In pursuit of Gaudino’s goal

November 4, 2015 by Jeff Thaler

Confessions: Prior to two weeks ago, I had never heard of Suzanne Venker; I was one of Robert Gaudino’s students, one of the co-founders of the Gaudino Fund, served as its Chair three separate times for about 30 years and just term-limited off the Board in September; and I am the founder and director of the Winter Study Program’s (WSP) “Resettling Refugees and Immigrants in Maine.” I had not planned to add to the post-Venker media pile.

But lost in the flurry of Facebook, Record and Williams Alternative volleys about the dis-invitation to campus by a group calling itself “Uncomfortable Learning” is attention to a very basic pedagogical question first addressed by Professor Gaudino over 40 years ago (both in a book by that title and in other papers and many discussions): What exactly is “uncomfortable learning” in a liberal arts education?

One answer: It is not someone standing in front of an audience to espouse an ideology. That is not dialogue, not Socratic, not an educator or speaker willing to reduce his or her own self in order to give space to the students to wrestle – verbally, publicly – with their own views, beliefs, biases, ignorance. Gaudino was a Socratic gadfly – while he liked to provoke discussion and at times controversy, he never tried to impose his own beliefs or ideology upon students, faculty or community members. Indeed, unlike 2015 where people fall over each other to trumpet their views on social media and elsewhere, hardly anyone really knew what Gaudino’s political or philosophical beliefs were.

Why? Because Gaudino was first and foremost a teacher – he focused on the learning more than on the uncomfortable. Uncomfortable was a means to learning, but never more important. Whether it was in Gaudino’s 1970s Williams-at-Home program in the rural Deep South, Appalachia, Iowa, a Detroit auto factory, his programs in India or, more recently, my program in Portland, Maine or the Gaudino Fellowship initiative, the goals of uncomfortable learning in the Gaudino tradition track those of a liberal arts education – to help students take an active (not passive) role in the learning process, and learn from their experiences through rigorous and critical dialogue, reflection and activity.

The goals of uncomfortable learning were also well-articulated in a 1982 faculty resolution that supported the recently-formed Gaudino Fund and creation of the Gaudino Scholar position: To “challenge both academic and life assumptions, values, perceptions. Students should, for example, not only learn about public authority or public institutions or such inarticulate values and forces as race, class, occupation, age, geographic location, education and religion; they should also begin to learn about their own education and learning. The process of learning becomes an experience that is a subject for disciplined reflection.”

Indeed, the process of learning can become a life-long pursuit. For example, it was when I returned to the College as a junior to find that many faculty disputed the educational value of Williams-at-Home that I kindled a life-long interest in pedagogy and experiential modes of learning – an indirect outcome of uncomfortable learning that has, since my graduating from the College, helped me be a far better legal and educational professional than I otherwise would have been.

I suspect most know the epigram, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Nothing in the October postings has not been hotly debated before; even the issue of what uncomfortable learning has meant at the College, long before an “unrecognized” student group took the phrase as its title, was addressed in a May 7, 2014 letter in the Record entitled “Clarifying the Gaudino Fund.” There, Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in Leadership Studies and Religion Magnus Bernhardsson and Professor of Biology Lois Banta (past and current Gaudino Scholars) and myself wrote: “The ‘uncomfortable learning’ process that Professor Gaudino nurtured both inside and outside the classroom at Williams involves an ideology-free reflection on one’s own assumptions and experience, deep self-questioning, empathy for distinct human realities quite different from one’s own and a commitment to experiential education.”

Would a lecture by Ms. Venker have met that definition? I doubt it, though I would have supported her speaking at the College. But I would have wanted attendees to understand that the exercise would likely not have been the kind of uncomfortable learning demonstrated by the many materials and pages of the Gaudino Fund website, by Sophia Rosenfeld ’15 in her 2013 “Daring Change” presentation about her Gaudino-inspired experiences in the Maine WSP and in my TEDx talk about Gaudino’s Williams-at-Home program (one I did as a sophomore at the College) and my Maine program.

Watch them, read up on Gaudino and then – as President Adam Falk suggested in his Convocation remarks – truly engage in as many opportunities for uncomfortable learning as possible with your teachers, students, friends, community contacts, family members and strangers. Do a homestay (or two) with people very different from your family and self. Never stop learning, exploring or listening – those will be the most valuable skills you can learn from your liberal arts education at the College.

Jeff Thaler ’74 is a co-founder and past Chair of the Gaudino Fund. He lives in Yarmouth, Maine. 

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John C. Drew, Ph.D. November 7, 2015 at 5:17 pm

I think the much larger issue at stake in this situation is the suppression of conservatives on the Williams College campus. The administration should have provided adequate security for Venker’s appearance and taken the steps necessary to reduce the fears of the student organizers for Uncomfortable Learning. For my take on the Venker matter, please check out my recent opinion piece in Campus Reform at http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6956

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DrRST November 14, 2015 at 8:54 am

Like Jeff Thaler, I have found it hard to stay removed from this volley of discussion around S. Venker’s “dis-invitation” by the group calling themselves “Uncomfortable Learning.” First of all, I think Gaudino would be jumping for joy around the discussion generated in response to this event, turned non-event. He believed that important learning takes place in the context of tension and opposition, exactly the kind that was aroused by her anticipated attendance, as well as her non-attendance. It is in this tension, seeing ourselves in opposition to others, that we get to know who we really are. How open are you to free speech if you cannot allow others, with different opinions, the opportunity to speak? It becomes not just a challenge to know and understand their ideas in the abstract, but it challenges us, emotionally, to set aside our own sensibilities, long enough that we can begin to see the “other.” Whoever these people may be who have drastically different perspective, beliefs, and values from our own, can we approach them as human beings, with their own interests, motivations, fears, and desires, who are equally worthy of our interest and understanding. Mr. Gaudino was an equal-opportunity listener, excluding no one from being the beneficiary of his interest and understanding. If someone’s ideas represent even a small segment of the population of people who inhabit the earth, he would want to know and understand their perspective, their ideas, their values.

Some of the participants in this discussion seem to advocate that the college should only allow on campus those with reasoned, and methodologically-proven, ideas or concepts. But our world is not filled with people who only espouse ideas that have been proven through scientific discovery, and systematic investigation. People take positions that are not rationale, and that are derived from irrational belief systems, founded in their emotional experience and development. Are these components of who we are as individuals to be cordoned off from the college campus? Is it not equally important to understand the basis for behavior that is driven, not by science, or rational thinking, but by the emotional dynamics that lie beneath the surface? While recognizing that a liberal arts education has the tradition of focusing exclusively on reasoned, analytic and critical thinking, Mr. Gaudino also believed that simply “seeing” and “experiencing” others, and being aware of our thoughts and reactions to them, was valuable, hence his introduction of the use of ‘film’ in his early attempts to broaden his course structure in a manner that reached beyond a purely academic approach to learning. Gaudino saw the world as an vibrant, but “messy” place, that threatened the sense of organization and order typical of our well-controlled academic environment, but believed that part of the learning process involved a capacity to move in, and around, such a world. One of the things I believe Mr. Gaudino would revel in is the idea that the college is bringing the outside world to the college, rather than requiring the student to go ‘off’ campus to “see” and experience all that exists in it.

Central to this debate is the conflict or tension around “discomfort” and “safety.” Which of these do we choose? Should the college be a “safe” environment, or should it be an avenue toward “uncomfortable learning.” Those who advocate for “uncomfortable learning” might laugh at the idea of “trigger warnings” and the need for “safe space,” and yet this begs the question of how we create learning environments that recognize the needs of all our students. Current concerns about creating a ‘safe space’ for students should be recognized to the same extent and at the same time that we may advocate for creating discomfort. One question I think we are forced to ask is whether these are mutually exclusive propositions? Can we have it both ways, i.e. introduce ideas that are uncomfortable and emotional dangerous, while allowing for discussions and reflections that occur within an environment where all ideas are permitted, and respected.” While challenging from a pedagogical perspective, I believe we can. This does not have to happen all at once, all in the same place, or all with the same people. In my mind, the discomfort posed by Suzanne Venker can become the stimulus for discussions later held in ‘safe’ environments, where everyone’s ideas can be voiced and heard and understood, without the threats, and the devaluing and demeaning responses to which such discussions are prone, especially on the anonymous environment of the internet. There can be opportunities for discomfort, freely selected by those who want to attend, followed by those moments of reflection, with faculty who are able to create a safe environment in which people can speak freely and honestly, while respecting the views and ideas of others. While I do not believe Mr. Gaudino would have shuttered his students from the controversy and discomfort posed by such a talk, he would have insisted, if not demanded, that any discussion subsequent to it would have taken place in an environment where students respected the perspectives of their peers, in fact cherished them, as a means of both knowing themselves as well as knowing the “other.” He would have loved the idea of the students getting to know each other in a more intimate way, and that the learning environment was supporting the understanding of such differences. I think that he would have seen here, that the real threat to the students and their learning was not in Venker’s attendance, but rather that the college environment could not allow her voice to be heard, while supporting the respectful reflection on her ideas, and the feelings these ideas evoked.

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