Tag Archives: social work

Farewell to Teaching

Carol A. Hand

This post is a farewell to a vocation I have loved – teaching. I awoke this morning with a clear answer to a question I have been pondering for several weeks, “Should I resign from teaching, perhaps this time with no intention of ever returning?”

Yes, it’s time. Although I love working with students, the context of teaching at the post high school level has increasingly provided too little space for liberatory praxis.

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Photo Credit: Graduate Celebration – 2009

It’s the structure of education, not the students, that has been the determining factor for my decision. During my brief time as an adjunct for a private college, I have witnessed the transformation of a program originally based on emphasizing critical thinking and experiential learning based on social justice to a “feeder” program preparing students for a clinical master’s degree. The transition didn’t occur over night, but it’s clear that soon textbooks and assignments will be dictated to conform to this new “mission” in order to better dressage students to accept a deficit-focused medical model designed to medicate or imprison those on the margins. It’s a mission shared by an increasing number of social work programs, making me remember my reluctance to enter this discipline when I returned to college many decades ago.

How will this focus do anything to help the residents in Detroit who are without water or sewer service because of dehumanizing corporate forces outside of their control? How will it end the outrageous killing of Palestinians while the world watches from the sidelines? How will it help us address the threat of climate change and corporate domination? My answer is that for me, clinical practice represents yet another means of oppressive social control. How will my decision to stop teaching change any of these seemingly complex, insoluble, immobilizing forces at play in the world today? Maybe it won’t. But betraying one’s values and principles teaches something as well.

“My role in the world is not simply that of someone who registers what occurs, but of someone who has input into what happens… No one can be in the world, with the world, and with others and maintain a position of neutrality. I cannot be in the world, simply observing life…. It is not by resignation but by the capacity for indignation in the face of injustice that we are affirmed…. Transformation of the world implies a dialectic between the two actions: denouncing the process of dehumanization and announcing the dream of a new society.” (Paulo Freire, 1998, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage, pp. 73-74)

I ask “What do my colleagues love to do?” I honestly don’t know because it’s not a subject we speak about. But I can answer this question for myself. I love to teach because it gives me an opportunity to keep learning, and “teaching” has taught me more than all of the textbooks I have read, and I have read too many as my ever-worsening eyesight has frequently reminded me throughout the years. Yet even without teaching, I know I will have many opportunities to continue gaining knowledge, and if I continue to live by ethical principles, there is also the chance to gain wisdom.

To all of the students I have worked with, I say miigwetch (Ojibwe thank you). I have learned so much from each and everyone one of you. Maya Angelou eloquently conveys the most important of lessons I hope we shared with each other.

“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Gatekeepers and Mrs. A

Carol A. Hand

I truly wish the account I am about to share were a fictional creation. I also wish the ending provided an example of enlightenment, how faculty could use their power to open doors for students who have overcome overwhelming odds to reach academia. Alas, the events point to a misuse of power and the tendency of those in positions of power to protect themselves at all costs, including at the cost of their own humanity.

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Photo Credit: Google “Gatekeeper Images”

Mrs. A, obviously a fictive name to protect identity, had always dreamed of obtaining a social work degree. It was not until she had lost everything because of her husband’s serious and progressive mental illness that she was finally able to enter a university through the help of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, when she herself was suffering from chronically challenging physical health conditions. As a mature student in her 40s, she was a conscientious and engaged student. I had an opportunity to observe her hard work and dedication in a class I taught. Despite health challenges and family responsibilities, she was in class, on time, with work completed. She was respectful toward her instructors, and kind and supportive of her younger peers. And, through her first three years as a social work major, she earned a grade point average of “A.” She was also a McNair scholar whose work won awards and statewide acclaim.

It important to understand the significance of socioeconomic class in academia, particularly in the field of social work. First generation college students like Mrs. A have often learned crucial skills. They often come from families that needed to forge relationships with other families in similar situations in order to survive with limited incomes. These mutual support networks exchanged resources and services in times of need. Children learned to quickly discern who was in a similar situation and how to form supportive networks. They also learned to endure the shame of paying for food with food stamps, or wearing outdated, unfashionable secondhand clothing that drew the ridicule of more affluent peers. These lessons often make it easy for students from families with fewer economic resources to form trusting relationships with agency clients. Yet like all strengths, context matters. The purpose of education is to help students be able to decide when to use these relation-forming abilities and when to maintain professional distance.

Mrs. A described some of the experiences that were humiliating for her when she was a child, and the deep shame she still feels when she remembers these experiences. Because she is kind-hearted and empathetic, her natural inclination is to reach out to others who share this history to ease their humiliation and pain. It is this predilection to ease the suffering of others that placed her at odds with middle class notions in social work. For most faculty I have encountered, the need to maintain “professional boundaries” with clients is simplistically operationalized as a distant power-over relationship. There is little room to understand the nuances culture, class, context, and purpose of interventions, etc., have on the most effective approaches for working with people.

There are also profound differences in how faculty teach social work. Unfortunately for Mrs. A, the majority of faculty in the institution Mrs. A attended saw their role as gatekeepers, enforcers of the “right way” to practice social work in old problem-focused ways that rob clients (and students) of choice and dignity. The place in the social work curriculum where socioeconomic-class clashes become most apparent are in social work’s “signature pedagogy,” the practicum experience. Students are placed in an agency under the joint supervision of a faculty member and an agency social worker to “be trained” as a social worker in a field setting.

The university is supposed to put safeguards in place to make sure that both clients and students are protected. First, the university has contracts that specify the expectations of each partner: the agency, the agency intern supervisor, the university faculty, and the student. Second, students are assessed and placed in an agency that best meets both their educational needs and builds on their particular strengths. Third, the agency intern supervisors are required to go through an orientation to make sure that they have the necessary skills to create a professional learning environment (as opposed to a clerical position) and appropriate supervisory skills. Fourth, students are required to submit weekly journals where they discuss what they are doing and learning in field. They are also required to write about any challenges or ethical dilemmas they encounter. It is the responsibility of supervising faculty to read the student journals and address any issues. Fifth, students meet in a weekly seminar to discuss their placements, ideally receiving feedback from their peers and faculty supervisor on how to negotiate any difficulties or resolve ethical conflicts. Finally, faculty are required to visit the agency at the beginning of the placement to make sure the placement is appropriate and at the semester midterm to assess student progress.

Unfortunately for Mrs. A, few of these safeguards were in place. Given the inexperience of the university’s new field coordinator, the agency where Mrs. A was placed was a poor fit with her interests, skills, and realistic learning goals. The agency intern supervisor had not been to orientation, adding to the challenges. Nonetheless, Mrs. A tried valiantly to make this placement work. Because she was helping me with a project, I had an opportunity to hear about her experiences with her agency intern supervisor. As I listened to the ethical dilemmas and inconsistent directions Mrs. A was given, I was concerned and advised her to include these in her written logs, raise any questions during seminar, and speak to her faculty supervisor privately about her concerns. Mrs. A did all of these things, only to be told by an inexperienced faculty supervisor who was teaching seminar for the first time, “just wait. Things might work out.” Unfortunately, the way things worked out changed Mrs. A’s life profoundly.

The midterm evaluation never happened. In the eleventh week of a fourteen week semester, the agency intern supervisor called the new field coordinator to report a serious breach of professional boundaries. From an objective standpoint, it was really a relatively minor misunderstanding that resulted from poor agency supervision and poor university oversight, compounded by socioeconomic class differences between Mrs. A, the agency intern supervisor, and university faculty. Rather than approach the situation as a learning opportunity for all involved, faculty quickly reacted from their gatekeeper mentality. They met with the agency intern supervisor to hear her concerns without ever speaking to Mrs. A. Again, without ever speaking to Mrs. A, faculty decided to give Mrs. A a failing grade in practicum and remove her from the agency immediately. Administrators in the social work department supported this decision, again without ever giving Mrs. A a chance to share her perspective and experiences.

Mrs. A was repeatedly shamed by the field coordinator, other faculty, and the chair of the social work program. Ultimately, Mrs. A was told she would not be allowed to finish her degree because of the failing grade in practicum and the characterological deficiencies that would always make her unfit to function as a social worker in a professional setting. She heard these damning pronouncements without ever being allowed to voice her perspectives and without ever being allowed to have her two informal faculty advocates present during meetings. After one of these encounters with the field coordinator and key faculty, another student found Mrs. A wondering on the campus grounds in a daze and brought her to my office.

What happened to Mrs. A and the new colleague who wanted to serve as Mrs. A’s lead advocate forever changed my view of the institution where I worked and people in positions of power there. My colleague and I helped Mrs. A successfully appeal the department’s ruling, although it cost her another year and thousands of dollars to finish her degree. I was able to offset some of these costs by hiring her as an assistant with small grants I had. Yet, despite my best efforts, I could not help my new colleague survive the backlash of people in power who needed to cover their own long legacy of mean-spirited incompetence. Yes, I was even told by the chair as a parting comment when I announced my early retirement, “You have a terrible reputation! [as he was screaming and waving his arms] You’re seen as a STUDENT ADVOCATE!”

Ah well, there are worse things to be. I count my blessings every day, and despite geographic distances, my colleague and I still have opportunities to help other students make it through the repressive gatekeepers with some of their dignity, integrity, and creativity intact.

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http://www.wallsave.com/wallpaper/1024×768/gothic-gate-keeper-jpg-free-dark-art-and-202574.html

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Teaching – and the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass

Carol A. Hand

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Sister Lorita, my undergraduate advisor from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago, taught me more than botany. Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

“The wonder of life.” Isn’t that the most important thing we can learn? Although I was a chemistry and biology major at the time, my life took a different path. Instead of science, I teach students how to work with people, although there are many times when I would rather be an ecologist.

When I first started teaching, I did not remember Sister Lorita’s lesson. I taught the same meaningless theories and content in the same boring ways as most of my previous teachers, yet I noticed there were differences. Unlike colleagues who told me they never admitted they didn’t have an answer to a student question, I was honest. While other faculty told me they made up an answer, I admitted it was a good question that I needed to research before giving an answer. I was encouraged by a friend, a linguist and Jewish scholar, who supported this approach. She told me that the Hebrew word for the verb “to teach” is an intensive form of the verb “to learn.” It is this chance to keep learning that makes my work so rewarding. The other difference I noted was my tendency to highlight student strengths and accomplishments, rather than merely point out errors in their work.

It took me years to recognize that these differences were truly significant. Like Sister Lorita, I became far less concerned about what others thought of me and more concerned with how what students learned in my class would affect their views of the people they were responsible for helping during their careers. Could they learn to see the wonder of possibilities in all people, regardless of their past and present circumstances? So I began experimenting with ways to consciously “walk the talk.”

I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).

As an Ojibwe scholar, a linear descendant of hereditary chiefs, I have been socialized to accept responsibility for providing leadership and for challenging and working to transform oppressive ideologies, institutions, and practice paradigms. (Ojibwe leadership was not a position of status. Instead, leadership carried obligations for community service and responsibility for community survival and well-being. No one was obligated to follow leaders – this was an earned status based on a leader’s ability to preserve the community through wisdom and generosity.) I have learned through example that this means that I must reflect critically about the roles of power, political ideologies, and practice paradigms in the reproduction of hegemony over oppressed groups and individuals. Both the content and methods that I use for practice, teaching, and research are consciously selected to reflect a recognition of individual and group strengths and the importance of structural and environmental forces.

As an educator, researcher, and practitioner, I believe I have a responsibility to model respectful partnerships that explore and create “the best we can imagine” for our clients, colleagues, communities and world. This means I am always learning, not infrequently from approaches that prove short-sighted or ineffective. If there is anything I learned from my doctoral work and subsequent research, it is how much more there is yet to learn. This realization is a powerful foundation for working in partnership with others, especially those who have internalized the belief that they have little power or knowledge. It also gives me the freedom to experiment with new approaches and connections, to synthesize and create, and to take risks.

Years ago, I was watching an educational show on methods for teaching diversity. Although I have long forgotten the name of the show, the slogan the presenters used has remained with me and has particular salience for social work education: “to learn, to care, to act.” As a social work educator, it is my belief that I have a responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with clients, organizations, and communities. Liberatory Praxis, the blending of theory and action, is a crucial teaching foundation that requires going beyond merely requiring students to memorize facts and theories (Freire, 2000; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003). It moves beyond the “banking model” of education that views students as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher’s knowledge. Liberatory praxis recognizes that teachers are also learners and are responsible for creating environments based on principles of awareness and respect for differing perspectives, mutual responsibility for learning, and consciousness-raising of both learners and educators through dialogue.

It is also crucial to encourage students to develop and apply critical thinking skills, and to help them develop an understanding of, and empathy toward, people who come from very different backgrounds. Given that social work professional ethics require challenging social injustices and inequality, students need to be able to critically evaluate the practices and policies we teach. Often, as social workers, we are all required to work toward client and community empowerment and liberation within the context of limiting, deficit-focused paradigms and policies.

In order to operationalize a liberatory praxis philosophy, I interweave a number of different approaches into the courses I teach: (1) a breadth of professional perspectives in required readings; (2) readings that expose students to the emic (or insider) views of oppression rather than merely relying on etic (outsider) observations and assumptions; (3) in-class exercises and modeling that encourage teamwork, the development of empathy, and the application of critical thinking skills; and (4) assignments that require experiential involvement with the focal topic, critical thinking, and self-reflection.

During the past several years, I have had an opportunity to read more broadly and reflect on the cultural fit of this egalitarian, dialogic, and consciously modeled approach for working with others who have less power in a given socially constructed community or institution. It is my belief that social work educators have an ethical responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with diverse clients. Unlike other disciplines, social work educators have an additional responsibility to model strength-based, empowering practice in their pedagogical approaches with students. We know that students do as we do, rather than what we tell them to do.

Experimenting with different approaches for modeling empowerment with students has been the primary focus of my work as an educator during the past twelve years. As a result, I believe that I am better able to articulate to students the specific approaches I am using with what hoped-for outcomes. I am also better able to create classroom and online environments that enable students to learn through exposure to rich and diverse perspectives, self-reflection, critical dialectical assignments, and evaluation of their own applied work and that of their peers. In that sense my work has remained both liberatory and applied.

Most importantly, I ask students to become mindful of the lenses they look through to understand the world and other people. We are all socialized to see the world in certain ways by our culture, socioeconomic class, and religion, etc. In order to unpack what we have learned to accept as “normal” and “good,” there are a number of questions each person needs to explore and answer for themselves. There are no right or wrong answers, although they may differ from the answers others have.

Cosmological questions:
Are people basically “good” or “bad?” Some cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sanctity, as gifts from the creator to be protected and allowed the freedom to express who they already are. Other cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sin. They need to be taught right from wrong, using coercion and punishment if need be to help them learn to behave in morally acceptable ways. How cultures answer this question can be discerned by looking at the institutions and policies they develop to socialize, educate, and protect children and families.
Is the world a place of scarcity or abundance? Competition for scarce resources results in inequality and war. Yet abundance is the result when people believe that there can be enough for everyone to share if people work together, using only what they need, and acting as stewards for the resources in their environments.

Ontological questions:
Is there one truth or are there many (Creswell, 1994)? Are both possibilities? The answer to these questions differs across people and cultures and indicates our willingness to respect the trustworthiness and value of beliefs other than our own.

Epistemological questions:
What is the relationship of the observer to that which is being observed (Creswell, 1994)? That is, does my very presence as an observer affect the behaviors of others and therefore, change what I observe? Or am I in a protective bubble, as it were, capable of being present with no effects on others I am observing? Am I capable of remaining invisible to those whom I am observing, and separate and detached from what I am observing, allowing me to be completely objective?

Axiological questions:
Is our understanding of others value-free, or do values color how we make sense of the world and other people’s behavior?

Understanding one’s self and the ways in which one has been socialized to see the world are indispensable for understanding others in respectful, inclusive ways. Learning to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass is perhaps one of the most important things we can learn. If we can’t see the beauty and wonder of life in nature, how can we see it in each other?

I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from Sister Lorita’s example and her words of wisdom so many years ago. May her spirit rest in peace knowing that at least one student did listen, even if it took decades for that student to remember. Perhaps many others listened as well.

blade of grass
Photo Credit:
3quarksdaily: Tuesday Poem

Authors Cited:

Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Wallerstein, N. & Duran, B. (2003). The conceptual, historical, and practice roots of community based participatory research and related participatory traditions. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds.), Community-based participatory research for health (pp. 27-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Reflections on the Meaning of “Social Justice”

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I eagerly sought out a position at a university social work department that publically proclaimed its commitment to social justice as a foundation for working with individuals, groups, and communities. When the position was offered to me, I welcomed the chance to work with faculty whom I thought shared my values. It didn’t take long for my excitement to wane. As I heard some of my faculty colleagues gossiping outside my office door about the deficiencies of new faculty, I realized their definition of social justice was not the same as mine. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the problem is in the phrase ‘social justice’.” When I looked up the meaning of “justice” in the dictionary, I realized this could be the problem.

The noun “justice” is defined as,

1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness …

2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason …

3. the moral principle determining just conduct,

4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct, dealing, or treatment,

5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward… (Webster’s Dictionary, 1989, p. 776)

The definition of the verb “do justice” offers a more hopeful image, “to treat justly or fairly, … to appreciate properly, … to act in accordance with one’s abilities or potentialities; acquit oneself well” (p. 776). Yet it still embodies the notion of just deserts, that one must earn fair treatment; fair treatment is not an inherent right of all simply because they exist.

LP sword

The behavior of my colleagues led me to literally envision social justice as “Lady Justice,” holding a book of law in her left hand, and in her right hand, a sword to smite wrong-doers. This was not what I meant when I had used the term in the past. I meant the recognition that we have all been socialized to unconsciously accept a social structure that is hierarchical, competitive, and excludes and devalues those who are different in some way. The challenge of inequality was to raise awareness — not only of those who are oppressed by the current social structure, but also of those who benefit from the oppression of others, sometimes without knowing.

lady justice

Photo Credit: Google lady justice images

In some measure, through socialization in a given culture at a given time in the U.S., all people in the U.S. are dressaged – like horses trained to perform programmed movements when commanded by the rider. They are socialized to accept the structure of inequality as natural and immutable. Yet if you think about it, even gated communities are prisons for the wealthy elite, locking inhabitants into an enclosure that they are fearful to leave. The question then becomes “How can one really work toward the liberation of all?” How can we create a sense of community that eliminates social structures that are, by their very nature, divisive?

The answer can be found in a Latin word, “praxis.” Of course, I needed to look up the meaning in an unabridged dictionary the first time I read it in an assigned reading for a social work class. Simply stated, praxis is the blending of theory and action. I decided what I meant in the past was not social justice, but rather liberatory knowledge-guided action, or liberatory praxis. Then, I discovered Paulo Freire’s (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His suggestions for using the principles of liberatory praxis as a foundation for teaching fit with what felt right to me from an Ojibwe perspective. He argues that theories without action are useless, they need to be applied. And action, without knowledge, is often harmful or counterproductive.

Over the years as a teacher in universities, I have experimented with ways to implement a respectful dialogic approach based on liberatory praxis. I discovered my methods were not valued by many of my colleagues, although students were increasingly motivated to become engaged as active, creative scholars who were driven to find ways to change the world for the better. I am writing about this now because I have recently been contacted by two of my former students attending different universities. Both are at risk of not passing because they are “different,” that is, older, or gentler, or more gifted than faculty at developing rapport with clients, or Native American, Black, Latino/a, or Hmong, or Muslim, Mormon, Lesbian, or Gay, or the first member of their family to go to college. The list could go on. Students who are different make faculty uncomfortable because of faculty biases, so they are less likely to get the types of advice and support their “normal” peers receive without asking. The gatekeepers of social work education are more likely to view students who are different as unsuitable for the profession, as unable to maintain professional distance from their future clients.

The perception that clients are not our family, neighbors, comrades, or members of our community is really part of the problem with the world. Liberatory praxis challenges this notion on a foundational level, where social justice does not. Social justice speaks of redistributive justice rather than transformational change of oppressive social structures, values, and institutions. Freire notes that ending inequality will not be led by those in the elite strata. It will only come from those who are oppressed. Yet in the present social climate, those who are oppressed are less likely to attend the types of schools where they will have opportunities to learn critical thinking skills. They are less likely to go to college, and if they do, will in all likelihood be too burdened by repaying student loans to take on the onerous burden of working for societal or global transformation. Their views, regardless of educational attainment, will also be less likely to be seen as important and worthy of attention. And like the rest of us, they may have internalized the message that things cannot be changed by ordinary people like us. The media will anesthetize them into believing resistance is futile. Star trek fans will recognize this refrain.

Today is not one of the days I feel optimistic. We are standing on the precipice of yet another war to appease corporate greed. Yet as I write this, the thought comes to mind, “but what kind of world do I want my grandchildren to inherit?” “Am I willing to remain silent, accepting defeat without trying to live liberatory praxis in my life?” My answer? I am writing this essay to do what I can today. And tomorrow I will do something else, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, for as long as I can because my grandchildren, and all world citizens, deserve to live in a peaceful, egalitarian world.

 

lp world

Photo Credit: Google images – lp world

References

Freire, Paulo. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary Ed.). New York, NY: Continuum Press.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1980). Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books.

 

 

Ah — The — Um — Clicker

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I was a faculty member for a school of social work at a western university. It was not a school that welcomed diversity. Many faculty members used a heavy-handed method for assuring conformity, an approach that was as odds with my beliefs about education as an opportunity to help students learn to unlock their potential. I was astounded when a graduate student related her experiences in a class on human behavior in the social environment. The instructor wanted to teach students to become accomplished public speakers. He noted, “Social workers are so often terrible speakers.” Perhaps, but so are many others from other backgrounds.

The teaching method he used seemed at odds with a program that was purportedly based on promoting a strength-based foundation for working with people. What astounded me in the student’s account was her feeling of humiliation. Public speaking is, after all, the number one phobia of Americans. I still suffer the effects of this phobia. So, I am particularly sensitive to others’ challenges. My colleague’s unique style of teaching this skill quite frankly would make me grow silent.

Rather than focusing on the message, the organization, the audio-visuals, the strengths of voice, facial expression, or a host of other positive attributes, the focus was on a student’s verbal fluency (or lack thereof). That is, the faculty member counted the number of “ums” or “ahs” the student used during his or her presentation. The logic of this approach escapes me. In fact, I found it hard to believe that a faculty member in social work, in a strength-based program, in a program that emphasizes a commitment to social justice, would actually treat students this way. I asked another colleague for confirmation. “Was this practice really happening?” My colleague laughed and said, “Well, yes. But it’s better than it used to be.”

I learned that what used to be was even more troubling, but thankfully students rebelled and the practice was changed. On presentation days, the instructor would arrive with a small instrument, a “clicker.” It was a small twanging instrument with a button that was pressed by the instructor each time a student uttered “um” or “ah” as they presented in front of the class. The audible click each time the button was pressed added to the students’ humiliation. The “clicker” tallied the total number of the deadly space-fillers, and grades were assigned in large measure on the results of the count – the more ums and ahs, the lower the grade.

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I listen to public radio regularly and often wonder why there are so many speakers on an auditory medium whose speech is punctuated by hesitations of various sorts, or whose voices are stridently nasal or lackadaisically monotone. Yet I ask the questions, “What is the most important way to judge a message, even on an auditory medium?,” and “What is the purpose of communication?” I have encountered a lot of gifted snake-oil salesmen in my career, and a lot of people with profound messages haltingly delivered. (I would rather listen to meaningful messages delivered inarticulately than the self-promoting drivel of a snake-oil salesman any day.)

As I write this, I shake my head, still in disbelief. What are the real lessons of this exercise? But this story doesn’t end here.

One of the students who had class with “the clicker” internalized the message that she was not good at communication and needed to improve if she was going to graduate. It was not until her second year that she asked me to serve as her advisor. During our first meeting, she told me that she had been told she needed to learn how to communicate. So, I asked her to tell me what she meant by “communicate.” (I knew from reviewing her past classes that she had been studying dance.) Her response was that she needed to learn to speak in front of audiences. My reply was that speaking was one form of communication, yet 85% of what we understand is based on cues other than the words that we hear. How people look, the pitch and volume of their voice, their body posture and facial expressions often tell us far more than their words. I asked her if she thought of dance as a more powerful form of communication than a speech.

She listened politely, but I could tell (not by her words) that she really wasn’t convinced that anything other than speaking in public was real communication. Over the course of the year, however, she had an opportunity to discover the power of movement as a form of communication. It just so happened that she worked as an intern for an agency that was designed to help teenage girls improve their self-image by becoming involved as leaders in local environmental issues. She became aware of the negative images the girls had of their bodies, and how this prevented them from really expressing themselves as leaders. She worked with the girls to design a presentation that involved movement, not words. When the girls performed their creation at the end of the year, their teachers and parents were profoundly touched by the beauty, strength, and pride expressed through dance.

My advisee did graduate. Yet unique among all of the students, she did not use oral argumentation to support her graduate portfolio. She danced. And amazingly, “the clicker” attended and even participated when the audience was invited to join. Although he was deeply affected by her performance, he later decided that no other student would ever be allowed to defend their work in any way other than spoken argumentation.

Fortunately for all of us in this profession, this student has gone on to use movement and dance as tools in her work with individuals who suffer from mental illness. I am truly grateful that I had a chance to work with someone who was courageous enough to break through the taken-for-granted definition of what it means to communicate. Certainly a method that helps young girls overcome the silencing shame they feel about their body image may offer all of us a way to express ourselves with greater freedom and joy.

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Photo Credit: Drawings by Carol A. Hand

As human beings, we have a simple choice. We can choose to relate to others in ways that are hurtful and oppressive. Or, we can choose to help others find their strengths and the song in their hearts. But we cannot help others until we find the song in our own hearts first.