One odd aspect of the book’s legacy—at least in its English translation—is its popularity in contexts in which students are not oppressed. In an article provocatively titled “Pedagogy of the Privileged,” the philosopher Tracey Nicholls, writing in the CLR James Journal (which is named for a Trinidadian Marxist), for a special issue on bell hooks, grappled with the paradox that, because higher education is still so class-segregated in the United States, radical American educators have found themselves teaching Pedagogy of the Oppressed—and its methods—in colleges and universities for the elite, contexts where students may be more likely to be oppressors. While Freire viewed the purpose of education as the liberation of the oppressed, in elite classrooms, Nicholls observes, the challenge for a liberatory pedagogy is to teach empathy and solidarity with the oppressed—who, in many cases, are not in the room.
How is that responding and revising done? Well, if I have any “expert” advice to offer, it would be this:
- Change the way you teach. Ask what do you want to know about learners from the very start of your relationship? What should they know about you? What barriers might exist that will inhibit your connection to students and from student to student?
- Develop a digital literacy that’s an interpersonal one. Always ask: “Who is not in the room who could be?” Allow time in synchronous meetings and collaborations for connecting and relationship-building. Find back-channel and ungraded spaces for communication, like virtual office or “coffee” hours. Perhaps most importantly, develop empathy for one another in virtual or digitally-inflected spaces. But at the same time, don’t assume you understand the challenges students face. Empathy is best developed by listening.
- Imagine your own digital pedagogy. Ask yourself: What counts as digital? What is your overall pedagogical approach, and how does that translate or not translate to digital environments? What is the most important part of your pedagogy that you don’t want to lose when you teach online?
The truth is that education didn’t need COVID-19 to make it necessary to ask these kinds of questions. As educators, we are all always already called to develop a critical consciousness about our work. But the pandemic has brought into greater focus that our assumptions—about what’s been happening in classrooms and behind the scenes and online in education—are less informed than we would like to believe. We don’t get to watch the screen and act like normal, because at every turn there’s a drag queen superstar waiting to remind us that things are not normal, and in order for any normal to return, we will have to invent it ourselves.