On Pedagogy and Learning

Education in the United States runs concurrent to the idea of a prescribed form of “success” in our capitalist society. The idea of a master of information in the form of a professor or teacher, or even the disciplines of the institutions themselves is one that inhibits the learning and sets up boundaries that lend themselves to a normative set of information. “Just as the standardized tests that the U.S. favors as a guide to intellectual advancement in high schools tend to identify people who are good at standardized exams (as opposed to, say, intellectual visionaries), so in university grades, exams, and knowledge of canons identify scholars with an aptitude for maintaining and conforming to the dictates of the discipline.” (7).

The motivation behind advancing in this inflexible mode of education is as Halberstam asserts, “The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production…Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy.” (6). It would seem apparent the stifling nature of this standardizing and conformation of knowledge would have on actual learning, yet it backs the established system and, “most important, they statically reproduce themselves and inhibit dissent.” (10).

The resistance to this homogeny gives way to the idea that as members of academic institutions we must “resist mastery” (11), in that mastery implies a limited reservoir of knowledge that prescribes to the discipline of the instructor. In countries like Finland, whose educational rank worldwide is among, if not, the highest, caters their educational curriculum to the needs and desires of the students to allow for a higher level of motivation, other than grades, and is expansive and flexible in its nature as opposed to the reductionist pedagogy of the U.S. educational system in which the knowledge trickles down. This trickling down of knowledge, or inference that something is “right” is opposed to Halberstam’s idea of resisting mastery in the form of “failure’ and “stupidity”, as she states, “resistance takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity; we might read failure, for example, as a refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit,” (12). Being that, if there is a goal in mind, with a “set of presumptions” (12), then the process of learning and accumulation of knowledge has already been retarded.

The concept of the “ignorant schoolmaster” that, “must actually allow them to get lost in order for them to experience confusion and then find their own way out or back or around.” (14). Joseph Jacotot states his form of pedagogy as, “’I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you” ‘In this way he allows others to teach themselves and to learn without learning and internalizing a system of superior and inferior knowledges, superior and inferior intelligences.” (14). In other words, this lends itself to the age-old adage of “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

The seemingly disorganized concept of failure as form of success, depending on who is proclaiming judgment on this, is aligned with the idea of mutation in Darwinian evolution. When mutations are no longer encouraged and are in fact, eradicated or looked down upon, it limits and weakens the breadth of knowledge to be gained by such opposed approaches to learning. When the approach of James C. Scott is applied (which emphasizes, “mutuality, collectivity, plasticity, diversity and adaptability”) [10], an environment is created in which getting lost is an exercise in learning in itself and leads to the possibility of new ways of accumulating and applying knowledge.


Negative and Violent Means of Engaging Academia

In this reading, Halberstam raises interesting points about the colonial nature of order, and the ways that resisting and infiltrating order is anarchic, organic, anti-colonial, and yes, failure. So what does anti-colonial resistance of order look like in school and academia at large?

Halberstam talks about legibility – being able read or understand something. (pg 5) Halberstam talks, for example, about legibility and academic discipline. For school to make sense, for school to be legible, we need to draw clear lines between disciplines. This way, we can continue to predictably produce work in those fields.

Halberstam argues that there are certain way of seeing things that we view as “natural order,” but are actually completely socially constructed. Halberstam argues that to see like the state is to see this natural order as natural. (pg 9) This makes sense, because this socially constructed “natural order,” is productive, and it is marketable. But Halberstam poses the question, is it in fact, sustainable?

But that’s not how things actually work. The world isn’t legible. In reality, there aren’t these clear and rigid distinctions between each field – the sciences, arts, and everything in between all mingle organically. But allowing this organic lingering is not  productive in the traditional sense. What if you’re trying to algebra and end up with an aria? This isn’t predictable, and it isn’t productive in a way that benefits academia.

Legibility and order by nature benefits people who can fit into that order, and people who already have power. To stray from legibility in my goofy example, to come up with an aria when you are supposed to do your math homework, does not benefit those in power. The aria writer in this example is not being a good little capitalist worker, because they didn’t fit into the order. Their work would result in academic failure. But a compelling one.

Another example engaging the organic as opposed to the rigid comes from the craft of Halberstam’s writing. While Halberstam does engage other academics, Halberstam also engages cartoons. Halberstam argues that in academia, to be rigid. (pg 6) Instead of rigidity, Halberstam draws from outside of the source material traditionally engaged in writing about theory.

So what choices do we, as students and academics, have to engage an institution that is built around order? How do we engage legibility when the world and our lives are anything but? How do we engage the inherent colonialism of order and legibility that the success or failure of our life is assessed about when it doesn’t benefit us?

Halberstam proposes two ways of engaging this order – through violent means and negative means. To engage the hegemonic order of academia through violent means it to infiltrate academia, learn your material more than those teaching, and change it from the inside out. To engage with negative means is to reject academia all together, and create one’s own learning intellectual pursuits organically.

So what would engaging this specific class with Halberstam;s two modes of engaging academia?

Given Halberstam’s argument that academia is inherently colonial and Halberstam’s definition of abolition not as removal but as rebuilding something, let’s assume our goal in engaging this class with violent and negative means is to rebuild the way we go about intellectual pursuits in ways that don’t support the colonizers. That would mean our ultimate goal is destruction.

So engaging this class through violent means could look a few different ways. First would be keeping our heads down and getting good grades in this class so we can get into a good grad school, become powerful professors, and then organize academia in a way that benefits the people, not the state.

It could also mean learning the material of this class so well that we are constantly challenging our prof and fellow students, starting with this class to fail to fit into the order of academic success, but have academic merit that is beyond repute.

Engaging this class through negative means is a fun idea. This could look lots of different ways. It could be showing up to class and being disruptive and distracting, talking about what we want instead of what’s on the syllabus. It could be conspiring as a class (as we used to do with substitutes in middle school) to keep the professor off topic as much as possible so we could a) fail to learn anything and b) succeed in the pleasure of goofing off for two hours.

Which is, of course, the central irony of this class. We are discussing the anti-colonial resistance of failure, but  being assessed by the colonial rigidity of academia.





Irreverent Capital/Organic-Queer Intellect

   Halberstam proposes failure as a way to “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2). They use use the word “queer” in relation to those who identify outside of heteronormative context, but also people who may identify themselves outside of capitalist contexts (alternative political formations ), as well. Halberstam states that “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” and offers that “failure is a style” and that it maybe “easier in the long run and offer different rewards” (3). The feminist theorist goes on to say that the means of failure for the queer demographic is an alternative to America’s fixation on positive thinking—what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “a mass delusion” (3). The ideology of failure is relevant to queer demographics because it offers escape from the “mass delusion” of dreaming about capitalist success—what Halberstam refers to as “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation”  (2, 3). One of the plights of minorities and queers is living up to privileged society’s expectations of this type of success. These populations are not as predisposed to the same interpretations of success, neither are they readily equipped with the same kind of wealth, health and acceptance in our society because America’s capitalist tendencies are to produce failures by punishing them as outsiders to that success.


For instance, the systemic treatment of impoverished black males in America is to criminalize them for making the ‘wrong’ choices of drug dealing, robbing, ect. Yet these activities become instinctual—as a means of survival—for many black males who aren’t given the chances or resources for traditional success (college, opportunity, 9-to-5 careers) because they are products of their disenfranchised environments—environments they did not choose to be born into. Their resistance to positive thinking is very apparent, and for justified reasons. As an alternative to this life of dysfunction, the common trope for these males is to find success on their own terms—often times rising from criminal activity to music or sports (more traditional forms of success). The stereotype of the dope dealer turned into emcee (or athlete) is both hated and loved by fascinated Americans. By adhering to the criminal element in order to pull themselves up from poverty and using the dope game (originally pushed into their communities by white demographics) to do it—they have learned to buck the capitalist system, and usually end up learning the ropes of entrepreneurship along the way—making them rich both from illegal and then legal money. They are scrutinized by mainstream Americans for being immoral, unjust and arrogant in their subversive tactics towards success. I believe they are criticized mostly because people are offended by the fact that these ‘thugs’ re-defined success by being deviant, bold and uncompromising enough to reject the tenets of White America’s visions of success—and “search for different ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another than those prescribed by the liberal and consumer subject” (2).


Let’s not forget too, the hypocritical views of their detractors who should remember America’s long history of immigrant or fringe ethnicities who banded together as organized crime in order to pull their own up from the gutters—a culture that been accepted and glorified in popular culture for decades. This truly illustrates the hegemony of capitalism. Halberstam references hegemony through theorist, Stuart Hall’s interpretation which reads “a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives” (17). As an example, the common American upholds the image of the Italian mafias who pushed drugs into ghettos (on the low), but then they reject the image of the Black ‘gangstas’ who excel in pushing those drugs in order to make better opportunities for themselves (and others) so that they can leave (and often times put money back into) those ghettos. We immortalize the majority for their subversion and condemn the minority for their subversion. These hypocritical perspectives are commonplace among our society because, as Halberstam point out, “we spend far less time thinking about counter-hegemony than about hegemony” (17). The author also posit that our academic institutions are practicing forms of “traditional” learning—which mimic similar hierarchies established with social class—thus creating a “tension between intellectuals who participate in the construction of the hegemonic…and the intellectuals who work with others…to sort through the contradictions of capitalism and to illuminate the oppressive forms of governance that have infiltrated everyday life” (17).


So Halberstam is ultimately speaking of knowledge production that serves the reproduction of capitalism and hegemony versus critical knowledge which questions and offers ways to restructure capitalism for the good of the people. Personally, I think that our University offers a bit of both of these types of education. This course specifically (as with many English/Writing courses I’ve taken) is a testament to the latter—thankfully. I’m sure if I were to take some business courses at PSU I would also find the more traditional methods of learning, too.