Monday, August 17, 2009

Learning to Achieve Our Potenial

I’ve already confessed to being a groupie of the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” It stands out from other reality TV shows in part because of the relationship between the “judges” and the contestants. There is critique. There is constructive criticism. There is even competition. But it’s all done in a supportive way that is designed to help a dancer achieve his or her full potential. Unlike most reality TV shows, the tone of the feedback is not catty, sensationalized, or cruel. It’s done as a kind of mentoring to encourage and challenge people to excel beyond what they thought they could do.

That is the environment that I strive to create in my feminist classroom. One that is inspiring, mutually supportive, and challenging. One in which the collective elevates every individual to strive for their best. For me, feminist teaching and mentoring means helping students think outside their box and creating a collaborative learning environment in which everyone grows together in different ways to create a whole that is more vibrant than we could have imagined.

But that type of environment is a bit counter-cultural. It’s unfamiliar for many of us. Far too often, U.S. culture breeds a kind of dog-eat-dog climate, in which only one person can “win.” Look at the typical reality TV show—it’s rarely about collaborative teamwork so that everyone can accomplish a goal and succeed to the end. Instead, people undercut and betray each other, play on each other’s weaknesses, and strive to win at the expense of others. These shows continue because viewers like to watch that drama.

Unfortunately, higher education is not immune to these cultural pressures. Students know that they need to work in groups, but they haven’t necessarily learned true collaboration. What’s worse, there is often still this underlying ideology that one can only succeed if others do not. That the places where one has not yet achieved one’s potential are weaknesses and flaws, rather than possibilities. That one grows by declaiming someone else. Women in particular have often learned to compare ourselves to one another and consider it a failure if we find ourselves “deficient.” As a feminist teacher, I have to work against these cultural tenets to create a more supportive yet challenging climate in my classrooms.

Anusara Yoga has offered me some techniques for doing so. In my Anusara classes, we genuinely cheer one another when someone has a “yoga moment” and does a new pose for the first time. We are inspired when someone embodies a pose we cannot—it invigorates us rather than invalidates us. Our practice is a journey of growth, not a race to the finish line. While we admire and support our fellow classmates, we don’t compare ourselves to them. As John Friend describes it, it’s a philosophy of “Yes, I see that I’m good and I can also expand and evolve that goodness in its artistry.” It’s also about embodying the “intention of wanting to help each other experience the ultimate freedom in every expanding moment of the artistry of life.”[i]

My Anusara classes have truly shown me what it feels like to learn in an environment in which we are all already enough. It’s a climate I strive to create in my feminist classrooms. We all have potentials to grow into. We start from a place of validity and worth, and we support and inspire one another to blossom from there into directions we haven’t even imagined.

[i] John Friend’s Blog, “The Art of Feedback.” Anusara. 13 August 2009.