|A Pedagogy of Incompleteness|
Tina Pippin, Agnes Scott College
Tina Pippin is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She teaches courses in bible and culture, ethics, women’s studies, human rights, and most recently, English as a Second Language. She was part of the Bible and Culture Collective’s The Postmodern Bible (1995), and is the author of Apocalyptic Bodies: The Biblical End of the World in Text and Image (1999) and the forthcoming Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommy Dearest: Mother/Daughter, Mother/Son Relationships in the Bible (coedited with Cheryl Kirk-Duggan). Pippin is the current chair of the AAR Teaching and Learning Committee.
If Miles Horton is correct that “we make the road by walking,” where have I been traveling since 2000? How many new paths have I decided to walk; how many of the old paths have I retread? Who have been my travel companions? And where has that journey, and those conversations along the way, taken me? Who have been my teachers, who and what have informed my teaching, and what have I learned, relearned, failed to learn, lost in the deepest recesses of my pedagogical memory? Some things stick over the years — bits of theory and practice — while other pieces get lost on shelves or in files. Every week a new idea comes floating my way from some overheard conversation, or a bibliographical reference, or an intentional search. I want to revisit what really mattered to me ten years ago and my evolution and struggle to evolve as a teacher. I want to reflect at midcareer about risk taking, about venturing into the unknown pedagogical terrains, and about reimagining the classroom and the “department.” Paulo Freire observes: “If you don’t command your fear, you no longer risk. And if you don’t risk, you don’t create anything. Without risking, for me, there is no possibility to exist” (Shor and Freire, 61). I am always in a political moment in my classroom, in those really risky places where it is difficult to retain an honorable classroom space (Kwok Pui Lan’s term). I seem to be on the verge of either really messing up (by shutting down conversation) or creating spaces for new meaning-making (individual and communal). The journey of teaching takes me back around to these risky and politically charged moments and to my own need to continue to learn about teaching.
When anyone asks me what I teach, I usually reply, “religion and culture, women’s studies, and human rights.” These three areas or disciplines are interrelated for me and concretely emerged in the form of a new major in our religious studies department, “Religion and Social Justice,” in 2000. Through engagement with local community partners, my students and I are able to experience the theories we study in the classroom. There is a human rights framework to our social justice major, and an abundance of human rights issues in our nation, state, city, and campus. Ira Shor and Paulo Freire say that “the context for transformation is not only the classroom but extends outside of it” (33). I teach in multiple contexts and the best moments for me are when the theories and practices of the classroom invade the outside community and vice versa. Maxine Greene believes “that teaching involves a creation of situations — learning situations — in which people are moved to release and ask their own questions, then move beyond and think in terms of the unexplored, of what is possible and not just what’s predictable” (Hatton, 61). I am finding out that the spaces and places of learning provide essential opportunities for liberatory education. The most transformative moments for me are in the intersections, when the conversations of community partners and their justice issues connect with the lived experiences of my students and me. These crossroads can be unpredictable, chaotic, disturbing, enlightening, humbling. As an educator, these are the spaces in which I best continue my education — as I listen to the insights and differing opinions and struggle to determine what “justice” means for both the outside instigators and my students.
What informs my teaching? I am including a “short list” of books and resources I most draw upon in the bibliography at the end of this article. I am an activist educator. What this means is that I strive for justice both in and outside the classroom. I am committed to working toward a liberatory, democratic classroom, one in which we respect each other and are all engaged in taking risks in the learning process. This liberatory process requires of my students and me open minds and hearts, a responsibility to question and reflect. We are both teachers and students in this learning process, even though we have different roles. I believe the questions are most often more important than the answers. As a postmodernist I do not believe in capital “T” Truth, but rather in truths, plural, and that we each hold important truths. So I see no single right way to read a biblical text or determine a theological or ethical issue. I resist the “banking method” of education in which the expert professor holds all the Truth and dispenses it at will to passive students, opening their heads and pouring it in so it can then be returned, with interest, on tests.
I believe in the unity of mind/body and that we don’t learn from the “neck up.” I believe in embodied learning, and this sometimes requires that we get out of our seats and move in the classroom. I draw from the mundane, the mainstream, the radical educational theories and practices. My commitment is to popular education models of teaching and to the theater of the oppressed in problem-solving and delving deeper into the issues.
I am happiest in my classes when I am able to focus on experiential learning, a way of learning based on experiencing different spaces, voices, and hands-on issues. For example, in my first-year seminar, “The Bible and Human Rights in Atlanta,” my students and I are travelers in the land of Atlanta, encountering and engaging with the marginal and marginalized issues that face our city and culture. From this lens we look at our state, the nation, and the world. And we engage texts and traditions that speak in a variety of ways to these issues. The teen moms in our co-womentoring group, STRONG Sistas (now in its thirteenth year), make the connections between the segregated school system and their own future possibilities in an exercise about personal introspection and empowerment (see Pollack). And the English as Second Language classes we began offering to staff two years ago discover ways to converse with an immigration lawyer in a communally written play for a Forum Theater exercise (see Boal). These are boundary-crossing moments for me that shake the core of my everyday classroom teaching and remind me that teaching is about building relationships — and, from there, a more just society.
My teachers have been my students and colleagues, especially the Wabash Center, but also the folk school movements, labor movements, and any movement for positive social transformation in society. The starting point for these movements is the knowledge and situation of the people who are oppressed, victimized, underrepresented, or marginalized. These community-based models of education make their main focus problem-solving and social change. They are all about creating a more just society. These movements struggle(d) with racism, classism, sexism, gender oppression, and all the rest. They show us how the work is done over what Miles Horton has termed “the long haul”; that is, they start with the “is” and move toward the “ought to be” (Jacobs, 144). Popular education models for teaching for change are the biggest influence on my teaching. Freire is cited as the founder of the theory and practice of popular education, which can be defined simply as follows: “popular education is political education for everyday people. Simply put, popular education is people coming together to discuss problems of injustice and inequality, and learning how to confront these problems collectively” (Project South, Vol. I, 3; see Burke, et al., 8). Popular education is embodied, challenging, and most of all relational. Whether I am teaching a course in human rights or biblical studies or ethics or feminisms, I have found that pop ed theory and models help create a framework of mutual accountability and transparency by engaging all in the room in the learning process. I glean from community groups such as Project South, United for a Fair Economy, INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, the Highlander Center, and many others, and also K–12 educational materials, especially Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. I continue to engage this work not only in the classroom but in our department work with our student leadership group (Safe Agnes Scott Sisters, or SASS). SASS is helping us imagine what a liberatory department structure would look like and over the past six or more years has been integral to our departmental community (see Pippin, et al.).
Where are my growing edges? What are my fears? Wherein lies the crankiness of my hard-edged opinions and boxed-up insights? How do I continue to own and push the boundaries of my own limitations as a teacher? Again, Greene offers insights: “Old as I am, I still feel unfinished. . . . You are in a world of incompleteness, and you are always reaching beyond where you are — the way you are helping young people reach beyond where they are. And that’s the greatest gift you can get, it seems to me” (Hatton, 64). I am slowly learning to celebrate this incompleteness, that I never have a course completely “down” and that there are always cracks and crevices for the new to emerge, even in the harder, humbling times.
This incompleteness is greatest when I have spent years thinking I know something and then find out that I really didn’t know much at all. My most recent education occurred right after graduation this year, when I organized an alternative “community day” to work on campus with a friend of mine, Della Spurley, who has worked as a custodian at the college for almost forty-four years. I was able to get another friend of ours who chairs the English Department to join us in a morning of pulling trash and recycling from the dorm that Della works in. Della was one of the founders of the union for facilities staff on campus, and has been the historian, wise woman, and persistent, creative force for our campus living wage campaign. I have known Della for twenty years. I have also heard for years that the Monday after graduation in May was the hardest workday of the year. I thought I knew all this until I started pulling trash bags. All the teaching and reading I’d done in economic justice, all the times I’ve heard Della speak in my classes and at our living wage meetings and rallies, and all the popular education workshops I’d attended, even my own background of working in tobacco fields when I was younger — all this added up to incomplete knowledge. My faculty colleague and I were stunned by the experience; just a morning of pulling trash turned out to be one of my most important educational experiences. I learned the human cost of our campus “recyclemania” and of the enormity and impossibility of the job when staff is cut and furloughs are mandated. And I learned that I didn’t have such good humor and easy spirit as Della did about leaky bags and clueless students. I deepened my knowledge about economic (in)justice and about the effects of poverty wages and the undervaluing of (women’s) work (at a Christian-founded women’s college). How will this experience affect my teaching next semester? How can I better provide the spaces and experiences for this kind of knowledge and conversations about these issues to be a possibility? And in what ways can this knowing lead to transformative action and move from the individual to the systemic? Perhaps this is the top agenda item for the next half of my teaching life.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Translated by Adrian Jackson. London/New York: Routledge, 1992.
Burke, Bev, et al. Education for Changing Unions. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Hatton, Sara Day, and Maxine Greene. “‘I’m Pursuing Something I Haven’t Caught Yet’” in Teaching by Heart: The Foxfire Interviews. New York: Teachers College Press, 2005: 59–65.
Jacobs, Dale, ed. The Miles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.
Marino, Dian. Wild Garden: Art, Education, and the Culture of Resistance. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1997.
Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. 10th ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007.
Pollack, Stanley, and Mary Fusoni. Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Innovative Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action. Boston, MA: The Center for Teen Empowerment, 2005.
Project South. Popular Education for Movement Building: A Project South Resource Guide. Vols. I and II. Atlanta, GA: Project South, 1998 and 2001. www.projectsouth.org.
Rethinking Schools, www.rethinkingschools.org.
Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. New York: Bergin and Garvey, 1987.