Rigor vs. Liberation: Admitting When School Is Boring

The exact power of our traditions is that they cannot be properly taught through traditional structures of learning.

A Black Studies professor whom I had in college, who radicalized me profoundly and inspired my love of Ethnic Studies, was also one of my least favorite teachers.

His courses, while providing information which was unique at my private university, also relied on esoteric jargon, theoretical readings, an overwhelming workload, and exams which required all-nighters to pass. Though wise and devoted, this professor was bent on proving the legitimacy of Black Studies by making it “rigorous” in the eyes of our school. Only by establishing a respected space for Ethnic Studies in the academy, he would often espouse, could the field gain the ability to hijack its machinery and use it to write new narratives.

As much as I learned in many of this professor’s courses, I also hated them for how they drained my mind and body, how difficult the material was to understand, and how staunch the vehicle was through which we students were receiving radical information. I often spent so much time in production mode–secluded in the library, cramming for tests, or cranking out papers within hours of their deadline–that I absorbed very little of what I was supposed to be learning. The difficult language, the necessarily monastic studying habits, and the sheer amount of work required, kept myself and many of my peers not only from fully grasping the new ideas, but from engaging with them together, and connecting them to our own lives as students and oppressed people.

In the best courses I had in college, professors explicitly shared their pedagogy and course goals with their students, and even designed the syllabus and set up the readings based on students’ suggestions and areas of interest. The workload was negotiated, and the class worked together with the professors to determine what amount of homework was reasonable to expect. Professors also made a concerted effort to make new information accessible and thoughtfully communicated. While these kinds of courses were rare, they are the ones I remember with the most clarity, and from which I recall the most appreciated lessons. Most of them were also courses which had a feminist, queer and/or Brown focus–which is not, I think, coincidental. The professors whose courses I enjoyed most understood the material they taught not only to be fodder for transformative action, but which also needed to be shared in transformative ways in order to be truly honored, and to honor the students engaging it. That learning should be enjoyable, accessible, negotiated by the learners, and should challenge old structures of power beginning with the ways of the traditional classroom, was a commitment shared by all the best educators I have ever known.

What many of my queer, feminist and Ethnic Studies professors understood that the Black Studies professor mentioned earlier seemed not to, is that the exact power of our oppressed histories, traditions, cultures and languages is that they cannot be effectively passed on, do not maintain their potency when they are forced into traditional models of learning. That learning should unite generations, should be fun, and should be measured not by the amount produced but by what the community receives from it, runs in direct opposition to the value of “rigor,” the notion that education should be grave, individualized, and a form of devoted suffering. To recognize and acknowledge when learning is draining, stressful and lacking excitement is to call out the values which have always silenced, excluded and erased our stories from traditional education.

As an aspiring educator and oppressed person, I have no interest in proving myself to power, and have even less interest in forcing my students to do the same. We are powerful because we have survived colonial models of education. Our traditions are powerful because in order to be taught properly, they must necessarily dismantle oppressive styles of teaching and learning. In all kinds of learning spaces, at all stages of growth, transformation, and education, I hope to determine with my community what is worth learning, what makes us feel excited and inspired. I hope to discover collectively what we need to feel empowered, and to reject all which is rigorous, stifling and boring.

Special thanks to Roy Pérez.

5 responses to “Rigor vs. Liberation: Admitting When School Is Boring

  1. I’m going to email a more thoughtful reply. I hear what you’re saying about our traditions and boring-ness as oppressive, but I don’t think rigor and liberation are diametrically opposed.

    • Ok, cool. I think one thing I might add is that by “rigor” I don’t just mean working hard or taking learning seriously. I mean a specific value coming out of a traditional academic approach which imagines learning as something that should be exhausting, should be isolating, and which measures learning in terms of hours and the amount of knowledge “produced,” not in terms of how it strives towards change, or the ways in which it empowers and incorporates the community.

  2. I think academic structuralism also plays into this, with conflicts arising out of one’s mere entry/paricipation in the structure that formulated and/or legitimated oppressive knowledge in the first instance.

    • Definitely, I think the goal of making a commitment to liberated learning–a kind which honors our communities and identities, their needs and their traditions–is to dismantle traditional education, not merely amend it.

  3. I just read this critique of historicism in Sharon P. Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism and it felt relevant: “My argument with history, therefore, is now about its necessary efficacy or its archival rigor; my contention here is with how it is used to either fix a critical trajectory for a discipline (in the case of queer theory especially) or to ground discussion of race in appropriate histories of black and white peoples in particular…. I find that history has a very limited reach where black/white bodies are concerned…. [E]ven though integration is our [historical] gold standard, we seem wholly unable to practice it critically.” (11)

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