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Friday, December 16, 2016

On "Crappy" Social Justice Teachers

Today's narrative to challenge is the one about the terrible social justice teacher. You know, the toxic ne'er do well who calls everybody problematic and crushes the perfectly innocent question of that pure hearted would-be ally and drives them away from social justice forever.

"How can I learn if you won't teach me?"

"The problem with social justice is that it won't educate newcomers."

"You keep chasing off people who don't already have perfect knowledge of how to behave."

"You're not doing your cause any favors to be the gatekeepers of your concepts."

Sound familiar?

Most people who utter these phrases, don't realize how much of a power dynamic they just enacted. To them it makes sense that the minute they want to help, they should get as much encouragement as possible from those they are trying to help.

Usually they do. Most people who approach social justice with a good faith curiosity find no end of folks willing to help them out with concepts, explain terms, share experiences. Most of the talks, forums, articles, and posts about social justice happen at what they call the "101 level" (or the very basics of teaching. Outside of perhaps an actual school, you probably haven't met a group more willing to put the genuinely curious in contact with resources that would help them or talk them through an idea.

The trouble comes when folks approach in bad faith. And the patterns surrounding this (dismissal, "just asking questions," concern trolling, devil's advocate) are so predictable and recognizable that it's easy to see them coming a mile away. The exasperated reaction to yet another status quo warrior challenging their ideas by JAQing off (just asking questions) is interpreted as an unwillingness to teach rather than as a host of seasoned vet teachers who are able to recognize an unwillingness to learn.

Of course the social justice community is a....community. It consists of lots of people of varying levels of patience, diplomacy, and skill with teaching. It consists of folks who have no interest in teaching and are just trying to get through the day and hope someone listens to them. It consists of spaces where teaching newcomers isn't the primary objective. It consists of spaces dedicated to those who have digested the first "tier" of concepts. It consists (as any community does) who are toxic. It consists of sub-communities with ideas of idealogical purity who chase others off. But applying those criticisms to the whole is one of the emblematic problems of stereotyping and hasty generalizations.

One can actually see this problem with this narrative show up if we take out the power dynamic.

If you walked into a calculus class to which you were enrolled and doing quite well, and the teacher started talking about derivatives for the first time, but they didn't teach you about them or write them down, but rather just said that derivatives would be on the test and you raised your hand and asked what they were and THEN the teacher screamed at you, "I don't have time to teach you this. You'll have to educate yourself...."

That would be shitty teaching.

But privileged people complaining that every space within the world of social justice is not stopping to teach them the minute they have a basic question, even if the others are in the middle of a conversation, in a space that is not designed for basic education is a power dynamic. Feeling entitled to be gently taught about marginalization by the very people who are marginalized is a power dynamic.

Here is more accurate behavior for this analogy:
  • Telling the calculus teacher that even though you agree with the importance of numbers in theory, you wouldn't go much beyond algebra and whole basis of advanced mathematics is going "too far" since you do not understand irrational numbers and have personally never experienced them in your life.
  • Insulting everyone who "wastes their time" attempting to understand advanced mathematics. (Basically the entire class.)
  • Dismissing (even mocking) any attempts to explain irrational numbers, how they work, and how math knows they're there. 
  • Refusing to simply sit down and listen even though the class is clearly too advanced for you.
  • Ignoring multiple people who have been doing advanced mathematics for years.
  • Being in a class you're not enrolled in and clearly don't have the foundational knowledge to grasp, but also refusing to sit quietly, instead asking demanding questions about concepts covered three or four years earlier in a typical math curriculum.
  • Not complying when asked to hold questions about basic concepts until the end, come to office hours, or avail yourself of tutoring. Demanding that a lack of an answer means there isn't one.
  • Scoffing when being given quick resources (like trig textbooks), or having it suggested to you that you find a class that better suits you, so that the class can return to what it was doing.
  • Insisting that because there was no gate at the college parking lot or security that stopped you or lock on the door to the class that you are absolutely entitled to be in the space, it is "public," and it is ridiculous to suggest that you shouldn't be able to behave in whatever way you want, no matter how disruptive.
  • Bursting in on the math research team, who are actually just doing math because they're mathematicians and that's their lives, and demanding that they teach you because anyone who does math has to be willing to teach you....at any time.
  • Deciding that the differential equations class you have audited should actually be about geometry, walking up to the front and beginning to run a parallel class in geometric proofs, shouting over the teacher, and ignoring all instructions to stop (again, until escorted out by security).
  • Approaching instructors when they're at home or at the grocery store and continuing to demand that they educate you right then...for free. 
  • Laughing at the idea that someone should get paid to personally and gently walk you through these concepts or that you should have even the slightest responsibility in your own educational process.
  • Literally resisting the ideas by trying to find some flaw in the teaching.
  • Suggesting that any emotion displayed by the instructor (particularly passion for the subject) means that math is wrong.
  • Informing everyone in the classroom that they should be FUCKING GRATEFUL that you're trying to learn this "math stuff" at all, and that if they're going to convince the world math is important, they're going to need you.
  • Insist that the difficulty in upper math courses isn't doing the discipline any favors.
  • Refusing to accept basic concepts (even on an intellectual level) because you believe it will call into question the way you've been doing math all these years. And you don't like the idea of that.
  • Ignoring pretty much everything you're told no matter how often you're told it and by how many teachers and by how many patient classmates and then when the first person who gets exasperated at you loses their patience you blame math and the entire math department for being a terrible educators.
  • Claiming that your civil rights had been infringed when security finally escorts you out.
  • And of course before you did any of this–ANY OF IT–you walked past fifteen different lower level math classes that were talking about the concepts you are having trouble with and that had openings in their roster with instructors who would have been delighted to take you on at your current level of understanding. You ignored every single one of them as well as the wealth of information available online or in books to someone who is genuinely curious about learning more advanced mathematics. And instead you went into a space that was beyond you, ground the whole thing to a halt, and made it about immediately alleviating your ignorance.
  • And when it is all said and done, you claim that mathematics has a real problem with bad gatekeepers and indecipherable jargon, and if they wanted more mathematicians, they should be nicer to people who just want to learn.

In these contexts would anybody think that a teacher who got fed up, got angry, asked this person to leave, asked this person to be quiet if they were going to stay, asked this person to avail themselves of more basic information, or asked them to take a proactive hand in their own education were REALLY a "shitty" teacher?

Or is the entitled demand for an immediate, gentle education another form of privilege and entitlement that is shown to be ridiculous in any other power dynamic.

[Mandatory disclaimer: Yes there are people in the 101 levels of activism who have no business being there (just like there are teachers who have no business being teachers). They rage at a wrong move, jump to basically abusive levels of hostility, shut down any hope of actual communication or learning, and use some of the vocabulary of social justice to be harmful. However, most of the time this is not the case. People who aren't good at teaching are not TRYING to do 101. What they're trying to do is have a fucking conversation about their lives without some rando showing up and challenging their interpretation of their own lived experiences.]