education academic advisor warned me. When I first signed up for classes, I was determined to become an elementary teacher, encouraged down the path by my children’s first grade teacher who also happened to be the wife of the community college president. My advisor knew of my close relationship with her, and after a quick glance down my selected courses, she frowned, shot her eyes back up at me and quickly tried to steer me in a different direction. “You’ve chosen to take some of the harder classes we offer,” she countered, adding that I should perhaps start out a bit slower since I was a non-trad who had been out of school for a while.
I had signed up for a number of courses offered by “No-A-Conway,” including a Humanities class co-taught with the history chair, who was known for her dense, rigorous presentation of material. Their combined one page syllabus, rather than serving as a roadmap to the course, served as a roadmap to the world, traversing the history, philosophy, art and literature of humanity. Admittedly, the map led primarily through the steps trodden by the shapers of Western Civilization, only wandering eastward when European history transected the Silk Road.
The dreaded duo, as they were dubbed, served as guides along a path that opened us not just to Western Civilization, but wended its way back to our own experiences, explaining what the various symbols we encountered daily had meant in the past, which, in turn, shape our present. When we figuratively embarked upon the shores of Athens, for example, we learned that Nike’s swoosh mirrored Hellenistic sculptor Pythokritos’ Nike of Samothrace, symbolizing victory for athletes and soldiers throughout the ages.
By drawing out the way past influences our presence, this formidable pair of instructors addressed the pertinent question every student asks, “Why is the distant past relevant to me today,” even reminding the busy college athlete that each time they tighten their shoelaces, they are strapping on a piece of history which serves to carry them toward their next victory. Past symbol, even one derived from several millennia and a culture that has long since potentially slipped into obsolete history, becomes relevant to a student’s every day experience.
Self and History: Sense of Being
Acrylic on Canvas Panel
6 x 8"
Engaging students to approach material from their own level is crucial in transformative education. Cahan and Kocur (2010) notes that when “the focus is shifted to issues and ideas that students truly care about and that are relevant within a larger-life world context, [learning] becomes a vital means of reflecting on the nature of society and social existence” (p. 7). They add that when students “are encouraged to bring their own existing knowledge and experiences into the learning process,” education emerges as a truly democratic process (p. 9). By engaging students with the material to be learned through their every day experiences, they acquire a better understanding of the components that serve to shape their own lives, thereby lending a feeling of empowerment which in turn leads them to shape and transform the lives of others.
When students approach education from merely analytical evaluations, even if they are studying it from a place-based perspective, they are likely to look at it from what Behar identifies as “the voyeuristic eye,” the same process Diderot used to compile his encyclopedia for the colonialist-driven French Empire. The object studied, therefore, remains that: mere potentially obsolete object in the hands of an empirical collector. Behar notes that by contrast, autobiography in the form of personal narrative “has emerged, for better or for worse, as the key form of storytelling in our time” (p. 26). She establishes that by incorporating first-person narrative into analysis, “life history and life story” merge “as a key form of approaching and transforming reality” (p. 27). By noting the history of Nike’s symbol, student athletes were able to better understand how their own “life story” merged with “life history,” transforming the lesson into tangible reality.
What are some of the most effective ways of bringing learning into a tangible, transformative process? Dewhurst (2010) proposes that students employ a number of “activities ranging from one-on-one questioning and collaborative information-gathering projects, to more conventional research techniques such as interviewing, literature analyses, and basic statistics” (p. 12). By approaching each subject through these varying perspective, students will engage in “inquiry that will result in richer understandings of the various structural (i.e. cultural, political, economic, etc.) factors” that have shaped hegemonic systems defining place (p. 12). Dewhurst also notes that in a critical classroom, educators “encourage learners to direct their own projects” (p. 10). Educators must reach students on their own level, encouraging them to explore the subject in a way that is “meaningful and rooted in [their] own lives” (p. 11). Rather that striving to answer the question regarding the relevance of past in their present lives, educators need to strive to encourage students to explore avenues which enliven the past through their students’ daily experiences.
By incorporating personal narrative into place-based education, students project self into space that may have previously only been occupied, defined, or possessed through hegemonic interpretation. They create an informed, critical theoretical ‘selfie.’ The Nike shoe, for example, which has become iconic symbol of corporate America, steps beyond the materiality itself and becomes a living part of history in the making. Object and history combine to transformatively shape the athlete’s perception as well as performance on their own home court.
As students incorporate both a sense of self and place into their learning experience, students will step outside of the confining walls of the classroom to interact with place. They will not merely analyze an object from an encyclopedic, didactically cold perspective. Not only will they learn to apply key concepts regarding their subject, those introduced into the classroom for the primary purpose of producing an “Outcome” that leads toward matriculation into a four-year institution, they will interact with their community, discovering the hidden beliefs, cultures, and unrecorded intergenerational histories that have shaped their local spaces. Additionally, they will identify the normalizing societal factors that have directed the hegemonic concepts of place, understanding how they, in turn, may begin to shape the landscape, the space, and the community in which they live. A simple glance down to their shoe, for example, may serve to reinforce how even the simplest step they take on their daily path of life has been shaped by a rich, historic past, and how they, in turn, may begin shaping the future.