The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 15 faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, these faculty, who come from a wide array of disciplines, studied and discussed different deliberative pedagogy methods, shared their ideas and questions with one another, and worked to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
One of the main aspects of deliberation in the classroom that I have returned to and explored throughout the process of adapting Political Ecology into a deliberation course and reflecting on this process in small and large group sessions with other ACS faculty, is an embedded tension in the idea of the political classroom. This tension rests, on the one hand, on the theoretical ideal of the political classroom as a deliberative space where students can voice all perspectives—as though each is equal and valid to one another. The readings we did for our deliberative pedagogy workshop emphasized the classroom as a “political” space, one that operates in service of producing citizens who can participate in democratic life by contemplating questions about how we should, or ought, to live.
My own research, and therefore the classes that I teach, grapple with how race, gender, and class shape what gets marked and classified as “other” and in so doing can produce a myriad of oppressions and marginal communities. I focus on how expert knowledge supports and justifies the categorization of legal or criminal practice in relation to the environment, and how colonial categorizations produced environmental and social struggles with which we now grapple.
Classrooms, as one of many spaces of knowledge transmission, are inherently political spaces, because not only do they implicitly or explicitly assert what is normal, or standard, but they do so in service of maintaining order and disciplining bodies and practices in service of the state. Answering questions of should or ought therefore requires an implicit definition of what should not or what ought not, which tends to exclude those who are from specific groups and/or practice particular actions, denying them the necessary precondition of personhood so that they cannot participate in democratic processes.
To treat a classroom as a political space where questions of how we should or ought to live are weighed in a neutral manner seemed, initially, incongruent with the understanding that “Othered” people continue to be harmed both in the classroom and in institutions of higher learning, as well as in the political sphere where they might attempt to participate in the democratic life of citizens, and therefore requires a breakdown of neutrality—at least from one of my perspectives as a scholar-activist.
From the very beginning of DeeP, I was anxious about how I would balance and navigate this tension, how my decisions might shape the classroom deliberations, and how they might affect whether and/or how students feel included, safe, and comfortable enough to actively participate and engage with opposing, and perhaps even dehumanizing, ideas. I was committed to DeeP, however, because I do strongly believe that deliberation can serve as a means for instilling, if nothing else, a sense of empathy, connection, and care for others and therefore, it has the potential to further inclusivity and engagement in the classroom, while also producing individuals who can participate better in democratic processes.
I attempted to address my concerns by choosing case studies that were written by scholars who were trained to understand the operations and manifestations of power, as they are shaped by and as they shape race, class, and gender and sexuality. I also did a lot of reverse engineering so that I focused on the objectives of the assignments, rather than just on the content of the case studies themselves.
In so doing, I decided that I needed students to do the following: 1) examine and apply the theories we were learning in class that would allow them to understand processes of marginalization; 2) understand how processes of marginalization are implicated in the production of environmental harms or poor resource management practices; 3) how practices designed to bolster community participation can result in either better representation or worse representation, depending on who is “at the table”; and 4) develop well-researched stakeholder positions that are supported by the published literature, challenge their personal perspectives, and respect the complexity and nuance of stakeholder groups.
Throughout the semester, my students consistently remarked that the deliberation role playing exercises were their favorite activities. Their engagement with the course increased significantly during these weeks and they also played their stakeholder positions out to their most logical conclusions, while also engaging with more nuanced and complex perspectives. Rather than treat their stakeholders as a homogenous block with a single perspective, they explored the at-times contradictory positions of those who might be grouped into a single stakeholder group and had to negotiate outcomes accordingly. What does it mean for an elected leader of an indigenous group to have to navigate different factions within their constituent group that are advocating for different policy options? How does one resolve the tensions between poaching and legal hunting given the colonial and racialized legacies embedded within historical and contemporary conservation practice? How might access to potable water be a human right and governed as a commodity within a market system?
Overall, I think it was a success. I still have some reservations about these tensions, but insofar as I am clear about the objectives of the assignments, as well as the specific skillsets that I want students to walk away from the class having developed, I was pleased with their progress, demonstrated learning, and engagement. I will continue to develop deliberative role-playing exercises in Political Ecology, creating a “bank” of case studies that I can draw on from year to year, and potentially, even begin to co-produce with students. I may also begin to utilize them more in my introductory core course, Environmental Social Science, as a way to begin to bridge environmental studies, policy, and critical race, class, feminist, and gender and sexuality theory.