Saturday, April 30, 2022

Towards a Pedagogy of Listening: An Interview with Elisabeth Paquette & Gideon Strauss (Pt. I)

by Elisabeth Paquette, Gideon Strauss, Héctor Acero Ferrer, and Andrew Tebbutt

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.

On February 28, 2022, Andrew Tebbutt and Héctor Acero Ferrer, conducted the following interview with Dr. Elisabeth Paquette and Dr. Gideon Strauss on behalf of the Philosophy Otherwise team. This interview will be published in two instalments. In Part I, the interviewees frame the conversation through a series of reflections on the Philosophy Otherwise colloquium—which took place in ICS between November and December of 2021. In Part II, they delve more directly into Dr. Paquette’s philosophical work and its bearings on a potential decolonization of pedagogical practices. We present to you Part I of the interview.
- - - - -

Gideon, I'm wondering if you could briefly describe your impressions of the Philosophy Otherwise colloquium that we organized at ICS last fall (November-December 2021). In particular, how has it shaped your thinking about the practice of philosophy?

Before I answer your question, I want to mention two of my own commitments in participating in the colloquium. One was to collaborate in ICS’s consideration of the white supremacist habits that are embedded in our own tradition of scholarly practice. I think part of the intention of the colloquium was to recognize as a school that we have continuing habits of scholarly practice that were shaped—acknowledged or unacknowledged, intentional or unintentional—in a context of white supremacy. Coming to terms with that legacy, I think, was part of the intention of the colloquium, and it was also one of my own commitments.

Another commitment that I brought to the colloquium was my investment in land acknowledgements. My hope was to learn from the conversations in the colloquium series about ways to integrate an acknowledgement of the histories of human presence in the regions that I inhabit and traverse. And “inhabit” and “traverse” are important words for me, because I inhabit two regions. I inhabit the ecologies around a town called Stellenbosch, in South Africa, which is an agricultural, university town, and I also inhabit Toronto. I traverse these spaces nomadically, in a kind of  annual migration, residing mostly in Toronto, but spending significant time in Stellenbosch. And to think about how to acknowledge the colonial histories of these places was also an intention of mine. All of this raised some questions which I'm far from answering. What is it to “acknowledge”? What is even acknowledged? Whose histories do I attend to and how do I attend to those histories, taking into account my own situatedness as a settler twice over? I’m a 10th generation settler stock in South Africa, and by the privileges of my appearance, I’m grafted into the settler aspect of presence in Canada. And so, whose histories do I attend to, and how do I attend to those histories when it comes to acknowledging?

This commitment to land acknowledgements translates into a query about the integration of land acknowledgements into my own practice. Here, there were three practices that I was concerned with specifically. The first is my practice as a scholar. The second is my practice as a citizen. And the third is my practice as a member and participant in the life of a particular local faith community. I was also concerned with how these practices interact with each other. 

So those were the commitments and questions with which I came into the colloquium. Turning to my experience of the colloquium itself, I would say three things stood out to me. Perhaps the big one was the need to cultivate listening practices. I remember a particular conversation that we had with Colombian philosopher María del Rosario Acosta, who emphasized both a posture of listening and practices of listening as ways of doing philosophy that need attention. That resonates with me as someone who tries to do philosophy phenomenologically, but in a way that's informed by ethnography. But a question pressed itself on me: what does it mean to adopt a posture of listening? What does this look like? I especially appreciated the claim that there’s a tactfulness to listening, that listening requires an attentiveness, not just to context, but to shifts in context and to micro-contexts. This question also came up for me when we had a conversation with Lori-Anne Dolloff, a scholar from the University of Toronto, about Choral Practice and about a composition that included Inuit song. What stood out to me was how choirs along the hundredth kilometer from the US border engaged with Inuit song, and how this relationship to song has shifted over generations, so that a previous generation of Inuit had a certain response to the song while a current generation of Inuit have a different response to it. And so listening practices, in an ethnographically-informed philosophical practice, require listening, and then listening again, and then listening again…

I also felt challenged by some of the conversations in the colloquium about the need to act in the face of the risk of doing wrong. And specifically, the question of how to negotiate the risk of offering offense, of doing damage, while at the same time needing to act—here considering scholarship as an act (or at least as a practice with a series of actions). This led me to think also about pedagogy and our institutional presence in the world, both in relation to other academic institutions, but also other communities and institutions, in terms of how we institutionally must act, while probably doing damage or causing offense, as we do so. How do you negotiate that risk? And how do you nurture a disposition institutionally, but also personally, that resists the temptations of cynicism and apathy in the face of difficulties like these?

Lastly, I take away from the colloquium series as a whole an awareness of the immensity of these tasks,  and of the immensity of the forces involved, specifically in relation to the smallness of our school and the relatively negligible effect of my own scholarship. Against the backdrop of what I've said above, I’m made aware of the need to cultivate both modesty and perseverance as parts of my disposition, but also parts of our institution’s disposition in the world. In terms of the effect of this in my practice of philosophy, I would say that it brings about an intensification of my awareness of the need to embed philosophical practice ethnographically, and to pay attention to what might constitute practices of listening, philosophically speaking, in these various dispositions, of modesty and perseverance in riskiness. 

Thank you, Gideon. What you’ve shared provides some very helpful context for the conversation that we had in our colloquium, especially given that it was “in-house,” so to speak. I have just one further question, before we move on to your dialogue with Elisabeth. What stood out to you in particular about Elisabeth’s presentation in the session in which she joined us, especially in terms of the relationship between questions about philosophy and questions about pedagogy?

A few things stood out to me. The first one has to do with a question that I’m going to ask Elisabeth later on, and it concerns the “tectonics” of the encounter in Elisabeth’s work between the bodies of work of Alain Badiou and Sylvia Wynter, and how they press up against each other in Elisabeth's reading. And I have to say, as a caveat, that I’m not a Badiou or a Wynter scholar, so I’m coming at this question with the posture of a beginner. What stands out to me at this point is Badiou’s commitment to the emancipation of all, versus Wynter’s commitment to considering Indigeneity and race in particular (not to exclude the gender aspect of her work, which is there, but is not what jumped out to me in the context of our colloquium). The way in which those differing approaches to emancipation press up against each other and create fissures, fractures, and saliances is interesting in Elisabeth's work. 

Also, in her dialogue with ICS Junior Member Abbi Hofstede, Elisabeth said: “One thing I try to think of when I think about the academy is what counts as knowledge in academic spaces, and who counts as knowledge keepers in these spaces as well.” And so those questions—what counts as knowledge and who counts as knowledge keepers—really stood out to me, as well as the implications of thinking through these questions. Elisabeth also said: “This should be a live question for us as philosophers always: ‘what counts as knowledge?’” I’m intrigued by that. 

Also in the conversation with Abbi, Elisabeth talked about the importance of humility and the importance of unlearning and relearning over the course of one’s career. This connected with my concern for nurturing a kind of a modest resilience (or resilient modesty) in our scholarly practices, and for what the implications of this would be in the pedagogical relationships between newer and older scholars in their trajectories (especially taking into account your concern about hierarchies of knowledge keeping).

Lastly—and this didn’t stand out that much in our conversation, but Elisabeth did mention it, and I found further reference to it in her online presence —I was intrigued by her concern for monuments, which has me thinking about the texturing of space by means of memorialization. In any case, the notion of texturing spaces by means of memorialization, by means of monuments, is very interesting to me. But then I also wondered about the other means by which we texture spaces in ways that memorialize, as well as the mnemonic effects of the texturing of learning spaces and what those effects are on the scholarly practice. And so I’d be intrigued to hear what Elisabeth might be able to take from her study of the public effect of monuments on the texturing of space, and what insights she might have for the structuring of pedagogical spaces, mnemonically. 

Thank you, Gideon. Now we’re going to go over some introductory questions for you, Elisabeth. We want to get your thoughts about the experience you had with us in November, and ask you to point us to what you found interesting. The colloquium was an experiment for us at ICS, a way to create a space where spontaneous-yet-structured conversations and scholarship could be produced. But also so much work went on behind the scenes to create a space that was safe enough and open enough so that people could have conversations in which they could bring—in ICS language—their “whole selves” to the table, and have their own stories be part of what was discussed and interacted with. That was a way for us to foreground questions of racial identity and marginalization, and to incorporate those concerns into our dialogue—because you can’t incorporate stories without incorporating concerns about how different people interact in that space academically. And so, we want to ask you if you see value in that approach to doing communal scholarship. Do you think there are other alternatives we should explore in order to effectively incorporate the types of concerns that we want to address with this experiment? We know you do a lot of this work in your own context, so is there anything from your own learnings that can be incorporated in what we do here with this project?

First of all, thank you for inviting me back. I do value the kinds of things that you are doing, because in philosophy spaces in particular, there isn’t a lot of time spent on conversation, collective learning, and skill-sharing, and I think that this is something that you all have brought to this philosophical space, and I think it’s extremely valuable. So I enjoyed participating in the colloquium, and I got a lot out of it because I don’t often get to have these kinds of conversations and be in these kinds of spaces.

I also think it’s wonderful that you have faculty and students who are doing this together, and that faculty show up for these initiatives. Often there is a kind of distance between faculty and students in which faculty feel like they ought not to be learning alongside students. But it’s really valuable to be able to learn from your students simultaneously, and this is something that flies in the face of a lot of how we think about academia. I often reflect on how we as faculty think of ourselves and of what we “ought” to do, as well as how we think about knowledge (in particular, the difference between thinking of oneself as a “holder” of knowledge versus understanding knowledge as something that’s produced between us and in community). I think these conversations are really valuable, and so you all are doing a lot of great work. I know that from the organizing I do with the “Feminist and Decolonial Politics” workshop that I do every year; these conversations take a lot of work behind the scenes. This work requires constantly shifting, navigating, getting feedback and then reshifting again, and having ongoing conversations about how best to implement things, how to change things, and whether to change things. 

From my own experience, I think it's always important to remember that there is no one way to do things, and that it is really important to create many spaces in which these kinds of conversations can happen. Creating these open dialogues about pedagogy and content is really important, as is having spaces where you read texts that you might not otherwise be introduced to. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that no one space is going to do everything nor should one space do everything. I often get comments in response to the workshop in which people say, “Oh, can’t we do this thing…?”, and I think to myself, well, you could do anything, in theory, but in reality you can't do everything. The workshop, as an example, can only do certain finite things. And so the more people are doing things, the better. The more we’re encouraging and empowering people to do these kinds of things collectively, the better. And the more we show up for other people doing these kinds of things, the better. Because no one space can do all things. And so I think this is related to the humility that Gideon brought up before, that you need to recognize that you can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t think that you could do everything.

I think that the insights you offer about space—that no space can do everything, that we need to be present to support others’ work, that we should recognize the limits of the spaces we create—are true “takeaways” for us. And our second question, which is more general, is along similar lines. Are you hopeful about these types of exercises? That is, are you hopeful about efforts to consider issues of oppression and marginalization in academic contexts? Are these conversations gaining momentum? Are they gaining momentum pedagogically? Or do you think this is something that we’re doing now, but once the urgency is gone, we will go back to things as they were before?

I hear this question as asking whether I’m hopeful for the field of philosophy. I think this is a great question, because I think hope is really important, but is often felt to be lacking in the era that we’re in right now. So I think it’s something to really hold on to. I have a “yes/no,” or  “both/and,” answer to this question. I’m hopeful in the sense that I think that the field of philosophy is changing. I think that there are more and more spaces that are opening up, more and more students and faculty being trained in areas that are distinct from the canonical conception of philosophy that I was trained in. So this is changing, and I think there are more spaces to do that kind of non-canonical study. I think that there is more attention paid to, and more funding for, this kind of work. And these are all things that I think are structurally important for changing the field of philosophy, in addition to people doing the content work, which really matters. There have always been wonderful scholars doing content work in non-canonical fields, but I think it’s also growing in various ways in terms of institutional support.

So I'm hopeful in those ways. But I am also not hopeful that university is going to become decolonial in any sense. I think that this would require that the university look extremely different from the way that it looks right now, and I’m not sure what this would look like. It’s not a matter of saying that we ought not do this work. I think that doing the work is really important, but I also know that the institution of the university has huge structures of white supremacy and settler coloniality behind it. For example, the fact that institutions are on Indigenous lands is not something that’s going to change overnight. So there’s definitely a “both/and” to my thinking about hope: I think that we should continue to do the work as though it’s possible while also recognizing that there is a horizon of possibility that we may never get to, certainly not in my lifetime.

Actually, before we continue with my prepared questions, I want to ask Elisabeth to elaborate on your last comment, where you point to the need of holding on to hope even if we don’t see the results in our lifetimes. Over the weekend I listened to an episode of the CBC radio program Ideas, from December, that featured a lecture given by a science fiction author named Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is trained in literary Marxism at the University of San Diego. He’s written twenty or so volumes of science fiction, and last year (or late in the year before) he published a 700-page book called The Ministry for the Future, a work of climate fiction. In the lecture, Robinson made a distinction between utopia and what he calls "Optopia," and argued that both are necessary, that it’s necessary to imagine good places that are difficult to imagine achieving from where we are now. Robinson argued for the social importance of utopias, even though we can’t get there or can’t tell how we might get there. By contrast, Optopia, which is what Robinson describes in The Ministry for the Future, is defined as the best possible future outcome we can imagine, knowing what we know to be the case now. In his book, Robinson tells a story about climate change that focuses on what we must do, we have to do to avoid extinction, given the limited period that we have. So, given the system of nation-states and the reality of capitalism (and he’s an anti-capitalist, and is opposed to the nation-state), Robinson wanted to offer an imaginary that took into account what we’re going to have to work with while we are addressing the climate crisis. And he calls this an Optopia. And I wonder, when you look at the prospect of decolonization of the university, what is your Optopia? What is achievable for you, imaginably achievable within, say, your lifetime, with regard to decolonizing the academy?

That's a great question. I do some work in and across the university and with various caucuses to push for change around various communities. First of all, there are the easy things. For example, for the first time in the university’s history, we’re going to have a Native American woman teaching Introduction to Native American Studies. She was a student at UNC Charlotte, she’s also staff, and she’s adjuncting for the position, so she’s paid (although adjuncts in the southern US in particular do not get paid very much). Beyond this, having full-time tenured faculty who are Native American women teaching Native American studies, and also other topics that they would choose to teach, would be a great thing to see at the university. Additionally, having a full professor who is an African American woman would be a great thing to see at our university, which doesn’t exist right now. So there are small things like this that I can point to about our institution in particular in terms of what things should look like. But I don’t know if that’s what you’re asking about or not. Because in my dream world, I imagine having representation at the university that is consistent with the population of Charlotte in particular, in terms of the demographics of the university, staff positions versus faculty positions, race, gender and ethnicity.
Also, there’s the issue of ensuring that university is affordable for more folks. This seems like a really far-off dream, but it would be amazing if this were possible, given the kinds of structural inequalities in Charlotte, North Carolina (which does not cost as much as it does cost to live as Toronto, I realize). However, the degree of poverty and the inability to move between socioeconomic status in Charlotte is ranked very low for the United States generally. Again, I don’t know if this answers your question, but if I were to write a list of the things I want to see implemented right now, these things would be on it.

You did. You’ve given us some wonderful glimpses into your thinking here.

Dr. Paquette is an assistant professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina, and affiliate faculty with the Department of Africana Studies, the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies. She was one of the guest speakers at ICS Philosophy Otherwise Colloquium. 

Dr. Strauss is ICS’s Academic Dean and Senior Member in Leadership and Worldview Studies. His current research interests are focused on the application of narrative inquiry to practice studies, with an emphasis on the reflective practice of leadership in organizations.

No comments:

Post a Comment