critical pedagogy and the value of English as a discipline

Discussion of pedagogy continues to mystify, and our recent discussion of Freire and Postman reminded me once again of this personal difficulty.  I found much to be inspired by in both texts but have similar questions about application that Michael and others have voiced.  However, I think my questions  might be a little more severe on account of my own naiveté.  Quite frankly, I find the haste in which pedagogy is discussed as if having the singular aim of producing critical subjects to completely  ignore, or efface, the practical goals of education. Furthermore, pedagogy described as such challenges our own choices as students who, at least during the application process, have articulated the express interest in studying English.  And so, I’m interested in hearing how others in the class mediate their interest in English as a subject matter with the goals of critical pedagogy, both as students and as present or potential teachers. Is English, as a language and a body of literature, merely a vehicle for stimulating critical consciousness (as it once was for Christianity, humanism, etc), or is there something else that we find in literature that is worthwhile to study and transmit merely for its own sake?   I wonder about this a lot! What do you think? Tell me!

First, let me explain a little of my history with this word pedagogy, because it wasn’t until grad school that I realized it was one to which I should pay attention. In my going-on-four years at the Graduate Center I’ve heard  pedagogy discussed at great length and with great passion.  I was first exposed to the seriousness which GC students regarded pedagogy during a required course for the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate program (which I highly recommend for those interested in exploring their own hopes and fears regarding technology & education).  It was the beginning of my second year, I had not yet taught (still haven’t!), and was feeling rather alien to the university experience since I had been out of school  for six or seven years before returning.  During the course,  we discussed topics ranging from MOOCs to digital dissertations. Steve Brier, our instructor (and another wonderful figure at the GC), exhorted us to keep in mind this singular question: How might we evaluate these new tools and practices for the purposes of pedagogy?

Pedagogy, I kept thinking, what on earth is this mysterious pedagogy.  I was astonished by the passion which students argued about what constituted good or bad pedagogy, mainly because in all my years in a classroom, it was not a topic I considered much.  But  after getting over the initial shock, I found much to warm to in these discussion. Pedagogy, I realized, was a way of talking about a lot of the same social issues I cared about.  Bad pedagogy was the type produced by oppressive political structures for the preservation of said oppressive political structures. Good pedagogy was the sort that would create subjects capable of undermining, or at least seeing through, said oppressive political structures.  Thus the pedagogically-concerned, both green and vet, spent a lot of time agreeing how bad bad pedagogy was, and how good good pedagogy was. It was a cozy a time.

Despite the coziness, though, I kept waiting, for the moment we at least stated what subject matter our pedagogy was concerned with.  And I waited to no end.   We discussed pedagogy as if it was a practice that could be universalized across subject matter, institutions, age group and purpose.  We talked about pedagogy as if it was this contentless process that succeeded when the student finally learned, but learned what? Because we were a group of students from across disciplines,  the generalized nature of our discussion was perhaps understandable. What pedagogy was for was either besides the point, or so obvious to everyone else in the classroom that it wasn’t worth mentioning.  In this sense, I gathered, pedagogy simply meant the process of stimulating critical consciousness, regardless of subject matter. All the the little facts and methodologies that happened to make up said subject matter, or whether that subject matter had instrumental value, (never mind cultural value!), was of secondary importance.  What we talked about when we talked about pedagogy was about nothing more than the social production of free subjects.

Now the social production of free subjects is just the sort of tailgate party where I’d like to bring my beer.  And I would entertain the argument that the achievement of such would make all disciplines and subject matter obsolete forevermore, because, well, goes ask Stanley Aronowitz about that one.  But in the meantime, I really need some help, particularly from those in the class that obviously think and care a great deal about pedagogy.  How are we even supposed to talk about the incorporation of particular types of pedagogy when it isn’t clear what were teaching and why? Again, back to the application questions, the ones we probably have all hoped are long forgotten. Why study English, why teach it? For what end?