03 January 2013

December 2012 Notes on Teleconference with Katie G. Cannon

Notes for Teleconference with Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon
“Translating Womanism into Pedagogical Praxis”
December 12, 2012

WATER thanks Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon for her wonderful teleconference with us. She proves once again why she is considered the consummate teacher, a pedagogue with few peers. We are honored to be in conversation with her.

Please see the attached pdf file of her lecture, “Translating Womanism into Pedagogical Praxis” (Temple University, April 2, 1997) in which she lays the foundation for this conversation. Dr. Cannon said that she is now writing a book on this topic, which we await eagerly. The notes that follow are from the conversation.

Katie Cannon was named the Teacher of the Year by the American Academy of Religion in 2011. The experience of receiving the award and speaking at the conference made her realize anew the importance of her work on pedagogy. Her approach is divided into three parts:

1. Historical Ethos
            Until Katie went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC in 1974, she knew only Black educational culture. Teachers in that culture told students, “I will give you the best I’ve got and I want you to be even better.” A white supremacy environment was challenging to one who came from the rich legacy of enslaved peoples’ hope for education, land, and freedom.
Mrs. Corine Cannon, Katie’s mother, wanted Katie to be a teacher, a vocation she resisted initially because every woman in the family who finished college was a teacher. But in the spring of 1971, Katie did her practical training as a student teacher in a white public school in Rochester, NY with children of IBM, General Electric, and Kodak employees. She learned the subtleties of white ethnicity, for example how WASPS treated Catholics in ways that were analogous to how whites treated blacks.
 What Katie gleaned from this is that we each have a history. Part of being a good teacher is knowing the roots from which students have come, both positive and negative. Her own socio-economic background is working-poor, which means according to Katie, “My parents labored everyday of their working lives and our income was still below the minimum poverty level.”

2. Embodied Pathos
A second part of her approach is embodied pathos. It refers to helping students maximize their learning by teaching themselves what they need to know. All knowledge is embodied-mediated knowledge. In a provocative learning environment, we are invited to learn in ways that enable us to “feel with our brains and think with our hearts” (This phrase was used by Malidoma Patrice Some in his interview with Arthur Bloch, “African Ritual and Initiation,” Thinking Allowed, videotape H320; Berkeley, CA: Thinking Allowed Productions, 1988.).
There is a big difference between an educated person and an educated fool. The educated person can take whatever knowledge s/he is blessed to have and share it in clear and gettable ways; but the educated fool mystifies information, intentionally confusing and confounding the listening audience, causing people to feel like fools. Effective teaching is not dumbing down material, but communicating relevant information from heart to heart.
This approach makes Katie’s method dialogical, an invitation to share constructive conversational perspectives. She is a co-learner in every class. Back in the early 1980s, when Katie began her career on the lecture circuit, folks in several audiences voiced their frustration during the Q & A because they understood every word she said. Some concluded that Katie was not very smart since they could comprehend her lecture from beginning to end. They obviously had the perverse sense that a scholar is brilliant only insofar as they, the listeners, are baffled, mesmerized to the point of being clueless, not understanding what is being said. To the contrary, the Cannon approach is to embrace all learners and listeners with clear and straightforward language.

3. Communal Logos
The third aspect of Dr. Cannon’s unique approach to pedagogy is communal logos. This means paying attention to all voices, asking who is not here, who should be here, how can we include even more people into the ongoing moral reasoning and right-relating logic of our community. Everybody moves from individual particularity; we speak from the integrity of our own embodied space and place.  The clearer we are about our own socio-historical-cultural-religious-economic specificities, the sooner we can get the whole group to the common water table. If we go deep enough into the truth of our own particularities, eventually, we can arrive at common truth. Diversity and variety are key elements.

Lively discussion followed the presentation:
1. The first respondent expressed her appreciation for the presentation. She described her own work on African American women in the balcony of apartheid Jim Crowism in the USA. From that spot in segregated balconies women could see what was happening in the center and assess if the spaces below were safe for them to live, move, and have their being. Dr. Cannon referred to this as the “epistemological privilege of women in the balcony.” We await this forthcoming dissertation and the published work of this important scholar.

2. A seasoned professor spoke about her 7:30 AM on Saturday “Women in the Biblical Tradition” class in which she had three men. She asked how Dr. Cannon handled single-gender classes.

Katie said she had never had the experience. She did say that some Black men studied homiletics with her, but others would not enroll in her course, “Ethical Themes for Relevant Preaching,” despite her writing the book on a leading Black homiletician: Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric (NY: Continuum, 2007). She asked her questioner what she had experienced. The professor said that she could tell by students’ body language that their levels of awareness changed as they realized how women were treated in the Bible, especially on issues of sexuality and law.

Dr. Cannons said, “The greyer my hair gets the more young men talk with me as mother/confessor.” Some, she said, even wonder if she is a ‘real’ minister, due to her progressive, open-mindedness regarding contemporary dilemmas.

3.  Another experienced colleague affirmed her own commitment to embodied pedagogy, her consciousness of her own presence in the room. She asked, “As a womanist what do you have to say about bringing our full selves, not simply being talking-heads in the classroom, in ways that meet privilege and dis/ease?”

Katie replied that there is a need for checks and balances. She requires a paper every time the class meets. With this requirement, she can comment on weekly papers about any negative/destructive ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that played out in the classroom. How to handle negativity is a challenge for every teacher. The challenge is to be as compassionate as possible with what is going on, while not getting sucked into reacting to negative quicksand. Reflecting back on the implications of what students are thinking/feeling/doing is helpful, and all of this becomes a tool for teaching.

Dr. Cannon described a process of open-ended questions following a presentation where everyone gives feedback both orally and in writing to the speaker. She described one student who was brilliant in his articulation of philosophical discourse, but his ethical interactions were poisonous/full of death dealing antics, especially the way he spewed forth racism and other forms of hatred. Based on his weekly writing assignments, Dr. Cannon was able to discern that a major source of this student’s intellectual venom was an external projection of internal failed father/son dynamics. About mid-way through the course she was able to say to him that “the alienation with and estrangement from his father must hurt a whole lot.”  Gradually, the isms he lashed out against others started to lessen.

The questioner asked about the personal cost to Dr. Cannon as a professor in such situations.
Katie replied that the there is only so much one can take in. Though she loves the church and teaching, there is a tremendous cost we pay when we work in hostile environments. She sometimes copes by dancing out the negative energy to Mo-town music, at other times weeping, and/or simply going to bed, taking long, restful naps. She described a case of a white woman student who simply could not bear to have an African American woman teach and evaluate her work.  White feminist colleagues arranged to get the student removed from the educational program.  She said, “We need people watching our backs. We also need a balance of self-care in the midst of this work that needs to be done.”

4. Another colleague inquired about on-line teaching as a way to spread the word.

Dr. Cannon expressed as to how she is not wildly enthusiastic about the new technologies, but will be teaching her first hybrid course soon. Conversation ensured about this important topic, underscoring the need for womanist pedagogy on-line, in order to reach the many people who want it. There is a need to get a grant ASAP to help colleagues learn how to teach online in an effective way. Now that the Association of Theological School is moving toward accrediting on-line M.Div. degrees this learning objective is imperative. One colleague encouraged others to use the available technologies as she did with great success.

6. The issue of grading was brought up.

Dr. Cannon shared that she has a very straightforward method. Her syllabus includes the various tasks a student must complete to get an ‘A’ so there is no guessing. A weekly paper is part of the expectations. Each assignment is a kind of learning container, an educational form that students must fill up with their own intellectual substance, though there is plenty of room for multiple-intelligence and personal creativity.

8.  Another call asked about the relationship between embodied pathos and communal logos.

Katie spoke of her early experience at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), when she spoke on a panel about Beverly Wildung Harrison’s book focusing on bodily integrity and abortion, Our Right to Choose. When Katie stood up to speak, she instantly fainted in front of the audience.  She was revived by the hotel physician, got up and delivered her remarks, sure that if she did not, many African American women who were in doctoral programs, and the numbers of Black women coming along, would never be accepted and recognized as full-fledged, scholarly intellectuals in the AAR.

9. The final speaker talked about her peace studies work, Just Peace Theory

This work, like all of Dr. Cannon’s is part of the radical subjective responsibility to make the world different.

WATER is deeply grateful to Katie Geneva Cannon for her important contribution. Please join us on Wednesday, January 16, 2013, 1 PM EST, when Carol P. Christ will be our guest to talk about her current work.

Happy, peaceful holidays to all!