This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re handing things over to Heinemann Fellow, Minjung Pai.
This is the fourth episode is a mini-series by Heinemann Fellow Minjung Pai. Listen to the previous episode here.
Min teaches fifth and sixth grade in Los Angeles, California. She is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. Min believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. Here’s Min with more on her project...
Below is a full transcript of this episode!
Min: This week, I had the honor of speaking to Dr. Asao Inoue, Professor and Dean of the College of Integrated Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. In his recent chair's address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, he asked, "How do we language so people stop killing each other, or what do we do about white language supremacy?"
We talked about this chair's address, also about how personal identity work impacts pedagogy and how educators can build liberatory spaces for students. Dr. Inoue shares his anti-racist practices in his classroom that creates equity and belonging for everyone.
Good morning, Asao.
Dr. Inoue: Good morning.
Min: First, thank you so much for agreeing to record this podcast with me. I really appreciate it, and I'm so excited to talk to you today.
Dr. Inoue: Yeah, my pleasure. I'm excited to have the conversation.
Min: I wanted to start off by just asking you, what does personal identity work mean to you, and how has it impacted your pedagogy?
Dr. Inoue: Well, personal identity work has always been central to my own studies, both in graduate school and even undergrad, when I think back about the kinds of questions I was most interested in and the things that most troubled me as a student of color in a primarily white institution or institutions.
So it's always been important work, ongoing work, and I think it really should be for everyone, regardless of how they position themselves socially in the world.
So I think it does have a very important role in how teachers go about thinking about not just how they are read or perceived or understood or even how they interact with students or how they do the work in the classroom that they do. But I think it also matters in terms of how they set up their own relationship to the subject matter or the curriculum and the things they're asking students to do and how they respond to that, to those things.
So it's very, very important work, and I think what it means to me, it's one side of the pedagogy coin. Part of it is, of course, understanding and finding ways to create environments in classrooms that allow students that, whoever they may be in your own setting, to learn and prosper and grow and feel good about themselves and all those things are sustainable, but it's also about understanding, "Who am I in this place, doing this work with these students?"
Literacy work, for instance - the work of, say, English or writing teachers - at all levels, I think, is a particularly important classroom to be doing personal identity work as a teacher, because we can, if we're not careful, reenact historical modes of colonization, and that is no good, especially given the increasing ... in college, at least, the increasingly diverse student bodies that we get in different places - at least in the United States, but globally, really.
Min: That actually perfectly takes us into why I contacted you in the first place. I first learned about you through your keynote, "How do we language so people stop killing each other, or what do we do about white language supremacy?"
I have to tell you, when I read it first before I watched it on YouTube, I don't know if validated is the right word, but I had never felt so seen, validated reading your keynote. I was fist-pumping. I was kind of just yelling, "Yes." It was incredible how the truth seemed so clearly said. So I was hoping that you can kind of talk about the origin story of that keynote.
Dr. Inoue: Sure, and I have to say that's probably the most often response I've gotten so far. Actually, it is the most often response. Usually ... and I'll make a caveat to this. What kinds of things you said - feeling validated, heard, feeling present - especially in the room when I was giving it, that's the most common remark that I've got, and, of course, it's been from my colleagues of color who are there or who watched it or read it.
For me, the origin story of this, it probably again started way back. Of course, I wasn't thinking about doing a keynote way back when I was in college or when I was in grad school, but the origins of it, the seeds of this were really the seeds that I was trying to sow in grad school and in my PhD program at Washington State University, working with Victor Villanueva. I was doing work around trying to understand the epistemology of racism and how do we get to a place in the world today - or at least at that time, and, again, it's no different today - where we can have a world where there is racism without racists.
I did not coin that phrase. That was Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's work, a sociologist who did work on understanding how white students - and he's mostly looking at white students, but others - who could have certain ideas and then act in certain ways around race that were contradictory, if you will. He wanted to understand, what was the language and the logics of racism today, in these white groups, and they were primarily students. They looked at different sectors in the United States - students from Northern universities and Western ones and Southern ones and Eastern ones and so forth.
So the origin of the keynote came from there. So, in other words, I've always been thinking about this and always been thinking that language ... and when I say language, I'm really meaning languaging, right? The practice of using language, judging language, reading language, understanding language, having language be the way in which we make meaning in the world. It may not be the only way we make meaning in the world as human beings, but it is a primary way that we do it.
That languaging, I've always thought about as deeply connected to the violence and the things that are going on in the world that we all could agree are bad and awful and unfair and wrong.
So it started there. But then, when I moved from Fresno State - I took a new job several years ago - to University of Washington Tacoma, there was, at that moment ... This was about 2014. There was a moment where we were seeing more and more videos and viral videos and other things where we just saw all this violence, particularly on African American individuals in the United States, from police and others. It didn't seem like anything had changed to me, in terms of the history of racism in the United States.
That's, in part, where that came from, and then, finally, when, over the year before the keynote came out, in which I wrote the keynote, I was reviewing some old articles and literature that I thought might be important. Mary Rose O'Reilly wrote something, I think in the early eighties, that I reference in the thing, and I talk about that as a version of, "What do we do" ... or, excuse me, "How do we language so people stop killing each other?" I think it was something like, "How do we teach writing so people stop killing each other?" I thought, "Oh, I can use that in this way, because it perfectly articulates what I've been getting at."
So there wasn't anything in my own experiences. I wasn't thinking of a flashpoint or a particular thing, although I could list numerous ones, as we probably all could, where we felt damaged or hurt or harmed by the languaging practices around us in the academy. It was more about me thinking about broader, outside the academy conditions.
Min: I remember, when I was reading it, it was a wake-up call for me, also, because I think that line that you said towards the beginning to your colleagues of color in the audience, saying that our presence, the presence in the room, we're the exceptions that prove the rule, was a great relearning for me to kind of just remind myself that I'm embedded in that languaging. Right? That I have to have constant vigilance against that language supremacy.
So I was kind of hoping that you might be able to talk to our listeners about what is language supremacy, and how does it show up in the classrooms at all different levels?
Dr. Inoue: Yeah. In the talk, I'm really thinking about white language supremacy. So I'm connecting white racial formations, historically, that have built disciplines like English Studies and so forth. So that racial formation and that racial subject position has become sort of the dominant, normalized one in the languaging or language practices, and that includes judgment of the academy in our classrooms.
I think, like you said just a moment ago, even if we are a person of color, even if we are from a minoritized subject position in the United States and we are in the classroom as the teacher or we are an academic or whomever, we are still a part of that machine, that white supremacist machine, and we likely got there because we were able to mimic enough of those languaging practices to be able to proceed, to succeed. It doesn't make it right.
I should also say just because I'm identifying the politics of language, saying it is racialized, I'm also not saying that what I might identify as a white language practice is not inherently bad. I certainly have those practices in me, and I use them because I've been indoctrinated. However, it's when we place those things as standards onto everyone - our students, all of them uniformly - and then judge and rank accordingly, that's when it becomes a problem.
It's when we take a standard from a very localized historical place, a racial formation, a white racial formation, and we say, "That is what is good writing. That is what is clear. That is what is logical," and so, therefore, we grade based on that, that's where I have problems, and that, actually - that using of a single standard - is what, I argue in the talk, when we draw it out, past school, out into the world in various places, that intolerance to diversity, that intolerance to other kinds of standards, other ways of seeing things, other ways of languaging in the world means quite literally an intolerance to other people. So it will lead to killing people.
That's the ultimate final arbiter in disagreements. We might disagree about something and argue, and if it gets far enough along the line, the arguments get long enough, historically, they lead to conflict. So at least that's my take of history, is that that's what I see.
So white language supremacy has to do with who has been historically in charge and who has made the rules and how those rules now get used. Again, I'm not saying that there aren't good things about those things, about those practices. You and I now are certainly using some of those practices to be able to have this conversation.
But that doesn't mean that it's the only right and most critical and best way to do this kind of thing. There are other ways to do it, and I'm interested in opening up the world in my classrooms so that we have a bigger, wider, more compassionate classroom to do that kind of work together, because I know I have a lot to learn from other people's languaging that I'm not aware of, because I've not been in those spaces to be able to have those experiences with language.
Min: I agree. I've heard other folks say this, and I agree with you about not making the white language supremacy the single standard. Yet, as you just mentioned, that's all I've been exposed to. So, for me, the ability to reimagine how to structure my classroom, how to shift the culture of my classroom so that all the diversity of languaging that's happening in my students' lives come in and are valued can be extremely challenging.
I can be sending out implicit messages, whether it's through grading, assessments, through what's given most time, and that can continue to be complicit in that white language supremacy. I was wondering if you could talk about what are some antidotes to that?
Dr. Inoue: Yeah, and, of course, the antidotes will always be slightly modified given your own teaching context, the students you're working with and the boundaries that any given teacher might be working with in their school or their classroom or with their students, and so forth.
So what I offer here would be fairly broad language. I think, again, I want to come back to how does judgment circulate in the classroom? So if it circulates by saying one teacher grades, say, for instance, literacy performances, like essays and other other kinds of writing, and that's how students find out and understand their progress and move in and out of courses and grades or whatever the case may be, then I think that is the conventional way. That is also the way in which white supremacy perpetuates itself.
Now, just having said that, I could say there might be other ways to work in or outside of or against that system. I think the most obvious ... and there's lots of literature that doesn't even talk about the politics of language as much as it talks about the effects of grades on students. I'm sure many folks know this of research, so I won't rehearse it.
But one in particular that I've always been very taken by is Alfie Kohn's work, Punished by Rewards. For me at least, he still makes the strongest argument for why grades are just bad for learning and bad for students, no matter what.
So I think, first of all, we have to figure out how to handle grades in the classroom, because grades ultimately demand a standard, and that requires a teacher to rank students along a linear path, which suggests, just like the old fashioned 19th century or late 19th century notions of G factor, this universal intelligence or IQ that was somehow uniform across all people, that their grades assume or suggest that same kind of uniform, across all people, we can find, we can judge them and rank them accordingly.
That's just a false notion. That's just false. It's patently false. Just because we have a standard doesn't mean that we can use it against other people. That's where I think the damage happens. So we have to find ways in the classroom to not use our own standards against our students. Standards only do that. They only work against people. They limit. They don't offer access. Standards can only be used grading situation like that when you say, "Here's the standard let's everybody meet it or everyone try to approach it." They can only be used to funnel in to exclude, not include. I think that the world is a bigger, better place. Schools are a bigger, a better place when we include people, when we find ways to understand them better and their languaging rather than exclude and ignoring how they are doing some stuff.
So I think that has to be addressed. How do we use our own wherever we may come from and however we may be using language, how do we use that as teachers and how do we help our students use what they come to the classroom with in ways that make us all more critical, all more aware, all more open, et cetera, et cetera. And that probably comes from getting rid of grades and finding other ways to produce progress or a final course grade, et cetera, et cetera.
Min: I really appreciate you mentioning Alfie Cohen and I currently work at a school where we only write narratives and we don't give letter grades. So I completely agree with you and as you were talking, I could imagine hearing folks thinking about quote-unquote academic rigor.
Dr. Inoue: I'm glad you mentioned that rigor is one of those God words that gets thrown around in education and in civic society that suggests that somehow when you blame somebody for not being rigorous, you're blaming them for not upholding some standard. It's really a white disposition. It's a white disposition because what they're assuming is they have one static notion about rigorous. Here's what I know about people who are rigorous, here's what know. I know that they do all these non-cognitive things. They persist into stuff, they inquire, they're open, they labor, they spend time doing things even when time is very limited and they always try to make the time that they can spend on a task or a labor as meaningful as possible. They may not always know what they're trying to get out of it or they may not always get what they initially thought they were getting at, but they work and labor and they try to make that labor meaningful.
So for me that is rigorous. So I don't know what the outcomes will be. I'm not a magician. I can't tell like what any diverse group of students will get when I put together an environment, an assignment or a lesson plan or whatever, and I say, "Okay, here's the labors we're going to do, what do we think we're going to get out of it? What do we want to strive for?" And then we see how what we get ... We start to interact, we start doing work, and then we come out and make some observations at some reflections about what we think we got. And then we realize everyone is getting different things. Some, there might be patterns in it. Hopefully there will be patterns in it because that means that I, as a teacher, I've designed it appropriately. But we're not going to all get the same things because we all come with backpacks that have different stuff in them. And we're using that stuff to make sense and meaning out of the stuff that we confront and the labors that we go through.
So I'm glad you mentioned rigor because rigor is ... that's a Dodge. There's nothing about an absence of a universal standard in a classroom that means there is a lack of rigor. Rigor is not something you can measure by a standard. Rigor is something that requires students to do work to labor at something and the nature of that labor can be all kinds of things. What people usually mean when they say, "Oh, you're not being rigorous enough," They usually mean, "You're not holding those students to a standard that I agree with."
Min: When you were just talking about being open and really getting the time to know who's in the room, it hit me that it's a very democratic way of teaching that it's co-creating it.
Dr. Inoue: I think so.
Min: Yeah. That's co-creating with your students. Even though there's been so much writing and research and scholarship around co-creating with your students and teaching in a democratic way, that can feel very radical to a lot of teachers because a lot of classrooms can still look like one person in front of the classroom filling empty vessels as much as they might decorate it as something else. And one of the things that you mentioned in your keynote was deep attending and how that can be an antidote to white language supremacy and that it's connected to the way teachers assess. And I was wondering if you could talk about what does deep pretending mean and what does it look like in the classroom? How does it connect to assessments?
Dr. Inoue: Yeah. When I talk about deep attending in the classroom around assessments, I'm really trying to find a practice, an ongoing practice that might help us all find ways to be anti racist, to find ways to be anti white supremacists in our judging and our assessment practices. So this I think helps us start to do that for me in my classrooms. Attending the practice of attending other people's words and bodies really is attached to a larger network of stuff that I worked with my students with, no matter what the class is. And it revolves around studies on compassion and mindfulness and there are benefits to us as human beings and as students and learners in the classroom.
So we, we start with that framing that we are going to try to find a way to first define and understand what compassion means and then list some behaviors and actions that we can do on a daily basis that will help cultivate an environment of compassion for each other. And then from that we will try to attend to each other so that they know that they've been seen and heard and felt. At the most basic level attending for me is more than simply reading somebody's words.
Oftentimes in the language classroom we're thinking about texts and words because historically that's the meat of that class. We're helping students communicate with words usually on paper or computer screens. And that's a big part of what we do and what we still do. However, we can easily forget that those words come from someplace and somebody and those that and they are inherited from other places that that student has been. That's the only way we can get our language from being in places where language is used from by other people and then we take on that language. So we often become constructed by the places we have been in the language we get that surrounds us. That's usually our parents, our family members, our neighborhoods, our churches and our schools.
So attending means that we try to find ways in the classroom together, students and myself to find ways to understand the language and practices as a holistic thing, not just words, but also the bodies that those words come from, the voices that are embodying those words. So I do a number of things with feedback and assessment practices with students and with myself where we're writing things, we're reading them to each other. We talk, exchange ideas based of base in groups and perhaps one-on-one and then we account try to account for, well what happened in your day? How did that affect what you put down here? Or how did it affect what I was able to say?
So one of the ways to attend for me has been to lead my students through a problem posing activity that I take my cues of course from Paulo Freire, but, I'm asking the readers of writing, that is their peers writing the readers of that writing. I want them to articulate to themselves, to me and to the writer how they made the judgments they did and where those judgements came from, what they accounted for in the judgment of a particular passage or particular item on our rubric or whatever it is. And so the writer then has this rich deep sense of thick description of the judgment practices of the reader. And the reader gets a chance to problematize or think through the paradoxes of language. Then together, whether it's in groups or or one-on-one, but to just choose between the student myself. We look at those paradoxes. We think about, for instance, how can reader A and reader B come to such different conclusions about your writing, about this passage or this dimension in your paper and how can they both be right? So that you can't follow orders. You have to make a decision as a writer, what do you want to do? How do you want to communicate?
So I hope you can see I'm trying to value in a very real tangible way, we all come to this languaging enterprise with different toolboxes and we're using them to help each other see critically, see outside of my own toolbox and see this other toolbox, not so that we can say, "How do I be that toolbox? But instead just to see that there are other toolboxes and I might want to take a tool or I might want to augment my tools to do more of what your tools do. But I still want to keep some of this tool here. So for me, it's, led to really rich conversations.
I'll come back to that first question you asked about personal identity work. One of the ways in which I asked my students and myself to problematize our judgment practices in the classroom is to think about our own identities and where we're coming from next to this dominant set of white language habits, that is that it gets reproduced in the Academy at an English classrooms and so forth. And I have a handout that offers like seven different habits of white language that is reproduced in texts and in our own judgment practices that I get from ... that handout was created by my students and myself over about three or four years. There's a list of resources on the back that we used to create this. So we just didn't come up with it ourselves. We looked at the research on whiteness and critical race theory to understand what is it that this dominant sort of white subject position as a writer, as a judge, what tends to be the main ways in which that gets enacted in language?
We identify those and we use that as a rubric to help us problematize our own identity as a language user and our own judgments in the assessments or feedback that we provide each other. It does that personal identity work. I want to emphasize, I do this with my students. I am not infallible in the classroom. I want my students to really, really know that. I want them to understand. So I will do this language, work with them, this problematizing with them and let them know, Look, it's not a mortal sin to say I inhabit some of these habits of white language. Like I enact that every day now. Now that I know that and that paradox in myself as a critical teacher, what do I do about it? What is my response? How do I respond? And how would you respond if you find that in your own self, even if you are a student of color in the classroom that comes from a disenfranchised background and so forth.
Min: I mean as you're speaking a few things were going through my head. I think number one was that's wild, because one ... I mean three major things came out me. Your practice of what it means to be holistic. I teach elementary school and we talk about whole child all the time, that's the buzz word, but the way you were talking about your practices in the classroom with your students, that was a true concrete, explicit way to bring in our whole selves, including including the teacher in a very democratic respectful way, like respecting the students, getting rid of the hierarchy in the classroom on.
The other thing I was thinking was that it also seems like a really true meaning of diversity so that you're asking people to show what you called all their different toolboxes so that people can see it in a very equitable way to value it, to poke at it, to problematize it. It sounds so exciting. And I'm thinking for me, I'm 42 years old. I can't imagine walking into a classroom, especially, you know, after elementary school and even sometimes during elementary school where I'm asked to do this because I think one of the characteristics of white supremacy is this notion of objectivity. And then so with objectivity, it's almost made to seem that emotions have no value in the classroom. Even though, students from a very early age are taught to be "nice", taught to be kind to each other. They're still given this message at the same time that you shouldn't have emotion in your learning, which is so false. Research shows our social emotional learning goes hand in hand with our cognitive learning.
So I'm really curious about your students' reactions when they step into your classroom and they're asked to participate in their learning in this way. For me, I don't know if I could bring my full self like this at the beginning, I would be really taken aback and I wouldn't know if I could trust you or not, to be completely honest.
Dr. Inoue: Yeah, yeah. No, I absolutely understand that and there's a couple of ways that I try to help with that. I'd be offering false advertising about my classes if I said from the very beginning, once I hand this syllabus that we talk about the first day that everybody's on board. No. Now I will say that that more students than you would think immediately are attracted to the idea that that is at least in theory, like if they're not sure if I'm just pulling their leg or this just is all going to be really mostly words and not action. So there is that aspect of that students are going to be tentative until we get to starting in the work of the course and that's usually by the end of the first week we are ... Actually, I have the luxury in college and my classes over the last decade or two to have, I can email my students two weeks beforehand and I give them assignments and they don't complain about it. They know this is college. "Okay we're going to get something. We have to do something for the first day. So come prepared even on the first day of class." It won't just be let's go over the syllabus. I think that's a waste of time.
They're college students, they know what syllabi are. However, we do go over the syllabus but I tell them, "We're adults. You can read it and if you have questions and I will ask you some questions about the syllabus and we will have some reading practices that we'll do to read the syllabus together, but we're going to leave that for mostly outside of the classroom and we're going to focus on this other more important work, building our environment together, building our ecology together."
So let me come back to how I do this on a daily day to day, week to week basis in assignments. One practice that I have found very, very valuable that goes along with the compassion and mindfulness, especially the mindfulness practices in the classroom. I used to use Twitter. I don't use Twitter anymore in the classroom because it's too public. I now use it a more closed system. It's like Twitter. I use Slack. I'm sure you've heard of it. I use Slack to allow us to connect in and outside the classroom. And so every set of labor instructions for any assignment, whether it's reading, writing, whatever it is, I give them a set of labor instructions. Step one, do this, step two ... and it's all got timing on it and so forth. And then in that, those labor instructions, there's almost always a step or two that says, "Pause for two minutes in your reading, for instance, and Slack us a message. Take a picture of the page you're on, or take a picture of page seven and with your annotations in there, your notes, and tell us one thing you liked about it." Or, "When you get halfway through this 10 page chapter, stop halfway and Slack us. Tell us in one sentence, how do you feel? What does this reading make you feel? And anything goes.
So, what I have found in this process is really interesting and startling things that really reaffirm a whole person as an intellectual, as a student, as a learner. And that is that... So for instance, last spring, I did this in a graduate class. One of my graduate students who was an older graduate student, she was probably in her 30s, and she said, "I've never been asked in school how I felt about a reading. I never was asked that." This is someone who has taken a lot of classes, has been asked to do a lot of reading and writing but never asked, "How do you feel when you do this labor?" And I thought that for me, this is really, really nice. It's not the only place that we go, right?
What's one of the first places I want us to notice, to attend to ourselves? How do I feel when I'm reading this really hard chapter on whiteness? And I'm this white person, for instance. And how do I feel? Does my skin crawl? Do I feel anxious? Am I hungry? Am I tired? Did I just get off work? Am I on the bus and I've got 10 minutes to get to class and I'm anxious because of that? All those things are important. I usually spend about 10, 15 minutes in class one day a week. And we go through some of these Slack messages and we read some weekend reflections I asked everyone to do on their labor, which usually accounts for some of the Slacking as well as for their labor logs. I asked them to keep track of all the labor they do in the class, just a quick entry for any labor session they do for the class.
So it's things like how much time did you spend? What time of day was it? What day was it? What did you do? A quick little note about like, "Oh, I read chapter four", that kind of thing. And then some other data, things like a five-star rating on engagement and stuff like that. So we gathered this data over about ourselves over the course of the semester. And then at two or three moments, we do very careful holistic sort of looking at the patterns in our labor practices.
Now, this is a layered way for us to attend to ourselves and be compassionate to ourselves and get a chance to talk about it with the class, with our groups, or with the class as a whole or with me. So that we can say, "We're whole learners. We don't just read in a mind or brain. We read with our bodies. We write with our bodies and those bodies exist in time and space and that is not equal. You do not have the same amount of time I've got. I work, you don't work. Or I work across town, I got to take three buses to get there", etc. That kind of stuff. And those things are all part of the reflections and the Slacking and that kind of stuff. It is not to make excuses, it's simply to understand those things.
And of course, me as a teacher, this has been really, really valuable practice for me to be able to adjust on the fly if I'm asking too much, if due dates or deadlines are unrealistic for half the class. And we talk about those things. I often will change or alter the classroom assignments or the labor expectations, etc., given what students say. And I'm usually asking them, "Is this too much for everybody?" Or "is that due date okay?" Or "is it due at that time, is that good for everybody or should we change that? What would work best for everyone?" And then we talked about it. So we tried to be democratic and we tried to be fair as well as trying to keep in mind what the goals of the class are and trying to hold to those things as well.
Min: I'm just thinking about how you completely changed power dynamics in your classrooms. And I'm wondering teachers out there who might feel challenged and or threatened by that, when you were first diving into this practice, how did that feel to you?
Dr. Inoue: Yeah. My first dive into, and I suppose it would have been as a Ph.D. student at Washington State University, I was really troubled by the power dynamics in the classroom. Because I felt like it was disruptive to the learning that I thought most everybody in the field would want in a writing class. So I was trying to find ways to disrupt that power dynamic and change it and give my students a more democratic set of power relations in the classroom. So, I moved to some communal grading practices and they didn't really work out. But my diving in was really my own problematizing of my own subject position in the classroom and saying, "What is it that I'm so afraid of? Why am I so worried about giving up that power in the classroom?" Because I was anxious about it, very anxious and I was not sure I could do it.
And I came down to, at least for me, my conclusion was at that time what I'm worried about is not being able to control the classroom and my students. Then I had to ask, "Why do I want to control my students and the classroom? What is so bad or dangerous about not having control? When in my life do I ever have any control over anything?" I don't have control over anything in my life. So, that I think made me feel a little bit easier about it. It was still anxious. But once I did it and really tried to do that, my students responded in the ways that people normally do. And that is with big, generous hearts and they said, "Well, if he's going to do this, I'm going to try to do it." I think that that was really important. I think we can often for a variety of reasons not give folks the benefit of the doubt, right? We can think that our students are smaller and lesser than what they really are. And I don't think that most of the time that is the case.
Whenever I've had to negotiate a syllabus or an assignment or a due date, my students are incredibly generous and incredibly rigorous and incredibly kind and compassionate when we can pay attention to those things. When we can't pay attention to them then it's easy to lack compassion or not demonstrate it. It's easy to not be kind. We tend to just think about, "Oh, what's going to get me through the day?" But when we say, "Wait a minute, how do we help our neighbors get through the day? How do we help them get educated?" You will get educated in the process. And if 28 other people in the classroom are helping you get educated, helping you learn, I think that's better than you trying to do it on your own.
So that to me feels, that's the kind of world I want to be in. It's not this sort of dog-eat-dog world, this sort of highly competitive kind of classroom or world. I don't think anyone really wants that. I want something bigger, more generous, more compassionate. That's the role I want to live in. And so I try to start in my classroom. Once I realized that I was having these unrealistic expectations about myself as a teacher and I don't want to pretend like my sense of losing or not losing control in the classroom is universal. I don't want anyone to think that that's the reason why all teachers don't do something like this. I say that was mine. And I would say that it would be important practice for a teacher if they're contemplating things like this, what is keeping them from jumping in? It could be very good reasons.
For instance, the kinds of constraints that some teachers may have given the teaching conditions they work under. I've been fortunate to have taught institutions and in departments and conditions that have allowed me to do this kind of work. I've been able to get tenure and promoted and dah, dah, dah and all that stuff and not lose my job. And my students have responded, have always responded well. Before I went to non-grading, to un-grading, to grading contracts. Before I did that, I probably would get what every college teacher gets. Is that's like one to two great disputes in my classes every year or every other year out of all the classes. Now, from the point that I started doing contracts to now, I've gotten a total of zero of grade complaints and grade disputes, zero. And I have all the data to show why that's the case.
I investigated that data to some degree in this last book that I wrote about labor-based grading contracts. So, I really think that it's important to think about those things like grade disputes or grade distributions and think carefully about them. I'm not saying that I'm perfect. I'm just saying that fairness is constructed among the people that the system is making decisions on. If students are involved democratically and have enough power in that system to make decisions, are empowered to make decisions about their grades, grades will seem ultimately fair. There's no other way around it. Fairness isn't this sort of abstract quality of a particular system. It can be a quality of any system as long as there's a right level of participation.
Min: Gosh, I wish I had you in college. That's amazing. I just want to ask you to dive into just one more thing before I let you go. And it's a quote from your keynote. You asked the colleagues of color in the room, "What does it mean to you, my colleagues of color, to sing your freedom in your classrooms, your scholarship, your pedagogies?" And even reading that right now, I'm kind of getting choked up because no one has ever asked me that before.
Dr. Inoue: And I think that's a shame, right? I think that's... Imagine the education, what classrooms would look like if everyone got a chance to think about this question at that kernel stage, right? When you were just learning to be a teacher. "I want to be a teacher. What does it mean to sing my freedom, to do my work in the ways that I want to do it right now?" Doesn't mean you wouldn't learn things from what other folks have done. It just means you might be the innovator in your world. And you likely could have been or are. So I think that question, I keep asking myself that question every year. With every new batch of classes and students I teach, I want to know how can I sing my freedom and how can I do my pedagogy and be the most authentic best me I can be?
So, for the benefit of my students. And I think, at least the way my track for this has been up to this point, thinking about the engine of racism, which is assessment, judgment of other people and the judgment of their words. Because I'm, of course, in literacy classrooms. So, that to sing my freedom in classrooms is not about me singing, actually, ironically. It's about being in a choir, if you will. Or in this bigger room with lots of voices happening at the same time. I mean, I used to say when I was first starting out as a teacher, I learned something from my students every semester. And that was true to some degree but it wasn't fully true. I walked into those spaces thinking I knew so much more and so much better about what to do in that class and what to do for those students than I thought the students did. And I think the language of my syllabi really reflected that.
Now, I can really honestly say I learned so much from my students, from 18-year-olds. I'm 49. From an 18-year-old. I learned from 18-year-olds. And it's often been because I have structured myself and my classrooms in a different way. So I attend in very different ways. That is, I tend to them, their bodies, and languages in very different ways than I did in the beginning. And it has everything to do with that. It has nothing to do with my intention to be a good teacher or my willingness to be a good teacher or the amount of knowledge I know about the subject matter. It has everything to do with what am I structuring in my behaviors in the classrooms with my students and how can I do that in generous and compassionate ways? For me, if you want to be rigorous, be compassionate. It always leads to more rigor and it always leads to more stuff, more things that happen that you didn't expect.
I love it when my pedagogy or my lesson goes off the rails and does things that I didn't expect it to do and couldn't have imagined. Because that's usually where the good stuff happens in the class. That's usually where, at the end of the semester, students will say, "What I really loved about this class was that moment when this happened." And it was the moment that I didn't script. I think like, "Wow, what other profession can we have that we could do that?" And that's part of a democratic classroom. That's part of finding my freedom and helping students find their freedom while still trying to accomplish some of the goals that we all strive to mutually set out to do.
Min: Wow. Thank you. I feel like my brain was stretched. I feel inspired. I'm already percolating with ideas of how I want to spend the first week of my class when school starts. Definitely going to borrow your idea of starting it off with talking about compassion and mindfulness and what that looks like in our classroom together. I appreciate you so much. Thank you.
Dr. Inoue: Yeah, thank you.
Learn more about Dr. Asao Inoue, and check out his speech "How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?”
You can read the transcript of his speech as well!
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Minjung Pai is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. She believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. She is a member of the UCLA Writing Project Leadership Team where she helps serve writing teachers in the greater Los Angeles area. She presented multiple workshops at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and served on the local planning committee in 2017. Currently, Minjung is the Group 6 Head Teacher (5th and 6th grades) at Westland School in Los Angeles, CA where she also serves on the Board of Trustees, the Diversity Leadership Team, and the Social Justice Anti-bias Curriculum Task Force.
Follow Minjung on Twitter @minfucious
Asao B. Inoue is Professor and the Associate Dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. His research focuses on antiracist and social justice theory and practices in writing assessments. He is the 2019 Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and has been a past member of the CCCC Executive Committee, and the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. Among his many articles and chapters on writing assessment, race, and racism, his article, “Theorizing Failure in U.S. Writing Assessments” in Research in the Teaching of English, won the 2014 CWPA Outstanding Scholarship Award. His co-edited collection, Race and Writing Assessment (2012), won the 2014 NCTE/CCCC Outstanding Book Award for an edited collection. His book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing for a Socially Just Future (2015) won the 2017 NCTE/CCCC Outstanding Book Award for a monograph and the 2015 CWPA Outstanding Book Award. He also has published a co-edited collection, Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and The Advancement of Opportunity (2018), and a book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019).
Follow Dr. Inoue on Twitter @AsaoBInoue