Archive for the ‘Critical Thinking’ Category

By Michael Bennett

One of the things radical teachers do is ask our students and ourselves to think about how issues, texts, “facts,” and artifacts are framed.  When we get fancy, we might ask how socio-political and cultural apparatuses deploy dominant discourses that provide ideological cover for inequitable power relations.  When we are less high falutin, we are asking what gets left out of the picture and why.

In this instance, I want to ask about a literal picture: the Academy Award-winning film The Artist.  After viewing the film, a friend and I had a heated discussion (as we often do; we argue passionately about any and everything).  She focused on the charming content of the film; I couldn’t let go of what seemed rather sinister messages lurking just outside the frame.  I’m curious to know what others think. I suspect the discussion could provide a useful teaching tool for thinking about issues of framing and ideology.


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By Bob Rosen

Watching with rising nausea the endless patriotic and militaristic boosterism surrounding the 9/11 memorials the other week, I thought ahead to later in the semester when, in my general education Introduction to Literature course, I’d be teaching a thematic section on war. One poem I’ve used often is “’next to of course god america i,” by e.e.cummings. (You can find it at: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/eecummings/313 .)

The first thirteen lines of this 1926 poem consist of words uttered at a graveyard by a politician or military bigwig on Memorial Day or some other patriotic occasion.  The last line reads: “He spoke.  And drank rapidly a glass of water.”

The speech runs together scraps of patriotic song lyrics and other banal phrases to create the effect of mind-numbing and mind-numbed repetition — this speech, or something like it,  has been given many, many times. “‘next to of course god america i” is a pretty tendentious poem, but (and?) I like it a lot.

What always distresses me (but, finally, has stopped surprising me) each time I teach this poem is the difficulty students have seeing the anger and sarcasm that animate it. Despite cummings’s mockery in lines like “america i/love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh/say can you see,” as well as absurd talk of “these heroic happy dead,” most (though, fortunately, not all) students won’t or can’t see that cummings is parodying his speaker’s mechanical jingoism.

By the time we get to this poem, students have already shown they can read poetry and they have a pretty clear sense of where I’m coming from politically.  But there’s something about patriotic talk — especially with “god” mixed in — that they have a hard time thinking about critically. (Perhaps they watch as much TV news as I do.)

Eventually I get the class to agree that cummings is “probably” making fun of his speaker, but I always end up with a squirmy feeling that I’ve been too pushy. I’d welcome any suggestions on how to approach the poem, or suggestions of an alternative, since I may be ready to give up my attachment to “‘next to of course god america i.”

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By Leonard Vogt

Yesterday I returned to teaching after four years of retirement.  I am teaching two sections of Writing Through Literature and using the excellent anthology Literature and Society (editors Pamela Annas and Robert C. Rosen, both of the Radical Teacher collective) which groups the literary genres of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction under such themes as Money and Work, War and Peace, and Varieties of Protest, making it considerably easier to teach literature from a progressive left prospective.

Not having taught this course in well over fifteen years, I am curious if or how the political understanding of my students may or may not have changed over the past decade and a half.  I have one particular memory of my earlier experience teaching this course and using the first edition of this anthology (it is now in the fourth edition).

I was teaching B. Traven’s short story “Assembly Line” which is about a New York businessman who is visiting Mexico and finds a peasant craftsman who can make baskets which have the exact same design both inside and outside the basket.  The New Yorker immediately recognizes the beauty of and the possibilities for making a tremendous profit from such a craft and asks the peasant if he would be willing to make large numbers of the basket which he eventually decides to do for a small profit, although nothing compared to the vastly larger profit the businessman will make reselling the baskets at some crafts fair in New York.  One of the study questions accompanying the story asked what the students felt about the “exploitation” of the Mexican peasant by the New York businessmen.  To my surprise, about half the class did not feel that the arrangement struck between the craftsman and the salesman was “exploitation” because the peasant agrees to the terms.  I was shocked and kept going over the percentage of profit (something like 100 percent) and the difference in business sophistication between the two parties.  Nonetheless, half of my class continued to argue that no “exploitation” can occur if there is agreement.  In exasperation, I asked the class what their majors were. To a person, the students who felt no exploitation occurred in the story were Business majors.  All the other students who agreed that exploitation occurred were Liberal Arts majors.  Draw your own conclusions and share them with me.

When I get to “Assembly Line” this semester and use the same study question again, I wonder if there will be any change in the students’ understanding of “exploitation,” given that these last fifteen years of economic struggles have given the word an even more relevant and pervasive meaning.  I’ll let you know on my next blog.

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By Linda Dittmar

The current protest movement in Israel—similar to but also different than from the much more urgent, anguished, and even bloody revolutions now sweeping the Arab world—brings into focus for me a dilemma that affects my teaching. For the protesters the question is whether to “depoliticize” the mass movement in order to draw in as many people as possible by focusing on broadly shared civic demands: housing, healthcare, and education. This strategy assumes that once you get people active in one cause they may expand their activism to causes that previously seemed out of bounds, notably Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its abuse of Palestinians’ human and citizen rights. The alternative option would be to further “politicize” the current protest by exposing ways the struggle for internal welfare is inextricable from the politics and economics of occupation, war, and racism. The first option speaks to the frustration and needs of a broad spectrum of Israelis, fudging unresolved issues concerning Jewish ethnicities, Israeli Palestinians, “guest” workers, sex and gender minorities, religious identities, and social class. The second option is more challenging and uncomfortable to many protesters. By confronting Israel’s long-term politics regarding the Palestinian people it stands to lose popular support.

Radicals of all stripes have been facing variants of this problem repeatedly. It’s the strategic tension between an elite vanguard and inclusive compromises. We, educators, have our own little niche within this debate: should we soften the political edge of what we teach in order to reach as many students as possible, or should we be explicitly committed to the logic of our convictions and risk losing students (and sometimes even jobs) along the way? Of course it’s not as crudely either/or as I suggest here. It’s a matter of gradations, flexibility, and improvisation.

My new course on Israeli and Palestinian fiction is now on my mind in this connection as students’ stakes and perspectives on such a course vary. My initial challenge was to design a syllabus based on materials that are a priori not neutral. What to select and how to sequence the readings over the semester is already a charged question. The second challenge is how to work with this contentious material in class. Here, too, my choice is between politically diffuse teaching that creates a foothold for as many students as possible versus taking a more incisive political position that risks pushing some students away. This is the counterpart to Matt Brown’s discussion (in Radical Teacher #82.on postcolonialism) of teaching “the difficult text,” except his challenge is teaching “high” theory while mine is the emotional impact of teaching politically charged material.

My palliative is a teaching style that is attentive, empathetic, and flexible. I do not ram ideas down people’s throats and I try to give as much space for objecting and debating as anybody will use. It seemed to have worked well in my forty years of teaching. My comfort zone was rarely disturbed by dramatic challenges, and those that did occur—only two students come to mind, among thousands—were too off-the-wall to matter. But in one such class, as congenial as ever, two students nodded in wincing recognition when I happened to note in passing that students on the Right—the moderate right, hardly extreme—don’t feel comfortable voicing their views in our urban, commuting, liberal, East Coast classrooms.

This response, together with my embarking now on a contentious course, has me head in the direction of worried anticipation of what may surface in my current class and the unalleviated effort it will take to navigate our material. I am thinking yet again about ways over-determined texts can affect classroom dynamics and create conflictual situations. Some of you may in fact face more challenging pressures that I do. Because Radical Teacher does not seem to get many submissions that address this question squarely, and because I myself don’t have an answer beyond improvising case by case, can we hear from you, readers?

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By Tryon Woods

Many educators find that one good technique for promoting critical thought is to show students how to “ask the other question.”  Arising from an engagement with the politics of intersectionality—or, the recognition that identity, struggle, and oppression do not follow singular axes but rather emerge from multiple layers, dimensions, and vectors of power, experience, and location—“ask the other question” was first articulated as such in the early 1990s by critical race theorist and legal scholar Mari Matsuda.  Matsuda was addressing colleagues and comrades on the political Left, those who are “down for the cause,” but, in her estimation, too frequently reinscribe, if inadvertently, much of the hierarchical thinking that their movements ostensibly sought to dismantle.  I strive to animate my classroom teaching and scholarship with Matsuda’s drive to “make the connections.”  In this vein, I want to draw some critical connections between some prior posts on the Radical Teacher blog and other axes of power that become visible once we “ask the other question.”

But first, here is Matsuda:


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