Transformative Intellectuals: Teaching Oppositional Practices in Academia

Introduction

This section explores how the current pedagogical practices employed within academic institutions have not only increased the difficulty of teaching oppositional practices, but have stifled their very existence. It examines some of the causes, explains what is being done to counter this trend, and suggests ways to merge two diverging pedagogies (traditional vs. transformative) so that they can work in harmony.

I believe ascribing a personal self to your work is necessary in order for readers to better understand the words you write and the meaning you are trying to convey. For this reason, I will briefly explain the background of my personal learning experiences.

Survival of the Fittest

I have attended public schools for my entire life. I am friends with people who went to expensive private schools (up to $13,000 per year); however, my socioeconomic background placed me in public schools. From when I was very young, my mom made me very aware of this fact — she attended a private school all the way through to the twelfth grade. Because the public high school where we lived was known to have problems with gangs, drugs, and poor academic performance, my oldest brother went to a private all-boys school, Central Catholic.

I remember being in a car once with his friends from private school and driving by my sister’s middle school (which I later attended), and his friends remarked, “Look, it’s the people who’ll be pumping our gas.” Hearing them say that made me feel weird, especially because they must have known that people in our family attended that school. I think that moment was very revealing of the class system in San Antonio.

Because of some financial issues, my brothers, sister, and I ended up attending the drug-ridden, gang-banging, poor-performing Holmes High School. However, my own personal perception of Holmes was far from all those things. Because all of my siblings attended before me, by the time I arrived, I knew all about activities like academic decathlon, computer club, band, and tennis. While I didn’t pursue all of these activities, knowing they were available changed my perceptions.

I must admit, my academic efforts were rarely rewarded. I was not an Honors student. While all my friends were in Honors programs, taking special field trips and working on intellectually challenging projects, I was enrolled in the regular classes where kids sat in the back and smoked (I’m not kidding!). However, this gave me advantages that only became clear later in my academic journey, when I realized that while my friends were being coddled, I was learning to be an anthropologist, deep in the trenches of research. I learned to talk to the students around me and ask them about their lives. One student in my English class came in and told me stories about the latest stereos he’d jacked from cars. I asked him why he did it and he said that he loved the rush. I found it odd that he shared things like that with me, but I suppose, in a strange way, we were friends. Was I hanging out with criminals? I guess I was.

Occasionally I’d make it into an Advanced Placement (AP) course, where I’d associate with geniuses and they’d look at me like I was a weirdo because of my small vocabulary. However, they were intrigued by my observations of my surroundings.

Once I had a Spanish teacher from the west side of San Antonio who asked me to stay after class. We’d discuss class and race and what it meant to be Latino. At the time, I viewed these conversations as disagreements. He drove a low rider, a ’60s Impala, and wore guayaberas shirts, while I wore whatever name brands I could find at Ross and drove an ’83 Datsun truck. Later, however, I realized that our informal conversations served as early training in rethinking issues of culture, race, and identity.

Nevertheless, most of my core subject teachers (English, history, math) told me I was not “college material.” In my senior year, my guidance counselor told me I was good with my hands, and I should look into vocational school. I was fortunate that my brothers and sisters served as role models, and that my father thought I needed to be an engineer. He made sure that I went to UT’s summer engineering camps, where I worked with minority students from around the state, learning hands-on tools and work on projects with professors. Here I developed personal relationships with professors, who would later write me recommendation letters for their program. Furthermore, I gained confidence from my computer science teacher.  So when I applied to UT, in spite of the conflicting messages I’d received, I did have a strong foundation from which to draw.

A basketball shooting catapult my friends and I built (I'm on the right)

The Beginning of Oppositional Practices

I arrived at UT orientation excited and ready to experience all that the great and mighty university I’d heard so much about had to offer. However, during the mechanical engineering orientation, it became quickly clear that I didn’t realize what I’d gotten myself into. The doors closed and the professor leading the orientation began to speak. “These next four years will not be fun. You are here to compete with one another.” At that very moment, I got up out of my chair and walked out, straight to the RTF orientation. Though I did not know much about the program, I had made a high school prom video, and I was just hoping for a better experience. I arrived as the orientation was just beginning. The professor in charge greeted me. “Welcome to the RTF department! We’re going to have a great time! I hope you’re having fun seeing the campus! We look forward to seeing you in our classes!”

I decided to sign up for all of the department’s introductory courses. There were more than 3,500 students in my high school, which I felt was pretty large; however, when I arrived to classes with more than four hundred students, I felt overwhelmed. In retrospect, the experience was like a cattle corral, and we were all brought together to be branded and punched. I remember my government professor holding up an issue of The New York Times in class and stating, “This is fact.” Sitting all the way in the back row, I raised my hand. The professor walked over and handed me the microphone. “What about the ads next to the articles?” I asked. “Do they alter the facts?” This was the first time I felt my oppositional tendencies surface in an academic setting.

It was the way I took this oppositional attitude toward ‘traditional’ academia that made academics wonder about me. They saw my potential, but would constantly remind that I could not write and was lacking in academic refinement. Nevertheless, they’d hire me to work with them. When this happened, I mostly argued with them and tried to offer alternative perspectives. It became a balancing act that I never really enjoyed, but assumed was par for the course.

Learning Through Facilitation Not Dictation

I didn’t really begin to learn about how to think about academia until I met Sandy Stone. She runs a program called the ACTLab, where the pedagogy focuses on the facilitation of theory and practice simultaneously. The goal is for students to “make stuff,” with an emphasis on irony and media.

I began to learn about alternative teaching techniques in these courses. By taking traditional courses and ACTLab courses at the same time, I was able to see the contrast between the two, and that I was oppositional in traditional courses, but cooperative in ACTLab courses. In my traditional courses, I was taught to follow a line, learn the line, and recite the line. The line was fact. If I veered from this way of thinking about the line, I was no longer objective or academic.

Two other professors, Joseph Straubhaar and Charles Ramirez-Berg, also influenced the way I learned about alternative teaching techniques. However, they maintained a traditional focus on learning through writing papers. However, like Sandy Stone, they facilitated learning by asking students to ascribe personal meaning to academic work, which drew me to them. I loved how they encouraged me to take my ideas and academic theory to create new work, even if it was just to further my understanding of a topic.

Bringing Facilitation into the Classroom

When it became time for me to teach for the first time, I took my opposition to traditional teaching into the classroom with me. The first class I taught was a multimedia lab where I showed students how to use various programs such as photoshop, premiere and dreamweaver. The normal way to do this is by giving students tutorials. As the teacher, you sit at a computer station that projects onto a screen at the front of the room, and they sit at their computers and wait to be told what to do. While this technique standardizes the teaching of this kind of material, it often results in lost and confused students waiting for the instructor to come by and help them, while others simply shut down or already know the software and get bored. I knew this because I had taken similar multimedia courses in high school and observed all these things.

I decided to teach a little differently. I began each class by seating my students around a circular table. We’d talk about our day and address any specific questions they had about the day’s learning objective. My goal in doing this was getting the students to have a personal stake in the class so they’d value the day’s lesson. Beginning the class this way was crucial to creating a positive classroom experience while maintaining a steady pace of learning. I discussed with the students how I have used the software we were learning in my own work. I also mentioned alternative methods of doing the same work without using the software in order to break down objections to being forced to use the software. Sometimes I’d allow the students to choose which software they wanted to use for a project. We’d explore what would be required to learn the program, I’d do a demonstration, and then they’d go to their computers and begin working.

I firmly believe that everyone learns at a different pace, and that not everyone learns best with the same teaching method. By giving a general demonstration and then allowing them to work, I could work with each student individually, putting a personal touch on their learning process. This was sometimes difficult, since it required a great deal of attention to the social, cultural, and academic cues coming from each student. I’d listen to the inflections in their voices, the way they’d hold their bodies, and the things they’d convey in the opening conversation to decide how best to interact with them.

Breaking Down Objections and Creeping Socialism

I was fifteen years old when I was introduced to the world of hi-fi. Hi-fi can best be described as a way of life. It combines the love of music, the love of gear, and the love of culture. The first hi-fi store I went to was Concert Sound which, as it turns out, is one of the last true hi-fi stores left in the world. At Concert Sound, I learned various methods of assembling a good stereo system as well as other tools I could employ in the quest for the ultimate home musical experience. However, what was truly unique about Concert Sound was the way they facilitated education.

Concert Sound, 2001

The first time I visited Concert Sound, Mark Heaston was working. When my friend and I walked in, he greeted us and sat us down to talk about what type of hi-fi we currently had and what we were interested in listening to. I told him that we’d simply found the store in a phone book and decided to drop by. Mark spent the next hour showing us various systems, ranging in price from $500 to $25,000, without a hint of hesitation. My friend and I were blown away. I won’t ever forget the sensation of the hair on the back of my neck raising when Mark played Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the ‘big’ system.

I went back to the shop many more times before I bought anything, and they’d even lend me gear to “check out” so that I could get an idea of what I would be purchasing. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I was sixteen years old and my friends laughed me out the door when I told them about the way I was being treated.

Then, sometime during my freshman year at UT, I visited my parents in San Antonio and dropped by the shop. Until that point, I had never really met Mark’s business partner, except when he’d occasionally yell at me for playing something too loud. I knew his name was Creston Funk, and I knew that he always seemed to be very busy, but that was the extent of our relationship. When I went to the shop this time, however, he was there, and I began to talk to him about how I had recently developed a website for a local hi-fi store in Austin. He got really excited and practically begged me to sketch him a website right then and there. Since I’d been working with Sandy Stone in the ACTLab for a semester, I had the HTML skills required to design Creston a website in three days. What I didn’t know then was that doing so would change my life. Creston took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about the hi-fi industry, as well as about modern art, photography, and other creative fields. But it was what he taught me about how to sell hi-fi that is of greatest relevance to this article.

Creston and a customer listen to the hi-fi

Creston taught me to read social cues, to be patient, to allow the customer to feel comfortable and to truly understand what they were purchasing. He was not interested in the quick sale. He wanted everyone who walked out with a hi-fi to understand what they’d just bought, even if that meant postponing the sale for months (even $10,000 sales). For example, we once had a customer come in and consider buying a full system. We showed him the store, and he was very impressed. He seemed very eager to make a purchase, but Creston told him to take his time and put some thought into his decision. We didn’t see the customer again for a few months, and then one day he walked in and said, “I’ll take it,” and he wrote a check for the entire system.

Two of the most significant techniques Creston taught me were creeping socialism and how to break down objections. Creeping socialism sounds political, but it’s not. It’s about treating people with such care that a truly trusting relationship forms between you. Creston used this term when we worked with customers over a long period of time, letting them learn about the way we do business and sell hi-fi, so that they’d feel more comfortable. I’ve adapted this idea to the classroom. I create personal connections with my students and work with them gradually, so that they feel comfortable with the new ways of learning I present, and so that they feel they can be active participants in their educational journeys.

Breaking down objections is just as important a technique as creeping socialism in my classroom. Breaking down objections involves giving students the tools and confidence they need to be successful, instead of letting them feel awkward and out of place. While this probably sounds straightforward, it actually requires quite a bit of skill and craft. I adapted this technique to the ACTLab along with Brandon Wiley, another graduate student. Our first step was to transform our classroom into a safe space where the students felt truly comfortable. To accomplish this, we’d set out expectations for our students’ work and constantly remind them that they should take risks, remember that failure was perfectly all right, and that what we wanted from them was real effort toward expanding their integration of theory and practice.

Office Hours as Creative Space and Party

As an undergraduate, I was terrified to go to the office hours for any of my courses. They made me feel like a total failure, and my insecurities were confirmed when I’d go and the TAs/professors would inform me that I was a bad student (they’d use academic language, but the intent was clear) and that I needed to learn how to write. They’d often say that I was beyond their ability to help and would recommend me to the undergraduate writing center. I experienced this even as a graduate student.

So when it was my turn to hold office hours, Brandon and I vowed to try our hardest to work against the negative reputation we felt office hours carry. We decided the way to do this was to declare our office hours a space of making. In class, we stressed our willingness and abilities to help our students with any issues they might be having, whether this meant discussing postmodernism or showing someone how to sew. We wanted to be there for our students so that we could break down their objections to a learning method that required them to “make stuff.”

Brandon shows a student how to sew.

The end result was essentially a making party. People came in with their projects and sat at the tables and worked. They talked to each other and collaborated. Some just came in to hang out. Others came with the latest underground videos and played them on the projector screen for everyone’s amusement. You could practically smell the creativity in the air. Students from other classes came in and began asking questions and the next thing we knew they signed up for our classes the following semester.

Another trend that was very difficult to explain to my colleagues was the presence of graduated students who still came to office hours to help other students with their work. I’d often look around the lab and see four or five students who had already graduated, there simply because they want to see current students succeed.

Graduated student Saturday (top left) comes to office hours and shows students how to circuit bend

The combination of art, science, and theory in ACTLab courses created a space where professionals, amateurs, learners, and a motley assortment of others came together to share ideas and stories and bend theory in ways that furthered everyone’s respective fields of study. One undergraduate loved our approach so much that, without ever officially enrolling in a class, she began to hold public ACTLab courses at Monkey Wrench Books, a local co-op bookstore. She called the courses “Learn Something Awesome,” and they’ve since been highlighted in the Austin Chronicle‘s “favorite activity picks.”

In an effort to facilitate creativity and encourage public discourse, our classes are open to participation from the general public. At an art show once, I met a scientist and invited him to come to our class. Two years later, he was still attending our classes to give demonstrations, help students with projects, and demonstrate an invaluable enthusiasm for wanting others to succeed. When students see such a dynamic group of people, they almost can’t help but dive passionately into their projects.

Local scientist Jerry gives a demonstration of an open-source video editor to students

Making Waves Forever

In short, this pedagogy has taught me to hold multiple discourses in productive tension, leaving room for interpretation, experimentation, and the interweaving of new meanings. Learning this pedagogy taught me to create and promote transformative intellectuals by using oppositional practices within academia. Academia and its accepted norms of tests, quantitative results, institutionalized responsibilities, and the desire for structure and order are the traditions I fight against. When I consider the founders of communication theory to whom I was introduced in my classes, people like Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Sandy Stone, I know that none of them were ever fully accepted by academia; in fact, they were heavily criticized and even ostracized. But their oppositional practices brought innovation to their fields. I am prepared to bear that same cross because, as my journey through educational institutions has indicated, diversity of thought yields fruits few can imagine.

I’d like to conclude this section by noting that while the ACTLab has provoked an enormous international response, the reaction within our own department at the University of Texas has been less than supportive. We are often accused of lacking a coherent discourse, when the reality is that we pride ourselves on holding multiple discourses in productive tension. If I could be granted one wish, it would be that the other faculty within our department would come to our classes and see the work we do. Perhaps one day, student feedback forms that read, “This department should offer more courses like those in the ACTLab, courses that support active participation and increase productivity. VIVA ACTLAB!” will be acknowledged.

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