Naming and Muddling: Messiness as Pedagogy

This post was first published on the APA Blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Nicholas Osaka


5th 2023

This post was first published on the APA Blog and is reprinted here with permission.

In my first year of graduate studies I took a seminar called Feminist Methods taught by Elisabeth Paquette. This course was paradigm shifting for me as a new grad student. Of course, the content was and remains indispensable to me. At the same time, I quickly discovered that the way the course was operated was equally as valuable as the content of the course. In this post, I’ll be illustrating how naming and muddling were instrumentalized in the course. Our world is messy, and to embrace that means to clearly describe and critique it.

The modality, time, and space of our class is important. While the seminar was primarily in person, we had a Zoom link that was used by some of us as needed—which let us maintain a hybrid learning environment for when we couldn’t make it to campus. It also presented challenges: how do we ensure that discussions aren’t centering those who are on-campus, and decentering those who are remote? Here, Dr. Paquette embraced the hybrid modality and focused on curating two spaces (one for in-person and one for remote) that would break out for smaller group discussions midway through class time, and come back together for reflection and analysis. Each week would have an associated Google Slides document with interjections of blank slides for our two groups to note important points of analysis or questions for the larger group. This method lets students see what the other group is thinking in real time, and importantly, avoid repeating what the other group is working on. (Sometimes repetition is important, but this is valuable to ensure that we were able to prioritize other points we wanted to bring up too.) Centralizing instructor notes and discussion notes into a shared document means that we’re all contributing to our shared learning, and students can take more responsibility in aligning the direction of discussion to what’s most beneficial for individual and group learning. It’s also just plainly helpful to be able to refer to Google Slides when trying to remember a particular point in discussion from Week 2 when you’re in Week 14.

Just as the modality of our class presented messy challenges that offered opportunities for pedagogical adaptations, so too did the time and environment of our class. As is customary for long seminars in the evening, coffees and teas were abundant. Personally, I brought iced coffee and water to our meetings. Our room was in the corner of the first floor, with tall and narrow windows facing outside, and a large rectangular table at an angle in the middle. I want to explicitly make note of these things—I think that the day’s end offered something to us as a class. As the sun set, the light would stream into the room through those tall windows, and often straight into the eyes of anybody sitting facing them. Therefore, we would often be shifting around to avoid the glare of the setting sun. Normally what would be considered a distraction became something I found useful to the class. We were all moving our bodies and staying in some form of motion for the long seminar. We would be sipping tea or coffee, too. In addition, maybe my mind was already tired from an intense day of work. Recognizing how our bodies exist in our learning spaces is important. Our professor embraced the restlessness we all had by encouraging us to be cognizant of our body-minds and modes of interacting with the environment around us. Accurate scholarship cannot have us leave our bodies and the experiences of the day behind when entering the classroom. There’s something powerful in acknowledging that scholarship happens in all aspects of life—we do philosophy when cleaning our living space or cooking a meal for loved ones. This is a messy philosophy, one that refuses to sit in isolation from the world but rests deeply within it.

I enjoy discussions in seminars. I love to ask what others think about a certain line of inquiry and to get uncomfortable with what I think. At the same time, Paquette’s class taught me that I undervalue the purpose of silence. During our discussions, I noticed that she would bring in questions designed to further complicate our line of dialogue. Simple questions meant to bring in messiness. Questions are meant to help us more accurately reflect on our world and to do philosophy better. Following these questions, a period of prolonged silence would often follow. In this silence, we are often left with discomfort: after all, shouldn’t a discussion contain some kind of exchange? But this silence does two things. First, it lets us (and especially the quieter people in the group!) fully formulate a thought and trace out avenues of discussion from there. Second, it highlights the presence we inhabit in our discussion groups: that we become part of a group in thinking. This is straightforward, but it helps us take a step back and be purposeful with how we (each as individuals) want to interact with the group we belong to during the seminar.

Our course had two halves. Section one was “Methods and Frameworks,” and the latter half was “Pedagogical Methods.” In our second section, we focused on the role of pedagogy in and outside of academic contexts. When reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I realized how our professor was operating the classroom outside of the banking model of education by giving us opportunities to participate in owning our educational experience during the semester. There’s a whole discussion to be had about the ways in which academic institutions inhibit (or prohibit) practicing critical pedagogy. However, when reading the pages of Freire’s book, it became evident that this was the goal our professor had. Consider the Google Slides. This let us integrate our questions into a document that is traditionally owned entirely by the instructor. Furthermore, we read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “To(o) Queer the Writer—Loca, escritora y chicana” at a timely moment for me. Reading Anzaldúa’s critique gave me the language to describe how my own racialized identity doesn’t fit neatly into queer experiences. Being able to name injustices is powerful. However, the difficulty in naming is that often the subject of critique is messy. Identity cannot be broken down into simple dimensions. Embracing the messiness of our world when naming means that we have better pedagogy—one that can give us (both teachers and students) the language to describe experience.

To describe the class and pedagogy in one word: messiness. This is not pejorative, and I hope that’s become clear. It’s about tackling borders and strong definitions. It’s about critiquing structures that oppress. It’s about naming, accurately! From Cathy J. Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” which finds transformative politics as directing us towards rejection of norms and oppressive systems of power (instead of ‘mere inclusion’), to Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies” which highlights diasporic reading practices that disrupt nationalist discourses, the contents of the course and the pedagogy used both share the same focus. Messiness is not only a fact of our world but one that’s necessary for accurate critique and transformational pedagogy. To embrace messiness means to become a better scholar, and to integrate both this understanding and messiness itself into pedagogy is beneficial not just for students, but for educators too.