Kiev, Debate, Hubris

It's been a bit over two weeks since I've returned home from a debate workshop I gave in Ukraine at two Universities there. The workshops were successful by everyone's standard. I haven't written about it yet because quite honestly I wasn't sure what to say. This workshop was very different from my normal debate-teaching experience, and for a while I thought I wouldn't. I didn't know what to say about it. I thought I would eventually type up a very generic assessment of it and move along, but I am still digesting it. I believe it to have been perhaps the most important workshop I've done in a long time because it reminded me of how much more I need to do to become a good teacher.

My friend suggested I leave this post at that - "I have nothing to say" or "I am uncertain of what to say." My version of that would have been what you've been experiencing if you have visited here recently. Silence. But it has been a productive reflection, not in the sense that anything has been generated, but instead that things have been refreshed and realigned.

I hate to admit it, but my attitude until my trip to Ukraine was one destined for correction. It is best described by Chogyam Trungpa in his book Sahambhala as the "cocoon." This is the attitude we often take on when we are comfortable in where we are. We surround ourselves with a familiarity that breeds a confidence that discourages us from thinking there's more to do, see, or explore. This attitude is dangerous as it makes us sleepy and comfortable. This leads to a stagnation in thought and action that easily looks like the result of good and hard work. As Trungpa writes:
In the cocoon there is no dance: no walking, or breathing, not even a wink of the yes. It is comfortable and sleepy: an intense and very familiar home. In the world of the cocoon, such things as spring cleaning have never been known. We feel that it is too much work, too much trouble, to clean it up. We would prefer to go back to sleep. (161)
Trungpa is arguing metaphorically of course. This attitude brought on by the surrounding of oneself with the familiar and comfortable as a replacement for the unknown and new is avoidance behavior for recalcitrance. It can be quite scary to have to approach the new. We couch those fears in patterns that provide a sense of stability. There is a creative and engaged way of doing that, and there is the cocoon way - the replacement of that risk of the new with the familiar and comfortable as if they were external reality. The sleepiness is a sort of attitude, or approach that can often be read as either a boredom, or perhaps a snootiness.

I was overly satisfied with where I was, and had developed this cocoon mentality. My expression of it was a sort of indifference and annoyance that I felt somewhat justified about, but was really justifying a comfortable shell of distance I was putting between myself and what I could sense as a need for the new. As Trungpa writes, "Usually when you are delighted about something, you develop a thick skin and you feel smug. You say to yourself, 'I'm so delighted to be here.' That is just self-affirmation." (63). This is exactly where I was in my mind waiting on my flight to board. I felt as if there was little more to do than to go through the motions of teaching debate and rhetoric, which would impress others, and then I would be on my way to another destination. In the local region, I had an attitude of withdrawal, where I wanted to just passively drift along in the current rather than help to improve things. This was a result of a fear of responsibility, I think, but I couched it in pedagogical terms. I wanted less to do with larger responsibility to have more time with my students during tournaments.

I was headed for what I now describe as pedagogical hubris. I developed this term to describe the particular sort of "tragedy" that occurs when one uses pedagogical justification for selfish or self-affirming purposes. I use tragedy as a way to ground the experience with the term hubris, but it's not a tragic end in the traditional sense. the tragedy is the recognition of what potential has been lost through such lazy and comfortable self-deception.

I taught at two great groups of students. Most of my time was spent at The Institute of International Relations, Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko Univeristy where I had a blast. The workshop would go for a couple of hours, then I would move on to Kiyv Mohyla Academy for a second workshop that would last about the same amount of time. It wasn't anything specific about what I was doing, but I think it was individual interactions with the students that made me realize that something was off, that I was enclosed in a bit of darkness, and that I needed to move out of that.

Hubris came mostly at night when questions such as "Why did I come here?" "What am I supposed to be doing here?" were met with silence from my usually very quick-to-respond mind. The hubris crept up on me slowly until a moment where I realized that I had fully failed to understand Paulo Friere's re-imagining of the role of the teacher. I thought I had understood banking education, why it was a failure, and why teacher/student, student/teacher relationships replace it. I had no idea how deep that re-imagining could be, or how deep it should be. I was too comfortable to let anyone in fully with the status of a potential teacher. I was too smug to accept that I could learn things that would have me sitting here re-imagining my relationship to a field I felt I had a good sense and good mastery. Too many strange things took place there for me to ignore how lazy I'd become as a so-called master of the art.

There is a great Zen saying - "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Taking off from JFK I thought I only lived in the latter half of this idiom. Now back and digesting the experience, I realize how true the idiom is, but how false my sense of my role is in all of this debate stuff. The idiom was just as true for me as I flew toward Kiev, but I was the unknowingly ready student.

The whole experience was well designed to put me in my place. From the slippery streets that forced me to re-learn how to walk somewhat to the dissonance of being in a city with palimpsest upon palimpsest of identities piled on top of it, to the brilliant and demanding students who were so ready to stretch their debate muscle, it made me feel very humble and very inadequate to the task of debate teaching. However I realized that I must get better at it. This blog is something that I should use toward that end, as well as careful consideration of what the point of what we do is.

This picture is of the snowy path I walked up and down every day, several times a day. Instead of reviewing what I would do the next day or how I thought the students were progressing, I merely used this time, carefully walking on the ice, to dialogue with myself about the larger function of these sorts of workshops. Am I bringing something, making something, or taking something? What is the proper mixture here? The silence was quite helpful as the snow fell around me. I had a good chance every day to consider my pedagogy. Near the end of the trip I was beside myself and my old ideas that I wouldn't or shouldn't do many of these trainings after this one. I realized how essential they are to me and how key interaction with student/teachers and between the two titles are to the core of pedagogy, which has to be "generation." Something comes of it, but not production with its overtones of consumerism and materiality. Generation seems a better term as it begins growth among and within everyone participating in the workshop, in spite of and because of role, assumptions and level of interaction.

It was an amazing time. I learned a lot, the most I think about myself, and my relationship to teaching that I've had in many years. And I can't wait to return. I wondered if I ever would for a while - it was such an intense experience I felt it should be left alone as a singularity. However, after a fantastic workshop with the visiting Irish Times debaters, we went to a bar selected by a student which had this street sign in front of it.

Yes this is from out in front of the bar in New York. So apparently either fate is tracking my path through the world with very obvious and funny coincidences, or this was some sort of "sign" that I'm not quite done with Ukrainian debate. I prefer the latter interpretation.

And if you've read this far you realize that I should have just put "I am not sure what to say." Thanks to my friend who suggested it an thanks to my new friend who sparked this reconsideration.