One of the most challenging aspects of adult learning is that each situation or set of circumstances in which it takes place is unique. Rather than debate which practices are most effective in all situations, Cranton (2001) argues that there is a setting in which each approach and technique can be useful. Based on my experiences as a teacher, I agree with her analysis, as well as her assessment that the “best” practices (as described by the literature) used inauthentically are less effective than authentic practices that are perhaps less “ideal.” My hope is that this dissertation offers adult educators the opportunity to reflect on their own techniques and goals in order to extend their abilities to connect with their authentic selves as teachers and to find the practices that best fit them, their learners and the content that they teach.
One of the questions that arose during the semester was also echoed by some of the people who read drafts of this dissertation: the sex, shame and spirit are evident throughout the course and this document, but where is the power? I find that part of the challenge in responding to this query is that United States culture generally uses the words “power” and “control” interchangeably; for example, when we describe a group as being in power, we’re often referring to the fact that they are in a position of control over others. Some authors make the distinction between “power from within” and “power over” (e.g. Ellison, 2002; French, 1986; Glasser, 1984; Hawkins, 2002; Lorde, 1978; Starhawk, 1997; Tiffany & Tiffany, 2000), which I have used in various classes since it is often easily understood. However, I find that simply adding prepositions implies that the underlying experience is the same. After all, “talking with” and “talking to” both involve the same act of talking, even though the interaction may be rather different in each situation. Similarly, I find that “power from within” and “power over” seems to imply that they are similar processes that are manifested differently, rather than two entirely different processes.
My understanding of power and control parallels “power from within” and power over,” but by using entirely different words, I am able to clarify the dissimilarities between the two. From this perspective, control is a zero-sum game; that is, in order for me to take control, someone else must give it up. On the other hand, power (as I use the term) is limitless since my acting from power, or “power from within” does not limit your ability to do so. In fact, my power can inspire you to find your power and vice versa. Another distinction between the two is that control only exists when it is used and it must constantly be demonstrated and reinforced. In this sense, it is theatrical (Carse, 1986) since it needs an audience, although the audience may be an internalized observer or judge. However, while power may be evident through one’s actions, it is not the goal of those actions; instead, it is the inspiration for the choices that one makes. Further, control is rigid while power is flexible, both in terms of how they feel to me and how I see them used. I also observe, both in myself and others, that the more power we feel, the less we rely on control and, conversely, the less connected we feel to our power, the more we try to substitute control for it. As one learner phrased it, “the more we let go, the more power we have.”
None of this is meant to imply that I think that control is inherently bad. Instead, I believe that it is when control expands and takes over that it can become maladaptive. This can possibly be best described through the analogy of a novice musician who is learning control through endless repetition of scales and simple pieces. It is only when she has learned a high level of control that she can powerfully create music. However, if all she ever learned to do was play scale and exercises repeatedly, there would likely be little power in her experience. Similarly, we often strive for control when we are learning new skills; once we have integrated them into our skillsets, we can use them in powerful ways. In this sense, control is something we can have and power is something we can do.
The purpose for this seeming digression at the end of this dissertation is that I believe that the first three ingredients of Sex and Shame, Spirit and Power were woven into the syllabus, as described above. However, the power that emerged was the result of the building of community and safety, as well as the development of new skills for maintaining connection in the presence of shame. For several years, I have defined “power” as “the ability to spontaneously and creatively respond to the present situation in the way that serves one best.” Through the process of researching and writing this dissertation, I have come to see that another way to describe it is that power and authenticity are very much the same thing. Thus, while I could deliberately include the topics of sex, shame and spirit in my plans for the course, power had to grow out of the learners’ abilities and willingness to move into authenticity and give up the control they had used to protect their shames. In addition, I also had to give up the controls that I used to protect myself around my fears and shames and move into my authenticity and my power as a teacher. Power and authenticity, like effective learning, are emergent phenomena; we can foster them and facilitate their presence, but we can not force them to surface.
I believe that that there are many reasons that educators sometimes wish for a list of good practices. Personally, all of my reasons revolve around my fears and I suspect that the same can often be said by other people as well. One of the challenges that fear offers us is that our initial reaction is often to try to control the situation, which frequently creates and/or exacerbates the very result that we are trying to avoid. My experience is that this often results in a cycle of further attempts to control and a restriction of authenticity. In conversations with a number of educators, I have noticed that a common barrier to improving practices is the difficulty in finding a balance between flexibility and structure. This is a topic that is often woven into discussion on learning: people need enough structure to feel safe with enough freedom to explore and learn (Wlodkowski, 1999) . The model of adult learning described in this dissertation, and the processes that helped me to develop and apply it, made it much less difficult to recognize my fears and shames, to find powerful tools for working with them, and to help the learners move into their authenticities even as I found my own. By working with our humanities and becoming more genuine, the learners and I built a space in which we could explore and expand each our powers as they emerged.
When I began this research, I originally hoped to develop a model of adult learning that would be applicable in its specifics to a wide range of topics and for many teachers. There was even a part of me that hoped that I would discover or create the unified model of learning that has eluded the field. At some point during this experience, I came to see that each person dedicated to creating opportunities for others to come into their genuine selves will need to find his or her own approaches. However, based on my experiences using it, I am confident that the basic structure of my model, including the trajectory from objectives through recap, can be explored and adapted by teachers within many fields and a number of settings, precisely because it gives a foundation for individual self-directed learning and reflection. This is especially important in light of how wide the scope of the literature on adult learning is, as well as how many different threads there are, some of which are in some tension or conflict with others. Each person’s journey towards authenticity will follow a unique path, although other people’s experiences and stories can help to overcome barriers, both internally and externally, and inspire deeper authenticity. Similarly, each educator moving towards effective and authentic teaching will need to develop a unique understanding of what that means, and each example of this process can help by provide options, alternatives, and inspiration.
I am deeply fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore my authenticity and power as an educator. My practice of moving into deeper connection with my genuine self as a teacher has been a profoundly transformative experience and it continues to have repercussions in all aspects of my life, especially my interpersonal relationships (including my teaching practices). I hope that my offering the story of Sex and Shame, Spirit and Power will help others find ways to move into their authenticities and more powerful teaching.
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