Together We Go There: Emergent Co-Learning Beyond the Colonial*
As a progressive educator & developing scholar of decolonization, I have been thinking about interdisciplinarity, decolonization and “co-learning” a lot lately. This semester brought new and consequential insights on all three that I’d like to share.
As the semester began, I enthusiastically set forth to explore interdisciplinarity with our newly-formed Interdisciplinary Art Learning Community. We attempted an experiment with a virtual learning community to explore the interdisciplinarity of our art practices.
I thought we could engage the question from a systems perspective. I had survived my first ecology class and actually learned enough about panarchy in the study of complex systems that I thought I could experiment with the application of systems thinking to art making. At residency, I presented the panarchy model’s looping, figure eight diagram of the adaptive cycles that complex systems undergo, moving through processes of growth/exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization. On a video conference call, I asked the group to describe what systems they saw their art influencing. Asking myself the same question, I focused on colonial systems, working through the idea of a “decolonial aesthetics” as proposed by The Transnational Decolonial Institute.
One comment led us into a lively discussion about family systems theory, which sees the family as an emotional unit or a system of complex relationships. That was a very tangible connection between complexity theory and our daily lives, as we have all experienced the complexity of family interactions. But after the call, I recognized that the framework I had presented was not really working.
The final video conference became a real co-learning moment, when I heard feedback that the learning community seemed to falter at the beginning, with ideas that were too abstract, and a bumpy path that made it difficult for participants to make connections between lived experience and theory. Panarchy is a loopy process, and chaos, disturbance, unpredictability are all part of the process. I felt us descending into the twisty part of the cycle.
Co-learning is also an unpredictable, sometimes disturbing, often chaotic process. Co-learning—an idea I first heard while teaching at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and carry forward in my roles at Goddard and now, also as a PhD student in Environmental Studies—has heightened my understanding of the approach we take in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Art (MFAIA) program.
My teaching statement refers to Don Finkel’s book, Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, which has inspired me. Edward Brantmeier’s succinct summary of co-learning resonates for me; “a facilitator doesn’t get in the way of learning by imposing information.” Like my mentors before me, I lean heavily on the “guide on the side” (rather than “sage on the stage”) view toward my advising work. I see myself as the trail assistant – present with good boots on feet and tools in hand, contour map, hedge clippers, compass and bug spray, ready to help clear the way as the student blazes a new trail or walks a disused path. Despite debates about which approaches are best, I have to agree with the Designer Librarian that good teaching encompasses a range of approaches, tools and skills, as well as instinct and wisdom. My dialogues and my own learning this semester certainly drew on a re-mix of learning and co-learning strategies.
Meanwhile, in concert with the Interdisciplinary Art Learning Community, I was dialoguing with current MFAIA student Storme Webber, about indigenous identity, decolonization, and the role of media in indigenous movement-building. Her interests & investigations influencing (& influenced by) my own, I found myself immersed in the study of indigenous media, history and education. Attempting to sort through the language of postcolonial and decolonial studies, I consulted Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts, by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, an excellent resource on these issues; their essay on colonialism quotes Edward Said, who makes this clarifying distinction: “‘Imperialism’ means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism’ which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory'” (Said 1993).
In response to a draft of my essay, another current MFAIA student and Learning Community participant, Nicole Oxendine, offers the definitional comparisons below, and suggests that co-learning, by sharing power rather than exerting power and authority over another, may be a decolonizing approach to learning.
Collins English Dictionary defines colonialism as “the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker people or areas.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers four definitions, including “something characteristic of a colony” and “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” [Co-learning impacts both participants = shared power = decolonization.]
After many years of doing workshops on cultural appropriation, I found myself really wrestling with the question, “how can I be a good ally?” How can I participate authentically in decolonization? At the height of my query, Storme sent me a link to Black Girl Dangerous, a blog I’d begun reading a semester earlier at the recommendation of another current student, Nashay Jones. The post Storme shared rocked my world: “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” by Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang. The article stopped me in my tracks, especially this paragraph:
For Freire, there are no Natives, no Settlers, and indeed no history, and the future is simply a rupture from the timeless present. Settler colonialism is absent from his discussion, implying either that it is an unimportant analytic or that it is an already completed project of the past (a past oppression perhaps). Freire’s theories of liberation resoundingly echo the allegory of Plato’s Cave, a continental philosophy of mental emancipation, whereby the thinking man individualistically emerges from the dark cave of ignorance into the light of critical consciousness (20).
On the panarchy cycle, Tuck and Yang’s critique of Freire puts us at the point of disruption and chaos—the painful twist when the old order begins to collapse. Freire’s ideas of liberation obscure the differences between the interests of settlers and indigenous peoples. I, an assimilated immigrant, am a settler. For Tuck and Wang, Freire, whose writings have guided my teaching for decades, is part of the problem.
This world-rocking door that opened held more in store, as I later tuned in to the Indigenous New Media Symposium at the New School. The panelists who spoke as artists, lawyers, fashion designers, media jammers historians and warriors, each provoked us to examine the misrepresentations and mis-appropriations of indigenous culture. They provoked me to face the question, full on, of how to become a true ally in decolonizing the media, decolonizing education, and participating in indigenous resistance/resurgence, as Jarrett Martineau’s slides shouted out. He highlighted the significance of re-; the Remix and transformation of culture, Restoration of sacred land, Response and Reaction to colonialism, Reclamation of native languages. The video of the panel can be viewed on Censored News or here: http://www.inms2014.com.
While the panelists never used the word “interdisciplinary,” I think many of us would agree that decolonization is an interdisciplinary project. Each of the panelists come from different tribal affiliations and areas of expertise and passion. The commonality they shared is that they are rooted in traditions and lineages that have been sustained for millenia. [Nicole writes, “this may be a bit far-reaching, as we avoid the romantic & recognize that we don’t know what has been lost, sustained, reconstituted & newly evolving for each of the panelists & their tribes….]
As I write this paragraph above, I realize maybe I’m full of shit. I’m succumbing to what Tuck and Yang would call a “move to innocence” (a concept theorized by Janet Mawhinney in her 1998 Master’s thesis); that is, an attempt to ease my utter discomfort with confronting my complicity in settler colonialist, liberal arts education. Tuck and Yang write,
“We are asking them/you to consider how the pursuit of critical consciousness, the pursuit of social justice through a critical enlightenment, can also be settler moves to innocence – diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege” (21).
Their essay concludes with the unsettling idea that decolonization is incommensurable with coalition politics, human and civil rights-based social justice projects.
“The answers will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed require a dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics -moves that may feel very unfriendly” (35).
These are disturbing words. They rub against my liberal-idealist proclivity for an ethic of love, peace and…yes, friendliness. Tuck and Yang’s essay provokes a truly radical disturbance, pushing me to the edge to examine my own desires as a displaced immigrant, just beginning to understand my Taiwanese heritage-identity-politics (historically situating my family history in the era of Japanese occupation—postcolonial? Where to locate the parentheses to properly punctuate my identity?) They chafe against my longing for a sense of belonging—a desire for settlement? In the panarchy model, disturbance brings about adaptation—and transformation.
This writing leaves me full of questions, as we evolve our program, and as we navigate a transitional time for Goddard College. We in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program pride ourselves on the merging of art and life. Now, as the lives of countless species disappear in the Sixth Mass Extinction and economic crisis goes global, we cycle into chaos. It seems most urgent that we pay attention to this resurgence of indigenous culture, that we take cues from the survivors of colonization and the living earth as she reorganizes herself. Let’s roll up our sleeves for the rough road ahead. It’s time to examine the colonial roots of our assumptions about liberatory “pedagogy,” time to unsettle the foundation of “progressive” ideals. Are we ready to step out of the cave?
*With much gratitude to the Interdisciplinary Art Learning Community and especially to Nicole Oxendine (enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina) for editorial aid and the title of piece.