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Flipping It Horizontal
By Katherine E. Entigar
In 2018, I wrote a piece for Left Voice about the ecological nature of CUNY education, “I believe that CUNY is an educational ecology with relations flowing in many directions, meaning that what affects us as adjunct professors affects our students, which in turn affects their engagement in their own work and their own communities.” The piece was written as a critique of the poor pay, lack of recognition, and precarious nature of adjunct employment in the CUNY system. I sought to illustrate that while I and my adjunct colleagues loved working with our students, the fact that we were overworked and under-supported could have deleterious effects not only for us but also for our students, their families, and their communities. I felt this to be particularly true for me working in the School of Education at City College, where I taught (and still teach) bilingual education courses to preservice and in-service teachers. If I am not able to do my job well, the teachers in my classes are not prepared to teach and support their own students as well as they could.
This summer, I’ve revisited this thinking. I still think the ecological model offers insights about adjunct teaching and its broader impact on CUNY students and the people around them in New York City. However, I’ve realized that I can’t advocate such a perspective without recognizing one of its primary assumptions: that power usually trickles down in institutions of higher education. As an adjunct at CUNY, a progressive place where practitioners like myself talk about liberatory education, social justice, and dismantling white supremacy with their students, I’ve come to see that in 2020, these phrases often ring hollow. In educational contexts and other political spaces, it is an unspoken understanding that the power to make change tends to rest in the hands of a privileged few–usually white, U.S.-born, not-poor people–and the fact that decision-making aimed at social change typically leaves out those who would be most impacted by that change. (Entigar, 2020)
This perspective shift is ongoing and is not something I can take full credit for. My July session students at City College–an amazing group of 25 preservice teachers from the NYC Teaching Collaborative and new master’s students–are the ones whose actions demanded that I look again at what is happening, and what is possible, in this disorienting and painful time. We had a meaningful class together, learning about how to work with emergent bilingual students as they develop academic knowledge and English language proficiency. However, as we got to know each other, and as I read more and more about how important it is to create space for human realities in the midst of interlocking professional, economic, and political crises, I decided to step back from standards about “how class should be done.” What does “should” mean in learning when people are struggling to make ends meet, create a safe and healthy home for their families, and locate strength to simply keep moving forward?
While it wasn’t difficult for me to try out a new approach to class, I can’t say it was entirely comfortable. I worried that I would somehow fail as a professor if I set aside my assumptions about “student success” (which I’ve come to realize was just as much about my own reputation within the department as anything else). It became clear that my students and I could have a positive experience together–and learn a lot–once I stopped assuming I knew what was best for them. I let go of my views about how much time should be allotted to different activities, what a “successful” class would look like, how students should demonstrate learning, and so on. Instead, we held space for uncertainty and questioning. We discussed our options for working together that month. We compromised on due dates (what worked for them and what I could reasonably manage in our limited time together). We converted all assignments to group work, so that different members could pick up the slack or share stories from teaching to support less-experienced teammates. We made the weekly reflective responses and other course assignments group activities. We determined together what counted as “participation” in our Zoom meetings, expanding away from the default of “video is a must” to “do what is possible when managing three small kids, including jumping off and back on when you need to.”
As we continued on together, my students began to ask more questions, drawing confidence from our shared commitment, and stopped offering the pat “everything is just fine” in our Zoom check-ins, responding instead with silent presence, a shake of the head, or a comment in the chat about a tough moment. It became clear that it was important for me to listen to what was true for them both as students and as human beings. They came to class worrying about money (they are required to quit their jobs as a condition for participation in their program), new and ongoing caretaking and family responsibilities, insecure housing, exhaustion, and anxiety about teaching in the fall. It was important for me, in my many privileges and advantages as a White, highly-educated professor, to come to understand that these human realities must take center stage in our learning together, and lead us forward in discovering what would work for all of us, in that moment. Even in cases when we didn’t know what the best solution would be for a given issue, we tried to let uncertainty be more valuable than a quick status quo answer that might foreclose on creative alternatives.
My work with my students was a negotiation, a conversation…and an education for me in collaborative, non-hierarchical power in learning and what it could be used for. In our own form of resistance and self-determination, we built trust and strength in contingent times as a response to frankly unrealistic ways of doing education together, when being able to handle life in its unstable, anxious reality was and is all many people can do. This was not, notably, what some might call “inclusive” pedagogy, which purports to welcome all students’ perspectives and backgrounds into the education process as a means of validating diversity in learning (Brennan et al., 2019; Portelli & Koneeny, 2018). This was instead something more along the lines of education-in-coalition, a tenuous but necessary building of alliances across boundaries for learning, and of horizontal pedagogy. I drew connections (while asking new questions!) between our exploratory, questioning approach and popular education practices, such as the informal education experiments that took place in the Nomadic University during the Occupy Wall Street movement which were “committed to non-conventional, non-hierarchical educational approaches” (Moon, 2018). While we recognized institutionalized ideas about how education could be done, we chose to validate alternative ways of teaching and learning that respected our individual and collective humanities.
This education work I shared with my class was new, unseen, unofficial, and deeply humanizing, just when it was most needed. We’re still not done; we’re actually still working together informally as the fall has brought fresh uncertainties, fear, and feelings of powerlessness. In our conversations, we have agreed that this version of pedagogy, one that moves forward through continuous questioning and envisioning of what is possible by all people involved, will help us face what is coming. Even when we don’t know what that might be, this horizontal practice has become a posture of hoping together, a stand, a standing-with to withstand what comes.
Portelli, J. P., & Koneeny, P. (2018). Discussion Paper Inclusive Education: Beyond Popular Discourses. International Journal of Emotional Education. https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/bitstream/123456789/29672/1/Paper%207%20april%2018%20%281%29.pdf