Being Alive Twice
Published in TC Today - Volume 35, No. 1
A small working group of faculty became students again as they pondered the implications of globalization
By Suzanne Guillette
In her essay “Speaking in Tongues,” the writer Zadie Smith describes the contrast between being a student at Cambridge and returning home to her predominantly Irish and Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in London.
“At home…I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things I couldn’t express in college and vice versa,” Smith writes. “I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.”
So, too, for a small but diverse working group of Teachers College faculty members who spent the past year exploring what David Hansen, Professor of Philosophy in Education, calls “the nexus of globalization, citizenship and education.”
“The process was precisely what you’d imagine academia to be,” says William Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education. “It felt like I was a student in the class I wanted to have.”
The project grew out of a faculty dinner hosted two years ago by TC President Susan Fuhrman and Provost Tom James to promote greater collaboration across disciplines.
“The conversation led to me re-imagining my work with young people in the justice system, in terms of how I engaged and entered those spaces,” says Lalitha Vasudevan, Assistant Professor of Technology and Education, who says she attended mainly out of curiosity. “People were speaking in a tenor of the possible.”
Hansen, too, saw the possibilities and set out to convene a smaller group of faculty who were willing to commit to a year of study.
“I confess that I hesitated at first—who has time for one more thing?” says Olga Hubard, Assistant Professor of Art Education. “But after the first session I was sold. Our meetings became an energizing, motivating fuel.”
Hansen began the first meeting by asking participants to think about a challenging cross-cultural moment they had experienced in either a professional or personal context. Over the ensuring 90 minutes, he recalls, people put forth their “ignorance, puzzlement, doubt, sharing questions instead of expertise.”
“When I described the group to a colleague, the response was, ‘That sounds like the anti-task force,’” Hubard jokes.
That description is apt, because the group’s intent was never to establish a consensus about globalization and its ramifications for education and citizenship. Instead it was to explore those ideas in a fresh way. In essays that were ultimately published in a 2011 issue of the Teachers College Record, each member pursued a unique vision that also reflected others’ input.
For example, after Graeme Sullivan, Professor in Art Education, talked about art made from objects found on the street, Gaudelli, whose work on media literacy often involves questions of authorial perspective, became intrigued by the notion of art as a lens for re-envisioning things that are already “there.” He decided to revisit a piece he’d begun as a graduate student in Kenya after watching a safari bus full of tourists started snapping pictures of locals. The image had raised questions for him about what it means to experience the “other” in the context of travel—and particularly about the sense of distance between a tourist’s camera lens and the people being photographed. In the essay he finally completed this year, Gaudelli proposes a more humanistic approach to travel that seeks to understand the lived experiences of “others” as a way to “see the beauty that exists in the world.”
Molly Quinn, Associate Professor of Education, chose to explore the way one’s roots influence encounters with “the new.” In Louisiana, for example, where Quinn grew up, it’s the norm to ask someone, on first meeting, “Who’s your mama? Who’s your daddy?”—perhaps eventually leading up to “What’s your drink?” In New York, an equivalent first question is often the much more businesslike “What do you do?”
Quinn, who is interested in the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s concept of “natality,” or education as birth, was moved by a short documentary Vasudevan brought in called “Something Other Than Other,” about an interracial couple reflecting on their newborn son. “We’re responsible for the world,” Quinn observed. “We have to make space for the new, and a birth is a really fitting metaphor for what can be done in an educational space.”
Notions of “the new” also play a central role in the essay written by Michelle Knight-Diop, Associate Professor of Education. Knight-Diop is interested in immigrant youth who are transnationals—citizens of more than one country—and their civic engagement at local, national and global levels. In her essay, she quotes from her ongoing conversations with Kwame, an American-Ghanaian transnational she met when he was a freshman in high school. Dual citizenship, Kwame says, raises issues like who one would root for if Ghana and the United States were to face off in World Cup soccer.
“It’s like choosing between your father and your mother,” Kwame says. “You love them both the same and you would do anything you can for both of them.”
The essay form proved challenging for the group, some of whom were more used to citing research than parsing their own experiences and feelings. Hansen reminded his colleagues that the term “essay” is derived from the French “essayer,” which connotes “a trial of ideas.”
Nearly everyone reported making unexpected discoveries as a result of participating in the project.
For example, through exposure to more tech-savvy colleagues, Knight-Diop came away with a more nuanced understanding of transnational youth, a population for whom new media is a staple. She says she “never would have used the word ‘blogger,’ before this,” but was encouraged to explore the varied new technologies youth are experiencing.
For others, teaching will never be the same.
“After this seminar, I have a different appreciation for my time with students,” Hansen says.
Maria Torres-Guzman, Professor of Bilingual Education, agrees. “In classes, I find myself thinking: Breathe. Wait. Be patient.”
In late September, the group gave two presentations, one to TC students and another to faculty and administrators.
“It’s scary, putting yourself out there,” Hubard said during a planning meeting for the two events.
“Yet amazingly enough,” Hansen said, “you don’t collapse.” Everyone in the room smiled—less from relief, it seemed, than from a newly assured sense that he was right.