April 18 2021

Critical Reflection Ensuing from Traumatic Events and Ideology Critique

Ella Johnson, St. Ambrose University

illustration of a group of masked people

I have been teaching theology for around ten years now—first in a graduate setting, and now predominately in an undergraduate setting. Like my respected mentors and colleagues have modeled for me and taught me to do, I have worked to be critically self-reflective on my pedagogy. In the last few years especially, though, I have noticed a new and emerging pattern in my critical reflection: it becomes all-encompassing, far-reaching, and urgent during national and global traumatic events.

I vividly remember questioning and rethinking nearly all of my pedagogical assumptions and practices after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. The cycle continued after the 2016 presidential election and then again after Hurricane Maria in 2017, the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and the Ford-Kavanaugh sexual assault hearings in 2018, ongoing reports of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, the Flint water crisis, and increased ICE raids. Presently, in 2020, the multiple pandemics of COVID-19, continuing and increased exposure to police brutality of Black and Brown people, and the increasing rate of poverty and unemployment seem to have forced every educator worth their salt to rethink their pedagogical assumptions and practices.

Of course, our students have been disoriented by these tragic and traumatic events as well. They came to the classroom in the fall of 2020 either virtually or, if in person, wearing masks and sitting at least six feet apart from their peers and professors. Many of my students also entered the fall semester on the heels of protesting publicly at Black Lives Matter rallies throughout the summer. My students of color report being more exhausted than ever by the ever-present target on their backs. Students, too, are critically rethinking the systems by which they have been formed and informed.

Critical Reflection on Pedagogy and Ideology Critique: Background and Theory

The call for educational practitioners to be critically self-reflective is fairly well known. This is in large part due to the work of pedagogical theorists, such as Stephen Brookfield, who have challenged educators to routinely assess and hone our teaching practices. Indeed, since the beginning of my teaching career around ten years ago, I have been encouraged by mentors to reflect critically on my teaching through the four lenses Brookfield identifies: (1) students' eyes, (2) colleagues' perceptions, (3) personal experience, and (4) theory.1 For example, I have been taught to regularly distribute Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) to my students in order to reflect on my pedagogy through their eyes. I have learned that promotion and tenure procedures require annual visits to my classroom by my department chair, which provides me with my colleagues’ perceptions of my teaching. I have received a lot of anecdotal advice about personal experience—e.g., “it takes three semesters of teaching the same class to really do it well.” And I have been told to read at least two new books each year on pedagogical theory.

However, the traumatic events in the last few years, especially those I listed above, have led me to think about critical reflection differently. Specifically, regarding the tragedies of 2016 through 2018, I remember reflecting on my pedagogy through the first and third of Brookfield’s lenses and feeling it necessary to name national and local traumatic events in class. I would mention the tragedy at the beginning of class and give students space to talk about it as well, but then I moved on to the daily lesson plan.

Moving on to our regularly scheduled lesson plan after a quick period in class in which I acknowledged the tragedy or traumatic event felt necessary. But it also felt odd and disjointed, and I wasn’t sure what else to do.

On the one hand, I had learned about “disorienting dilemmas” from educational theorist, Jack Mezirow.2 So, I knew that these traumatic events can lead us to question our previously held beliefs and assumptions. It, therefore, felt wrong to expect students to keep scaffolding new concepts onto previously built cognitive frameworks that might, in fact, be crumbling.

On the other hand, I felt unqualified to teach about anything besides “systematic theology,” because that was the only subject in which I held a doctorate degree. I also had a responsibility to the course description and objectives; that is, to teach students about the theological methods and theories in which I have been trained. So, if I wanted to teach about anything that engaged in social or racial justice (which I desperately did), I would need to go back and get another PhD—this time in critical race theory.

Like so many others, the tragic events of 2020 have disoriented me to a point which I can only describe as being “shaken to the core.” The shootings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and so many other Black and Brown persons seemed to disorient many of us White professors, including me, to the point of realizing that we no longer have the privilege to not teach about racism—PhD in critical race studies, or otherwise. 

With the tragedies of 2020, the fourth of Brookfield’s lenses—i.e., theory—has become the most important lens for my and my students’ critical reflection. In particular, learning about his own theory of ideology critique has helped me to let go of my previous belief that I need to be an expert to teach about racial and social justice. On the contrary, because every field of study has been effected by social inequity, every field of study needs to engage in ideology critique.

Teaching Students Ideology Critique

In the last few years, I have consciously decided to incorporate into my syllabi an opportunity for critical reflection ensuing from the traumatic events. I knew that if the integration of this piece into my course was to be effective and more than just a superficial mention of the tragedy, I’d need to connect the critical reflection with course content in a way that is responsible for the methods and objectives about which I am hired to teach (i.e., Catholic Systematic Theology). One of the most effective strategies I’ve tried has been to design a writing assignment based on Stephen Brookfield’s theory of “ideology critique.”

In short, Brookfield defines ideology critique as “part learning process, part civic action”; it “focuses on helping people come to an awareness of how capitalism, White Supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, heterosexism and other ideologies shape beliefs and practices that justify and maintain economic and political inequity.”3 As Brookfield describes it, ideology critique is helpful tool for framing discussions about the unjust beliefs and assumption that dictate the unequal ways in which society is organized: “(1) that apparently open, Western democracies are actually highly unequal societies in which economic inequity, racism and class discrimination are empirical realities; (2) that the way this state of affairs is reproduced as seeming to be normal, natural and inevitable (thereby heading off potential challenges to the system) is through the dissemination of dominant ideology; and (3) that critical theory attempts to understand this state of affairs as a prelude to changing it.”4

As I understand and use his theory, the ubiquitous and dominant nature of unjust ideologies like racism demands that every subject area question its foundational assumptions in order to pave the way for real and lasting societal change. Assignments designed to teach ideology critique also help us model that habit of mind with our students and lets them practice it as well. In one of my introductory theology courses, for example, I have adopted the theory in an assignment designed for students to write a critical evaluation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) most recent document on race, “Open Wide Our Hearts: A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” issued in 2018. In order to prepare students for the assignment, we spend a few class sessions analyzing the social realities of racism and white privilege, based on the work of scholars like Ibram X. Kendhi and Robin DiAngelo. We then turn to a Catholic theological perspective written by Bryan Massingale, a Black Roman Catholic moral theologian and priest, who also has recently come out as gay. I have students read Massingale’s critique of prior USCCB documents and list both the substantial deficits and limitations that he identifies. To do this, they read a chapter from his groundbreaking book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, which was published in 2010, eight years prior to when the most recent “Open Wide Our Hearts” document was written. Then, in their written assignment, I ask the students to apply Massingale’s critiques of the prior USCCB documents to their own analysis of the current one.

This assignment has been effective for a number of reasons. First, it allows students the chance to explore how racism has been embedded not just in economics and politics, but also in religion—something of which they are not always aware. In particular, they often identify how even a theological document that denounces racism is itself entangled with assumptions based in patriarchy, heterosexism, and White Supremacy. For instance, many times students remark on how the USCCB document is written by a predominately White group of people, all of whom are men. In recent student papers, two different students made this critique and bolstered it by mentioning how the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) approved a statement in April of 1968 that described the Catholic Church as a “white racist institution.”

Second, it often leads students to see how theology and religion have the opportunity as ideologies to promote civic action, as was the case with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious convictions, but also how they can also be problematic—particularly if they promote reconciliation without justice. For example, a recent student’s paper made this critique by remarking on the 2018 USCCB document “Open Wide Our Hearts” in this way:

The violence of law enforcers is brought up early in the text and by the end it gets lost in the translation. This last document starts off strong but in the end reflects their past work. An example of not giving a bigger picture plan begins on page 23 where they claim, “To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others—to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view.” Broadening horizons is always a good sign, but in the long run this act will not rid the world of an entire system that oppresses minorities. One’s view that has been instilled in them since childhood will simply not go away because they begin interacting with others they usually wouldn’t. Things are easier said than done and it shows immensely in the writings released by the USCCB.

In a similar critique, about the same document, another student wrote:

The Catholic Bishops think that racism will be overcome by education, dialogue, and moral persuasion. They think that if everyone is educated on racism that it’ll just magically disappear, but it’s not that simple. . . Racism has been with us for many, many years now and it’s deep in our roots. It’s not something you can change overnight by having a different mindset. I wish it were that easy, but unfortunately it’s not.

Both students are recognizing that racism goes beyond an individual’s acts, and that it is also a widespread and deeply entrenched, systemic issue. One of these students went further in their analysis and considered why the Bishops might not have promoted real systemic change in their document:

I think that the Bishops might be concerned with not crossing any boundaries and having too strong of an opinion that would align themselves with a certain political party. The idea that there needs to be a separation of church and state has been a saying for a long time and people believe that it is an important part in democracy. This concern is valid but I also think that the idea of all people having equal rights is not only a Catholic belief and should be a belief held by both political parties.

Finally, and here’s where I hope the assignment is most effective: the assignment teaches students to begin to develop and adopt for themselves a process of ideology critique outside of the classroom. For instance after discussing the widespread issuing of #BLM statements by nearly ever retail company, with no real call to action, one student made a similar critique of the 2018 USCCB document as the “church’s feeble attempt to get ahead of a problem instead of being deemed as ignoring the problem.”

When students are able to identify how racism has been shaped and maintained in other documents, beliefs and practices, including but not limited to religious ones, I know the assignment has accomplished its objective.

Conclusions

What I’ve learned these past few years is that when we, professors, and our students are experiencing the disorienting dilemma of questioning everything we’ve ever known, which seems to happen after every tragedy and traumatic event, we are yearning for civic change rooted in ideology critique and reform. Ideology critique should always be present in any discipline, but tragic events make it feel more urgent. Both professors and students seem to crave an opportunity for it.

Therefore, in these days in which we cannot watch the daily news without witnessing traumatic events on the national and global scale, it has made sense to me to regularly structure into my classes assignments that allow students to engage in and develop an ideology critique. I no longer feel like I’m performing an obligation to mention the tragic event or offering a disjointed and awkward space for the students to process it. Nor am I trying to balance the demands of the course content for which I am responsible with the demands of the students and contemporary society begging for ideology critique. In nearly every class I teach, and I would think in every discipline, an assignment in which the students are asked to critically evaluate the unjust assumptions that undergird the field seems to be necessary and effective—especially in the aftermath of national and global tragedies and traumatic events.

 


Notes

1 Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

2 Jack Mezirow, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000).

3 Stephen Brookfield, “The Concept of Critical Reflection: Promises and Contradictions,” European Journal of Social Work, 12.3 (September 2009): 298-299.

4 Brookfield, “The Concept of Critical Reflection: Promises and Contradictions,” 298.

Selected Recommended Resources

Baldwin Jennifer. Trauma Sensitive Theology: Thinking Theologically in the Era of Trauma. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. Example of Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire follows this resource list.

———. “The Concept of Critical Reflection: Promises and Contradictions.” European Journal of Social Work 12, no.3 (September 2009): 298–299.

Jennings, Willie James. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.

Johnson, Ella. “Trauma, Critical Reflection, and Ideology Critique,” Teaching and Traumatic Events blog series, Wabash Center, March 6, 2018. https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2018/03/trauma-critical-reflection-ideology-critique/.

Newton, Richard, “Maybe It’s Not Your Job to Deal with Trauma Drama,” Teaching and Traumatic Events blog series, Wabash Center,  April 10, 2018. https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2018/04/maybe-its-not-your-job-to-deal-with-trauma-drama/.

Mezirow, Jack. Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000.

Steele, Claude M. Whistling Vivaldi. How Stereotypes Affect us and What We Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.


Ella Johnson is an assistant professor of systematic theology at St. Ambrose University. She teaches systematic theology to undergraduates and also graduate students, who are preparing for permanent diaconate ordination or lay ecclesial ministry. Johnson’s research focuses on recovering the theological insights of medieval women mystics. She has recently published a book, This is My Body: Eucharistic Theology and Anthropology in the Writings of Gertrude the Great of Helfta (Cistercian Publications, 2020). She also is constantly thinking about how to employ new teaching tactics and engage antiracism and social justice concerns in the classroom and on campus.