Communities Without Limits: Ambiguity, Uncertainty and Questions

By MARK SONNEMANN

When I began my Master’s degree in English Literature back in the mid-90’s, all of us had to take a compulsory course in Literary Criticism. It scared the heck out of most of us; the professor was known to be very challenging, the readings were dense and seemingly impenetrable (I’m looking at you Jacques Derrida!), and the assignments and exams were legendary for how demanding they were. It was also the first course you had to take — everyone was new, and everyone was together, and everyone felt exposed and self-conscious about their relative ignorance and the quality of their ideas.

Fast-forward 4 months and the grad students who emerged from this class were all talking smugly about the approaches they now used to engage with texts. There were Deconstructionists, Structuralists, New Historicists, Post-Colonialists, Gender Theorists, and even a few (snicker) New Critics — to name but a few of the ‘school’s people belonged to. Most people adhered to one or two types of criticism, some dedicated themselves to one, and a few people, like me, didn’t feel like they ‘belonged’ in any. This was a source of great stress for me at this point in my academic life. When we would hang out together in our giant shared office, I would often be asked if I’d made my mind up yet, and when we talked about what we were reading, I lacked the ability to immediately serve up an opinion backed up by an ‘authority’. In fact, it was often hard to articulate what I was thinking off the cuff — for me the process of digesting and reflecting and making connections takes some time, and often leads me down strange pathways — for example I once decided to explain my thinking about the limits of Brown and Levinson’s examination of politeness by using scenes from the movie Goodfellas.

…quite possibly the most critical question for me — how do we invite those in and create space for those who don’t feel they belong? How do we validate and engage with and learn from those people?

By the end of the program, I still hadn’t decided, but the pressure to do so was unrelenting. To be honest, I envied my peers for their certainty and their ability to show how their thinking lined up with people we all considered to be intellectual giants in the fields we were studying. However, I couldn’t bring myself to submit my ability to think, to process, to make sense of the world to a person, or a movement, or a way of thinking. It felt like I was wearing clothes that didn’t fit — and I tried on lots of outfits! My fellow students didn’t really understand my reticence, and in academic terms they left me behind to play in the sandbox by myself. It was frustrating and it was lonely, and I wondered sometimes why I couldn’t just go along with something and move on. But I couldn’t, and eventually I left in the middle of a DPhil program.

I relate this to you because I think I can say, to some extent, that I understand some of what people are talking about when they refer to feeling alone in a community of teachers. Whenever we swim against the current intellectually we get resistance. Some of this resistance comes from the context (like the current) we are in. It pushes and pulls in certain directions. Some of the resistance is interpersonal — it’s all those other fish staring at us (fishily!) as they swim by with ease in the other direction. The mental effort of resisting the current of ideas and the social effort of doing this on our own is exhausting, and sometimes maddening.

The word community can be used to denote certain discrete contexts within education. There are educators who adhere to certain ‘schools’, ‘issues’, or ‘authorities’ that relate to teaching and learning. There is, in the current context, a large group of teachers who are comfortable with the way things are in terms of assessment: they run classrooms with tasks and exams and grading of the kind we all remember from our own school experience. There are also groups of educators who are looking to reform these practices: teachers who are moving towards feedback and conferencing as opposed to traditional methodologies. Another group of teachers feels uneasy around both groups; because they disagree with their pedagogy of the first and because they feel limited by the focus of the second. To wit, these teachers in the middle are in much the same position — intellectually and socially — as I was in grad school.

It is important for me to make this connection, because, in my opinion many young (and not so young) teachers are leaving the profession because they find themselves in this position and can’t see a way out. When you get to a certain point, you figure that your only choices are either to go along with the rest of the fish or to be an outlier without peers.

Are communities places of conformity? Are they echo-chambers where we only hear positive feedback from others? Do we have to sacrifice ourselves, our identity and the complexity of our thinking, in order to be part of one? And quite possibly the most critical question for me — how do we invite those in and create space for those who don’t feel they belong? How do we validate and engage with and learn from those people?

I can see how, specifically, the political climate all over the world has contributed to this shift in meaning. We are increasingly polarized, and the media that we consume and the technologies we use to connect with one another accelerate this drift. But that is another topic entirely.

Community is today generally used to define a group of people who share similar goals/values/interests or who live in the same place. In the first example the commonality is internal, and in the second it is external — that is how it is possible to live in a community and still not feel a part of it.

I would like to both broaden and focus this definition in terms of education:

Community is a space (could be literal or figurative) that allows for people to connect and engage with others. Community is what grows out of relationship, which is what happens when two people interact and build trust.

This definition is rudimentary, I will admit, and very open to interpretation. In fact, it isn’t even necessarily positive. A group of people who espouse hate online would constitute a community in this sense. It wouldn’t be a community that I support or would be a part of, but it would fit the definition.

What I want to emphasize though, is that the best communities (my bias) are defined by the quality of the relationships and not by the amount of agreement and/or commonality between individual members. Communities should be able to entertain dissent, should be open to change, and should never feel limited by their own initial conditions of creation.

Point in case, the group of educators that compose Teachers Going Gradeless. This group was brought together ostensibly by an article written by Arthur Chiaravalli of the same name:

Being human, we are compelled to name, define, and therefore limit the world we live in. The ‘gradeless’ tag is what started the connections between people, and in many ways it has limited who participates. If your focus isn’t assessment, and you don’t agree with Arthur’s contention, then you aren’t likely to jump on board to chat about your work on Twitter or Medium. However, these 3 words do not define the relationships of the group or limit the types of conversations we have about practice (or about family, or gifs, or professional development). It represents a starting point and nothing more. As more people join the group, the dynamic changes, as people share more, the interactions shift, and as trust grows in the community the more authentic and supportive and challenging the conversations become. As an aside, it is one of the reasons I prefer to refer to TG2 — if you don’t know what it stands for it is hard to assign it to a particular box out of hand. Ambiguity and uncertainty and questions are the fuel for conversations that push us and our understanding of the world — and I revel in spaces that embrace dissonance and respectful disagreement as a way of building trust and capacity in all participants.

A true community enables us. It invites us in and listens to us. It reflects our thinking back at us, validating some thoughts and forcing us to reconsider other ideas. It grows to fit new members. It allows and encourages people to come and go. And while it has to be located somewhere, this keystone should never be used as a wall to keep others out or to pin people and ideas in.

Positive education communities (cultures might also work) are founded on the establishment of robust and trusting relationships. These relationships connect us to each other as well as to our practices, our students, our lives, and other elements of our unique contexts. The pathways between these things, and the circuitous and wild ways in which we connect are to me, a constant source of wonder. For me, relationships are learning.

As teachers, and also as learners ourselves, it is our job to establish relationships (positive ones) between students and information, peers, the environment, technology, etc. in order to provide students with the tools to be as meaningfully connected as possible. When we don’t do this well or build a negative connection for a student and we limit their ability to explore parts of the landscape on their journey. Ultimately, it is our goal to give students the skills to build these connections for themselves so that they can explore their world as fully as possible.

Relationship and learning beget community. However, how you relate to the group/content/pedagogy is up to you. Your colleagues, in some way, also inform your practice, even if it only highlights for you what you think you need to do differently yourself. The TG2 group, the books you read, the sports you watch, all of these relationships are part of the landscape of your learning journey and are your learning community. Sometimes, you might walk with others on this path, and other times you might delight in what you discover on your own. In still others, you may feel that you are being pulled unwillingly along a certain path, but this is all part of the same journey.

You don’t have to fully spout the small ‘t’ truth of a particular group to be a part of one, and any community that would ask that of you isn’t one worth belonging to.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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