If You’re Not Disrupting Students, You’re Not Teaching Students

When Sut Jhally entered the academic profession, he found himself standing in a lecture hall full of students feeling completely intimidated by the prospect of how to teach. What did it mean, Jhally wondered, to suddenly enter the space of the university, to occupy the position of teacher, and to be placed with the responsibility of having to teach young people in a way that truly mattered? And not just in any historical moment either, but to teach in this historical moment amongst modernity’s flux of crises and catastrophe, transnational capital and massive inequality, global screen and digital cultures, with students differentially afflicted by their own unique sets of intellectual interests, experiences, and desires? What should the purpose of teaching be in this context? And what value should teaching have for the lives of students most of all?

It is with this set of observations that Sut Jhally opened his lecture at MacPherson Institute, “Beyond the University: Cultural Politics and Public Pedagogy.” Since that initial encounter, one could say that Jhally has spent the remainder of his illustrious career developing a selective set of pedagogical theories, convictions, and ethical evaluations. In his time working as a professor in the field of communication and media studies, Jhally has witnessed a growing need for universities to reevaluate and recognize their role amidst a broad array of global forces. Evident nowhere more so than within the context of the classroom, Jhally found his students were learning about the world predominantly as participants in the realm of culture – particularly amongst the global flows of media and digital environments – and only secondarily within educational institutions including that of public schools and universities.

That public pedagogy should be the central locus where learning takes place today compared to institutional settings means, for Jhally, that students need to be capable of evaluating where knowledge is produced, used, and for what purpose within and beyond the context of schools. In addition, students also need to be endowed with abilities that enable them to exchange and translate ideas from various disciplinary vantage points to broader communities composed predominantly of non-specialists. To move from a desire to make students “knowledgable” as trained specialists in a disciplinary field, as Michael Wesch describes, to being “knowledge-able” as adept and active agents who learn to produce and use knowledge in critical ways with others is a view that should be central to how universities engage its civic mission, the needs of the twenty-first century student, and the purpose of education more generally.[1]

Yet even more controversially, Jhally argues that educators must find unconventional ways of connecting to the lives of students through what he terms as “strategies of disruption” that fundamentally unsettles knowledge they perhaps unknowingly hold or assume in relation to the world, others, and at times themselves. Initially, in Jhally’s experiences, this task required the incorporation of media produced by MTV that heavily occupied the attention of students in his class. By using and defamiliarizing images and videos from popular culture, it not only became possible to visualize and expand cultural theories related to social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality on which the course was based, but it also made students increasingly aware of the pedagogical force of culture more broadly. Education must work at disrupting the way students view the world because anything less risks functioning as a mechanism of reproduction for the world as it already exists – a world that, as Jhally rightly insists, remains deeply divided by inequities of power and capital. If you’re not disrupting students, if the work being done in class not only fails to alter what is normalized and familiar but also neglects the production of alternative imaginations, then you’re not really teaching students or preparing them for the world they are due to inherit in Jhally’s estimations.

Of course, Jhally is the first to admit that his personal experiences of learning how to teach occurred through a succession of failures with students as he incorporated different forms of engagement into his teaching practices. His pedagogical experimentation was also conducted in the context of minimal institutional supports offered by the university. In Jhally’s unique case, however, each failed lesson provided important insights towards the development of critical pedagogies organized around concepts of culture and translation, leading inadvertently to the creation of the Media Education Foundation of which he is both the Founder and current Executive Director. In this regard, his work is certainly an example of both pedagogical success and innovation. But I want to conclude with the suggestion that Sut Jhally’s lecture leaves behind a series of thought-provoking questions.

For starters, it seems important to note in the wake of recent “trigger warning” debates and “safe space” demands the opposing political and pedagogical interests that are emerging on university campuses.[2] How are we to reconcile the argument Jhally makes around cultivating “strategies of disruption” in educational practices with demands by students for the application of “trigger warnings” on course content in the U.S. and elsewhere – a demand that, some have argued, works not only to censor course materials[3] but also to undermine challenging intellectual engagements that solicit feelings of discomfort or disruption in pedagogical practices?[4] In other words, what does it mean to make disruption central to pedagogy if students want anything other than to be disrupted? And if pedagogies that fail to unsettle, decenter, or disrupt students are seen as bordering into consumptive or reproductive practices that hardly qualify as being educational at all, then how do we create the kinds of institutional commitments for teachers and students to rigorously commit to disruptive work, to see teaching as an activity not geared towards communities of consensus but “dissensus” as Bill Readings once called it, where we think, dwell, and struggle over meaning together?[5] How can pedagogical experimentation even be imagined to occur, let alone practically applied, in the midst of neoliberal reforms that have produced broad swaths of precarious employment including adjunct, contract-based, and non-tenured faculty in the university?[6] That is, if the status and condition of pedagogy is one that cannot be separated from the institutional context of the university, then what would teaching as a disruptive strategy institutionally require?

[1] Wesch, Michael. “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments.” Digital Ethnography. 7 January 2009. Web. 16 April 2015. http://www.michaelwesch.com/

[2] Loverin, Bailey. “Trigger Warnings Encourage Free Thought and Debate.” The New York Times. 19 May 2014. Web. 16 April 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/05/19/restraint-of-expression-on-college-campuses/trigger-warnings-encourage-free-thought-and-debate

[3] Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Some Students Squirm.” The New York Times. 17 May 2014. Web. 16 April 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0

[4] Ulin, David. L. “A warning about trigger warnings.” LATimes. 19 May 2014. Web. 16 April 2015. http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-trigger-warnings-20140519-story.html

[5] Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.

[6] Charbonneau, Léo. “The ‘new majority’ of contingent faculty try to get heard.” University Affairs. 14 February 2012. Web. 16 April 2015. http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/margin-notes/the-new-majority-of-contingent-faculty-try-to-get-heard/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-new-majority-of-contingent-faculty-try-to-get-heard

Jennifer Fisher

Jennifer Fisher is a Project Coordinator for the McMaster Centre for Scholarship in the Public Interest and the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Prior to entering the doctoral program, Jennifer completed a combined Bachelor of Arts with honours degree in English and History in 2007 (McMaster University), and a Master of Arts in the field of Cultural Studies and Critical Theory in 2009 (McMaster University). Her dissertation project titled "Precarious Pedagogy: Rethinking Violence and Vulnerability Within Education," is primarily interested in how the expansion of “safe" and "caring" school policies issued in response to school shootings, cyberbullying, and concerns over student wellness have risked compounding rather than alleviated scenes of violence and vulnerability within public and higher education for youth.