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When Students Have Power by Ira Shor

Published almost 25 years ago, Ira Shor’s When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy is a book full of practical ideas that will still be of interest to teachers today. Indeed, it’s depressing how relevant is remains. But this is also no surprise. On the second page of the book (in the preface), Shor writes:

John Dewey, the patron saint of American education, so honored, invoked, and ignored, impatiently asked eighty years ago, “Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by a passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still entrenched in practice?” (Democracy and Education p. 38). His word “still” echoes loudly to me, speaking of his deep frustration in 1916 (when the book was published and schooling was relatively new in society), a frustration over the teacher-talk, one-way transmission of knowledge, and undemocratic relations dominating education. … How would Dewey feel today, if he could witness undemocratic authority and teacher-centered practice still entrenched from kindergarted through high school and on to graduate school? (x-xi)

Dewey’s spirit is a guiding force through this book, as is the spirit of Paulo Freire, with whose work Shor is forever linked: they collaborated on A Pedagogy for Liberation and Shor wrote the 1987 book Freire for the Classroom. One of the things When Students Have Power makes abundantly clear, though, is just how difficult it is not only to implement Deweyian and Freirean ideas in the American college classroom, but how hard it is even to think beyond the given circumstances and systems of American higher education.

I began reading When Students Have Power expecting a more radical approach than it delivered, and was frequently shocked that Shor seemed, at least in his presentation of himself in this book, to come to important realizations quite late — not just late in his career overall, but quite a few years after he had worked with Freire. The Shor character in the book comes off as someone deeply attached to the authoritarian power of the teacher, as someone whose entire sense of self is based in that authoritarian power, and yet who is aware enough of anti-authoritarian critiques to want to do better. The narrating Shor shows himself throughout the book progressing, but even where he gets to in the end is, to my eyes, weirdly restrained, even bureaucratic. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the era and, even more so, with the particular institution Shor worked for, but I couldn’t help thinking again and again as I read: “Wow, dude. Just let go.” If ever there was somebody who needed to learn about ungrading, it’s Ira Shor as he presents himself in this book.

When Students Have Power tells a story while also adding a lot of rather drawn-out theorizing. Whether that theorizing feels turgid, as it did to me, or is of interest probably depends on how much you’ve read about critical pedagogy and how interested you are in the kind of political perspective Shor comes from. In my case, because I’ve spent a long time reading a lot about critical pedagogy, and because my political values are similar enough to Shor’s that his arguments are highly familiar to me, I really wanted to cut about 50 pages from the book’s total. If I had been his editor, I would have recommended focusing on the story he tells of one particular class, because most everything he wants to preach about is clear from that story. However, the turgid philosophizing is endemic to the kind of person Shor presents himself as in the book: someone who loves the sound of his own voice, is confident in his own opinions, and thinks he’s more enlightened than other people. To his credit, Shor often critiques these tendencies in himself, and that gives a kind of character arc to the story … but, again, the story itself is strong enough and meaningful enough to carry the weight of the ideas.

And it is the story wherein the real value of When Students Have Power lies. The book chronicles one section of one course during one semester at the College of Staten Island (CSI) in the early 1990s. The course is a humanities elective with the theme of “Utopia”, and it is held in a depressing cinderblock room in the basement of an old building. At the time, CSI was a commuter school serving more than twice as many students as it had been built for, and Shor had 35 students crammed into his classroom. The students were mostly working class, mostly white, mostly from conservative families.

Shor, committed to progressive ideas of education, decides to make the class partly about the experience of schooling itself. After all, it’s a course about utopia, so why not get utopian with one of the institutions students know well. Because of his commitments, Shor enters the class with ideas about giving students at least a bit of choice about how things will proceed, and he seeks to challenge the assumptions and ignorance that he believes they bring to the classroom. He starts out by addressing the idea of what he calls the “Siberian Syndrome”: the tendency of students to try to sit as far away from the teacher as possible. Throughout the book, he shows much concern for “the Siberians”, wondering how to bring them into more active participation, how to break through the distance between them and him, how to enlighten them. While he has some good understanding of what makes students keep distance from a teacher, and does a good job of seeing passivity and resistance as symptoms more than sins, he nonetheless comes off, to me at least, as both naive and hubristic. He’ll sit among them out there in Siberia, and then they’ll be chums! It’s cringe-inducing to read. (Again, narrator-Shor fully realizes what character-Shor is slow to come to, and cringes along with us, perhaps, though I think he’s less aware of the hubris than the naivety.)

What happens is that the students end up showing Shor just how attached he is to the idea of authority and they demand that if he’s going to live up to his utopian ideals, he needs to turn much more of the course over to them.

Here, I expected something really radical, but it is the book’s unradicalness that made it both frustrating and fascinating for me, often simultaneously. You’ll find far more radical ideas in Cathy Davidson’s The New Education than you will in When Students Have Power, and I don’t think that’s only a consequence of how society and education have changed in the decades between the books (though that is definitely a factor). It’s also a consequence of Shor coming off as something of a control freak, even as he’s a staunch advocate of progressive education.

Frustrating as Shor’s control freakery can be as we read about it, it ends up being one of the real values of the book, because most teachers have at least a few similar tendencies. As much as we may say we trust students, as much as we may want to think that democracy and education ought to be united, as much as we seek to encourage collaboration and autonomy … it’s hard to let go of the power and prestige that teacherly authority provides. After all, we don’t have much else. In a society that doesn’t pay teachers well, doesn’t respect them, and often presents them as failures, frauds, and freaks … it’s no surprise that we cling to whatever authority we can conjure.

And authority is not a bad thing. Authority and authoritarianism don’t have to be synonymous, as Shor and plenty of others have shown. But authority and authoritarianism can become indistinguishable if we do not pay careful attention, if we do not deliberately set up ways to undermine the authoritarianism lurking in our authority. What When Students Have Power shows is a process of interrogating that authority and weeding out the authoritarianism.

Working alongside his students, Shor comes up with systems for conversation about the course and its contents. The big eureka innovation of the course is to have a kind of governing council of students that meets with him after each class session and gets credit in the course for that work. This forces Shor to interrogate his teaching in a way he presents himself as never having done before. (Again, very weird for someone so devoted to critical pedagogy to be presenting this as a giant innovation, but good for the book’s sense of drama. Shor comes off as someone who, in 20 years of teaching, never actually listened to a student before, and when he has to listen to these students, he faces a deep sense of crisis.)

The content of the utopia course is the most dated thing about this book. He assigns Walden II and Ecotopia. The students hate Walden II, which is no surprise — it’s a godawful boring book, and I’m shocked to see from the Open Syllabus Project that it’s still pretty popular among college teachers (though, interestingly, mostly with psychology classes more than literature, which is perhaps good, since there’s plenty of better literature out there). Ecotopia is more popular with the students (and also still assigned by teachers), but with the huge popularity of dystopian and utopian stories in popular culture, we might assume that the study of utopian ideas and literatures in college has progressed. (Alas, from the evidence of the syllabi collected by the Society for Utopian Studies, this is not the case. It’s not just the dustiness of so many of the course readings but the persistent lack of innovative teaching. Unlike Shor, most teachers of courses on utopia seem to assume that the systems of schooling are, if not utopian, at least okay for now. John Dewey remains a radical.) In one of the weird lacunae in his self-awareness, Shor had apparently never, in 20 years of teaching and after all that time studying critical pedagogy, given his students any choice in course readings, and presents himself as surprised and shocked and disturbed at the idea of doing so, even though he sees how necessary it is to his ideology. Though this is an odd revelation for someone to come to after such a long time thinking about democratic approahces to education, it is understandable, because course readings are one of the places where we as teachers hold our authority most sacred. Shor comes up with a good system for students to investigate and choose texts for later classes only briefly mentioned in the book, but his reluctance to give away any of that power is both telling and something most teachers will sympathize with, especially English teachers.

Shor recognizes grading to be one of the most insidious and cruel tools of authoritarian teachers, and he ends up embracing a contract grading system inspired by Peter Elbow. I like and have used a kind of loose contract grading myself, but I was struck by Shor’s approach: He begins by treating the grading contract as, indeed, a kind of contract that students agree to before they do work — they say something to the effect of, “I see these requirements for getting an A [or B, or C…], and I agree to strive to get an A [or B, or C…].” I suppose that makes a certain sense in helping students be aware of course requirements, but it sure seems backasswards to me. It seems backasswards to the students, as well, and Shor relates that they asked for a system that makes much more sense, and is similar to what I’ve done at times: Present the requirements as, “If you do X, you’ll get grade Y.” No need for students to declare what grade they intend to get, as if you’re then going to punish them for not getting it later. That’s just an instrument of torture, and not meaningfully better than more traditional systems.

Here we can see how deep runs the sadism and cruelty inherent to so many educational systems — even when administered by highly progressive educators! Again and again while reading the book, I was on the student’s side, not character-Shor’s.

That there is a students’ side to the book is another of its virtues. Shor includes enough replication of conversations and enough student writing that the book really is dialogic. I expect students who were in the course would say that their concerns, frustrations, and critiques were presented fairly, since a lot of those concerns, frustrations, and critiques are quoted verbatim either from their own writings or from Shor’s daily notes during the “After-Class Group” sessions where he and a small group of students went over how they all thought the class session had gone, and what might be improved or changed in future sessions.

By including so many student voices, Shor is able to undermine what is, it seems to me, one of the weaknesses of some types of critical pedagogy and socially-committed teaching: its self-righteousness. As he presents himself in the book, Shor’s biggest problem seems to be not so much his control freakery as his lack of humility. He knows what books his students should read, what views they should hold, what ideas are worthwhile and what ones not. He has ideas about how to solve society’s problems, and he’s confident in his analyses of those problems. He sees himself as a good and righteous guy, and he wants to help others along on the path to righteousness.

That’s one of the perils of the teacher’s position: We are put up there at the front of the classroom in a position where it is expected that we know best. The problem with moving away from the front of the classroom is that it doesn’t really matter where you stand (or sit) and preach from if you’re still preaching. A commitment to dialogue is hollow if you are convinced you know the right answers to all the questions. Most teachers recognize this to some extent, and few would actually proclaim that they have all the answers — most teachers I know would say exactly the opposite. But how does that affect our behavior?

(I wonder if we shouldn’t do something a bit more radical. What if we leaned in to our imposter syndrome, that feeling of fraudulence so common among people who are not egomaniacs? What if, instead of assuming we are basically good and knowledgeable people, we assumed the opposite? It’s perverse, I know, and maybe not good practice, and likely not good for our mental health, but nonetheless it’s at least worth it as a thought experiment, especially those of us who are white and male, and thus used to a kind of automatic authority that other people aren’t. What if we began from the premise that we are frauds?)

I think there are other challenges to Shor’s assumptions and pedagogies, too, including the important challenge of expertise. In the era of “fake news” and anti-intellectualism at the highest levels, expertise matters. Just as we need authority that is not authoritarian, we need expertise that is strong and visible, but self-critical, not hubristic. What the teacher’s role is in being an expert and presenting expertise likely depends on the particular course, particular institution, particular teacher. But I do worry that a commitment to egalitarianism may hide some things that are not egalitarian, nor should they be. Expertise must not get lost.

Now, though, I am straying from When Students Have Power and from what I wanted to say about it, which is simply that this is a book worth reading if you are a teacher who wants to empower students, and it is especially valuable to read if you have struggled in that commitment to empowering students. (And who hasn’t?) It raises a lot of the right questions, and it depicts a flawed and human teacher working his way toward practical answers. I would love to read an update or a sequel, because I’m curious how Shor’s practices have developed, and because so much has changed in the world and in education since the book was published — even though so much, sadly, has not.