Tag Archives: teaching

Anti-racist teaching and learning

I’ve been reflecting recently on what is involved in teaching for liberation – especially in what might be involved for me, as a white person, to teach in a way which demonstrates that Black Lives Matter and is anti-racist.

The first thing I can do is to make sure that I am handing over the microphone whenever appropriate, and encouraging everyone to listen to people of colour. Paying attention is the first step – and believing what people of colour say, and acting on their requests.

In doing this, however, I need to make sure that I’m not putting inappropriate burdens on those I’m trying to help. Black people and other people of colour who are members my community don’t have any responsibility to educate me or others – I’m very grateful to those of you who choose to offer that, but I don’t want to pressure anyone. That being so, to try and pass over my teaching role to people of colour isn’t always the right move. Giving opportunities and listening is important. Forcing people to speak, requiring emotional or other unpaid work from them, or disclaiming my own responsibilities as someone with a teaching role in my community may be just as damaging – as Sophie Bevan says in a recent blog post, she always has to “answer banal questions about where I’m from or justify my existence in white spaces” and the frustration of that is “constant, inescapable and oppressive”. Sometimes I do feminist work – but I don’t like it when I’m in a room full of men and they all look to me for the ‘feminist’ or ‘women’s’ take on a topic, and so it would be wrong of me to expect people of colour to automatically take on anti-racist work. 

I have to hold a balance between taking responsibility for my own education and sharing what I know with other white people, and remembering that as a white person much of the racist structure of our society is hidden from me. There will always be new perspectives to hear and more to learn, so I am always a learner even when I am also in a teaching position.

Actually, this is a familiar position and not restricted to the subject of race. I frequently teach about theology and the diversity of understandings of God/the Spirit/Love/the Divine which exist in my community – obviously I have to do that while unable to know everything about God! I do think I know some things about God, from experience and paying attention to other’s experiences, and I know some things about talking about God, because I’ve worked on those problems for years. But I’m also still a learner – learning from God and learning from other people. 

This position demands a willingness to take risks – to say something and see whether others agree, to try and understand something and risk getting it wrong. It demands a willingness to say that I have made mistakes in the past – which I absolutely have – and to expect to make more in the future. It also means trusting the participants in my courses not to take me as the ultimate authority: knowing that they will listen to me, but also supporting their own processes of exploration, and hoping that if I do make a mistake, they will uncover that for themselves and be able to make a correction. How? In anti-racist work, probably by listening to and believing more people of colour.

In order to support other learners in that, I need to continually model the process. Some resources I’ve found helpful in getting to where I am today include:

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo
White privilege, Kalwant Bhopal
Natives, Akala

Some resources I hope to engage with in the future to learn more include:

Talking About Race from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture  (thanks to my partner Piangfan Angela Naksukpaiboon for passing on this link)
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F Saad
How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi‎
Rigorous, a magazine by writers and editors of colour 

I also try and donate to relevant organisations when I’m able to. Two I’ve supported recently are:

Colours Youth Network, which supports young Black and people of colour who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex (QTIBPOC) 

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which works with schools and communities to empower young people and improve their opportunities

Supporting a charity is also a chance to learn about their work and listen to their perspectives.

There are also opportunities online. These include the formal opportunities offered by organisations (for Quakers, both Quakers in Britain and Woodbrooke run courses) and informal opportunities. For many years now, I have been reading in social media spaces, where people take the time to make their personal experiences public and make explicit links to the political. This is harder to make recommendations for, because it has to start with your choice of social media setting and it works when you explore, follow links, reach out, and seek people who have different experiences.

I think Twitter, which is structured in such a way as to encourage this kind of public sharing, is especially good for learning by listening. If you’re new to Twitter and want to learn, as well as following people you’ve heard of, try exploring hashtags. For example, the recent #PublishingPaidMe hashtag revealed the way in which black authors are offered smaller advances than white authors in similar situations, and #BlackInTheIvory shares the experiences of black people working in academia.

Maybe I’ll see you there. White people, let’s be anti-racist learners together.

Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

At the weekend, I’m going to have my first attempt at teaching via Twitter. This is a version of the Massive Open Online Course which has been around as a concept for a while – but in taking it to a social media platform, rather than using something designed for teaching, I’m experimenting with something which is new to me. It will be a pay-as-led course (that is, offered free, but with a request for donations). I don’t know how it will go (come and look at #QuakerGodTalk if you want to find out for yourself), but in this blog post I want to write about why I want to try it.

I think I have two main reasons. One is about ease of interaction, and the other is about the non-linear nature of Twitter discussions.

Ease of interaction is the more straightforward of the two reasons. In many online teaching platforms, there’s a clear distinction between the ‘delivery’ and the ‘response’, between a block of content which is delivered live (in a webinar) or arranged in advance and the participant’s responses. In some cases, as on Moodle, the content and the way of responding are several clicks apart – you watch or read, then go to another space, the discussion forum, before you can comment. Teaching on Twitter minimises this distance – the content is delivered in the same tweet format as responses are given, and to reply, retweet, or like is only a single click. I’m hoping this means people will talk to me. It’s like the difference between teaching in a lecture hall or a flat-floored room – both are good, but they have different dynamics.

Twitter’s facilitation of non-linear discussion is less obvious. Some things about Twitter are just as linear as any book – a timeline and a thread are both, precisely, linear. And yet – because Twitter is asynchronous, you can go back and look at (and interact with) something from the past. Because you can link one thread to another, you can loop back to a previous discussion. I don’t think you can make it completely circular, but it is possible to create a spiral, or a path with a series of branches, which individuals can explore at different speeds and in different ways.

To write a book about my topic (the book is Telling the Truth about God), I had to pick an order in which to present the ideas. It can be done in a linear way. But when I teach in the classroom I don’t force people to be linear about it – we loop back to earlier topics, bring things in as they seem relevant rather than in a particular order, form connections between ideas and approaches, and generally build a network of concepts. The book is like a guided bus tour of a big city – it picks out some important landmarks and presents them in one possible order. A Twitter conversation is more like being free to explore and stopping to chat to people at different points – the same landmarks will probably appear, but you can skip past things which don’t interest you and choose to spend longer with those which do.

I hope that this will enable a rich conversation to develop and draw in people from many different backgrounds, with a uniting interest in the evergreen challenges of talking about God. If you come and try it, please let me know whether it works!

Details on the Woodbrooke website.

Last Day of 2019

It’s the last day of 2019, the last day of the year and (depending on your counting system, possibly) the last day of the decade. I haven’t been blogging as regularly over the last few months – my energy has been taken up elsewhere – but it seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of the year, the last ten years, and some thoughts about what’s coming in 2020. I’m going to split my review into four themes: reading, writing, teaching, and personal.

Reading

In the last decade, I’ve read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but what I read has shifted over that time. It was probably about ten years ago that I got a kindle for the first time, and that opened up two worlds for me: downloading fanfiction from AO3 (rather than reading it on my laptop), and buying cheap ebooks from Amazon. The latter especially has been a big shift in the publishing market and probably affects the next section, too, because when it’s easier to self-publish or to run a small press, because it’s easier to create and sell ebook-only editions, it becomes possible to cater to niche audiences (like people who want to read LGBTQ+ romances) in a way which was previously… well, which was previously happening mainly in fanfic.

I’ve also made extensive use of libraries, second-hand bookshops, and new bookshops throughout that time. The horrified book-shop running friend who almost refused to speak to me after seeing my ebook reader can relax: as far as I can tell, being able to read in more ways just means I read even more, it doesn’t mean I’m buying fewer physical books.

In 2014, I had a bookshelf full of ought-to-read-that books which I hadn’t had time for, and to encourage me to get through them I started tracking my to-read and read numbers. In 2017 I moved my record keeping into the public domain on Goodreads. These two things mean that I can now offer you a graph of my reading habits and a link to find out what all those books were. Mainly due to taking twelve weeks of study leave (see also the next section), I have read 257 books this year.

reading graph 2019

Graph of number of books read, by month, since 2014, with an average line and some notes about events during that time.

Writing

Some writing which I began long ago came to fruition in 2019 as two of my books were published. Telling the Truth about God, based on my earlier academic book British Quakers and Religious Language, which in turned was based on my PhD thesis, came out in 2019 and we held a book launch at CLC in Birmingham.

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With the bookshop manager at CLC at the launch of ‘Telling the Truth about God’.

I also began January 2019 asking questions about this novel manuscript I’d accidentally written in some spare time. (No, really, I had a gap between other books and wanted to maintain a writing habit… it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, just the first time I’ve had something good enough to show other people at the end.) Manifold Press picked it up and it was published in the summer of 2019: Between Boat and Shore. In a genre which clearly exists, and seems extensive for those in it, but is small enough that people outside laugh and think I’m joking when I call it a genre, this is probably one of those things which wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

Between-Boat-and-Shore-500px

‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

My main writing project in 2019, and the reason for my study leave, has been my next academic book – currently called Theology from Listening and due with my editor in January 2020. (One reason why I haven’t been blogging so much!)

Next year’s writing projects include a novel which I don’t really have spare time for, another Quaker Quicks book based on this year’s research, and who knows what else. Hopefully some blog posts and poems! I’m reducing my hours at Woodbrooke a bit to make room for more writing, so there will definitely be something. If you want to watch this space for news, why not sign up to get blog posts by email? (There’s a form in the sidebar on the right.)

Teaching

I did various forms of teaching in 2019. (Back in 2009 I was watching lots of my graduating classmates going into secondary school teaching and promising myself I’d never teach at all… universities and adult education are very different to schools! I’m still sure I couldn’t cope with that, and massive respect to everyone who does teach in schools.) I ‘m now co-supervising more research students, which is always interesting and one of my favourite jobs, and have been glad to be involved in various conferences, events for researchers, and academic processes like PhD vivas.

Five courses I taught for Woodbrooke stand out as highlights of 2019. Early in the year I co-taught a course called ‘The Changing Shape of Eldership and Oversight’ with Zélie Gross. We looked at the ways Quaker communities can provide spiritual and practical pastoral support, exploring a range of options and how things are changing in general. Some of this is about the wider changes in the Quaker community – more smaller meetings, for example – and some about changes in society as a whole – like the fact that there are fewer people retiring with time and energy to spare for voluntary work.

Directly relevant to this blog, Gil Skidmore and I ran a course called ‘Spiritual Blogging’. We looked at the Quaker tradition of spiritual journals and how that might relate to modern ways of communicating. We identified some differences but also lots of interesting similarities and cross-cutting themes, like issues around editing your life, choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.  Ben Wood and I collaborated on a course called ‘Truth is What Works’, in which Ben brought a whole load of interesting philosophy and we spent time as a group playing with those ideas.

I taught a full online course on my own for the first time. In ‘Multiple Religious Belonging’, course participants explored their many complex experiences of religion and read (or watched videos) about different perspectives of, and opinions on, situations where one person might be participating in more than one religious tradition or community. And right at the end of the year, Jon Martin and I worked together on a course called ‘Speaking to That of God’, which was about finding new audiences and building Quaker presences online. This is something that I’ve worked on in various ways over the years, but usually for myself and my own purposes – to network with people, to get new perspectives, to form different communities within the wider Quaker world, to learn, to share ideas and practice writing – rather than on behalf of a meeting. I learned a lot from our participants and their questions, and sharpened up some of my own thoughts about what is or isn’t possible or desirable online.

In 2020 I’ll be continuing to work on some of these topics – search Woodbrooke’s online brochure or order a paper copy if you’re interested.

Personal

Outside work, I continued to settle in to living in Birmingham. I visited Belfast twice to spend time with my partner, who’s studying there, and she came to Birmingham several times as well. We went on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with my parents, and had a good time including seeing puffins and stone circles.

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By the shore of an Irish lake, my parents pose for my partner’s camera – she’s standing with her back to me while I take a picture of the photographer at work. 😀

Having resigned at the end of 2018 after volunteering with GirlgudingUK for over a decade, because of their partnership with the armed forces, and stepped back from some other tasks, I started 2019 without much by way of voluntary work. During the year, the Book of Discipline Revision Committee started our work, and I got involved with the Society of Authors including starting a local branch. I kept up my allotment, having some successes (tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, broad beans, a couple of good squashes), and some failures (lettuce seeds that never germinated, leeks which… went weird?, some seedlings I thought I’d sown which turned out to be weeds!).

In 2020, my main aim is to let things in my life happen as they happen. I want to enjoy the opportunities I have – some funding to keep writing, an exciting holiday, a big work trip, potential new directions for my research, and all the usual hopes allotment holders have in spring – and I’m not setting big or dramatic goals. I’m aware that’s the opposite of what I want to see in the world (governments setting ambitious targets for fossil fuel reduction, electoral reform, a welcoming rather than a hostile environment, etc.), but I also need to give myself some space. The last few months have been very crowded with stuff, and seeds (mostly metaphorical but also literal!) which have been planted need time to grow.

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline – Quaker faith & practice – before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a  Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.

I is for Interaction

At the end of last week, I was at the Quakers Uniting in Publications conference for, oh, almost twenty-four hours. In that time, I presented a two different sessions – one with Gil Skidmore on the Quaker Alphabet Blog project, and one with Susan Robson about Living with Conflict (the book, the website and the Facebook page). Both sessions were lively and interactive, and the interaction was at least partly around the topic of interaction: conflict and disagreement in the broad sense require interaction (the ‘it takes two to tango’ principle), and questions about the alphabet blogs sometimes focussed specifically on the nature and purpose of the interactions taking place. Interaction is key to community, of course, and to communication, and also to many people’s learning styles.

In teaching, one of my interests is to encourage interaction with the material and with other students or participants in a course. It’s possible to take this too far – some topics need a certain amount of straightforward input, and some people are much more comfortable listening to a speaker than discussing questions in a group. That said, I think a lot of people don’t go far enough, and much of today’s media (at least, the traditional media: TV, radio, newspapers) don’t readily support interaction with the material they present.

The nature of online material often makes interaction much more possible – comments sections on news articles, message boards and blogging sites where you can share you views with other fans, and of course social media sites which are designed to facilitate interaction (and then market your desire for possible interaction as a point at which you can be shown an advert). It’s not always clear what these interactions mean and what weight they should be given. To some, a handwritten letter is more precious than an email; depending on the topic and recipient, I can spend an hour on an email and dash of a handwritten note (in ink pen on proper letter-paper) in ten minutes, so I don’t tend to share that weighting. Sometimes when people click ‘like’ on Facebook, they also comment to say what they mean (“Liked for happy ending”), but much more often we are left in the dark. Does ‘like’ mean that you’ve seen it, that it made you pause, made you smile, made you happy? All we can say for sure is that it made you click your mouse.

Sometimes, of course, there is a much more substantial interaction – in response to my post last week, Gordon Ferguson posted at Sheffield Quakers, and we continued the conversation a little in the Quaker Renewal UK Facebook group. At other times the interaction is less obvious, or not online: people coming back months or even years later. After my workshops, I try and measure ‘impact’ (an academic ‘i’ word I’m avoiding writing about!) by asking people whether they will change what they do or say. Of course, at 4pm having only met the material for the first time at 10am, they don’t really know. It’s the bits which come back later – the ministry inspired by something which was said, or the way it feeds into another project – which is the longer term and I feel more valuable form of interaction.