Attending to Resistance: An Ethnographic Study of Resistance and Attendance in an Adult Basic Education Classroom. Every teacher who tries to change things in the classroom meets with resistance from students, from administration, and from his or her own internal voice. Unless dealt with, this resistance can sabotage the implementation of any new teaching strategy or curriculum.
I watched a group of 30 or 40 ABE and adult literacy instructors bring the full force of their resistance to a presentation I was part of at an ABEABC conference.
I was making a presentation on student resistance with my friend Arleen Pare, who had just completed her thesis for her first MA, based on research she had conducted in my adult literacy class, about the relationship between attendance and resistance.
What do we mean by “resistance”?
I introduced the idea of resistance by giving some examples:
I take an aisle seat, near the back, when I’m going to a presentation that I’m required to attend, but think is a waste of time, so I can slip out after my presence has been noted.
Arleen started the presentation with a slide that gave the definition of resistance she had used in her work:
Resistance is a defiant (oppositional) behavioral or attitudinal response of a subordinated/marginalized individual to dominance and/or exclusion, that attempts to (re)establish the dignity of the subordinated/marginalized individual in the dominant situation and to mitigate power imbalances. As such it is considered a political act.
The room resisted
The audience of ABE/literacy instructors wouldn’t let her move past that slide. In a few brief exchanges about the definition itself, it became clear that everyone in the room understood the definition, and could in fact make sense of the academic language it was framed in.
They were not objecting because they didn’t understand. They objected to the language of the definition. They said it was unnecessarily convoluted. They wanted plain language.
After Arleen understood that there was no problem with understanding the definition, she suggested that she move on, and switched to her next slide, but immediately someone interjected and asked her to go back. The objections to the definition started again: it was too academic, it didn’t suit the situation (an ABE program), it was pedantic and detached from the real world.
The room was against her. This was not a situation where one or two people with an axe to grind temporarily take the floor while the rest of the audience rolls their eyes and agitates to go on. No. The whole group seemed solid in its objections.
It was only after she rephrased the definition into more ordinary language that they were willing to let her go on to the next slide, and to let us finish our presentation. When she recognized and honoured their resistance by making her definition more palatable, they were willing to let her continue. In fact, from then on they were lively and interested participants.
What were they resisting?
I think they resisted the idea of an academic coming to tell them about their own work. They resisted the idea of research that hijacked their experience and took it somewhere else. They resisted the idea that any truth about their work needed to be expressed in language they would never use while doing their work.
What made resistance possible?
How could they leave behind their polite Canadian selves, and show open resistance? I think I set it up by giving examples of my own resistance in my introduction. By doing so, I made resistance safe. I made it ordinary. And Arleen made it easy by her open, warm, and friendly demeanor.
Our point, exactly…
Their reaction to the definition provided us with an example of the points we were making: that when an instructor is aware of resistance, honours it and deals with it, the resistance can be replaced by active participation in class activities.
Arleen’s very interesting thesis: Attending to Resistance: An Ethnographic Study of Resistance and Attendance in an Adult Basic Education Classroom.
Thanks to Evelyn whose comment on Matching Exercises reminded me to talk about resistance.