We all have origin stories. Here’s one of mine:
I am 22 and about to finish my Bachelor’s degree. At this point, I’ve been an improv instructor for three years. I’ve taught people of all ages and have long considered the power dynamics and spaces of vulnerability that improv games interrogate. My university has a bi-annual in-house professional development institute called the Institute for Student Success. I inquire about applying. I am told that as a student, I do not meet the qualifications to lead a workshop because of what people expect professionally. I laugh at the irony that a conference labeled “Student Success” doesn’t include student presenters. I casually mention it to a professor I am TAing for. She says we and another professor should apply. I write the proposal. We apply. We get in. The day comes and they say, “This is Eve’s rodeo. We’re just here to spectate and participate.” We play games. I convince 20 professors and staff members to play some games, shake it out, play wooshbong, and make representations of semicolons with our bodies. (Outside, mind you, because we were asked to move for being too loud.) We end with a discussion on the application of games in different class sizes and disciplines and what to do with the decentering of authority activities like games bring to the space. I am told the workshop was well received. An administrator I meet at the social following the institute tells me I should continue on to grad school, but that I should find a funded program. She plants the seed in my head that I can get a full ride. I get two letters of recommendation from those professors. I apply to Michigan State. I get accepted. I move to Lansing, Michigan to attend Michigan State University (MSU) as a Master’s student in Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures (WRAC).
I open this post with an origin story from my path to graduate school to 1) model a way to reflect on our positioning and 2) to suggest that reflection is an important tool in considering our place and our work as educators. I want to engage in what Paulo Freire called praxis, or “reflection and action,” (51) understanding that both are needed for effective pedagogy. A belief in praxis accepts that we are both instructors and learners; we have much to learn from our students. Engaging in reflection is an important part of figuring out how to align your goals, with your teaching, with your research, and your place in your institution. In this post, I will continue to reflect on my personal positioning to offer a model for reflection and I will do this by meditating on my positionality on three levels: the personal, the classroom, and the institutional.
If I interrogate the origin story I composed for you in the opening, I can see traces of my identities and how I ended up here. I have long been interested in pedagogy and the circulation of knowledge in learning spaces through my experiences running an improv team. I can see a way of using power I seek to emulate as an instructor: trusting the expertise of students and finding ways to funnel resources back to students, as the two professors in my story did. I still benefit from their trust and am grateful for their model of student mentorship. I also see my experience as a first-generation student and the things I could not have known. It really was that day that someone first put the notion in my head that I could get a full ride. This story was cited in two of my letters of recommendation to grad school. Imagine if I had never been able to present? I would definitely be somewhere else.
I carry many stories with me. Many ideas about what I am doing and what my purpose is here. As an educator, I seek to reflect on these notions of teaching, and more specifically, how power plays into these stories. For example, in the stories of education I’ve inherited from my parents, there is great deference for teachers. Growing up, I was taught that to teach in Mexico is considered a noble public service. Paralleling those stories of nobleness, my mom and dad can also recant stories of corporal punishment in schools and the strictness of their teachers (a particular disciplinarian with fingers full of rings is one my father never forgot). Power sits at the center of these stories and I have carried that notion of power with me throughout my educational career. It affected me when I was a student and when I entered my first university classroom. As an individual, I have to juggle my notions of power as I decide how to act in my role as an educator.
Some questions I ask myself:
What stories about teaching and learning do I come with and how to they affect my expectations of the present?
If I have authority in an educational space, what function does it serve and what do I do with it?
As an instructor, I am given a certain amount of authority to define what happens in the day-to-day. Part of reflecting on my position in the classroom space is thinking about what I bring to the space and what I expect the purpose of the space to be. Kathleen Blake Yancey’s three levels of curriculum offers us a useful way to consider this. She identifies three types of curriculum: the lived, delivered and experienced. The lived curriculum is what students already bring with them. The delivered is what an instructor brings to the classroom. The experienced curriculum is the curriculum as it occurs in the classroom (16-17).
What I find most useful in this model is that it highlights the multiplicities of experiences that inhabit our classroom. To imagine students as already bringing expertise and knowledge about the curriculum means I need to step back in assuming everyone is starting at the same place. In this model, I only have direct authority over the delivered curriculum, or what I bring to class prepared. I imagine the experienced curriculum exists somewhere between the lived and delivered, in real time, the day of class; all people participating have authority over the experienced.
As a TA who has just begun teaching first-year writing, being nervous about my delivered curriculum feels like a common struggle. As I was planning out our projects for this semester, I remember feeling stuck with what components to include. Do I ask them to present project 2? Do we watch a movie for project 3 or 4? Do we make multimodal projects? Reflecting on the process of constructing my delivered curriculum, I decided it was best to just ask my students. Like our syllabus, class expectations and our rubrics, negotiating components of projects seemed a worthwhile endeavor. Rather than guessing at what would be “good for them” or what they would enjoy, I asked. We negotiated and they agreed to the value of multimodal projects and presenting in class. This process was well worth it and now even my delivered curriculum is directly affected by their input.
Some questions I ask myself:
What can I do to promote the distribution of power more equitably, even if I can’t completely give it up?
How can I make my choices as an instructor transparent?
If a student is resisting, what does this moment of resistance reflect about the classroom and my curriculum, not necessarily about the student themselves?
Reflecting on your position on an institutional level means thinking about your place in the institution and how that affects the other two levels and your work. For the purposes of this post, I will reflect on the different institutional organizations that I am a part of. For me, most of my institutional commitments are in my department, this Inside Teaching Fellowship, being part of the Indigenous Graduate Student Collective (IGSC) and the Michigan Indigenous/Chicanx Community Alliance (MICCA), and my work in community engagement with my faculty adviser Dr. Estrella Torrez, the Writing Center and local middle schools (Nuestros Cuentos, Beyond Insights, PhotoVoice).
For my work as a community-engaged scholar, reflecting on my institutional positioning means thinking about my commitments and how I can work in spaces where I am 1) diverting institutional resources back to students to create culturally relevant spaces and 2) working to erode the problematic “local community” and “university” divide. Reflecting on my institutional commitment also means pushing back on institutional policies/ideologies that reinforce problematic university/local community divides in the organizations I am a part of and orienting my work towards community engagement. Through my involvement with IGSC and MICCA, I have been part of the collaborative creation of culturally-relevant spaces for my peers and myself. By working w/ Dr. Torrez and in Outreach the Writing Center, I have been part of bridging local community/university divides through working with local schools. One area where I know I am lacking is being able to implement a reciprocal community-engaged component in my classroom. Part of what limits me comes from my short time here at MSU (2 year program) and institutional support in doing this. Nevertheless, reflection can still aid me in considering how I would continue to push for such components in my class here next semester or at my next institution.
Some questions I ask myself:
What is my purpose in my institutional relations and what am I making from these relations?
If I have access or input on the division of resources, where are they going and what are they doing for whom?
How can I keep the local community in mind in the work I do?
Praxis is not always easy. It means a commitment to interrogating our actions, beliefs and parts of ourselves we may not always have easy access too. Praxis might mean you change your ideas and beliefs when you really dig down and think about them; it might mean you reinforce them more. Nevertheless, it is a process and one I advocate for because it has the ability to make us more thoughtful and more intentional instructors. I offer this three part model and reflection in the understanding that it is limited, but in the hopes that it can give you a place to start reflecting on your own stories, practices and personal relations.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, New York, 2000. Print
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice. National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, IL, 2004. Print.
Consider some of the reflection questions and share your responses with us in the comments below.
Everardo J. Cuevas is a second year M.A in the Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures (WRAC) program. Besides being a graduate student, Everardo is also an improv instructor, a community organizer and a lover of cats and hiking. His research interests include the rhetorics of urban renewal, games and play as pedagogy, assessment of online writing center platforms and power dynamics in the classroom.
- Many thanks to indigenous scholars and writers like Thomas King, Kathleen Absolon, and Malea Powell for guiding me on the importance and power of story and relationality.↩