De-Centering the Classroom | Patricia Barbeito, Dean of Faculty

In 1963, soon after the Birmingham Church Bombing, James Baldwin exhorted a group of educators to “attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty” in the classroom. He not only pointed to the necessity to rectify the lack of representation of black culture in the curriculum, but also denounced the ways in which the educational system naturalized and perpetuated that lack: “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history (…) he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.” The operations of the classroom (what we teach, how we teach, and to whom we teach), Baldwin maintained, fundamentally shape the operations of society and vice versa. To challenge this complicity and the privileges and complacencies it engenders was to risk meeting “the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.” In the face of that resistance, Baldwin advised teachers to “go for broke.”

Over fifty years later, Baldwin’s words still ring true. While the notion that power fundamentally shapes what is defined and recognized as legitimate knowledge is, of course, a truism by now (thanks as much to Franz Fanon as to Foucault), the need to decolonize curricula, pedagogy, our cultural and educational institutions has lost none of its urgency. Indeed, a current generation of (student) activists, building on the insights of critical pedagogy, echo bell hooks in insisting that teaching must be a “practice of freedom” that resists the “rituals of control that [are] about domination and the unjust exercise of power.” This is the mission of RISD’s recently inaugurated Teaching and Learning Lab, which will support faculty in fostering learning environments that critically and actively engage with existing power hierarchies both in and out of the classroom.

The “Decolonial Teaching in Action” program, offering courses for faculty in both fall and spring of the next academic year, aims to form an interdisciplinary cohort from across the institution who can apply new pedagogical models in their classrooms and act as catalysts and advisors in their respective departments and divisions. The program will cultivate understanding of major debates about, and strategies for, building decolonial curricula across the disciplines (including attention to non-Western, intersectional, anti-racist, and/or activist epistemologies). It will also enable faculty to share strategies for creating engaged classroom environments in which students participate in the construction of knowledge and development of classroom expectations. Central to this endeavor is a supportive pedagogy that progressively moves students towards understanding by providing them with the necessary tools for engaging with what they are learning, while simultaneously providing options for engagement with material in a way that addresses different learning cultures and modes.

Baldwin ended his talk with another exhortation: it was up to students to change “standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.” By “standards” he meant the plethora of unexamined assumptions – beauty, excellence, rigor, the myth of origins, individuality, and apolitical identity, to name just a few – that continue to bedevil contemporary controversies over pedagogy. For Baldwin, it is only by empowering students to feel that knowledge belongs to them, that they have both the “right and the necessity to examine everything” that education fulfills its mission.

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