How Real Does it Get?

How Real Does it Get? Editorializing on Critical Pedagogy, Wankstas, and the Fear of Teaching Like a Girl

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

A professor in his early thirties paces at the front of the packed room, lecturing while projecting a Powerpoint. He tells the conference audience that he has identified three teacher-types: the gangsta(hard-case awful, unredeemable) and the wanksta (just riding the fence, but could maybe be pushed over into the good side). The third, the rida, is on point; the rida is down with the people. In fact, the rida would take a bullet for his homies. In fact, he has three book contracts on his desk that he can’t even get to, because he’s too busy keepin’ it real, taking bullets, maintaining rida status. He’s all about “critical pedagogy,” which he performed for the room as a choreography of hyper-masculinity, all shouted points and violent metaphors. The rest of us, well, if we aren’t willing to take a bullet, we—a pathetic and leeching bunch of gangstas and wankstas—should get out of education.

Never mind that it is only in Hollywood’s fantasies that the poor dive in front of a bullet for their homies; this recent conference experience is an echo of too many where (male, not all white) professors of education strut to a largely female and white audience about our failures to be real, to be critical (often vaguely defined, but sort of left, and nearly always firmly academic), to be authentic, and how their truer and smarter versions of critical pedagogy and organizing are not like what the rest of us—a bunch of girls—come up with.
Risking exposure of our wanksta status, we want to question the persistence of these critical ideas about education and critical pedagogy, and the implicit ways in which they construct and delegitimize teaching and organizing like girls and often distract us—educators—from the everyday work of social justice in education.
In the US, critical pedagogy—perhaps the grandfather of the rida—is a term and an educational practice most frequently associated with the work of Paulo Freire that views teaching as a political, liberatory project. While abbreviating what is a broad and branching body of scholarship, US translations of the term and the concept of critical pedagogy, as this Wikipedia entry indicates, are deeply gendered and racialized:

Famous authors of critical pedagogy texts not only include Paulo Freire, as mentioned above, but alsoRich Gibson, Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Joe L. Kincheloe, Howard Zinn, and others. Famous educationalists including Jonathan Kozol and Parker Palmer are sometimes included in this category. Other critical pedagogues more famous for their anti-schooling, unschooling, or deschooling perspectives include Ivan Illich, John Holt, Ira Shor, John Taylor Gatto, and Matt Hern.

Critical pedagogy can and often does make invisible the daily labors of the primarily female force teaching in our public schools and in many of the teacher education programs at colleges and universities, while glorifying the work of a few, mostly male and white academicians. Just like the highly paid male chefs (when the majority of the world’s unpaid daily preparers of food are women) or the valorized male artists (when everyday domestic arts are overwhelmingly practiced, uncompensated, by women), the critical pedagogue is only possible through the erasure of the intersections of gender, race, power and privilege. Genius, artist, chef, critical pedagogue—because women are often too busy being real, perhaps keepin’ it real is just a dick thing.

As Liz Ellsworth (1989) noted almost twenty years ago in Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy, critical pedagogy frameworks also ‘fix’ educators in positions of power and privilege, as the critical pedagogue facilitates the empowerment of the others. Like Ellsworth, our ongoing learning and teaching experiences make us suspicious and uncomfortable with a knowledge and learning paradigm that places “us” so seamlessly in the emancipator role. Authority and legitimacy are often produced through hierarchical relations of oppression and domination.
What is also startlingly clear to us—after a few years on the ‘social justice’ and ‘critical’ educational conference circuit—is that no one really wants to be perceived as teaching or organizing like a girl. Most, we suspect, (including ourselves) are fairly unsure of what this might mean, only—like throwing like a girl, all limp-wristed wind-up and no sure aim—it must be something really embarrassing. And, given Hollywood’s persistent snow-job on the profession of teaching, who wants to be confused with Hillary Swank from Freedom Writers? Or to be mistaken as one of those fresh-faced modern day missionaries—recruited at only THE best Ivy League universities and exclusive liberal arts colleges byTeach for America—who, with a summer’s “training,” are sent off to the schools to spend a few years saving poor people? In these versions, teaching is the gendered province of the duped, the naïve, the do-gooders, not an arena of social ferment and radical change. How is it that teaching and organizing like a girl or a woman does not evoke the riotous experiences of outspoken activist teachers—from Ellen Gates Starr and Margaret Haley, on through to Septima Clark, Mary Church Terrell and more?
We must reclaim the radical, social justice-oriented, lady teacher and her sissy colleagues. What the hero-hugging, girl-hating versions of teaching in pop culture obscure is the daily work for change, labor that is often messy and unheroic. To be of use, as Marge Piercy writes, when the “the work of the world is common as mud,” consists, in large part, of showing up and following through, and sometimes, getting out of the way. What rida critical pedagogues obscure is organizing, and movements for social change, within—and not outside of—public culture. What happens in public schools is linked to the economy; what happens in classrooms is shaped by housing and healthcare. In other words, the problem with the pedagogy in public schools isn’t really that it’s not critical enough, or that teachers are wankstas. It’s that all that is public, including schools, is under attack.
Education in the US has always been about sorting and sifting, creating populations that are disposable, superfluous, and designated for low-wage employment. It continues to be a battle to challenge this reality as it persists and takes new forms—from the residential schooling movement, to selective enrollment and charter schools—and to expose and intervene in how race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, ability and more matter, desperately, in the culling of our children. And Lone Ranger critical pedagogues with a quick draw, but ultimately flaccid pedagogical prescriptions, aren’t going to solve those problems—or at least, not alone.
While we have no solutions but keeping eyes and ears open, and as Allen Ginsberg said, putting our “queer shoulder[s] to the wheel,” we argue that the work we need to do is all together, focused on preserving what is still public, in coalition with other people who are willing to show up. This is never dour work, but rather the opposite: chaotic, energizing, and overflowing with the pleasure of connectivity. Our labor, we predict, will often be unacknowledged; it’s likely that no names will get attached to this project. To teach and organize like a girl, we think, is to be willing to do what feels awkward, to ask uncomfortable questions, to be absolutely wrong, to find out, and still to stay. And then be to willing to show up again. And again. How like a girl; how necessary now.

This is a co-authored work with equal contributions from each of us and no first author. The order in which we are listed is based on a rotation we use in our collaborations on publications.


Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.

Ginsberg, A. (1974). America. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Piercy, M. 1973. To be of use. Circles on the Water. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wikipedia. Critical Pedagogy. Retrieved on May 22, 2007 from


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