Abolitionist Work’s Psycho-affective Dimensions and Pedagogical Challenges – Sharon Stein

Sharon Stein – a response to “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation”

Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation is the text I wish I had when I finished my MA program in higher education and began my doctoral program in educational foundations six years ago. Even more intensely than Critical University Studies, higher education as a field of study is invested in the intrinsic benevolence of the university. While universities are hardly presumed to be perfect, the assumption of the field is they can and should be reformed, and the field-imaginary is shaped by an imperative of continual progress and inclusion. The idea that universities might be so entangled with racial capitalist violence and extractive ecocidal practices that they are beyond reform is, essentially, unthinkable.

I began my work in this area with a particular interest in problematizing narratives that framed neoliberal capitalism as the root of all contemporary problems with higher education and lacked a longer historical memory about the problem of capitalism itself in higher education. I found the field of higher education generative in many ways, but overall inhospitable to the kinds of conversations that I was seeking, and the kinds of questions I had but could not yet clearly articulate. Thus, I turned to Indigenous, Black, and anti-colonial scholarship in an effort to ask what a decolonizing and abolitionist perspective could bring to the study of higher education. This work offered important analytical tools for deconstructing both scholarly and popular imaginaries of higher education. In particular, it prompted me to think about what continued to go unthought in the study of universities – especially, as the authors of this text note, its “shifting regimes of accumulation that constitute the university as such.”

Ultimately, what started as a concern about the limitations of my own field became a more generalized “radar” for the unthought, including within radical scholarship. This is an imperative to both continue to make visible what we would rather not see, and to continue with a Spivakian commitment to undertake a “persistent critique of what we cannot not want.” It is in this spirit, and from a place of deep gratitude and respect for the conveners of this gathering and authors of this abolitionist text, that I put forward two possible (and, in my mind, related) topics of conversation for further collective consideration: the psycho-affective dimensions of abolitionist work, and its pedagogical challenges.

As one of the meeting organizers, Nick Mitchell (2015), notes, we need to denaturalize “the material, discursive, and psychic forms that undergird a certain confidence that it is through knowledge that racial justice, in one or another measure, can be done.” In the work I do with my collective, Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures, we begin with the proposition that the problems we face are not primarily problems of ignorance that can be solved with more knowledge – that is, more information or a more incisive critique of colonialism and racial capitalism. Rather, what we face are problems of enduring investments in a colonial habit of being that organizes not only our ideas and institutions but also our desires and perceived entitlements, often in ways that are unconscious. The strength of these investments means that we tend to resist things that challenge them or that we perceive as threatening to their continuity. Hence, we emphasize the role of denial in maintaining the architectures of colonial institutions and subjectivities – in particular: denial of our complicity in the systemic violence that keeps our institutions running through racialized expropriation and exploitation; denial of the ecological unsustainability of a political economic system premised on unending growth and consumption; and denial of our entanglement with (and thus, our responsibilities to) each other, before will.

Although I am often ambivalent about my own field of higher education, I remain committed to education itself as a mode of pluralizing possibilities for collective existence. If the educational problem we face is largely one of denial, and enduring investments that we ourselves might not even be aware of, then this is a very different challenge than countering ignorance with more knowledge. It means that we need to address the psycho-affective dimensions of transformation, because saying that we are doing something, or that we want something, does not mean we are actually doing it. Indeed, I have often seen people shift their intellectual alignments toward more radical views, only to retreat to their original positions and investments when they perceive their authority or security to be under threat. We cannot shift desires and investments just by naming them, or critiquing them vigorously or convincingly.

Spivak (2004) famously described education as an “uncoercive rearrangement of desires.” I take this to mean that while indeed it is educators’ role to denaturalize harmful desires, it is not our role to determine whether or how they might ultimately be rearranged. Some educators may actively create a state of destabilization for learners, while others recognize that the contemporary context itself has done much of this “unsettling” work for us. Regardless of the approach, we practically cannot, and ethically should not, use coercive pedagogical authority to force people to desire something we want them to desire. However, we can support them to navigate today’s complex world by inviting them to consider how their desires both enable and foreclose certain possibilities, and by creating opportunities in which they can start to miss the possibilities that are invisibilized in modern/colonial imaginaries.

This is not easy work, and it is not something we can compel others to do, because, as Tiffany Lethabo King (2016) notes, “on a fundamental level the process of decolonization requires that we are undone and unmoored by the idea of living in a way that requires mass death (in its various forms) in exchange for other’s self-actualization. By become undone, I mean it really has to fuck us up in our core and make us relentless about seeking out and making alternatives possible.” Who among us consents to be undone – and if we do, how much of the time do we do it? Growing disillusionment with the current system has given rise to feelings of betrayal or resentment about unfulfilled promises that can, in turn, lead to violence (against oneself, and/or [often marginalized] others). If we want a fighting chance of creating radically different worlds than the one that we have inherited, then we will need pathways for this proliferating disillusionment to instead lead to a disinvestment from old dreams and promises. These are not just social and political struggles, but pedagogical challenges as well. Thus, I close by raising a few open questions, asking: what kind of an education could prepare us to…

  • Work tirelessly toward a horizon of abolitionist and decolonial justice without falling into the traps of (self-)righteousness, exceptionalism, and moves to assert our own innocence?
  • Not only critique, and organize against, but also be taught by the mistakes of a fundamentally harmful and unsustainable system, so that we do not continue to repeat these mistakes?
  • Experiment responsibly with alternative socialities and modes of existence while remaining vigilant about repeating old mistakes, and learning from the new mistakes that we will no doubt make in the process, and recognizing that we are often not transparent to ourselves?
  • Engage with and revere the insights, practices, and imaginings that are rooted within historically marginalized ways of knowing and being, without romanticizing them, instrumentalizing them, or presuming that any one holds the answers to the complex problems we face?
  • Prioritize forms of collective well-being that address our interconnection and uneven vulnerabilities within a wider socio-ecological metabolism of human and other-than-human relations, considering both current and future generations?
  • Unlearn the modes of desiring and relating that have led us to treat the earth and other-than-human beings as a set of “resources” to be possessed and extracted, and to treat other humans as exploitable and expendable rather than indispensable?
  • (Re)learn how to see and sense ourselves and others not as separate, autonomous individuals but rather as beings entangled in a set of messy relations and interdependencies, and from there, to figure out how to affirm and enact our boundless responsibilities to one another?
  • And, be oriented toward a direction of greater justice and collective well-being, without determining in advance the particular forms of how we will move, or where we will arrive?

Author Bio

Sharon Stein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. For more info, see this website.

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