It’s Complicated: Re-visioning Discomfort in the Classroom
September 18, 2018
by Linda Stewart
Assistant Director for Graduate Student Support and Associate Professor of English
Kennesaw State University
Discomfort is not experienced equally by all students--at the same levels. We must be highly aware of the power of discomfort and the emotions it can evoke in our students.
Recently, I was charged with organizing a Spring 2019 panel for our Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning on discomfort in the classroom, a topic that I have both embraced and resisted in ways that haven’t always been visible to my former students or myself. Part of that opacity is because I haven’t fully thought through the implications of teaching from a “pedagogy of discomfort” described by Megan Boler in her landmark book Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. In organizing the panel, I realized the questions about who to invite and what questions to ask should be decided after considering the complexities of what is involved when we expect students to move out of their comfort zones.
When I was teaching General Education students in English Studies and American Studies, I often began with Adrienne Rich’s quotation, “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves,” excerpted from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision.” While my goal in sharing this quotation was to encourage students to let go of their assumptions and to be open to new ways of thinking, I was also well aware that this is a lifelong process—excavating assumptions to discover new knowledge, new truths—which is particularly relevant to teaching discomfort for both students and teachers.
In his dissertation, “Teaching Discomfort: Students’ and Teachers’ Descriptions of Discomfort in First-year Writing Classes,” Andrew Anastasia states, “I think we tend to assume that discomfort is harmless—that its didactic benefits far outweigh any risks.” To challenge that assumption, it’s helpful to deconstruct what we mean when we talk about discomfort. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, conflict, dissonance, comfort, trauma, or emotion come to my mind. At the very least, we might ask:
- What type of discomfort do we want to help students experience and why?
What do we do when student discomfort develops into trauma? Can we prevent this from happening and if not, what do we do?
- How do we establish an inclusive and safe classroom climate that embraces discomfort pedagogies?
- What is the value of asking students to move beyond their comfort zones? What do we mean when we ask them to do so?
- How might a pedagogy of discomfort be enacted to empower diverse students or promote social justice?
- How does a teacher experience, promote, or avoid discomfort in the classroom?
These are but a few questions worth asking about the assumption that teaching “discomfort is harmless.” What are yours?
As many theorists have noted, there is a natural amount of discomfort associated with learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. Most of my colleagues and students would agree that the act of writing, conducting an experiment, or taking an exam is often uncomfortable. That’s why we practice so many avoidance tactics before sitting down to draft a paper, design an experiment, or study for a test! There is a certain amount of discomfort when learning new knowledge that may contradict prior knowledge, creating dissonance and discomfort. Reading literature is dangerous, as Adrienne Rich suggests: “Facts could be kept separate/ by a convention; that was what/made childhood possible. Now knowledge finds me out/in all its risible untidiness” (From Morning-Glory to Petersburg). When “knowledge finds us out” in any discipline, we experience discomfiting conditions that most teachers recognize and welcome in their students and themselves.
But while “[t]eachers know the transformative potential of discomfort caused by dissonant ideas, […] a lack of understanding of discomfort limits the way they are able to achieve their curricular (or personal) goals and might have unintended emotional consequences for students who are especially vulnerable” (Anastasia). These unintended emotional consequences can become traumatic, yet, as the seven Humanities professors wrote in their essay, “Trigger Warnings are Flawed,” teachers “cannot predict in advance what will be triggering for students.” They argue, “There is simply no way for faculty to solve this with warnings or modified course materials.” Possibly not, but how might we be proactive and honest with students about the potential for being “triggered” by texts, discussions, or learning experiences? Raising student awareness of developmental theories and creating a safe classroom climate both help to make students “comfortable with ambiguity, of approaches and perspectives” (Ambrose et al. 2010).
College instructor John Warner states in his blog “I Want to Make Students Uncomfortable,” that making students uncomfortable is one of his primary goals. Significantly, however, he observes that teachers who agree with prioritizing this goal “should remember that in order to make students uncomfortable, they must first feel secure.” Further, he acknowledges the necessity to establish a classroom climate that is safe or inclusive for all students: “A student who experiences college feeling unsafe—culturally, academically, economically, socially—does not have the luxury of being challenged in the classroom because all of their energy is directed towards trying to survive.” Discomfort is not experienced equally by all students--at the same levels. We must be highly aware of the power of discomfort and the emotions it can evoke in our students.
In her article, Irina Popescu argues against “sheltering students,’ making the point that although her “texts are unsafe,” her classroom must be a safe space. She ensures “all [her] students respect one another’s opinions by actively listening and responding to one another during debates and class discussions.” She sees the ability to work through discomfort as a means to motivate and empower students, particularly in the area of “human-rights abuses.”
While I understand and appreciate these perspectives, what else should we consider? I have witnessed when discomfort turns to trauma for students, and it’s important to be aware of resources for distressed students on our campus. I know that we need strategies to manage “hot moments” in the classroom. And I believe we need to be transparent early in the semester, encouraging conversations with our students about assumptions—theirs and mine. I also know that around 25% of my students have experienced some type of mental health issue, 1 of 4 women and 1 of 6 men have experienced sexual trauma, and 1 in 22 veterans commit suicide every day. And I know that what happens with my students and how we experience discomfort is affected by my own comfort with discomfort.
Warner urges teachers to “share your humanity, rather than establish your authority.” Yes, but that may be easier said than done, depending upon your cultural, racial, or gender identity; your own experiences of trauma; your faculty status; and much more. In Boler and Zembylas’s blog on a “Pedagogy of Discomfort,” Boler notes that she hears a recurring question asking about the “educator’s discomfort,” which might “inhibit educational exchange with students, prevent the educator from taking risks, and eclipse the educator’s very capacity to see, for example, his or her own attachments to particular outcomes.” I know these inhibitions to be true in my own experience. Before teaching discomfort in the classroom, I think we need to first look at ourselves and reflect upon our own assumptions, discomforts, and traumas, before asking students to do the same.
The 78 comments in response to Boler and Zembylas’s blog are worth reading. Daniela Gachago’s response expresses my thoughts:
“Can you feel at the same time comfortable in a specific classroom setup and discomfortable enough with a topic to challenge your world views? What kind of assumptions do we as lecturers have, that we actually want to challenge students’ world views? It is interesting that Boler and Zembylas ask for both students and lecturers to engage into a critical inquiry, which means that both lecturers and students need to feel the discomfort.”
If we want the “pedagogy of discomfort” in our classrooms to be a catalyst for changing our students, we need to begin with ourselves. How do we as instructors avoid or engage with discomfort when we are teaching? How do we model the uncomfortable process of acquiring new skills or integrating new information? Further, how do we challenge our own assumptions and make that process transparent to our students?
Anastasia suggests teacher professional development should heighten awareness of discomfort that currently exists and is designed in such a way as to improve students' critical thinking skills using “dissonance reduction strategies put in place by mindful teachers.”
There are no neat or simple strategies to list here, but instead a call to action that is to “Re-vision” teaching discomfort, to question power, and to be contemplative and mindful about how we move forward in an informed, ethical, and thoughtful way when teaching from a ‘pedagogy of discomfort.’ This, then, is the beginning framework for conceptualizing our future panel discussion.
Anastasia, Andrew G., "Teaching Discomfort: Students' and Teachers' Descriptions of Discomfort in First-year Writing Classes" (2015). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 853.
Boler, M. (1999). Feeling power: Emotions and education. London: Routledge.
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. http://www.contemplativemind.org/
Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.htm
Cutri, R. M. & Whiting, E.F. (2015) The emotional work of discomfort and vulnerability in multicultural teacher education, Teachers and Teaching, 21:8, 1010-1025, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2015.1005869
DiPietro, M. (2018). Student Development and Class Climate. Kennesaw State University CETL Website. Retrieved from https://cetl.kennesaw.edu/students%E2%80%99-current-level-development-interacts-social-emotional-and-intellectual-climate-course
Egan, B. (2000). Feeling power: Emotions and education. Educational Review, 52(3), 302-303.
Gachago, D. (2011) Response to Boler & Zembylas’s blog post. Retrieved from http://blogs.sun.ac.za/hopefulpedagogiessu/2011/03/13/zembylas-on-a-peda...
Leibowitz, B. (2011). Boler and Zembylas on a “Pedagogy of discomfort.” Hopeful Pedagogies @SU. Retrieved from http://blogs.sun.ac.za/hopefulpedagogiessu/2011/03/13/zembylas-on-a-pedagogy-of-discomfort/
Popescu, I. (2016). The educational power of discomfort. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retreived from https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Educational-Power-of/236136
Rich, A. (1972). When we dead awaken: Writing as revision. College English. NCTE. (34)l, 18-30. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.htm
Warner. J. (2016). I want to make students uncomfortable. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/i-want-make-students-uncomfortable
Freeman, E. et al. (2014). Trigger warnings are flawed: Essay by faculty members about why they will not use trigger warnings. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/05/29/essay-faculty-members-about-why-they-will-not-use-trigger-warnings