Offering a Strange Hope

Anne (January 2016): With five other family members, I am traveling in northern among us, as we move together, are always complicated, sometimes fraught. Without street signs or maps, each of us takes up differently the challenges of negotiating the small alleys of Varanasi: some of us distressed by not knowing where we are, others excited to see what we might find.

I am feeling vulnerable, especially disoriented as we make our way from the ghats, the stairs to the Ganges where washing and worshipping take place, to those that are sites of ritual cremation. I have never seen anything like these ancient, sacred, crowded sites of transition from life to death.

Who am I here? What is my relationship to what is going on around me? How can I be open to what is happening, curious about and respectful of what stretches so far beyond what I find familiar?

Jody and Anne: In Spring 2011, under the aegis of TLI, the college’s Teaching and Learning Initiative, we join Alice and three other colleagues in a series of conversations about “assessing assessment.”1 Alice calls this group our “posse.” Anne shares a poem by Kim Stafford, naming us “kindred in this work.” We’re a little giddy at our regular getting together, write e-mails to one another beforehand, long postings on Serendip after we gather.2 Our discussions range quite broadly, as we think contextually about what education is, how to deliver and receive it, what we want our students to get better at. We are motivated by the tension we perceive between nurturing and evaluating thinking, the difficulties grading poses to teaching and learning relationships, its artificiality as a measure of the work of problem-solving, the need to open students’ minds to ways of working and valuing their work that go beyond standardized forms so potent in this era. As we experiment in such directions within a competitive structure, we wonder just how far we can go. What would it mean, for us as teachers, to be fully empowered in this institution?As we experiment in such directions within a competitive structure, we wonder just how far we can go. What would it mean, for us as teachers, to be fully empowered in this institution?

We have particularly rich conversations seeded by Margaret Price’s new book, Mad at School, an analysis of the conflicts between academic structures and the experience of learners and teacher with “mental illness,”3 and a recent New Yorker piece by Paul Tough, “The Poverty Clinic,” about a new, holistic approach to public health and poverty, which makes education a focal part of “treatment.”4 Both prod us to think hard about what we are assessing, and why.  Does the very structure in which we are embedded instigate mental health problems? How-and-why is it essential that students be able to “make manifest”–that is, to publicly reveal–what they have learned?  How might we work toward a more diverse range of manifestations?

We talk about the possibility of evaluation on the level of the group, rather than always focusing on individual accomplishment. We consider a “pedagogy of surprise” (to what end?); discuss (and dismiss) “gatekeeping for weakness”; worry about the insistently time-driven dimension of assessment.  We take the risk of sharing and discussing our own teaching evaluations–students’ responses to a set of questions standardized throughout the college that can nonetheless feel surprisingly intimate, teaching us and exposing us in the rawness of our professional lives.

Paying attention to the mental health of both students and colleagues, we now see, is one aspect of treating each other as friends.

We join a tradition of educators who organize into groups of “critical friends” to meet regularly, engage in structured inquiry, and work collaboratively to improve their teaching.5 This concept of a “critical friend” originated in education reforms of the 1970s, where it arose out of, and represented an expansion of, critical pedagogy and self-appraisal, a “marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.6

We’re trying to ride this tension between supporting and challenging one another, the paradox (as articulated by Zen teacher Shunru Suzuki) that we are both perfect just as we are and “could use a little improvement.”7 We engage a dialectic of risk and trust, as a cluster of friends “who unsettle formerly settled matters like what’s important to learn, how much learning should teachers press for, and how will they know that learning has been achieved.”8 We begin to conceptualize ourselves as “allies” in an effort to critique and change the institution.

“Allies” doesn’t quite capture it, though. Anne’s daughter Marian Dalke leads us to an article that challenges the commodification and exploitation of ally-ship in the “activism industry,” which calls such support and solidarity a means of perpetuating colonialism–and offers the alternative of being an accomplice, “a person who helps another commit a crime,” becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation.9 This term delights us, less for its explicit “criminal” associations than for its multiple etymological layers: deriving from the Latin complicem, “partner, confederate,” and complicare, “fold together” (as in “complicate”), with echoes, too, of “accomplish.”10

As our labor takes on an explicitly political tone, we ask what roles we might play in fostering more democratic directions in the college: creating an environment in which our students could conduct their own assessments, as reflective meditative communications, for example, “presenting” themselves in ways that make most sense to themselves. In July, Alice and Anne publish an essay advocating for institutional structures that do not predetermine goals and measure how well we have achieved them. Without room for surprise, we argue, education is denied, and distorted by the loss of one of its central energies: the circulation of the gifts of chance and serendipity.11 In October, following a conversation at the faculty meeting about expanding the college-wide course evaluation form, Wil and Anne write the provost to explain how our group has been imagining alternative ways of assessing the growth and development of students as members of an intellectual community. The provost responds with “encouragement and support” for our conversations—along with a clear statement of satisfaction with “more traditional forms of assessment” and “the way the system is working.”

There are other tensions, gaps, as we try to extend our circle:  We invite Margaret Price, whose work so stimulated our thinking, to meet with us. Our unstructured conversation veers into difficult territory:  One of us asks a question that seems to offend.  Several of us press into that difference, another looks to soothe, as the shared value of marginality–students’ and now our own–turns prickly, divisive.  In a later session Margaret explains that “kairotic spaces” like this one, pairing spontaneity with high levels of professional and academic impact, intersect problematically with mental disability: “when expectations are less clear, I find it very difficult…I don’t know how to perform.”12 The broad, ever-present challenge of assessment bedevils relations with colleagues as well as with students.

No one’s given us a toolkit, which makes the process of staying in relationship a demanding one. We suggest roles to one another, or choose them ourselves, fumble our way towards them. Gaps emerge among us. Some of us want to stretch beyond our original directive, to initiate a broader conversation about mental health issues among faculty and staff. Alice refuses to do this labor in and for the college; contending with a difficult family situation, J.C. also pulls out of the group.

Four of us brainstorm action steps for sharing what we’re learning and questioning with the broader community: a workshop for interested faculty colleagues, presentations to campus groups, recommendations for revision of assessment practices? A small group, we seek a larger center for our work, one that attends to the mental health of both faculty and students, rather than depending on a fiction that those who are struggling are somehow “outside” a system that is flourishing. After months of negotiating with the agenda-setting committee, we bring a discussion of campus mental health to the November and March faculty meetings. We select Sara who, as a social worker, is best positioned to initiate the conversation. The special meeting is well attended, with lots of engaged discussion. Notes are made and distributed. In April, Sara and Anne talk with the members of the Dean’s Office about fortifying the support structure; in late summer, the Dean reports on a range of new initiatives. Two years later, Sara, Jody and Anne join a “rump group,” as an unofficial Advisory Committee on Campus Community Health, which meets regularly with the president to discuss the campus climate and pilot a few interventions. A year after that, Sara and Anne are elected to serve on the Trustees’ Task Force on Student Health and Counseling Services, which recommends some changes in the way health care is offered on campus.

Creative irritation takes form, is brought to fruition, then reified. As our ideas become institutionalized, it feels to us that the more exploratory and imaginative aspects of our shared engagement recede, and we notice that our interest wanes. We have been bringing an awareness of complex interdependency into our shared institutional lives, eliciting fragility, vulnerability. As our initiatives are realized administratively, we also find them “called into order”–shaped, streamlined, the social and political risks of disarray managed and contained. Like friendship, a structure that moves from being unsettled, into stability and out again, institutional change also cycles through periods when new ideas come into being, destabilize, then revise the status quo, cohere.

As the institution shifts, and each of us assumes a new role in relation to the college, the befriending that fuels such ideas also takes new forms. Alice and we are named “term professors,” a public ranking more aligned with responsibilities we’ve been assuming over the past number of years. Sara becomes tenured; she and Anne collaborate on a new 360° on “Identity Matters.”13 J.C. is soon to retire; Wil leaves to work as a viticulturalist and winemaker.

Intersecting, colliding, dispersing, reorganizing–friendships, interventions and institutions are all mutable over a long time frame. As Ta-Nehesi Coates observes, “nothing about this world is meant to be….This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”14

We can see how such shifts, in positions, relationships, and institutional dynamics, may be enacting what Sheldon Wolin calls “fugitive democracy,” how a focus on moments rather than forms, “an ephemeral phenomenon rather than a settled system,” offers “a strange hope” rooted in the “multiplicity of differences bound together in any given point.”15 And yet, in suggesting the structural exclusion of the very thing we wish to cultivate, such fugitivity is also limited in its reach. We are stretching, still, to acknowledge the ways in which friendship might also be institutionalized, not just an interruption of things-as-they-are, but a means of renewal, built into the fabric and structure of the college.

  1. Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges,” accessed March 1, 2016.
  2. Assessing Assessment” (2011-2012), accessed March 1, 2016.
  3. Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
  4. Paul Tough, “The Poverty Clinic: Can a Stressful Childhood Make You a Sick Adult? The New Yorker, March 21, 2011, accessed March 1, 2016.
  5. Critical Friend,” The Glossary of Educational Reform(November 28, 2013), accessed March 1, 2016; Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, “Through the Lens of a Critical Friend,” Educational Leadership 51, 2 (October 1993), 49-51, accessed March 1, 2016; “Critical Friends: A Process Built on Reflection,” Community Campus Partnerships for Health, accessed March 1, 2016; “Critical Friend Toolkit,” Principal Class Performance and Development; Support Materials, Queensland Government Education, accessed March 1, 2016.
  6. Critical Friend,” Wikipedia, accessed March 1, 2016.
  7. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 2011).
  8. Joseph P. McDonald, “Uncommon Common Principles: A CES Big Idea,” Coalition of Essential Schools, 2016, accessed June 1, 2016.
  9. Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex,” May 4, 2014, accessed March 1, 2016.
  10. Accomplice,” On-Line Etymological Dictionary, accessed March 1, 2016.
  11. Anne Dalke and Alice Lesnick, “Teaching Intersection, Not Assessment: Celebrating the Surprise of Gift Giving and Gift Getting in the Cultural Commons,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 8 (2011): 75-96, accessed March 1, 2016.
  12. Anne Dalke, “structure!” February 10, 2012 (9:30 a.m.), accessed April 27, 2016.
  13. Chapter 7, “Slipping”; Chapter 9, “Reassembling.”
  14. Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015, 71.
  15. Isaac Villegas and Jason Rust, “Fugitive Democracy: Sheldon Wolin and Contemplating the Local,” April 25, 2006, accessed April 15, 2016, http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2006/04/25/fugitive-democracy-sheldon-wolin-and-contemplating-the-local/