Pedagogical complexions - Learning to teach between cultures

Year: 2009

Author: Smith, Stephen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The ideas of place-centered pedagogy and embodied practices frame this study. According to the first idea, teaching is done best when attentive to local situations and when drawing upon contextual, regional and cultural understandings. Teaching is not only about addressing something with someone; it is also essentially about being somewhere, somehow, in some particular place. “Places are pedagogical” (Gruenewald, 2003, p. 623), and pedagogy is best enacted when mindful of its place configuration. The second idea is that teaching is an activity, a practice, and essentially an enactment of purposes that is composed literally and figuratively of postures, positions, gestures and expressions that influence the behaviors of others, yield bodies of knowledge, and otherwise realize corporeal affects (Smith, 2004; 2009).

Place sensibilities and embodied sensitivities converge most evidently when teaching in places other than those to which we have become accustomed. In other words, commonplace pedagogy is complexioned in responsiveness to children and youth of different cultures, ethnicities, and races. Pedagogical complexions is then a third idea which connects to color as a social, cultural and political signifier and to evident hue, tone, and accent as the immediate registers of difference and otherness. This idea suggests that teachers become sensible about cultural diversities, mindful of place histories and socio-political realities, yet be sensitive to the particular ways in which children and youth of different cultures and place histories move and sound and play and behave with one another.

Pedagogical complexions come into finer focus when learning to teach between cultures. This is the case for Canadian student teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, Dharamsala, India, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Dalian, China where, for nine weeks, they live and learn to become teachers. It is also the case for immigrant teachers who seek professional certification in Canada. In both cases, participants learn to teach between cultures – one they have left and the other in which they now are immersed. They come to see classrooms complexioned by different colors, ethnicities and races and to enact a pedagogy that is differently accented, differently toned, and differently postured, positioned, gestured and expressioned.

The term “pedagogical complexions” is used as a middle term, between “color” as a loaded signifier of race, power and political position, and “hue” as an aesthetized, and perhaps anaesthetizing, term of visible differentiation. Such usage does not hark back to an older use of “complexion” where it was not separate from “temperament, habitude and natural disposition of the body” and when “color” had not yet become the “primary signifier of human difference” (Wheeler, 2000, pp. 7, 20). On the contrary, this middle term avoids neither the discomfort of recognizing white privilege, nor glosses over how color and complexion are entwined in the practices of everyday life and, specifically, in school practices. It is a term that should make it uncomfortable for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, in requiring us to consider how generic, place-less, colorless, un-complexioned, pedagogical theorizing “white-outs” the lived experiences of our and others’ pedagogical practices. By the same token, “pedagogical complexions” designates nothing that can be said with certainty; instead, it suggests attentiveness to teaching elsewhere and otherwise beyond what we can definitively say, see and hear through the articulations, sights and sounds of what is culturally familiar to us. Just as “complexions” can become a term of abstraction in race theory, so must we be wary of creating an abstraction of the lived relations of teaching and learning through the interpretive effort to discern “pedagogical complexions.”