On the classroom

Belfast, N. Ireland

I wonder from time to time what compels me to continue my academic study. Why keep investing the time and money in earning more degrees, reading more books, and writing more essays? Although many reasons exist, the one upon which I wish to muse now is, what I might call, the sanctuary of the classroom.

I do not use the term sanctuary in terms of a holy place, but rather in terms of a safe space, a protected environment where one is free to pursue and engage different perspectives. In my undergraduate study, the classroom felt like a refuge to me. It was a place I knew I could come to in order to be vulnerable about new paths I was pursuing or strands of thought I found perplexing, or perhaps downright troubling. As one professor said regarding the discussion of challenging perspectives, “If not in the classroom, then where?” To me the classroom is (or at least can be) a unique place. It is a respected space, set aside to be the place where iron might sharpen iron, as the biblical phrase goes. Granted, the classroom is not always used in this way. In fact, many times it actually can be seen as a realm of imperialism (or perhaps paternalism), where figures of authority wield some of the greatest potential power: the ability to sculpt minds. When abused, the space of the classroom is destructive, making room only for the propagation of single stories and un-nuanced ideologies that, while presented as truth, are actually the dangerous notions of folks more concerned with the proliferation of their own agendas than the creative development of the thought processes of their students. They have not heeded the wisdom of the great poet Khalil Gibran, who wrote that good teachers do not give to students from the temples of their wisdom, but rather help guide the students across the thresholds of their own minds. This well describes both my undergraduate experience at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN with such folks as Richard Goode and Lee C. Camp, as well as speaks to my initial graduate experience with Trinity College Dublin here in Belfast.

We had our second day of classes yesterday, continuing our first course “Research Skills,” where we dive into the study of academic work, pursue knowledge of our classmates, and discuss both the potential pitfalls and possible benefits of academic training. In yesterday’s morning session, we spent an hour participating in story sharing, taking time to hear from each of the fourteen or so M.Phil. students as well as our two professors Gladys Ganiel and David Tombs. Quickly learning that though we are not significantly racially diverse (as 95% of the people in the room were light skinned), we do all bring a wealth of experiences and stories to the program. Coming from Nigeria, India, North America, Northern Ireland, England, Norway, Romania, and the Republic of Ireland – as well as offering experiences in places such as Indonesia, Cambodia, China, South and Central America, South Africa, Israel and Palestine, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Egypt, Australia, and much of Central and Eastern Europe – the program participants can provide a range of insights and approaches to the terribly difficult and elusive pursuits of conflict transformation and reconciliation. In our afternoon session, we explored how we might be intentional in creating a safe space in the classroom. We offered such approaches as:

  • Learning to listen to hear the meaning of the other’s words and not simply to formulate our next response
  • Taking care to avoid lecturing others during group discussion
  • Practicing ‘double vision,’ i.e., learning to see from the perspectives of others
  •  Being generous with our own knowledge – i.e., seeing the classroom as a sort of collective bank of knowledge to which we should all have equal access
  • Embracing the sacredness of questioning everything (with thanks to David Dark for this phrase)
  • Avoiding competition, and instead seeking to sharpen one another with our dialogue
  •  Being sensitive to the traditions and conversation approaches of the different cultural backgrounds present
  •  Being intentional to hear everyone’s voice whether through personal deliberate silence or genuine invitation to those less assertive in sharing their opinions
  • Courage to seek clarification when one feels offended by another’s remarks
  • Pursuing accountability in the event of inappropriate or seemingly degrading comments
  •  Honesty with one’s self regarding one’s intentions and ‘air time’ in group discussion
  •  Not shying away from confrontation, but rather pursuing it constructively
  • Finally, remembering why we are here: to study the transformation of conflict and the pursuit of reconciliation, and to be sure these are also given intentional intragroup attention

I participated in a similar exercise when several white students from Lipscomb took “The American Civil Rights Movement” at American Baptist College, a historically black school in Nashville. Our professors Richard Goode and Janet Wolfe asked that we divide into small groups and explore how we might like to approach our time in the classroom. If I remember correctly, that group’s suggestions closely paralleled those of my current group. Mutual respect, intentional listening, grace and accountability, and the freedom to challenge each other are some of the many beauties a well-constructed classroom has to offer. As one studies violent conflicts, one quickly appreciates the danger that dissenting views present for many people around the world. Whether historically (or presently!) in such places as Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Cambodia, China, the United States, or perhaps even one’s own home, offering an opposing view to someone can potentially result in violence or even death. Speaking a dissenting word too loudly within earshot of the power structures, or confronting an individual who perceives you as an enemy, is often dangerous business. Aware of this, I acknowledge the great privilege that is the academic classroom, and hope to be intentional in avoiding the staircase to academia’s ivory tower. I aspire to act responsibly with this privilege, practicing a kind of educational jubilee as I seek to redistribute to others the knowledge I gain here in Belfast. For if we do not share from our experiences and stories, our acquired wisdom and knowledge, then why bother to learn? “No man is an island,” the saying goes, so let’s not try to be.

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