Notes on: Ellsworth, E. (1989) 'Why Doesn't This Feel Empowering?  Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy'.  Harvard Educational Review 59 (3): 297 -324.

Dave Harris

Her university experienced a crisis in 1988 produced by racist acts and structures on campus and in the community.  A report was produced saying that the university had failed to address institutional racism and that students of colour had been marginalised.  Various policies were suggested, including appointment of people from ethnic minorities to senior positions.  The report produced widespread debate.  Ellsworth decided to produce a special course on media and anti racist pedagogies.  After critical reflection, she realized there was some problems with critical pedagogy and allied approaches.  In particular, 'key assumptions, goals, and pedagogical practices…  "empowerment," or "student voice," or "dialogue," and even the term "critical" - are repressive myths that perpetuate relations of domination'(298).  In particular, following the procedures and prescriptions in the literature produced unhelpful results, and some 'actually exacerbated the very conditions we were trying to work against, including Eurocentrism, racism, sexism, classism and "banking education"'.  Discourses of critical pedagogy when put into practice had become 'vehicles of repression'.  They had to leave them behind to develop their own context specific practices.  These challenge critical pedagogues and raise the question 'What diversity do we silence in the name of "liberatory" pedagogy?' (299).

[Details of the crisis and how she came to construct the course ensue.  She wanted to design her course to clarify institutional racism and also produce a political intervention.  It was important to disrupt business as usual in university classrooms].  She had already used the language of critical pedagogy in earlier work, stressing the need to produce critical production practices, critical reception and analysis, and socially responsible videotapes.  She referred student questions to the literature, and the support for social justice and equality, the need to recognize injustice and then act against it, aiming at 'a critical democracy, individual freedom, social justice, and social change [via] a revitalized public sphere'(300).  However, she noticed that the majority of academic articles 'although apparently based on actual practices rarely locate theoretical constructs within them', but offer abstract definitions.  She realized that even the name of the course would raise complex issues: she did not want to hide its politics, as so many academic writers do when they use 'code words such as "critical"'.  The usual literature on critical pedagogy is supposed to help students become politicised and to choose, but it works at the most abstract level, and offers only 'decontextualized criteria 'to help students choose a political position—radical democracy, social justice and the rest (301). Making her course openly about anti racist pedagogies would make her own views clear: she will be acting on the side of anti racism, and be accountable for doing so.

Although critical pedagogy always claims to be critical, there is no sustained research on whether it affects power relations either in schools or outside.  There is a hidden claim that progressive political agendas will be developed for the public good, but actual strategies are rendered in code words.  As a result, there is no clear articulation of why critical pedagogy needs to exist, what its risks or potentials are, and little debate about what constitutes a radical or critical pedagogy among the advocates.

There is an assumption that students and teachers engage as rational subjects.  This is understood as a form of self regulation [by Walkerdine among others], and it depends on the notion of the irrational Other, classically women and other exotics.  Rational deliberation becomes a matter of turning conflict into rational argument using universalized capacities.  However, with this particular course, there were already differences of privilege, and the course was to highlight these.  The original report was not an attempt to engage in rational analytic debate.  In racist societies, voices are already weighted differently, and there is also 'conscious and unconscious concealment of interests', some of which are held as non negotiable, independently of argument. Writing and arguing becomes more than rationalist debate about validity but, for the oppressed, it can mean asserting their entire lives, 'words spoken for survival'.  However, these positions were not to be taken up unproblematically.

The draft syllabus was circulated to all floors [?] of the report and to colleagues.  The goal was openly to 'win semiotic space for the marginalized discourses of students against racism'(302. Marginalized discourses were to be made available [they already were by campus activists].  The set of assumptions underlying the course were made explicit: knowledge to guide personal educational practice is best acquired in a learning situation that 'interrelates theory with concrete attempts at using media for education'; current situations of the elitism demand meaningful responses accomplish both academic and political goals; unlike a critical education, this course was to use the possibility to deliberately construct anti racist pedagogies and to assume that these are 'legitimate and imperative goals'(303); deciding what counts as appropriate media should be related to concrete initiatives and actual situations; an anti racist pedagogy must realize that oppressive structures arise from intersections with other forms of discriminatory dynamics [classes them, sexism, ableism]; we all need to work at unlearning racism.

It seemed permissible to work in this way, but problems arose, including an emerging need to break with current literature on critical pedagogy, which had affected the original conceptions of what empowerment or dialogue might be.  Certain aspects of classroom of practice were not addressed, maybe willingly.  Students enrolled came from a number of ethnic and gender backgrounds.  All agreed that racism was a problem, and discussions soon questioned 'the rationalist assumptions underlying critical pedagogy'.  Those assumptions lead to the goal of teaching analytic and critical skills, analyzing and seizing 'potentially transformative moments'.  It was all based on reason and the ideal rational person acting in the name of universal validity.  The only option for the critical pedagogy was to help students arrive at one universal proposition—that all people have the right to freedom from oppression, and that this should receive equal time in the classroom.

However, it is no longer clear that the enforcement of rationalism is an effective way to counter relations of domination.  Universalism is also clearly oppressive to outsiders, and many marginal writers have argued this: for example those who have embraced 'feminist post structuralism' (304).  This too can be used to dominate, but it does offer 'a devastating critique of the violence of rationalism', showing that rational competence in effect offers a series of exclusions.  Poststructuralist thought by contrast acknowledges that narratives are partial, not universal, and that knowledge is tied to interest as a standpoint to grasp reality [Walkerdine appears again, this time as a hero.][However, what results is selective or strategic poststructuralism, where everyone else's position is deconstructed but not our own]

Classic rational discussion involves adopting universal logic: it is already exclusive.  It is oppressive to ask excluded people to justify their claims in terms of rationalism, and it threatens their own literature and traditions.  Her chosen approach instead was to expose internal contradictions and effects on the position of others in attempting to elaborate a position of any group.  Student voices were to be taken as valid, but as requiring a response.  Narratives about their experiences were to be seen as partial in both senses, and hence were problematic, but not because they broke some ideal rational rules.  Instead, the implications held for other social movements and struggles might be critiqued.  [Leading to what?  Some contest with victory for the groups that suffer the most?]

Critical pedagogues have not attempted to transform power imbalances between professors and students, only to transform their negative effects.  In this way, student empowerment and dialogue 'give the illusion of equality'.  Empowerment, for example 'treats the symptoms but leaves the disease unnamed and untouched'(306).  Power is to be shared or redistributed to students, through practices such as reflective examination of plurality, or giving students analytic skills.  But this runs the risk of making other perspectives seem as irrational, biased or partial.  Another approach [which includes Freire] commits teachers to relearning through studying with students, but only to devise more effective pedagogic strategies: students are still to be brought up to the level set by the teacher.  Giroux, for example argues for a pedagogy 'sensitive to students interests', but with the intention of reconciling student and teacher understandings, leaving the latter superior.  The third approach acknowledges the authoritarianism of education as inevitable, but tries to attain something acceptable, such as sharing information, gaining respect and trust, in a form of '"emancipatory authority"' (307), where teachers open for discussion their reasons for taking stands against oppression.

However, empowerment remains abstract, something to do with human betterment or extending the range of possible social identities, or aiming at human agency democracy and transformation in the most humanist way, a capacity to act effectively without challenging any actual social or political position.  This is 'essentially paternalistic'.  It assumes, for example that subjugated knowledges can be brought to light, without teachers having to unlearn their own prejudices, and 'no teacher is free of these learned and internalized oppressions' (308).  Even groups aiming to emancipate themselves can reproduce narratives oppressive to other groups—'the racism of the Women's Movement in the United States is one example'.

There is a constant assumption that teachers know the objects of study better than students do, which looks particularly absurd if we claim to know racism better than the victims [but this is the experience of racism, not a social and political conditions for it?].  Nor does understanding our own oppression [sexism in her case] understand our own implication in oppressive structures elsewhere [like racist ones].  [This is really an argument against empathy, but arguing that no one is free from oppressive formations].  Reflexive examination is enforced by the teacher, and their statements are always weighed differently from those of students.

It is better for the privileged to redefine critical pedagogy.  It should not lead to utopian moment of democracy or justice, which are always predicated on the interests of the dominant anyway.  Instead, we should aim at 'a sustained encounter with currently oppressive formations' that resist being theorized or transcended.  We should own up to our own privileges and investments in oppressive formations.

Giving students a voice has become influential, but this only plays as the contradiction between emancipatory critical pedagogy and the retention of the official hierarchy between students and teachers.  It is a strategy enabling radicals to reconcile acceptance of educational relationships and political commitments.  It is already paradoxical in that it claims to make people autonomous.  Students are said to be empowered when they 'express their subjugated knowledges' (309), when they gain an authentic voice and define themselves as authors of their own world.  Critical educators help students achieve 'self definition and agency'.  Any multiple voices are to be fully expressed.  However, in feminism there is a different understanding, whereas self definitions are decidedly oppositional to conventional definitions, and this can produce considerable barriers for the development of women's voice.

There is also an assumption that teachers have no interests of their own and so there is social identity.  Ellsworth herself found it impossible to help students of colour find an authentic voice, nor could she affiliate with minority groups.  Instead, she found her own privileges and interests at risk.  Her own construction of subjectivity meant she could never 'participate unproblematically in the collective process of self definition' or struggles for visibility in the face of marginalization. Hence [a questionable generalization] 'Critical pedagogues are always implicated in the very structures they are trying to change'[what if they report the vulnerabilities of these structures from the inside?  Critical pedagogy does not consider this, of course, and it would be very risky for teachers to do so].  There are some things that teachers can never know about the experiences of oppression of the students, and this clearly limits the right of the teacher to pose as an authority.  All knowing is partial.

There is instead 'the category of generic "critical teacher"'(309) [I call them Struggling Man].  This is exactly like assuming some generic person.  Instead, the critical teacher is likely to be defined by the current norms of age, ethnic origin, class and so on, while differences are understood as 'only variations'.  Different voices are necessarily oppositional to this norm, and may develop into opposition to teachers and their institutions if and when they develop.  The voices of oppositional groups are better seen as talking back or defiance, and this can challenge both students and teachers.

On her course, defiance and talking back lead to fundamental challenge to and rejection of the voices of some classmates and often the professor.  People contested categorization assumed or taken for granted by others, such as 'Chicana', as well as objecting to institutional racism.  Ellsworth herself faced challenge as Anglo American and middle class.  Multiple voices had to be expressed and engaged with to develop 'contextualized political strategies'.  The voice of the professor was problematized instead of being allowed to reproduce a 'voyeuristic relation' to student difference as in critical pedagogy.

Feminism stresses the benefits of self defining and defiant voices.  The solidaristic interactions between women have never been produced just by pedagogical interaction.  Pedagogy of empowerment tends to ignore these wider context of struggle or relate to them only abstractly: teachers and professors are 'at the centre of consciousness raising activity' [illustrated with a quote from McLaren, based on student misrecognition needing to be countered by critical thinking] (311).  On her course, students already had oppositional voices and experience of antiracist and other movements which had not relied on intellectuals or teachers.  [Clearly relevant to the debate about misrecognition in Rancière].

Each student will probably have a multiple set of voices, and will have to manage the intersections somehow. 
[NB the categories of oppression and oppressed are multiplying here.  By the time we have added intersections, I think it is safe to say that anyone could claim to be oppressed.  I am , for example, a white male, but don't you dare think I'm an oppressor, because I am also old, bald, and from a working class origin]. This often produces contradiction or internal interruptions.  Critical pedagogy's assumption is that voices can be somehow added and corrected, but instead they are 'contradictory and partial'.  Participants experienced 'much pain, confusion, difficulty in speaking'(312), and experienced problems in prioritizing categories important to others—focusing on racial privilege threatened to perpetuate gender oppression.  Overseas students found it difficult to 'join their voices' with black American students since this would be to downplay their oppression as victims of American imperialism.  Asian Americans found it hard to join their voices with other students of colour.  Ellsworth found it hard to talk about gender oppression as a person who also occupied a position of institutional power relative to all the students.

Women tend not to see the point of constructing a voice as communication.  Instead it is a matter of survival, sharing means, understanding and experiences, building solidarity.  It is common for feminists to leave men to do their own work combating sexism and privilege.  This leads to a suspicion of white middle class male critical pedagogues to elicit student voices: it leads to voyeurism if the voice of the pedagogue goes unexamined.  Nor should student silence indicate a lack of voice or social identity, or an inability to act as a social agent [the particular point addressed by Zembylas].  Bell hooks in particular has argued that women's silence does not involve submission to patriarchal authority, nor inadequacy: the black women she remembered were perfectly fluent and prompted her to find a voice and authorship.  Generally, other oppressed people are often declining to talk to critical educators because they have not challenged their own presence, as a result of the oppressed's assessment of 'the power relations and safety of the situation' (313).

In her classes, speech was the result of strategically attempting visibility, without giving up 'the safety of silence'.  It was a complex negotiation of the 'politics of knowing and being known'.  Some things were left unsaid, some were coded, some were the product of perceived risk and cost of disclosure [including the risk of revealing that they occupied privileged positions at particular moments, and were risking being placed in a situation where they were not the knower].  Communication is always based on combinations of trust, risk, fear and desire, and 'self interested investments in unjust relations'(314) and this is not dealt with by rationalist approaches.  Ignoring others is 'performative', the refusal to acknowledge implication in information, or to risk involvement 'in the radical alterity of the unknown'.

Serious consequences arise for critical pedagogy and its notion of dialogue as central, as fundamental to democratic education.  Dialogue is supposed to reproduce a public sphere, 'a locus of citizenship', community.  The ground rules for dialogue assume that all people have equal opportunity to speak, but they must respect each other's rights to speak, that all ideas are tolerated but subjected to critical assessment.  This requires participants to engage in trust, sharing and commitment [says Giroux].  In the process of dialogue, a unified understanding of human suffering and a commitment to overcome it emerge.  However, the asymmetries discussed above prevent this sort of dialogue.  Indeed, it would become 'potentially repressive' (315), because subordination takes such different multiple and contradictory forms.  There is no simple division between victims and perpetrators, and no simple harmony of interests.  Instead, we should recognize that only a fragmentary, unstable unity is possible, but it should not be based on sameness: this will need 'collective struggle'.

In her case, conventional classroom dialogue remained, at first, with all its 'repressive fictions'.  Policy of ensuring everyone a safe place to speak, equality,  unity and equal power turned out to be 'myth', which diverted attention and practices.  Acting as if the classroom were safe does not make it so.  Classroom practices were required that 'confronted the power dynamics inside and outside about classroom that made democratic dialogue impossible'. Much reflection on actual interaction was required.  Some particularly activist students were able to point out that the existing classroom was not a safe space for talking about the experiences of oppression, and people were afraid of being misunderstood or of disclosing too much, or of becoming vulnerable, bad experiences of speaking out were recalled, there was resentment that some oppressions were being marginalized in favour of addressing racism, there was confusion about levels and of trust and commitment from possible allies, resentment from students of colour who felt they were being expected to take a particular pedagogic role to educate white students, and resentment from white students who felt they were continually having to prove that they were not the enemy.

Unjust power relations prevent dialogue, and injustice cannot be overcome in the classroom lest we assume rational individuals who can agree on universal fundamental moral principles.  Real social agents are not always rational and disinterested, and they are complex subjects with 'multiple social positionings'.  Moral and political principles are not universal and are not discovered by researchers but need to be established intersubjectively.  Participants in the class suggested that they needed high levels of trust and personal commitment and suggested out of class activities to build them [including field trips, participation in rallies, and something called 'potlucks'].  Individuals should have been given the opportunity to know each other in more detail earlier.  Curriculum materials should have included 'literature, films, and videos by people of colour and white people against racism' to prevent black students by always having to be experts in racism.

Inequalities must be named and addressed positively, and this should be 'alternative ground rules for communication'.  Some participants had clearly been given more time to speak, and some had been marginalized.  Some marginal groups began to interact outside of class, because they saw  the dynamics of the larger group as causing them grievances.  These unofficial affinity groups produced alliances, but there was no overall  group formed by the larger gathering.  These smaller groups were necessary, however in providing safe home bases, and mutual understandings, and a shared language enabling contribution to the larger classroom interactions.  The point then became one not of building dialogue between individuals, but of building 'a coalition among the multiple, shifting, intersecting, and sometimes contradictory groups carrying unequal weights of legitimacy within the culture and the classroom'(317).

They also began to think of other forms of communication than dialogue, to acknowledge affinity groups and to focus on the understanding and practices in the larger group.  Affinity groups would talk about their experiences in the group, or on the campus, and the 'rest of the class listened without interruption' (318).  This took the focus of the individual, and made communication into 'cross cultural or cross sub cultural exchange'.  However, there had already been lots of consciousness raising by certain groups [which seems to have been fairly divisive].  Coalition building was therefore necessary to address what the groups did not share [the minority identities of others].  This forced people to consider implications for other groups: anti racists, for example had to consider implications for 'sexism, ableism, elitism, fat oppression, and so forth'.  They agreed to a 'final arbiter' for accepting demands by students of colour—whether strategies and narratives alleviated campus racism without undercutting the efforts of other social groups [abstract, intellectual and liberal-rational after all?   It sounds like JS Mill].

Each affinity group delivered partial narratives referring to its own self interest, and these were 'predicated on the exclusion of the voices of others', as well as being never complete.  No affinity group could know the experiences and knowledges of others.  Nor can divided subjects have full  knowledge of their own experiences.  The group could never know with certainty whether other struggles would be undercut, but this led to an insight that there is interdependency and the need to recognize differences.

The group did make 'an initial gesture towards acting out the implications'(319).  It made a statement from a particular semiotic space controlled by the group [a statement from the students of the group].  They did interrupt business as usual in public spaces, like the mall and administrative offices.  They did street theatre, ironically representing the history of university attempts to deal with students of colour, and invited members of the university and others to participate [did they?].  They projected images of graffiti on the walls of the library, 'deconstructing, defacing and transforming racist discourses'.  Others wrote articles and held interviews to challenge the university and its official student newspaper.  These events did disrupt power relations 'however temporarily'(320), and 'opened up semiotic space' for marginalized discourses.  Means of discourse production were 'appropriated' and controlled [so dramatic -- they just used microphones and newspaper articles], discourses of anti racism that were otherwise unavailable or distorted were made available.  This was 'political work of changing material conditions within a public space' [minor revolutionary carnival just like real students should, that was enjoyed by university administrators no doubt].

Different affinity groups adopted different actions according to their priorities and 'levels of comfort with various kinds of public action'.  They were '"unified"'by mutual critique support and participation.  Each proposal for action was checked by the whole class for negative effects on other groups.  {so they voted? Or agreed universally?] Planning discussions agreed [sic] that results would be unpredictable and uncontrollable [and were they?].  Ultimately, the interventions had to make sense to us 'however problematically we understand "making sense" to be a political action'.  And 'our interpretations had to be based on attention to history, to concrete experiences of oppression, and to subjugated knowledges' [so she could grade them?].

Current definitions of critical pedagogy and the practices they produce are 'more frightening than the unknown or unknowable'.  Dialogue, empowerment, voice, and being critical 'are only surface manifestations of deeper contradictions involving pedagogies'.  Objects and others are defined, captured or diagnosed using knowledge that is not accessible to the knowers themselves.

It is necessary to go for complexity and unknowability, recognizing a multiplicity of knowledges and their effects on social relations, especially when they are 'contradictory, partial, and irreducible' (321).  Making sense is not going to be simple, and not graspable by 'the single master discourse of an educational project's curriculum or theoretical framework, even that of critical pedagogy'.  We need to look at the affects of different levels of useful knowledge about oppression attained by different affinity groups within an overall class.  However, even combining all the partial knowledges results only in another partial knowing, 'defined by structuring absences that mark "the terror and loathing of any difference"'.  We need to develop a particular educational project that will be able to answer 'broader questions of human survival and social justice', or break with the notion of knowledge as describing the activities of those in power who speak for everyone else.  We need to deal with the 'silence of the unknowable', without defining it as males do, as absence, lack or fear: silence can be a language of its own.

Our practices should be inspired by 'never ending "moving about"' as in Trinh Minh-ha [who is quoted—moving about in multiple directions, affirming sameness and difference, and unsettling conventional definitions of otherness].  In educational terms, the goal should be to affirm that we can know each other, while insisting on the 'interested partialness of those knowings', and constantly unsettling 'every definition of knowing arrived at' (322).  Identity politics should be seen as contextual, not essential, a starting point, a way of making subject positions more complex and multiple, as well as visible and legitimate.  We need persistent critique of narratives and previous strategies.  We need to maintain 'heterogeneous networks of power/desire/interest', with no a prioris. 

Participants in her class did this unsettling, and did develop the notion of the contextuality of meanings and oppressive knowledges, how they work, and what their ideological affects were.  The classroom was 'the site of dispersed, shifting, or contradictory contexts of knowing that coalesced differently in different moments of student/professor speech, action, and emotion', individuals and groups had to constantly change strategies and priorities of resistance, to combat power itself, ' oppressive ways of knowing and oppressive knowledges'.  No one should be exempt from the sort of activity, including critical pedagogues: they cannot avoid or refuse all the grey areas, or fail to recognize that they can become oppressors themselves.  [After all, we all can, since 'as Mary Gentile puts it, "everyone is someone else's Other"'].

The mythical normal for setting the standard of what it can still be human is still 'young, White, heterosexual, Christian, able bodied, thin, middle class, English speaking, and male' (323).  No actual individual can embody it, and everyone experiences 'dissonance'[and a white colleague of hers was able to claim that he was a victim as well, because he had been '"cut off from the earth and the body"' by this norm].  Asserting multiplicity should not draw attention from the realities of the oppression of any particular group, however, nor to relativize by claiming that everyone is oppressed.  The struggle instead is to prevent simplification and the importance of context.  Members of her class sometimes formed alliances and assumed shared commitments simply from impressions they had drawn from others, but these were too simple - some people who conformed outwardly to the norm in fact had sympathetic ideological and political commitments [including herself, presumably].

The conditions in which we can learn about difference and challenge our own position of privilege depends on the presence of others with 'subjugated or oppressive knowledges' which will enable a more complex grasp of how a privileged speaking subject appears to different groups.  This goes beyond critical pedagogy which already assumes that things can be known and we know what should be done.  This is more flexible and requires constructing classroom practices to engage, to unsettle definitions of pedagogy, to identify multiple ways of acting [her experience of being an 'inappropriate other' seems to have had a particular effect in helping her 'unlearn' her privilege].

For a new course, she has decided to organize a film and video event 'against oppressive knowledges and ways of knowing' and every day life of the university.  Projects are not to focus on any one formation, but to engage with each other, 'working against oppressive social formations on campus' in order to find what might be common in the experience of difference, without compromising specificity.  The most suitable classroom practice at the moment involves 'a kind of communication across differences' (324) that involves a way of speaking in ways that people understand that knowledge is always partial and interested and potentially oppressive to others, to be used as a basis to shape and reshaped alliances to let differences thrive. [Lots of assertions then].

[This is what happens when you define 'oppression' so generally that it becomes just 'knowledge of difference' .The usual contradictions: critical pedagogy is rebuked as a superior discourse in the name of complexity, but from the persepctive of another superior discourse -- postructural feminism. The old liberal dilemma about reconciling individual freedom with social order is rediscovered and has to be glossed by Trinh Minh-ha. Abstract intellectualism is denied and then pretty ordinary forms of cultural politics are talked up as revolutionary -- appropriating the means of communication instead of using an ohp for a project. Real educational interests seem to have been rather violently excluded -- was the course graded? Did students care about their grades? How did she grade them?]