on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 1

As someone who often struggled with self-control as a child and who is strongly resistant to being disciplined (even now; my twitter handle is undisciplined, after all), I bristled when I first saw the title of a recent op-ed from the New York Times: Teaching Self-Control the American Way. After reading the op-ed, which is about encouraging kids to regulate themselves and develop discipline through playing and engaging repeatedly in activities that they are passionate about, I found that I appreciate much of the authors’ ideas.

Primarily a reaction against disciplinary models that demand close supervision of kids and strict regulation of their behaviors and physical/mental practices (models that are exemplified and promoted by books like, Bringing Up Bébé), this brief article encourages parents to leave their kids alone, letting them play, pursue their own passions, and work their bodies so they can develop “cognitive flexibility” instead of the ability to rigidly follow rules and memorize facts. Sounds good to me! I’m a big proponent of play and letting kids follow their own passions. And I strongly believe that kids need to have space and time to exercise and be physically active. As a side note, I was struck by a line from the article: “Though parents often worry that physical education takes time away from the classroom…” Really? I find this sad to read that some parents want kids to have even less time for P.E. Furthermore, I love the idea of empowering kids to develop their own practices and tools for learning how to manage themselves.

But, while I appreciate the authors’ critique of rigid disciplinary methods and their emphasis on play, passion, exercise and harnessing kids’ own “internal motivations,” I still don’t like their repeated use of language like “self-control” and “discipline.” Why? This is a question that I’ve struggled with the past few years as I’ve developed and practiced my own vision of making and staying in trouble. Even as I promote trouble and embrace being undisciplined, I recognize the value and necessity of training, control and being able (and willing) to follow rules. With two children, I really recognize the value of following certain rules and being able to manage our bodies and emotions…like when we’re all in the grocery store and they’re just about to lose their shit because I won’t buy them [insert super-processed, fructose-corn syruped “fruit” snack here].

I’ve always deeply enjoyed engaging in repeated practices and building up skills. And I like rituals and habits, all of which seem to be important qualities of a person who can effectively manage/direct themselves responsibly and who is considered to have “self-control” and “discipline.” Throughout my childhood, I was actively involved in organized physical activities—5 years of ballet, a year of gymnastics, a year of basketball, 6 years of soccer, 5 years of swimming—and music—I played the clarinet and was in band for 12 years. I was also a diligent student with 26 (yes, 26: K-12, undergrad, masters, PhD) years of schooling. All of these activities have contributed to my vision of troublemaking as rooted in repeated practices and the building up of habits and skills. But, I would never claim to be disciplined and to have self-control.

Like I mentioned in the opening lines of this post, I bristle at these terms. Why is that? When I started writing this post yesterday, I don’t think I could have quite articulated why but now, having used the process of writing this post as a way to think, reflect and trouble “self-control” and “discipline,” I’ve developed a few reasons.

I refuse/reject/resist “self-control” and “discipline” because these terms, which are supposedly universal and objective, have become common-sense assumptions/Norms that we are encouraged to uncritically accept as givens without analyzing how they came to be accepted and at whose expense. This is evident in the New York Times op-ed. Throughout it, they argue for the value of self-control without ever clearly defining it; it is just assumed that we know what they mean. Sure, I agree with the idea that we need to encourage kids (and adults too!) to learn how to handle their emotions/reactions, to pay attention to rules/others/the world, and to develop strategies for surviving and thriving in the world (which all seem to be implied goals for acquiring self-control and discipline). However, when “self-control” and “discipline” are invoked, they frequently cite and reinforce particular images and understandings that are extremely damaging to a wide range of folks that fail to embody, in a wide range of ways, what Audre Lorde describes as the mythical norm or the assumed/implied Subject/Self (mythical norm = white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle-classed, educated, thin, able-bodied, etc). I’ll go into more detail about what I mean here in a future post.

In addition to conjuring up damaging images and reinforcing problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined, these terms are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (e.g. the first virtue in Bill Bennet’s The Book of Virtues is self-discipline) that are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many and that is privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values (like respect, attentiveness, vulnerability).

I want to spend time discussing all four of these (and probably more too) reasons why I refuse/resist/reject “self-control” and “discipline.” And I plan to in future posts. But, since I don’t have much more time today, I want to end with a screen shot of my report card (the only report card I still have) from 1st grade at Clyde Campbell Elementary in Hickory, North Carolina (in 1980-1981). The screen shot focuses on my “social and work habits,” which are all pretty decent. Notice that some of my lowest marks are for “practices self-discipline” (ha!) and my highest are for “accepts responsibility” and “respect.” Responsibility and respect are core values for me as an adult.

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.

The undisciplined self via twitter

…and my 150th post! My pace of writing on this blog has definitely slowed down this past year; actively writing on four different blogs + other writing projects + teacher prep = less entries on each blog. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily…the great work that I started on this blog has inspired me to keep pushing and experimenting in my thinking, writing and teaching. This has necessarily led me to push beyond and outside the limits of this particular cyberspace.

Anyway, ever since I started thinking about using twitter in the classroom this summer, I have wondered what sort of self is performed/produced/crafted on twitter. This question became even more intriguing after I read Peggy Orenstein’s essay, “I Tweet, Therefore I Am”–particularly this passage:

The fun of Twitter and, I suspect, its draw for millions of people, is its infinite potential for connection, as well as its opportunity for self-expression. I enjoy those things myself. But when every thought is externalized, what becomes of insight? When we reflexively post each feeling, what becomes of reflection? When friends become fans, what happens to intimacy? The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create, and alienates us from our own humanity.

Shortly after this essay appeared on NY Times, I raised some questions about it on It’s Diablogical:

1. What is the relationship between authenticity and performativity? Is the performed (crafted) self necessarily a “packaged” self? Why can’t that self be seen as authentic?

2. Is tweeting (and blogging for that matter) only about confessing/documenting/making public the “excruciating minutia of our lives” (as Elaine on Seinfeld once uttered) or our unfiltered thoughts on anything and everything? How else are people using twitter and blogs to express their ideas/feelings and to reflect on life?

3. It seems to me that Orenstein is reinforcing a rigid boundary between I/you here. The stories we create and the accounts that we construct about ourselves are always in response/in relation to others. Accessing my “authentic” self (whatever that means) is always only done in relation to others (my favorite, JButler, has a lot to say about this in terms of vulnerability, giving an account of oneself and grief). Oh and Maria Lugones has some great things to say about selves-in-relation in an essay on theorizing about the streetwalker.

Now I admit that the intense popularity of twitter has provided lots of folks with a platform for spouting seemingly superficial snippets of their life (like what they had for lunch–is this superficial? not always), where they are encouraged to be as cute as possible and to re-imagine those they connect with online not as friends or dialogue partners but as followers (cult of personality anyone?). I’m sure that happens…a lot. But, it’s not all that happens on twitter. Twitter is used many different creative ways: for teaching, coalition-building, activism, outreach, curation, consciousness-raising and deliberately (and not so deliberating) crafting versions of the authentic self–or maybe selves who expresses themselves authentically? While there are lots of ways I would love to talk about twitter (many of those ways are very critical of the limits of it for teaching and troublemaking), I want to focus on this last point: people are using twitter to craft an authentic self…or a self who generates authentic expressions.

This is a big topic that will take more than one entry (even a ridiculously long one) to discuss. In fact, I have already started (and planned for) this conversation. Earlier in the semester, I raised the question of authenticity in relation to twitter/social media in both of my classes. And we will be explicitly discussing it in my feminist pedagogies class during our twitter week: Feminist Pedagogy and Twitter: Lived Experience, Daily Habits and Authenticity. Fun, huh? Since this is such a big topic, I want to use this blog entry as a space to begin my own reflection (theoretically/concretely) on the authentic self via twitter.

I have three different twitter accounts–two of them are for my twitter adminstrator/teacher self (femped2010, qued2010) and one is for my writer/thinker/learner/troublemaker self (undisciplined). In this entry, I want to focus some attention on what kind of self I am crafting via my tweets as undisciplined. The more I use the name undisciplined, the more I like it. I came up with it this summer, when I decided to make my twitter account tie in directly with my trouble blog (my original twitter account was named puotsy–a high school nickname–and consisted of two or three somewhat idiotic tweets posted way back in 2008). Every variation on trouble/troublemaker was already taken. I thought about using disciplinary problem (which I might like better because it seems to speak even more to my relationship to discipline: it’s not so much that I am undisciplined; I just like to always be a problem for discipline/s), but it was a lot of characters and I had been warned (by STA, of course) that if I used too many characters nobody would ever want to reply to me. So I settled on undisciplined. I must also add that undisciplined seems to be highly ironic since one of my main areas of interests is virtue ethics, which relies heavily on the idea that virtue is worked for through consistent (disciplined?) practice of virtuous habits. Ha! I do have more to say on that…but later.

I like the name undisciplined because it speaks to the role I aim to play (and the role that I usually can’t help playing) in academic/intellectual/teaching-learning spaces. As an intellectual, I am undisciplined; my PhD is in the interdisciplinary/anti-disciplinary field of women’s studies. While I have a strong background in religion and philosophy, my research has always been on the fringes of those fields. I often deliberately position myself as an outsider who tries to avoid definitions and fixing ideas in rigid and restrictive ways. And I always try to bring many disciplines, discourses, methods together in unconventional ways in my own thinking and writing. As a professional academic, I bristle at the notion of being rigorous (another definition of discipline), not because I don’t promote or practice serious engagement but because the call for rigor or the claim that one is not rigorous enough often seem to be used to dismiss ideas/theories/intellectual labor that is serious and smart and deep, but that doesn’t fit the standard of what is/who can be rigorous. (Addendum from 1.6.10: I just happened across this great post from the Crunk Feminist Collective that critically interrogates the call for rigor from within women’s studies.)  I also like to question and expand what counts as intellectual labor and who and what it should be for–should research be motivated by a drive to know and be known? As a teacher, I constantly strive to unsettle my students and myself; I don’t give many answers, but focus on raising lots of questions. I try to rarely inhabit the role of “expert”. And I work to cultivate classrooms where students learn the value of not knowing and uncertainty and where they feel encouraged to break boundaries and claim their own education.

Here are a few tweets that I have posted in the past few months. They are part of my process of articulating who I am as a troublemaker and a troublestayer. While I have been engaged in this process of articulation for some time now, ever since I started my trouble blog in May 2009, these tweets enable to me to present a self-in-process that is more deliberately (than my trouble blog self) crafted in relation to some specific others. Is this a good or bad? More on that in a minute. But, first, the tweet images (is it possible to embed tweets in an entry?):

And, here’s the twitpic image to go along with this:

I think that I could write several entries about the differences between a pedagogical approach that begins with/encourages “Why?” and one that begins (and ends?) with because.

As I looked over my tweet feed (all 120 of them–which is not much at all, I know), I realized something. I don’t think I am nearly as funny and playful in my tweets as I am (or at least, I used to be) on my blog. Why is that? Is my lack of playfulness partly because I know that all of my students will be reading my twitter feed (it shows up on our class list)? Am I trying to be too professional on undisciplined and is that (not) authentic? For example, I usually like to make lots of random connections between readings and pop culture–where is that on my tweets? What sources am I drawing on to legitimize/authenticate my undisciplined self? How am I policing myself through my tweets? How can I use my tweets to present (more) authentic moments?

In a future entry about tweeting and being authentically (?) u/Undisciplined, I hope to reflect on these questions. Maybe I will ask some more questions too (because that’s what I do), like these: What is the value of being authentic? What does it mean to be authentic? Can we access (some of) our authentic selves? What’s the difference between authenticity and accountability (as in, J Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself)?

In the spirit of ending this blog post in an Undisciplined way, I want to offer up this fabulous Halloween video (via @madisonvo):