The symposium Reclaiming the Workshop as a Collaborative Pedagogy was held October 27–28, 2017, at Pembroke Hall with (in alphabetical order), Amanda Anderson, Director, Cogut Institute for the Humanities, Thomas Asher, Social Science Research Council, Ariella Azoulay, Brown University, Debjani Bhattacharyya, Drexel University, Yoko Inoue, Bennington College, Gaye Theresa Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles, Trica D. Keaton, Dartmouth College, Philippe Peycam, International Institute for Asian Studies, Tricia Rose, Director, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, Brown University and Tharaphi Than, Northern Illinois University.

The topic was born out of an ongoing conversation I have had for many years now with my friend and colleague Aarti Kawlra, who was also present, on crafts as pedagogy, decolonial methodology, and collaborative pedagogy. In my presentation at the symposium, I stressed the fact that pedagogy, seen mostly today through the lens of school, has been at the heart of the Western and non-Western philosophical tradition, at the heart of anticolonial thought and of ethnic minorities and feminist theories of liberation worldwide. Their shared objective was to clarify the ways in which education was a tool for the emancipation of the individual, the group or the people. The understanding was that the latter must get free of mental shackles fabricated by societies, patriarchy, colonial powers, racism, or capitalism and that this would be accomplished through a process of un-learning and learning. It gave way to a vast literature. Unfortunately, pedagogy is too often today associated primarily with methods of the school and its role in the process of emancipation has been marginalized. Yet, demands for the decolonization of knowledge and of institutions of higher learning demonstrate that there is a discontent. One must add to the debate the increasing privatization of universities, the hegemony of an economic discourse that pushes for “outcomes” and the assault on the humanities and social sciences. In other words, a renewed interest in pedagogy seems granted.

Our experiences, Aarti Kawlra and I, during Summer schools or workshops conducted in South and Southeast Asia, led us to reflect on the space where teaching and learning is done. We started with crafts, the temporality and spatiality of the craft workplace, with the ways in which all the senses are invoked – sight, smell, touch, hearing – as well as the methodology of imitation, of the process of doing, undoing and redoing the same object. We questioned the subtle spatial organization of the classroom which erases the tangible conditions of its existence – students learning to become indifferent to their surrounding: where does the water, coffee and tea which are served daily come from? Who brought them? Who cooked the food we were served? How was the disconnect between theoretical claims –postcolonial, decolonial – and the interest for the concrete conditions of life fabricated? We observed how, despite contrary claims, the classroom, seminars and field contexts nevertheless progressively spiraled to subtly reproduce pervasive hierarchy of knowledge and deeply entrenched gender biases. Being attentive to embodied knowledge and open to surprise in the ordinary – the unexpected answer to an unframed question – we became interested in challenging the division between pedagogy for higher education and pedagogy for the people, between “high” and “low” education and between technical and humanistic education.

Hence, the theme of the symposium at the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. Personally, I also wanted to bring to the conversation the north-American historical radical tradition of pedagogy from below : institutions with their own curriculum and syllabi built by African-Americans excluded from higher education and the creation under the pressure of grassroots movements of departments of Feminist, African-American, Race and Ethnicity, Queer, Chicana, Native-American Studies with their syllabi.

All the speakers expressed a deep concern for the state of teaching and learning in the United States. Questions ranged from: Did “safe zones” propose enough concrete solutions for living in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty? Did they contribute to a depoliticization and to a belief in a world that was artificially constructed as safe? Was there a difference between safety and protection? To what extent were academics accomplices of an economy of teaching that eschewed sharing? What was the meaning of teaching “change” in a classroom? Did we believe we could contribute to change? How to confront increased bullying and terrorizing teachers and students by the “alt-right”? The argument of “reverse racism,” the fatigue of having to repeat the same thing, the self-censorship to protect oneself and the students? What was it to teach under and against a climate of terror? Teaching to “undocumented” students who fear deportation for their families and themselves? How to rethink pedagogy on the context of collective anguish? How to deconstruct the role of perpetrator, to make white students understand how they have inherited privileges?

Practical strategies were exchanged: radical pedagogies of love in an age of hatred, pedagogy of the imagination, creating a community of students outside of bounded departments.

In the last panel, Pr. Amanda Anderson spoke of the necessity of the humanities not as a problem-solving strategy but as a way of keeping the problematic alive, of problematizing an issue. Pr. Tricia Rose came back to the question of racism, which had been brought up many times during the symposium, and discussed “racism without race,” insisted on the necessity to explain how racism is a systematic process, how elements intersect, that it is always a sum bigger than its parts.

The symposium ended on a note of hope and commitment to pursue a pedagogy that gives students the tools and means to become autonomous, to make curiosity a principle of learning and teaching. Speakers and the public also expressed their desire for a follow up.

Pr. Françoise Vergès
Visiting Professor at the Cogut Institute for the Humanities,
Brown University
Chair Global South(s), FMSH, Paris
Fall 2017

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