By Amy K. Hamlin
Not long after I arrived at St. Kate’s in 2008, I had a chance conversation with Dr. Francine Conley. The topic of our impromptu tête-à-tête centered on the role of inquiry in the classroom, how to encourage it and how to sustain it. As a poet, artist, performer, and Professor of International Languages and Literatures at St. Kate’s, Francine brings an abundance of creativity, risk-taking, and improvisation to her role as an educator. The exchange we had proved influential not only because of the wisdom she conferred on my at-the-time underdeveloped pedagogy, but also for the patience she advised me to maintain on the long road ahead. I was fresh out of graduate school, and whereas my lecturing skills were solid, I didn’t know squat about how to generate inquiry-based discussion. Francine’s advice, paraphrased here, was to give my students the space to ask good questions and to let that space unfold in the time it needed. This was admittedly opaque to me at that moment. I wanted a formula, a straight and clear path, preferably one that did not require vulnerability on my part. Neophytes are nothing if not eager and often persistent. Thankfully, I was both.
In the nearly ten years that have transpired since that conversation, I have made some progress in my efforts to encourage a culture of inquiry in the classroom. And, perhaps more importantly, what I have slowly discovered – and endeavored to unlearn – is my deep-seated fear of not knowing, of not having mastered my area of expertise, much less my field of study. Some would call this imposter syndrome, but such a diagnosis tends to focus on the individual and not on the consequences and conditions of this psychological pattern. To be sure, the fear of not knowing has implications for the classroom. How could I give my students the space to ask good questions if I was unwilling to face and stand in my own ignorance? The term mastery (as opposed to, say, expertise) is key, because of what it potentially reveals about the stultifying politics of conventional educational practice and the toll it takes on our capacity for authentic and engaged learning.
One way to think about mastery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is as a kind of “superiority or ascendancy in battle or competition, or in a struggle of any kind; victory resulting in domination or subjugation; an instance of this, a victory.” Thinkers such as Paolo Friere, bell hooks, and Jacques Rancière tell us, in as many ways, that education in a culture of mastery risks perpetuating intersecting systems of oppression that are as insidiously internalized as they are alienating and antithetical to authentic learning. Many of our students arrive in our classrooms and work spaces having already been schooled in cultures of mastery; the phenomenon of teaching-to-the test is but one example. And yet changing demographics of who our students are – how they learn and what they need to live full and free lives – should challenge us to question our own assumptions about what constitutes effective learning and the limits of those assumptions. As educators, whether we are faculty or staff, we must model for our students a willingness to not know, which is commensurate with our willingness to learn. And, yes, to ask good questions.
What makes a good question? It’s an inquiry, however inelegantly phrased, that I posed to my students about half way through this semester just ended. We had by then settled into a generative class dynamic and were well into the material of the seminar. Titled “Irreconcilable Differences?: Contemporary Art and Controversy, 2017 Edition,” this discussion-based class used two questions to establish pathways into discussion of the three artworks under consideration: Who has the right to make and exhibit artwork that surfaces the pain of historically marginalized communities in the United States? Is this the best question to ask? Both questions catalyzed and sustained candid, contentious, and courageous conversation about race and power in the art world. And the second question yielded an unexpected result that evening in mid-March. Inspired by Sr. Corita Kent’s 10 Rules, which became a reflective touchstone for us over the course of the semester, my students compiled some answers below to the question that started this paragraph. I offer them here as not only a way to close a circle on my chance conversation with Francine back in 2008, but also as an invitation to consider another question:
What might education at St. Kate’s look like outside of a culture of learning that privileges mastery over inquiry?
Amy K. Hamlin, PhD, is the Alberta Huber, CSJ, Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts and Director of the Neufeld Initiative at St. Catherine University. She is an associate professor of art history.