The Pedagogical Theory Behind Empire’s Progeny
The classroom, with all of its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.bell hooks
Postcolonial Digital Pedagogy
Empire’s Progeny (as well as its sister project, www.statesofbelonging.org) is an ever-evolving experiment in postcolonial digital humanities pedagogy. The subject of the project is the genesis and evolution of racial ideas across four centuries of European imperialism in the Americas, from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 19th. As students learn, Europeans had no such idea as race at the beginning of these imperial projects; however, by the end of this period, race was a dominant mode of understanding human history and cultures, one that was then adopted by ruling elites of postcolonial nation-states.
Empire’s Progeny draws upon postcolonial scholarship and thought to create a digital space of collaboration in which students participate as critical interpreters and producers of knowledge. While most college instructors now teach with the aid of at least some digital tools, these are most often used to facilitate or replicate the classroom experience and didactic methods of instruction. Empire’s Progeny, conversely, is an effort to leverage the affordances of digital tools to forge a learning community in which students work together to analyze the conditions under which knowledge has historically been produced and experiment with their own agency to produce knowledge in the contexts of the 21st century.
In her provocative recent book, New Digital Worlds, Roopika Risam suggests that “At the confluence of digital humanities and postcolonial studies there is great potential for engaging students in interpreting the politics that shape knowledge production and teaching them how to become critical producers who are prepared to engage in the task of intervening in the digital cultural record…. This approach – a postcolonial digital pedagogy – helps students understand the politics of knowledge production and their role in creating the digital worlds of the twenty-first century.” This reflexive experience, in which students are knowledge producers at the same time that they critique the historical production of knowledge, is the pedagogical heart of Empire’s Progeny.
Despite the longue duree arc of the emergence of racial structures, Empire’s Progeny does not impart a teleological, linear development of race. Historians, for the most part, of have abandoned the quest for the origin moment of racial thinking. In recent years, it has became clear to the profession that the vast diversity of colonial contexts produced a great variety of racisms. Race as a theory, as a structure, as a lived experience, was distinct in Dutch Indonesia, British India, Portuguese Angola, Spanish Cuba, and so on. Therefore, Empire’s Progeny does not inform students of modernity’s original sin, as if at some tragic moment Western thought followed an unfortunate deviation that has plagued us since. Instead, this curriculum emphasizes the perpetual reproduction of racial thought and systems as buttresses to imperial domination. Understood thusly, race-thinking is not a logical error, but a structure of power.
For pedagogical purposes, this mode of understanding opens a vast and open-ended field of inquiry. If race is a structure of power, then it needs to be understood in its myriad iterations. This is the subject of Empire’s Progeny. Students experience this project as a protected, curated spaced in which they self-directedly and collaboratively produce knowledge about the production of racial knowledge in the colonial context. Using of OMEKA and its mapping and timeline tools, students together interpret and chart dozens of primary sources that illuminate various instances of racialization. Through a scaffolded curriculum, they employ their peers’ analysis as they develop their own sustained argument about race and imperialism in the Americas.
In one sense (but not all senses), this participatory curriculum is skills-based, teaching students analytical practices of the Liberal Arts and forms of information literacy. In its efforts to rethink the history major for the 21st century, the American Historical Association concludes that instructors should impart to students “transferable skills,” including interpretation, evaluation, analysis, and argumentation. With these suggested best practices, the AHA seeks to supplant what some refer to as the banking paradigm of education with an active, participatory historical pedagogy (see https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline). My curriculum also pursues the recommended instructional goals regarding information literacy as put forth by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework). Through persistent hands-on interpretation of primary sources and deep consideration of their creation, circulation, and preservation students are prepared to critically approach current and future dynamics of information and society. Further, through the collaborative and reflexive experience producing historical knowledge for an audience of peers, students contemplate from the inside the relationship between evidence and knowledge claims, a practice transferable to many contexts.
The racial structures that students examine (unfortunately) not only shaped the present but continue to be reproduced in novel formations. And therefore, Empire’s Progeny is built upon a reflexive pedagogical foundation. Empire’s Progeny is an experiment in harnessing digital tools to pursue the reflexive pedagogical methods developed by feminist and critical pedagogues. Reflexivity, in my pedagogical approach, has two sides. The more common usage refers to educational methods that seek to analyze lived experience, which my practice also seeks to do. But I also believe that students can and should be reflexive as to the nature of the learning they engage in. The conjunction of these two – self-reflexivity and pedagogical awareness – is the present site of my pedagogical innovations and experimentation.
Approaching our students with respect means to recognize their own investments in their education and to assume they harbor a deep intellectual seriousness, even if this is not always manifest. They have the capacity, and should have the power and knowledge, to determine the path of their education. In my teaching, this basic recognition of dignity is also a pedagogical method. It is a method that exposes to students the ways in which educational systems are political and power-imbued and uses this acknowledgement to interrogate the production of authoritative knowledge. As Henry Giroux puts it, “The question of what educators teach is inseparable from what it means to locate oneself in public discourses and invest in public commitments. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that the responsibility of critical educators cannot be separated from the consequences of the subject positions they have been assigned, the knowledge they produce, the social relations they legitimate, and the ideologies they disseminate to students.” My students enter the (virtual) classroom aware that the many inequalities of American society shape the relationship between them and the university. Explicitly addressing this allows for deeper recognition between student and instructor and the opportunity purposely co-create and shape that relationship. Moreover, this reflection on power, race, and institutions of knowledge production and accreditation prepares students for civic engagement and agency
As an academic project, Empire’s Progeny is primarily critical – that is, it seeks to impart to students the skills, concepts, practices, and intellectual fortitude and confidence that will serve them in the future to critique and influence social structures of power. A sub-thread in the project, however, is the utopian search for alternatives. As Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh write, the horizon of decolonial practice is to envision, enact, and eventually inhabit an “otherwise” – a way of being no longer so entangled with the colonial past. The modern university is not the privileged site for such an otherwise to emerge, but it can prepare students to imagine alternative presents and futures.
Race, Literacy, and Writing Instruction
Empire’s Progeny was created to serve a wide swath of college students from diverse backgrounds, at diverse points in their education, and with a wide array of majors and goals. As History of Colonial Latin America fulfills undergraduate general education requirements at Rutgers University, the course is routinely filled to capacity with students most of whom are majoring in neither the social sciences nor the liberal arts. With the aim of best serving students as they prepare for their futures, writing and writing instruction are core elements of Empire’s Progeny.
My writing pedagogy builds on Empire’s Progeny’s overall post-colonial approach to race and imperialism to instruct students in writing and prose in a manner that is explicitly anti-racist. This has two primary dimensions. First, I use the historical relationship between imperialism and language standardization and assessment to aid students to understand writing in the present as a socially contextual practice that is flush with power relations. Second, I teach writing skills through recurrent activities of self- and peer-evaluation that we complete with awareness of the contexts above. Together, my foremost goal regarding writing pedagogy is for students to have the skills they need for success and the self-awareness to purposefully deploy such skills.
The thematic and interpretive content of Empire’s Progeny teaches students that race – as an idea and as an institution – developed not as an error of human thinking but as a technique of conquest, imperialism, and slavery. Students critically examine how European empires produced knowledge about subject peoples and then used this knowledge to dominate, oppress, and exploit people of indigenous and African descent. Through this curriculum, students learn as well that writing and literacy were key technologies to the ideation and enforcement of racial oppression. Regarding racial thought, alphabetic writing was understood by imperialists to be an indication of Christian cultural superiority. Conquistadors, explorers, and writers routinely associated the lack of alphabetic writing in Americas with the native peoples’ supposed “barbarity” and closeness to nature. José de Acosta, one of the most influential Spanish intellectuals of the 16th century, remarked about pre-Hispanic pictographic literacy, “Because their figures and characters were not as adequate as those of our writing and letters, this meant that they could not make the words conform exactly but could only express the essential parts of ideas.” Acosta insisted that only European cultures, with their alphabetic writing, had access to the truths of the world. Meanwhile, with revulsion and zeal, early missionaries systematically burned indigenous codices (books), and when frustrated evangelists found native spirituality more tenacious than expected, they propounded that Satan had corrupted Indians’ languages and thereby their minds. Writing and literacy were hence central to the proselytizing programs of the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.), which expended considerable labor and wealth to render native languages to the Latin alphabet. In sum, students learn that the judgment of literacy was elemental to imperial racial understanding and that writing was a medium through which race became a hegemonic way of interpreting human civilizations.
This history of power and language provides a foundation for critically assessing how power relations continue to structure writing standards in the present. English’s legacy is no different than that of Spanish. Among other abuses, standardized English served as a weapon against enslaved Africans, a tool for forcefully assimilating Native American children, and a bludgeon against immigrants of many origins. As bell hooks writes, “it is difficult not to hear in standardized English always the sound of slaughter and conquest.” Many — indeed, the majority — of my students come from the receiving end of weaponized language and now approach standardized English from a disadvantaged position. Whether they grew up in urban Newark or are the children of immigrants, standard English is a second language to them.
Following hooks and others, I seek to valorize diverse dialects and the history they represent in the classroom. Nonetheless, if writing is a technology of power, then it is a technology my majority-minority students need at their ready. My students know that and inform me of it. I therefore use the history of language, race, and imperialism as a way to self-consciously develop writing skills.
One of the first observations students derive from the imperial history of language is that writing is a skill, not a talent. As any writing teacher knows, students are quick to judge themselves as “good” or “not-good” writers, especially those students writing in a second language. For the few pupils in my classrooms who claim a natural ability, such confidence serves them well to further develop their skills. But in informal surveys, the majority of my students in the past counted themselves among the untalented and brought this fatalism to their coursework. My curriculum, therefore, teaches students that writing is a technology that one masters with skills, not an art that requires talent. The functions of literacy in the Iberian empires aptly illustrate this. Antonio de Nebrija, who drafted the first standard grammar of the Castilian (Spanish) language, is said to have reported to Queen Isabel in 1492 that “Language was always the companion of empire… language and empire began, increased, and flourished together.” Nebrija was on to something: standardized writing was an essential technology of imperial statecraft. The nerve centers of the Spanish empire, the Council of the Indies and the Casa de Contratación, knew the colonies through the letters, reports, surveys, inquiries, and registers streaming in through the port of Seville. These media functioned to convert distant events into what Bruno Latour calls “immutable mobiles,” though which experience afar was relayed to the eyes of imperial decision-makers. In the other direction, the king’s orders reached his subjects through printed decrees, which were collected into voluminous tomes called the “Laws of the Indies” for functionaries to reference. On the local level, ecclesiastic and secular courts established and performed authority via written records and tax collectors and slave owners referred to censuses to measure their due. Through Empire’s Progeny, students learn that writing as a technology of imperialism (and resistance) was dependent upon vast infrastructures of production, circulation, and bureaucracy without which it is quite probable that the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal would have never conquered the Americas. By learning that writing was a technology akin to map-making and navigation, they can better apprehend that it is a set of learned skills that provide certain kinds of power and agency.
My approach to writing instruction also takes inspiration from Asao Inoue, who, in his proposal for antiracist writing instruction, insists that it is imperative to problematize with students “their existential writing assessment situation by investigating the nature of judgment” (10). Naming and identifying the structures and hegemonic nature of writing standards empowers students, especially students of color and of lower-class backgrounds, by helping them to comprehend the subject position from which they write. This inquiry begins with the (virtual) college classroom itself. As many critics have noted, college writing standards, like the social environment of higher education generally, reproduce a “white racial habitus” founded on behaviors, habits, and assumptions most comfortable and familiar to white middle-class students. The historical content of the course makes it evident that such unconscious and institutionalized racism is not incidental; rather, institutions and standards of elite education were mechanisms by which white supremacy and middle-class hegemony were (and are) enforced. Colleges do not teach Black vernacular, instead their gates (such as the SAT) keep such speakers out, lest they adopt a more academic tone. This could be a merely inconvenient observation if it were not for the statistically lower grades of students of color in college 101 courses and standardized tests. Institutionalized writing standards have racially-defined consequences and, to follow Ibrim X. Kendi, are therefore by definition racist. As Kendi writes, such structures and their consequences persist under a veil of neutrality and color-blindness and to dismantle them requires identifying their racist nature and how they reproduce inequalities. On the individual level, students need to understand their “existential writing assessment situation” in order to take charge of their education and decide what, why, and how to learn.
The purpose of this approach is not to undermine my authority. Rather, it is to problematize the authority I represent as part of a process to help students determine their agency vis-à-vis literacy and society. Students, by recognizing me as an authority (after all, I register the grades), but also as a self-reflexive and openly dialogic mentor, can advance in a safe setting the life-long process of what language and writing means to them. Without doubt, many students, especially those of disadvantaged backgrounds, have encountered and considered the disjunctures between, for instance, their home vernacular and standardized English. My curriculum aims to develop that understanding into a more elaborate social analysis – one that includes the university as an institution of power. Paulo Freire advised that a successful pedagogy will “stimulate learners to live a critically conscious presence in the pedagogical and historical process.” In other words, the goal is for students to become purposefully, consciously aware of their historical situatedness of the educational model they are engaged in.
American Historical Association (AHA). “Tuning the History Discipline in the United States.” Accessed October 6, 2020. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline.
Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.
Freire, Paulo. 2014. Pedagogía de la esperanza: Un reencuentro con la pedagogía del oprimido. Siglo XXI Editores México.
Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. 2014. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. 30th Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.
Giroux, Henry A. 2020. On Critical Pedagogy. 2nd Edition. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Inoue, Asao B. 2015. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Fort Collins, Colorado: Parlor Press.
Kendi, Ibram X. 2019. How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World.
Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press Books.