Troubling Pedagogy: Another Perspective

This summer I hope to develop a more effective yet succinct articulation of my troublemaking pedagogy. It seems important to be able to describe and explain what I mean when I tell people that my teaching philosophy can be summed up in a few words–“I like to make trouble and to train students how (and why) to stay in trouble.” I need a pithy follow-up description because, as you might imagine, saying “I make trouble and encourage others to stay in trouble” gets me in a lot of trouble. And not always the good kind of trouble. Instead of opening up others to be curious about what I might mean with such a claim, it often shuts them down as they struggle to envision a classroom where trouble doesn’t lead to total chaos and a failure to learn and engage.

As I work to articulate my own vision of a troublemaking pedagogy, I plan to read and engage with some other visions of troublemaking pedagogy (including Kumashiro’s Troubling Education, which I have taught several times and written about on this blog). Here’s one vision that I found yesterday: Amy K. Kilgard’s “Chaos as Praxis: Or, Troubling Performance Pedagogy: Or, You Are Now” in the July 2011 issue of Text and Performance Quarterly.

Here are just a few (somewhat random) reflections, inspired by my reading of this article:

ONE: Kilgard’s article is about how chaos theory might enable us to understand the messiness/unruliness of performative pedagogy. I am intrigued by her focus on unruly bodies–of the teacher and the students–and how they inhabit and move in a variety of classroom spaces. She contrasts her own messy, chaotic embodied experiences in the classroom with the neat, ordered and balanced description of embodiment in several new anthologies on performative pedagogy, writing:

My experience [as an embodied teacher] is not so ordered; my embodied performance in the classroom as I practice troubling performance pedagogy is one of deliberately pushing myself and others off balance (219).

I like this idea of being off balance, especially in terms of how it can generate surprise, wonder, unpredictability and unknowingness. It makes me think of Alison Bailey’s idea of being off-center.

TWO: Shortly after her passage about being off balance, Kilgard writes (emphasis mine):

We have been DISCIPLINED to write in NEAT and TIDY ways because this shows that we have THOUGHT CAREFULLY about our practice, that it’s RIGOROUS and CREDIBLE. How do we write the MESSY, the AMBIGUOUS, the sublime, multilayered, DENSE, complex, GNARLY performative practices of the classroom? And how can we make that ambiguity and messiness ACCESSIBLE to other people? How can we demonstrate theoretical COMPLEXity?

This passage has really got me thinking. I like her contrast between discipline (as neat, tidy, careful thinking, rigor and credibility) and messiness (as ambiguous, dense, gnarly, and complex). She does a good job of describing the problematic binary within the academy between disciplined and undisciplined (yes, another binary to bust for me and KCF over at It’s Diablogical!) Who says that messy can’t be disciplined and undisciplined? That developing complex and gnarly ideas can’t reflect careful and serious thought? Can we imagine making ideas/words/our pedagogical practices accessible and intelligible without reducing them to neat and tidy soundbites? I like this last question. How do we make ambiguity and messiness accessible to others? What is meant by accessible here?

THREE: Kilgard describes the process of moving furniture in the classroom in order to make it a more engaging and productive space:

On the first day of every semester, we assess the classroom for its performative possibilities. Usually we find the space lacking in fluidity and sheer size. However, as budget constraints require small (read: thirty students) classes to use rooms made for thirty desks and no more, we look deeper into the crammed spaces for the possibilities outside of the traditional desk, chair, or table space. We look up and notice the eight-foot ceilings and wonder how we might use this vertical space. We experiment with the furniture to see how it might fit together and take up less space. As I have done this exploration many times before, I encourage some past practices that have proved effective, such as stacking tables two high with their surfaces together around the perimeter of the classroom. No matter how many times I’ve been in a particular classroom, though, I still encourage the exploration. Inevitably someone sees a new way to integrate personal belongings and desks or a new way to utilize the bizarre nook in the front corner where a column obscures sightlines. This exploration is also necessary for us to remake our mental space. Some students grumble about moving things around every day, but most willingly undertake this exercise, freeing themselves from their typical physical constraints (even within these constraints).

The configuration of space in the classroom is always an issue for me in my pedagogical practices. I find the standard classroom set-up, with desks in a row facing the teacher, to be a huge barrier to critical and creative engagement with each other. I have experimented with rearranging the furniture a little (usually this involves finding the best and easiest way to create a “feminist circle”), but I haven’t devoted much attention to thinking through the logistics of this process. Experimenting with moving furniture can take a lot of valuable class time and be met with a lot of resistance from students. Kilgard mentions that she sometimes “encourages past practices that have proved effective.” I wonder if there are any resources out on the interwebz that offer up tips and maps of classroom configurations to try? It would be cool if there were an app for that…(sidenote: just did a very brief search on the app store and couldn’t find anything–anyone else have as much trouble as I do searching for apps?).

In thinking about experimenting with space, I want to throw online space into the mix. How can we use online spaces (through blogs and twitter) to create deeper engagement? Can we connect those online space experiments with physical (offline) experiments to keep pushing at troubling how, why, what and where we learn? When is so much experimenting too much? When does it overwhelm students? When does it become too much of a distraction? These questions remind me of an article I assigned in my feminist pedagogies class last fall, Designing Choreographies for the New Economy of Attention. While I need to re-visit the article, I do remember that they experiment with mixing online and offline space through their use of twitter during conference lectures. These questions also make me think of how it might be possible to put embodied and performative feminist pedagogy into conversation with feminist blogging pedagogy without making the discussion just about how bodies don’t matter in online classroom spaces and without reinforcing a “real” vs. “virtual” binary. Any suggestions?

PEDAGOGY CHALLENGE OF THE DAY: Speaking of experimenting with classroom space, how would you trouble this space? Here’s a picture of the auditorium (from my vantage point up at the podium) that I taught in for an intro class this past spring. While it could seat up to 250 students only 115 were enrolled in the class. In what creative ways could you use this space? (Let me admit upfront that I failed miserably at productively troubling it this past semester.)


Thompson, Nato. ‘‘Introduction.’’ The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. Eds. Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette. North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA, 2004.

I have a lot more to say about this excellent article, but it’s time to wrap it for the day.