From Punitive Pedagogies to Liberated Learning

Employing critical pedagogies to further social justice.
By Janell Hobson

"You belong here!”

These were the words I apparently used when encouraging one of my students to change her outlook on her college education and to strive for graduation. The student, a young African American woman, was pleading with me to write a letter supporting her retention when the University at Albany was threatening to cancel her enrollment because of her low GPA and her failure to qualify for the biology major. I did so, after giving her a pep talk and extracting a promise from her to improve her grades and to consider majoring in women’s studies, the department in which I taught.

You belong here. Even though I have no memory of using this phrase when I spoke to my student, she revealed in a later graduation speech—which she addressed to her class of fellow women’s studies graduates in her newfound role as a campus leader—that my words had affected her deeply. I could not help tearing up alongside her when she asked for a hug during the commencement ceremony.

Perhaps I am one of those professors considered “permissive” or “easy,” lacking in judgment in my role as an educator. Such pejorative labels reflect the investment in pedagogical styles that emphasize strictness, law-and-order control, and so-called discipline—an approach according to which I would have been expected to say to my student, You don’t measure up to standards. Deal with the consequences. However, I am less concerned about my teaching reputation than I am about contributing to a climate that encourages underrepresented students to succeed rather than punishes them for not meeting lofty standards that often go unspoken or unclarified. A university that operates on such assumptions can create the perception that some students do not belong, especially certain students who are made to feel like “impostors.” As women’s studies professor Patti Duncan notes, women of color in the academy are “in a double bind between feeling angry about being characterized as having been admitted only by virtue of our race/gender—and internalizing this belief to some extent—and fighting to prove our worth and competence.” 

As the first women’s studies PhD hired in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Albany, I knew I did not have to internalize any such beliefs. I am, after all, an expert grounded within the field. Despite the occasional challenge to be taken as seriously by students and staff as my white colleagues, as a woman of color I also had the authority to insist on the centering of race in the curriculum and in feminist discourse. I must still challenge prevailing myths concerning the academic integrity of a field that embraces its politically progressive identity.

However, it is precisely the field’s reputation for social justice advocacy and for championing a student- centered pedagogy of engagement that made me an approachable professor, which, in turn, allowed a student, struggling in a different major, to request a letter of support after taking my class. Not only was the class small enough for me to learn her name—in stark contrast to the gigantic lecture courses standard for most introductory courses in “more practical” disciplines at my university—but my course in particular also made her feel visible, since the syllabus highlighted the contributions of women of color. The result, in the case of this one student, speaks for itself. Telling a student that she belongs to a university community—in which belonging is reinforced through race- and gender-inclusive curricula, teaching, and advising—can transform her status from “failure” to “success.”

Struggle Over Inclusion

Imagine, then, the devastating impact of telling students that they do not belong in the campus community, as my university did only a few years later, when its judiciary committee met privately in spring 2016 to suspend two young African American women students and expel a third. Their apparent crime was reporting that they had been victims of racial assault by other (white) students—an act for which they were first branded as “liars” by a biased media, which took a few cell phone images out of context to make the women appear to be “aggressors,” and were later arrested and tried on charges of assault and making false accusations. How did a university community, which began by issuing statements and organizing rallies in support of the young women, come to condemn and penalize them?

This criminalization of three African American students at the University at Albany is but one of numerous examples of struggles over racial inclusion on various campuses. It also is a symptom of a widespread problem, one based in what can be called punitive pedagogies, teaching strategies that use punishment as a tool. From schools to prisons to policing of the larger public—as the recent Black Lives Matter protests against police killings of unarmed citizens who are mostly black, low-income, indigenous, or mentally disabled have highlighted—a punitive disciplinary system is subjugating entire groups of people.

With such disciplining, the less individuals conform to ideals of masculinity, whiteness, and physical and intellectual ability, the more they are repressed and marginalized. Knowing from my own fifteen-year experience of university teaching that such punitive pedagogies tend to generate fear and resistance rather than curiosity and passion for learning, I find it imperative that my interdisciplinary field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and similar fields formulate pedagogies that foster the as-yet-to-be realized racial inclusion we seek in postsecondary education. Whether we call it feminist pedagogy, engaged pedagogy, or simply student-centered pedagogy, we must create new models that promote liberated learning in an increasingly multiracial world. We must affirm the diverse backgrounds and experiences that our students bring to the classroom and to campus life.

The Politics of Belonging

One text that I have routinely taught in courses on media and antiracism struggles is Jay Rosentein’s documentary In Whose Honor?, which chronicles the struggles of Charlene Teters. A Spokane woman enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, Teters began a protest in 1988 against the university’s Native American sports mascot, “Chief Illiniwek.” The protest soon mushroomed into a national campaign that has resulted in the banning of most such mascots in college and professional sports over the years. The documentary, which premiered in 2004, has proven its timeliness in generating important conversations among students about cultural appropriation, racial stereotypes, and the meaning of diversity and inclusion on college campuses. After all, administrators at the University of Illinois did not anticipate that the institution’s diversity initiatives would lead to the recruitment of students who would challenge the fictitious sports mascot that was so central to the campus’s identity. Nor was there an expectation that the push for the inclusion of nontraditional students like Teters, a Native American and a parent who had witnessed the harm the mascot caused when she had taken her young children to an athletic event, would have disrupted their institutional function even on a cultural level.

Diversity and inclusion programs often presuppose that a few “others” selected to enter the university will emulate the racial, gender, class, and sexual norms of the majority. When, as in the case of Teters, students challenge these norms, universities may fear for their bottom line as alumni and corporate sponsors line up in opposition to change. While Teters completed a brief program as an MFA student, her impact is still felt at the University of Illinois and other campuses. Indeed, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and other interdisciplinary fields are still in existence as a result of demands made by students, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, for the inclusion and validation of these areas of study within higher education. Although college curricula have been challenged in the culture wars, for the most part the university adjusts such demands for representation so that they fit within neoliberal corporate models. Diversity and inclusion become mere buzzwords, now altered and framed as “inclusive excellence.”

As Bill Readings argues in The University in Ruins, this appeal to excellence ensures that excellence functions as an “empty notion . . . nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information.” “Inclusive excellence” becomes a matter of numbers and not much else. While it is important to have a critical mass of African American and other students from underrepresented groups on campus, additional issues are at stake. Consider the recent case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which the Supreme Court upheld the university’s right to use affirmative action programs. It may first appear that the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, was mostly concerned about numbers and about how many of those “unqualified” students of color with lower grades were admitted over her. However, her legal statements about “belonging” at the University of Texas at Austin—because members of her family and community had attended the university, a tradition she expected to continue—underscore the motivation for her quest to overturn affirmative action. As far as Fisher was concerned, she belonged there. Students of color did not.

If “excellence” is the defining quality for university entrance, then “inclusive excellence” becomes an obvious appeal to connect racial inclusion to an excellence that, as Readings notes, “develops within the University, as the idea around which the University centers itself and through which it becomes comprehensible to the outside world.” That diversity and inclusion are already culturally understood as the reduction of a measurable “excellence”—because low grades or aptitude are associated with certain races, ethnicities, and genders—is reiterated in the coupling of inclusive with excellence, as if inclusivity on its own has no merit.

Such framing shifts the emphasis from molding future democratic citizens in a multiracial world to fostering ways that customers can “manage” differences and fetishizing diversity. As feminist scholar Chandra Mohanty argues, “This reinvention of the vision of the public university ties into the larger military/prison/cyber/corporate complex, since the corporate university now generates the knowledges needed to keep this complex in place.” Thus, universities are “urgent sites for anticapitalist, antiracist feminists as well as other radical educators.”

Not only must educators move away from inputand output-based measurement of information and toward synthesized and sensitized approaches to diverse cultural knowledge, but they also must consider who is included and excluded through these rubrics. For instance, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the lead author of the 2015 report Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, highlights the crisis of black girls in the school-to-prison pipeline. These girls are suspended six times as often as their white counterparts (black boys, by comparison, are suspended three times as often as their white counterparts). Racial stereotypes exacerbate gendered experiences: a similar report by the Human Rights Project for Girls that same year chronicled a “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” in which, as National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill has noted, black and brown girls who act out in class after being sexually abused are punished while their white counterparts are given counseling.

Failure to achieve “excellence” through “discipline” is met with punishment, systematically meted out mostly on students of color, from school suspensions and expulsions through juvenile detention centers to the adult prison system. The mass incarceration of people of color—increasingly women of color—combined with their underrepresentation in higher education makes achieving race and gender inclusion daunting. Punitive pedagogies can determine not only who gains admission to colleges and universities but also who can complete their education through graduation. This last issue now affects the three University at Albany students who were recently suspended or expelled.

Discipline and Punishment

I was part of a small group of faculty, staff, student leaders, and community organizers invited to our local district attorney’s office to review the evidence collected a week after the racial incident was reported by the three students. Cell phone and surveillance video footage and eyewitness testimony revealed a complex tale of racism on a city bus full of intoxicated students in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, where a brawl broke out after tempers flared over racialized language. The district attorney narrowed the focus to two questions: Was the n-word uttered, thus warranting the “hate crime” accusation? And did the girls throw the first punch? This approach allowed racial microaggressions to go unnoticed. The n-word was not heard in the evidence, but other phrases were hurled at the young black women, such as “ghetto,” “ratchet,” and “go get a job.” And gender intersected with race when the surrounding men began jokingly filming a “catfight” that broke out among the women, who in their outrage lashed out at those men and snatched their phones, which created a wider brawl.

Our university missed an opportunity to provide racial healing, either through teach-ins, a truth commission that might have granted amnesty for all those involved who came forward with their stories, or what community activists label “restorative justice” gatherings that bring together victims and perpetrators to foster accountability. Not only did we not seek an alternative, but the racial stereotyping of the black women as “liars” made them targets. They alone out of dozens of intoxicated students involved in the brawl faced arrest, a university hearing, and a legal trial. The damage to the university’s reputation for racial diversity is done. Students of color at my university are demoralized, faculty are divided on the issue, and a few junior faculty members of color who expressed support for the young women have faced threats and calls for their resignation.

As the unfolding of events at my institution illustrates, corporate slogans like “inclusive excellence” signal only the appearance of valuing inclusivity. If we truly valued inclusion, we would not quickly criminalize and push out of the learning community three of our students who dared to suggest that there was a racial problem on our campus. Despite New York State’s support for a prison reentry program that promises a “prison-to-college pipeline,” the University at Albany has supported a pipeline in reverse, given what is at stake for the three students on trial for false accusations and assault.

However, one of the students—rather than expressing regret that she attended our university—thanked one of her professors of color for introducing her to black women’s writings, which gave her the strength to refuse a plea deal that would have dropped charges in exchange for a public apology. These are tough times, and the most cynical among us have noted how this case erupted just as the student movement on college campuses, influenced by Black Lives Matter, was emerging as a national force. The demands of this movement for racial inclusion in campus life, in the curricula, and among its teaching faculty have quieted at my university in the wake of the punitive actions against the three young women, but they still must be answered.

Liberated Learning

Liberated learning—informed by theorists like Paulo Freire, who promoted critical thinking in “dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student” education, and bell hooks, who insists that multicultural education has the power to “transform consciousness”—provides an alternative to punitive pedagogies. Instruments that measure “inclusive excellence” often overlook the emotional labor involved in such transformative education.

Faculty women of color and our allies at the University at Albany have expended much energy practicing such liberated learning. We held weekly healing sessions outside of class. We brainstormed strategies for antiracist praxis with student organizations in our capacity as faculty advisers. We taught the histories of extraordinary black women like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Shirley Chisholm or analyzed the writings of women of color. The classrooms that addressed diversity struggles became safe spaces where students of color and sexual minorities felt comfortable enough to share their experiences of racial and sexual harassment. “Safe spaces” are not about coddling students; they are about providing affirmation and common ground, qualities that will build a foundation for the more difficult and complex challenges they will inevitably face.

The university is still a site for critical struggle and resistance. It is a space where students from all walks of life and abilities can gather and collect tools to further their liberation. Their existence in these spaces must be welcomed and defended rather than penalized or criminalized. This is where they will thrive and evolve in their knowledge, and our pedagogies must demonstrate that they very much belong here.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University at Albany and is the author of two books, Venus in the Dark (2005) and Body as Evidence (2012). Her e-mail address is [email protected]