Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 2

Keith Duffy

The following is the second installment of a two-part article. Part one, which was published as the previous post, asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two examines the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

In the part one of this series, I started to explore whether classroom communities can be found by the members in those communities. In other words, can we as teachers take a more passive role in the formation of communities, allow them to establish themselves and evolve without our singular force or influence? Or do classroom communities, by their very nature, simply have to be fabricated and shaped by the hand of a teacher exerting his or her will? I realize I am presenting this in a rather binary (and maybe reductionist) way, and there are many shades of gray in between these two positions. However, my motive for introducing this as a polarizing issue is to raise the question: How much force (how much of our individual wills) do we actually exert in the formation and functioning of our classroom communities?

As I discussed in part one, when I’ve pondered this issue and reflected on my own practice, I’ve often turned to one of my favorite books of all time for insight: The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. In their book, Kurtz and Ketcham present a broad historical concept, representing a wide variety of doctrines, that suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the word imperfection implies, the central tenet holds that we, as human beings, are essentially flawed. The source of our humanity—and hence our ability to be with other humans in community—is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though we may strive for perfection, such striving often separates us from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home.

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These are ideas are lofty, for sure. But as I dig a little deeper into the specifics of this philosophy, I begin to see how, just maybe, we’ve seriously limited the definition of community as literacy educators. Kurtz and Ketcham suggest it is this common, shared acknowledgement of flawedness that creates mutuality, the condition that allows people to come together without fear or facades. In essence, a spirituality of imperfection rests upon the paradoxical statement that people can be “made whole by the acceptance of limitation,” allowing them to participate wholly in community (Kurtz and Ketcham 197). According to this perspective, there are four key components surrounding the way communities form and operate: (1) community is dis-covered, or uncovered, when we (2) allow ourselves to be found by others who are (3) different, or limited, in the same ways we are. Finally, (4) because human beings are naturally imperfect, any relationship we enter into with other human beings can only ever be limited. For this reason, communities are limited, and this means they are inclusive and exclusive simultaneously.

In conversations with my colleagues about this last point, I’ve understandably experienced some resistance; for dedicated teachers, the idea of classrooms being exclusive in any way seems anathema to what we are trying to accomplish. But under the umbrella of imperfection, communities of any kind—regardless of purpose or location—are paradoxical. Since communities are composed of limited human beings, communities have both inclusive and exclusive forces within them (Kurtz and Ketcham 229).

The first time I encountered this idea of community, I bristled. My first thought: This contradicts my training as a composition teacher! As evidenced by the titles of the how-to books introducing part one of this article (again, see here), the pedagogical emphasis in literacy education has clearly been on creating community, not allowing imperfect human beings to dis-cover it. In our teaching tradition, classroom exercises are designed to help bring people together to solve common problems. As teachers, we do things, and ask our students to do things, in order to build community. Various classroom routines are established, and language is shaped, to help promote and nurture a communal identity.

I’m not saying these approaches are unnecessary or should be abandoned. But it’s important to notice how suddenly, in this universe of doing, there is very little room for being. What about the importance of being? The first two statements made by Kurtz and Ketcham clearly emphasize being over doing; community is dis-covered when we allow ourselves to be found by others. From this passive perspective, being becomes a kind of bridge that draws humans together. And doing, always doing, could very well short-circuit our coming together. Personally, I think this conflict is something worth paying attention to, if nothing else.

I’m a fan of stretching ideas to their limits. So, following this imperfect reasoning, let’s even consider this possibility:  Community may not be something that can even be planned. Likewise, classroom communities may not be entities that we, as teachers, possess or even control. I understand it may sound like I’m peddling mayhem and disarray; however, I’m not suggesting we willfully throw our classrooms into chaos or allow them to disintegrate into disorder. But what might happen to our classroom communities if we ponder letting go of them…at least to some degree? Community is absolutely something we can experience if we adopt a certain attitude. Per a spirituality of imperfection, a community is always there, but it needs to be dis-covered, somehow brought into our experience; a community must be allowed to reveal itself. Hence, relinquishing our will-to-control a community might be the first move in a new direction. For some teachers, this is a no-brainer; even as a student myself oh so many years ago, I experienced teachers who seemed to embrace this idea in a natural way. But for others—those of us who tend to grip that steering wheel, white-knuckled, with both hands (I’m looking at my own reflection in the rearview mirror here)—this concept can be alien and scary…and that automatically makes it feel like a challenge worth accepting.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the somewhat polarizing idea that our classroom communities may very well be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. The basic question is this: Do communities inherently act to include members or exclude strangers?

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In other words, do the boundaries between communities function to keep members in or keep foreigners out? Understandably, there are scholars in literacy education who have strongly argued that if the primary function of a community is to exclude, then this has no place within our pedagogy. I agree with this position. But let’s not ignore Kurtz and Ketcham’s fourth statement above: Within a spirituality of imperfection, communities are comprised of imperfect human beings; communities are, therefore, inherently flawed. And, because communities are flawed, it is highly possible they are both powerfully inclusive and exclusive; paradoxically, the boundaries surrounding most communities—even those of our classrooms—act to keep us together and keep us apart.

Although many see the boundaries between communities as a solely negative force, Kurtz and Ketcham argue that boundaries are important for their positive function: They define us. By setting limits in a way that gives identity, telling us who we are and who we are not, the boundaries between communities make it possible for us to fit, to belong. If we lived our lives with no boundaries whatsoever, it may not be possible for any of us to actually exist. Boundaries establish the real spaces where we live; this is an ancient idea that spans many spiritual doctrines—a boundary is not that through which something ceases to be, but rather that from which something begins to be what is, is free to be what is (Kurtz and Ketcham 237).

From this perspective, the exclusive nature of communities—even though we as teachers may blanche at the thought—allows them to be inclusive, protective; a boundaried community provides members with a place to fit, to learn. In a sense, exclusivity begets inclusivity; both parts of the equation are necessary to discover a community. By acknowledging the essential paradox that undergirds community, we open ourselves and our students up to the possibility of coming together.

How does a teacher put any of these complex ideas about community into practice? To be completely honest, praxis is not my strong suit. I suspect some of my own pedagogy has been positively influenced by these concepts, but I hesitate to offer up any concrete ideas or plans. In these instances, my go-to quote is from the article “Grace, in Pedagogy” by Richard L. Graves: “(Grace) is not something that can be called up at will, planned on, or included in a syllabus. Grace cannot be formally included or incorporated into a curriculum or mandated into a school system” (16, 20). Embracing these sometimes paradoxical ideas can be challenging; putting them into practice in our classrooms even more so.

Nevertheless, I pose the challenge: How do you approach community in your classroom? Have you ever tried letting go of your classroom community to see what might be dis-covered by everyone in the room? Or perhaps you’ve always nurtured learning communities without emphasizing doing and without having to possess or control them? If so, feel free to share your thoughts. Likewise, if any of the ideas I’ve explored here seem impractical or unrealistic, please share in the comments below.

 

Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.

 

Works Cited

Graves, Richard. “Grace, in Pedagogy.” The Spiritual Side of Writing. Ed. Regina Paxton Foehr and Susan A. Schiller. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997. 15-24.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994

 

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