In late April I (virtually) presented alongside Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Elvis Bakaitis at the CUNY Mina Reese Library’s event, Towards a Critical, Decolonized Pedagogy: An Interactive (Re)Visioning. Shawn presented a thought-provoking and compelling search for ancestral connection through pedagogy, while my portion of the workshop centered on the idea of trust in critical pedagogy.
I view trust in an educational context as both essential and fragile. It’s difficult to build and sustain and can be easily broken, but without it we don’t have the kind of connected needed in critical, engaged learning environments to foster transformative learning. One of my favorite definitions of trust comes from Judith V. Jordan, who describes it as “confidence in the relationship.” Seeking help and connection and expressing vulnerability is scary, and it’s what we all do as learners: share what we don’t know, ask for what we want to learn, and hope that we’ve connected enough with others (our peer learners, our teachers) for them to support us through the process. If there is no confidence in the relationship between learner and teacher or learner and learner, then there is no trust that this is an educational experience where everyone learns and grows as people.
A few weeks after this talk I received an unsolicited email from a sales representative at an academic-adjacent company touting a new software product that would help teachers track and record the “time [students] spent reading, working with sources, [and] taking notes” online, all in the name of good assessment. Shortly after receiving that email I learned about faculty who review hundreds of video recordings of students taking exams because the proctoring software flags them as potential cheaters for not looking at the screen. These are students who are working out complex problems on a sheet of paper at their desk. After that eye-opener, I then attended a pedagogical discussion that devolved into a lamentation over cheating (not the point of the discussion) and the inability for instructors to preserve the integrity of the test. And just last week I reviewed dozens of syllabi for a curriculum mapping project where the tone and language used automatically assumed students were going to cheat or try to scam their course professor.
The trust that could/should have existed between learners and teachers or learners and learners has instead been placed in browser lockdown software and surveillance technology. Students are assumed to be scammers, professors have to protect their exams, and any energy that could be put towards meaningful learning is instead diverted to cheating prevention. I know this is not the norm in every class or with every professor at every campus. But it is a mindset that I find particularly insidious in higher education.
This mindset sees rampant cheating as the real problem, not the 300 person classes students have to take their first year at college. This mindset characterizes students as dishonest and unmotivated to learn, when really they might be juggling work, school, and family and struggling to buy books. This mindset assumes professors are just out to catch you when do something wrong, rather than help you get what you need to learn. It’s a mindset without trust or connection, one that is easily monetized by education-adjacent companies whose profits grow as learning suffers. The inertia of practices in higher education is strong, and I fear that we are hurtling towards more distrust in teaching and learning. But I find solace in the small moments of trust I have with learners and teachers, in the instances of grace that others extend to me and that I can reciprocate, and in the small spaces after class (that are all virtual these days) where students ask questions and we can just talk as people, connect, and trust.