As a researcher and educator, teaching has always been one of my passions. The research I do has little meaning if it cannot engage meaningful dialogues about who we are and who we hope to become. As an African Jamaican woman living within a marginalized context of black cultures in Canada, my research has long ceased to be a mere academic exercise. It is also intensely personal and has demanded an interrogation of gender and race in which I am implicated out of necessity.
While that insertion of self has helped to animate my teaching, it also makes it extremely difficult because I constantly have to be aware of that mediating and interrupting personal I/eye. For many students coming to African Diaspora Studies, their learning is also a personal journey. They are seeking answers to questions that have historically been silenced or ignored within North American high school systems—questions that are difficult and painful to articulate, questions about self and being and belonging. For many of these students in Toronto my courses are the first chances they have to critically engage discussions about black history and cultures in the African diaspora. For the first time their concerns are not marginalized and their voices are valid. Again, while that is an important liberating experience for students, it is also a difficult process because it can lead to pain, anger, frustration and intolerance.
It is intolerance and not pain that most inhibits learning. Pain and anger can lead to critical inquiry and self-criticism. Intolerance silences and closes off the avenues of communication. I have had, then, to be acutely sensitive to the power dynamics operating within the classroom and critical of my own self-positioning. Liberating strategies are of no value if they empower one set of speakers only to silence another. If my presence in the classroom as a black woman empowers black female students but silences male and non-black students, then learning cannot take place. The classroom has to be a democratic space where everyone’s presence is equally valued, where opinions, however, tentative can be encouraged to grow. With this in mind, I consciously work towards the creation of a learning space where students can articulate alternative perspectives, where each voice can be mutually respected, and where we can accept both the important points at which we meet and the necessary junctures at which our experiences diverge.
To create this kind of dynamic learning space it has been necessary to shift and challenge teaching and learning norms. I strongly believe that as an educator, I am equally involved in the process of learning and my students are equally involved in the process of teaching. My voice, then, is not a voice of uncontested power. Rather than representing ultimate authority, my task is to open up spaces for critical dialogue. It is when students understand that we are all participants that they can be really liberated to learn.
I am deeply committed, therefore, not only to a feminist pedagogy but to an anti-oppressive pedagogy that recognizes difference within and across communities and is sensitive to the multiple performances of race, gender, color, class and sexuality operating within the specific boundaries of the university as well as within wider North American societies. I believe that my most valuable role as an educator lies in my ability and willingness to facilitate all of my students’ learning. I have to help students problematize the issues beyond the immediate parameters of their personal experiences and help them understand that there are never any easy answers—force them to question and rework many of their own assumptions. Students have to be encouraged to move beyond themselves to make the wider connections. I have to help them, therefore, develop informed perspectives, which take into account multiple points of view but are also coherent and defensible.
Teaching is a difficult task, if only because in my own learning I often have to face “truths” I would rather not acknowledge. Teaching is also enormously rewarding. I believe, like bell hooks, in the efficacy of an “engaged pedagogy.” The research, the texts, the discussions in the classroom, all have meaning way beyond the context of the university and the academic requirements of an undergraduate degree. The expectations and needs are multiple and varied, and I have to accept that they cannot all be met. I do not have many answers, but I can facilitate the processes of interchange; I can open up the dialogue and help students push the boundaries and break down some of the barriers.