This post was written by Contributing Authors Quilan Arnold and Jessica Nicoll, facilitators of the “Conditions for Change: A Pedagogical Cypher” workshop held on March 24, 2021.
“Conditions for Change: A Pedagogical Cypher,” an interactive workshop, engaged faculty and students in structures that support trusting socially just classrooms. As Cathy Davidson writes, “You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You have to structure equality.” One structure Conditions for Change used is an Africanist socio-political tool: the cypher or bantaba. Embracing the philosophy of the circle – see all and welcome being seen by all – showcases possibilities for non-hierarchical learning systems within academic spaces. Other workshop structures called upon experiences with Bohmian Dialogue Circles, Onye Ozuzu’s Technology of the Circle and Lois Weaver’s Long Table.
Conducted remotely, the 90-minute workshop encouraged a conversation between technological tools and embodied learning. Participants engaged in physical and artistic exploration; designed structures for varied curricula; engaged in conversation; and reflected on learning across disciplines. They were asked to reimagine the frontal orientation of the screen into a 360 degree worldview, one that can hold peripheral perspectives and seek out differences within a community. Hunter Dance faculty colleagues Quilan Arnold and Jessica Nicoll, collaborating with students Esther Nozea, Ashley Bethea and Kayla Smith, facilitated processes to help attendees address areas of interest within and beyond the arts and humanities.
I’m witnessing my Asian-American colleague jump, shake, vibrate her body Lizzo tells our community to “fuck it up” through her song, “Tempo.” Digital displays of bodies pop on my Zoom screen as my colleague’s vibrations virally spread through the virtual system into the nervous one. My system is rocking-and-rolling from the blast of energy; sending my spirit through an emotional chaos:
A colleague I
Death. Asian. Asian-American.
Prison. People called Black. Death.
Fuck it up!
My focus darts around my room to find tools that will help me channel this chaos. As Lizzo cuts away, the vibe she impulsed carries me to snatch a marker, rip an envelope open, write, and present “Stop Killing Us” to the screen while my shoulders bounce and sway to the trace of “Tempo.” All images cut away as well…except for one. Looming white hands manipulating crumpled pieces of paper consume the image next to mine. I crumple mine too and forcefully throw. it. aT. tHE. IMAGE! The hands in it begin to withdraw; revealing the face behind the looming whiteness. I recognize that this, too, is a colleague I admire and a human I love.
What would change us—transform us in relation to: one another, these machines, the spaces we are in, ways we want to be present with one another? What would transform our learning in 90 minutes? We begin by walking together, moving forward and back, side to side, silently discovering synchrony in motion. People, two-by-two on this ark, cross boundaries—one called Teacher with one called Student, one called Old with one called Young, one called Asian with one called Black—walking. Feel synchrony across distance. In new pairs these people step across new boundaries, find other ways (talking, drawing, shaping space within and around them) to listen (“listening is a creative act”) and to make Something New. Duets return, foreground themselves, offer the Something New—30-second offerings: dance, poetry, drawings, theater (we call them this; simpler and boundary-less, they call themselves Art). A new cypher blooms: 20 minutes of emerging improvisation in which we see each other, find each other, are surprised by what we shape together. At the end, these people breathe, speak, nod. We allowed ourselves to understand or not try to understand, one says. She speaks of layers that contain joy, sorrow, rage, beauty. Unknowable is-ness, I think. The next day one (called Teacher) describes a change in her class, offering a message from one (called Student), thanking her teacher for the beauty that transformed a moment inside a class, shifted a pandemic’s impact. We ask ourselves, can we make these spaces in which to play again?
Arnold and Nicoll, representing different dance traditions, share a commitment to increasing student leadership and challenging hierarchical assumptions. Recognizing that “teachers cannot create the conditions for change unless those conditions exist for them” they foster environments in which all members of a community learn from—and change with—each other.
[Image via WSFB]