Letter from Michalinos

Dear friends,

I have read your responses from both last year and this year and I enjoyed your thought provoking questions and comments. In my contribution last year, I suggested that more exploration was needed about the practical consequences of ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ in different cultural and political settings. In your intriguing responses over these two years, I have noticed that you are indeed engaged with analyzing some of these consequences in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa. I find this extremely valuable and helpful for pushing the theory and praxis around ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ in different cultural and political settings.

For example, an issue that I find to be recurring in several responses and which is directly relevant to the context of SA is whether one can feel comfort and discomfort at the same time, when he or she is challenging oppressive structures. Clearly, there is no easy answer to this question, but this issue pushes ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ to its ethical and epistemological limits and I think it is courageous that you are seeking ‘answers’ within your own specific setting. My most recent work makes an attempt to address some aspects of this issue (see reference below) and so I am curious in the future whether the ‘solution’ provided there (in my own setting) has any resonance to the South African context. My ‘answer’ is that occasionally and for strategic purposes, we need to be empathetic with positions that cause us discomfort, if we want to open up affective spaces which might eventually disrupt the emotional roots of what Jonathan Jansen calls ‘troubled knowledge’. This is an example where one might feel both comfort and discomfort, but it is clearly not an easy position to adopt in anti-racist education and it certainly needs further exploration.

I thank you all (especially Brenda Leibowitz) for the opportunity to share my reactions after reading your responses. The analysis of ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ gets more and more richer because of the stories you add each time and the new questions you raise.

Zembylas, M. (2012). Pedagogies of strategic empathy: Navigating through the emotional complexities of antiracism in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 113-125.

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News from the AERA Conference

I have been privileged to be able to attend the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, with the theme, “Inciting the Social Imagination:  Education Research for the Public Good” in New Orleans from 8 – 11 April 2011. It is a huge conference, with 13 900 registrations this year. Such a large conference can be totally overwhelming, and it is focused on general, rather more than higher, education. Still, it is an opportunity to hear in person so many key authors on critical pedagogy, socio-cultural approaches to learning, language and literacy, critical race theory, and many other interesting topics. I still get goose bumps when I hear some of my favourite gurus such as Shirley Bryce Heath or James Gee. One exciting panel was on space, a popular new topic. Professor Edward Soja, a famous geographer, spoke about the way cities such as Los Angeles are constructed spatially in ways that continue to discriminate against the poor. Therefore we need to think about issues of space and geography in conjunction with issues of class and ethnicity.  James Gee attempted to show how using social media can create forms of learning for youth irrespective of spatial inequities, and argued that formal schooling needs to take account of this form of learning. Another exciting panel was on Citizenship education for the public good. One of the conclusions from the contributions, which spanned various international settings, was that an adequate policy to facilitate citizenship does not yet exist, and it is certainly not adequately conceptualized in terms of implementation. To a question from a delegate, “how do we get students to be interested to learn about the “other”?”, noted writer on critical race theory (CRT), Gloria Ladson-Billings referred to the concept in CRT of “interest convergence theory”, that one has to show students that it is in their own interest to learn about the other. Writer on multicultural education, James A. Banks, offered that he teaches ethnic studies to mainly white rural women. He begins by asking them to write narratives of their own lives, and gets them to think race and gender and issues in their own lives. After that he gets them to go on to consider these issues in other contexts. He concluded that “Ethnic studies is not about the other. Ethnic studies is about us.” I thought that was a valuable point for work on educating for citizenship.

Dr Brenda Leibowitz


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Boler and Zembylas on a “Pedagogy of discomfort”

Subsequent to Megan Boler and Michalinos’ Zembylas’ exciting presentation of the concept of a “pedagogy of discomfort” in 2003, a teaching/research group I have been part of since 2005, the Community, Self and Identity group, has been working very productively with this concept. So much so that we have invited Megan and Michalinos to present their most recent thoughts on the topic on this blogsite, and to invite anyone, including the participants on our short course, Citizenship, Social Inclusion and Difference, to respond to this. The 2003 contribution I am referring to can be found in: Boler, M. and M. Zembylas. 2003.  Discomforting truths: The emotional terrain of understanding difference.  In Pedagogies of difference: Rethinking education for social change, ed. P. Trifonas, 110-136. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

 Here is Michalinos’ contribution:


Pedagogy of discomfort has been first used and theorized by Megan Boler in her landmark book Feeling Power (1999). Then, Megan and I have made an attempt to further build on her earlier analysis by emphasizing the role that discomfort plays in teaching and learning about ‘difficult’ issues such as racism, oppression and social injustice. For me, pedagogy of discomfort still remains a powerful pedagogical tool able to produce action, because teachers and students can utilize their discomfort to construct new emotional understandings into ways of living with others—the ultimate vision of this pedagogy, in my view.

 My most recent work explores pedagogies of discomfort in the context of ethnic conflict and historical trauma in societies such as those of Cyprus (my home country), Israel and N. Ireland. This work focuses on how discomforting emotions—which occur as the very result of attempting to address the ‘difficult’ issues of living with the ‘enemy-other’—serve as the springboard to uncover and undone the mechanisms with which hegemonic values and beliefs about others continue to operate in daily habits, routines, and unconscious feelings. In other words, my attempt is both to enrich existing theorizations of the notion of “pedagogy of discomfort” and to expand its empirical grounding in conflict and post-conflict settings (e.g. see Zembylas, 2010; Zembylas & McGlynn, in press). In this endeavour there are two new things that I have learned and are worthwhile to highlight:

  1. The ethical dimensions of ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ need greater attention not only for obvious reasons but also because the ‘collateral effects’ of discomfort often threaten its effectiveness as a pedagogical tool.  The complexities of these effects are far greater than I have initially assumed, especially when ‘troubled knowledge’ (Jansen, 2009) enters the scene.
  2. More exploration is needed about the practical consequences of ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ in different cultural and political settings. For example, this pedagogy may mean something totally different in South Africa than in Cyprus or elsewhere. Similarly, the ways in which this pedagogy is manifest and perceived by teachers and students might be altogether different and have variable implications in societies where conflict is unresolved and those in which have moved into a post-conflict situation.

Along the above two directions, then, there is a lot that researchers and educators can contribute by delineating the complexities of pedagogy of discomfort in various countries and compare and contrast their findings.


Zembylas, M. (2010). Teachers’ emotional experiences of growing diversity and multiculturalism in schools and the prospects of an ethic of discomfort. Teaching and Teachers: Theory and Practice, 16(6), 703-716.

Zembylas, M. & McGlynn, C. Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. (in press). British Educational Research Journal.

And here is Megan’s contribution:





One question is frequently raised by readers, students, and audiences who engage the concept of ‘pedagogy of discomfort’: Isn’t the educator’s discomfort an equally important part of this call to action, this potential transformation?  If I were to rewrite the chapter, I would emphasize in more detail how and when an educator’s own discomforts inhibit educational exchange with students, prevent the educator from taking risks, and eclipse the educator’s very capacity to see, for example, his or her own attachments to particular outcomes.  The cultural and social norms and myths that represent teachers as rational, neutral conveyors of information is so far off the mark, yet are as persistent as is the myth of neutral curricula.  Thus for example, as briefly mentioned in the chapter, “silence is not neutral.”  When an educator chooses not to interrupt, respond to, or call out expressions of racism or homophobia, for example, in classroom discussions, in course material, or in hallway chatter, this silence is equivalent to condoning homophobia or racism as acceptable.  The fear, ignorance, or even perhaps the inability on the part of the educator to recognize an instance of racism or homophobia reflects the very same kinds of cherished assumptions and beliefs that pedagogy of discomfort aims to unsettle in students.  Because of power differences between educator and student, a student may witness racism in the actions or words of a fellow student, or in those of her teacher, but be unable to challenge the teacher to undertake his own pedagogy of discomfort.  Here is where co-teaching and creating allies that work together as educators in a classroom offers opportunities to model, for the students, how people can challenge one another constructively to address internalized beliefs and values that need to be brought to light. (See Boler 2004 cited below.)

Another point sometimes raised about pedagogy of discomfort is the question and when and how it applies to non-dominant groups.  For example, is pedagogy of discomfort (either as expressed in the chapter, or as a praxis and/or concept) a pedagogy only appropriate for challenging members of a dominant social group?  To my mind, pedagogy of discomfort in fact can be engaged to ask all of us, regardless of identity, to question a variety of cherished values and beliefs.  It is crucial as well to note that gay and lesbian people, for example, can hold deeply internalized homophobic feelings and beliefs that need to be challenged; women often have internalized sexism as if it represents acceptable norms, etc.  However, the socially-defined identities of those involved in educational environments creates complicated dynamics.  For example, if a white educator perceives that a student of color expresses internalized racism, it can be emotionally and socially complex for the educator to challenge the student.  Further, the question arises: is every educator equipped to engage a pedagogy of discomfort?  What might be the “criteria” for “licensing” an educator to engage pedagogy of discomfort effectively and ethically?  And finally, echoing a point made by Professor Zembylas, what *are* the ethics of “shattering world views,” which can happen as a result of a pedagogy of discomfort?  How do we ensure ethical responsibility on the part of the educator for possible emotional repercussions of these fraught dimensions of pedagogy?

[For discussion of a number of these issues, see Boler, M. (2004). “Teaching for hope: The ethics of shattering world views.” In D. Liston & J. Garrison (Eds.), Teaching, learning and loving: Reclaiming passion in educational practice (pp. 117-131). New York: Routledge.]

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A Hopeful Book: Education, Democracy and Citizenship Revisited, by Yusef Waghied

One of the functions I would like this blog to fulfill, is that of a resource page on the kind of teaching in higher education that will engender critical forms of hope in our students. The “resources” link above will feature books, courses and other interesting events. If you have any you would like to share, please let me know.


The first book I would like to feature, is Education, Democracy and Citizenship Revisited: Pedagogical encounters, (2010, Sun Press). It is written by Yusef Waghid, Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University. This relatively inexpensive (R120) and slim volume (155 pp) is a useful resource for academics and those wishing to study issues pertaining to teaching and transformation in South Africa. It is a reworking of pieces Yusef has published during his academic career. The chapters combine examples from current history, Yusef’s educational biography and his extensive and thoughtful – “deliberative”, to use one of his words – excursions into philosophical tracts on social justice. He draws on the work of writers such as Nussbaum, Benhabib, Arendt, Gutmann and Callan. Since he writes quite simply, this is an easy guide for those scholars who have not yet dipped into these writers’ works. The book contains some rather unusual ideas, such as the value of “belligerence” in dialogue, which causes stress, but ultimately, leads to “moments of ethical conciliation, when the truth and error in rival positions have been made clear and a fitting synthesis of factional viewpoints is achieved” (p. 26). Belligerence, accompanied by compassion, is discussed in detail in the first chapter, and referred to again in chapter eight, where the distinction is drawn between “safe expression” that avoids belligerence, and “responsible expression”. The latter involves taking risks in dialogue, and does not avoid distress and discomfort.  Belligerent dialogue remains responsible, respectful and just. This is an interesting solution to a tension often referred to in discussions about facilitating dialogue in diverse contexts: how to facilitate real exchanges amongst students without, on the one hand, incurring unjust behavior, and on the other, without skating over difference and tension. There are other very finely drawn and nuanced reflections on life in South Africa and on tensions regarding working in educational contexts of difference, which you should read.

I am of the opinion that South Africans have a lot to teach the rest of the world and each other, and it is about time we started publishing more locally, and reading each other’s work – despite the impact this might have on research rating scores and incentivized funding schemes in our universities. This book is a useful contribution to the locally grounded literature on teaching for citizenship and democracy.

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“Freire is complex” – opinion piece by Gerrit van Schalkwyk

The Colloquium on Hopeful Pedagogies has been and gone. Many of the inputs have now been placed on this blog, for further reading. Thanks to all the presenters! The colloquium may be over, but the debate about hope and the curriculum should continue. I am very excited to place the full opinion piece by a student on the blog. It is by Gerrit van Schalkwyk, who is currently in his fifth year of the MB ChB programme at Stellenbosch University. About himself he writes, “I hope to specialize in psychiatry. I was drawn to the Hope project by my belief that there is much good in our current society, and that this often receives insufficient attention.” Here is Gerrit’s opinion piece. He is looking forward to some critical engagement.


I wish to extend my thanks to the administrators of this blog for offering me the chance to add my voice to the conversation. I find myself in illustrious company, and will therefore endeavor to frame my thoughts as clearly as possible, in the hope of providing more than a token, student contribution.

The Hope project of the university is certainly an exciting initiative. At its most pragmatic, its value is without question, and the alignment of several its own goals with those of the United Nations MDG (Millennium Development Goals) initiative is a wise use of an existing conceptual framework. On a more theoretical level, the Hope project appears to be at risk of some controversy. For a start, the degree to which the work of Paulo Freire is at all pertinent to this project is unclear – his name does not appear anywhere on the Hope project website, yet the title of this blog suggests that a degree of reference is intended.

 In my opinion, this could add an unnecessary degree of complexity to the debate. Freire is, to say the least, complex, and the contribution he has made to the social sciences is widely regarded as revolutionary. However, being regarded as revolutionary implies neither positive nor negative regard, and certainly it would appear that both views are held with great tenacity by prominent academics. Whilst many of his works form prescribed reading for education students, recent commentators have questioned their appropriateness. Specifically, attention is drawn to the fact that his work fails to attend to several of the most prominent themes in modern educational research (specifically, assessment practice, curriculum design, etc.). Additionally, some have suggested that one of the central themes of his work – specifically, that the role of the educator should shift from being a “banker” to being someone who “raises awareness”, such that the student can reach his or her own conclusion – is inherently deceitful. For the educator will in this case still have the role of defining the parameters of the discussion, and hold the power to provide evidence to his students in a selective fashion. The deceit is that the “banking” method makes no secret of this fact, whereas Freire’s methods cultivate the impression that the student is, in fact, reaching his own conclusions.

I confess to having little knowledge of these topics, and do not wish to engage in a detailed discussion as to the value of Freire and his teaching. However, I know enough to recognize that these ideas are not easy to perceive, and herein lies their inherent danger. Hope is a concept which needs little definition – Prof Fourie’s own offering on this blog is both succinct and functional, and would serve as well as any for the purposes of this project. Citing more complex philosophy is therefore both unnecessary, and, potentially counterproductive. I would perhaps be as bold as to ask the question – is it even possible to link the two at all? Some have suggested that The Pedagogy of the Opressed is at first a revolutionary manifesto, which relates only tangentially to educational theory. How much less applicable must it be to the transparent aims of poverty alleviation, research excellence and the other facets of the hope project? Perhaps I have misunderstood the goals of the reference, and I welcome any correction in this regard. To be clear, these issues need discussion, but let us ensure that everything we do will in some way contribute to realizing the noble goals of this initiative. Failing this, we may become guilty of Richard Dawkins law of the conservation of difficulty, which states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. 

For my own part, I intend to become involved in the Hope project by coordinating the authorship of a series of essays, with the goal of drawing attention to the several ways in which our society has already succeeded. The goal is to combat the pessimism that is so overrepresented in all forms of media, and show that there are, in fact, many reasons to be hopeful. My intention is to identify other students from a variety of faculties who would be interested in such a project. I hope that this blog may, through the course of the process, provide a source of fresh ideas and advice. Thanks to all in anticipation!

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Second posting from the Vice-Rector (Teaching)

Ons het die afgelope jaar op kampus heelwat gesprek gevoer oor die konsep “Pedagogie van Hoop” en wat dit binne die konteks van Universiteit Stellenbosch sou kon beteken. Eenstemmigheid oor die toepaslikheid van die konsep “pedagogie” om al die aktiwiteite van die universiteit (nl kennisontdekking, kennisoordrag en kennistoepassing) te beskryf, was daar verseker nie. Oor die verstaan van wat “hoop” beteken (een omskrywing sou wees om die moontlike bo die werklike te stel) was daar groter sinergie van denke. (Ek maak hierdie afleidings uit al die terugvoere wat ons ontvang het van die verskillende fakulteite, steundiensafdelings en studentegroeperings wat die konsepdokument oor die “Pedagogie van Hoop” bespreek het.) Die colloquium eerskomende Vrydag is die eerste kampuswye gesprek oor wat “Pedagogie van Hoop” in die onderrig-en-leer-omgewing sou kon beteken. Ek dink dit is ‘n belangrike stap in ons proses van vordering na ‘n gedeelde verstaan van ‘hoop’ en hoe dit in alles wat ons doen neerslag kan/behoort te vind.
Reversing the term “Pedagogy of Hope” into “Hopeful Pedagogies” as the theme of the colloquium may, I think, open up new ways of thinking about it, particularly in terms of the focus on the contribution of the university to the public good. Inasmuch as the contribution of higher education or universities to economic and technological development of society, and to democracy and citizenship, is important, I believe we should not lose sight of the fact that higher education as a private good is a source of immense hope to so many young people who are first generation students, and to their families and communities. Maybe another challenge we have is to equip those young people, in addition to the knowledge and skills required of them in the workplace, also with the moral inclination to employ their education/training (private good) to the benefit of broader society (public good), and make a substantive difference in our country in that way as well?
Magda Fourie

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First real posting on hopeful pedagogies

Welcome to this blog on hopeful pedagogies. This is an experiment in many senses. It is the focussing of a general conversation at Stellenbosch University on specifically how we can TEACH for the public good. It is the first time that I am doing something so ‘techno’ as using a blog. It is a very daunting venture, but JP Bosman of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (e-Learning portfolio) has been incredibly helpful. In the words of Faaiz Gierdien from the Education Faculty, I am performing a ‘thought experiment’. Academics are often quite busy, so can we use an electronic platform like this to keep a conversation going? The idea behind this blog is three-fold: firstly, to garner examples of public good teaching strategies, that can be shared; secondly, to raise important philosophical, educational or ethical issues, ie. food for thought; and thirdly, to draw to readers’ attention to public events, or to report on these. This blog will be different to most other blogs, in that I hope to feature opinions of individuals at Stellenbosch University and beyond, rather than to publish my own opinions on a regular basis.
Brenda Leibowitz

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Welcome to this posting on teaching for the public good.

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