Fall 1998 - Volume I, Issue 3
Gumption is the psychic
gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven't got it there's no way
the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to
keep it there's absolutely no way in this whole world the motorcycle can keep
from getting fixed...Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and
preserved before anything else is the gumption. (Pirsig, 1974, p. 273)
Our experiences of working in the area of peace
education with undergraduate college women has emphasized to us the differences
in initial perspectives about this topic between us and the students with whom
we are working. We enter the situation with the need to help students identify
and balance the many competing forces in our society; students arrive expecting
us to teach them a curriculum that will solve the problem of violence in our
communities. And, thus, it became clear to us quite quickly that our primary
goal would be to complicate students' thinking (see Diane Levin, l994).
Complicate it too much, and they turn away - frustrated by being pushed beyond
their ability to understand the expectations or the explanations. Complicate it
too little, and students fail to incorporate the multiple perspectives that are
so vital a part of peaceful communities. Community Service Learning (CSL) is a
pedagogy based on an agreement to explore multiple perspectives and to value
each participant as a resource, as well as a recipient. It is a result of
changes in our professional and political lenses which now view "experts" as
only one piece of the puzzle-both in terms of identifying the problems as well
as solving them.
The purpose of this paper is to share our experiences
(see Note 1) working with traditional-aged, undergraduate women who elected to
do community service in the area of violence-prevention and peace-making. We
tried to accomplish three tasks, which we describe in this paper: 1) We
attempted to help the women to become skilled at identifying the complexities of
engaging in community service learning. The roles across service provider and
service recipient are blurred in a strong community service learning program.
And the multiple levels of functioning that exist for the CSL intern are
complex, often conflicting pieces of who we are. 2) We attempted to establish a
supportive environment and build in course tasks that helped the CSL interns
process their experiences of these complexities in a broad range of ways,
including activities that did not rely solely on a verbal account and analysis
but relied on connected, non-verbal ways of knowing and learning. Women's Ways
of Knowing (Belenky, et al., 1986) and Gardner's (1983/1993) Theory of Multiple
Intelligence offered us a broad set of lenses for considering how students
"think", and how they might process their experiences in this course. 3) We
wanted to encourage and support the women in learning to live with the ambiguity
of their reflections, to view complexity as a challenge and their need for
greater integration of beliefs and behaviors as an achievable, long-term goal.
All three of these tasks seem essential if students are to work with communities
in ways that move beyond missionary-like service to reciprocal learning
relationships that create action for social justice.
In our community
service learning course on violence prevention and peace-making, we tried to
accomplish these tasks by connecting three levels of thought and action:
personal, professional, and political. We asked students to reflect upon
themselves as individuals (the personal), as practitioners (the professional),
as citizens (the political) in our society. We began with the assumption that to
know and accept oneself is a prerequisite for knowing and accepting others.
Then, we asked students to explore the interfaces of these three levels of
functioning. We encouraged them to make connections among these three roles,
emphasizing our belief that these levels are not concentric circles which
radiate merely out from the individual; they are overlapping circles which
intersect and interact together during any particular point in time.
Making connections among the personal, the professional, and the political is
difficult work - for any of us, at any point in time. It is the central task of
learning to "walk the talk"-to translate learning, whether theoretical or
experiential, into action. In each of these domains, many of us in the current
U.S. cultural context seek consistency among what we believe, what we espouse,
and how we act. For example, we might espouse that all children deserve an
effective education, though we believe that we must ensure excellence for our
own children and, thereby, we act to maintain a system where some students get
more resources than others. We can see here the conflict between the belief
system and the espoused values. These tensions create the pain we feel with the
acknowledgment that we can't work towards meeting the needs of society as a
whole while still maintaining the status quo for most of us who benefit from the
social injustices currently existing in society. And so, it is not surprising
that our students often find these connections difficult to recognize, and very
difficult to integrate.
Many of the young women with whom we work come
to Lesley College because they know that they want to work with children. Most
of these women have decided that they will become teachers long before they
arrive at Lesley. Certainly, all of them choose Lesley College because it is a
school that educates for "people professions." At the same time, most of these
young women do not see themselves as political activists. They prepare to move
from the personal to the professional; they are not prepared to understand the
power that their attitudes and behaviors have in influencing our political or
societal values as a whole. Of course, they want to teach children to be caring,
productive citizens. They do not see themselves as being politically active in
their roles as teachers. However, this initial experience of relating personal
experiences to political and social views seems to have expanded their process
of gaining skill in hearing and understanding multiple voices and perspectives.
Interpersonal perspective-taking and dialectical thought are "habits of mind"
that seem to build a commitment to the common good (Daloz, et al, 1996, p. 108),
and dealing with multiple voices and contradictions was inherent in our
students' process of understanding.
When we first began to teach this
course, we found that some students actually resented being asked to talk about
themselves personally when their reason for taking a course such as this one
was, ostensibly, to learn about specific violence prevention curricula and
various pedagogical strategies in peace-making. With experience, however, we
learned to be clearer in communicating, through the course description, that
self-reflection is part of this experience. Students who really are not ready
for this work generally opt out. Others are prepared to deal with their own
apprehensions and understand the expectations of the course. Recognizing these
anxieties, we attempted to create a safe "holding environment," allowing them to
grieve the loss of old beliefs in the process of constructing new sociopolitical
perspectives (Kegan, 1982). Taking new perspectives requires acknowledging
complexities that may have gone unnoticed in the past and promotes movement to a
transition away from the "received knowing" (Belenky, et al, 1986) implicit in
the "just teach me the skills" attitude that many students expressed.
The course, Changing the Culture of Violence: A Course
in Community Service Learning, is an undergraduate course which can serve as
professional pre-practica hours for students in education or human services.
This course exemplifies community service learning for several reasons: 1)
students are in community internships to work on issues connected to social
justice; 2) they are trained for the work they do there; and 3) they spend
regular reflection time, individually and as a group, integrating their
classroom work and readings with their understandings of what they are learning
through their internship experience. Students are asked to write a weekly
reflection paper in which they try to make connections among the personal, the
professional, and the political.
When these three levels of functioning
are presented as concentric circles, students are able to understand and relate
to them quite well. They understand the need to start with oneself and to move
We start with a
study of our selves-who we are in terms of our 5 Cs (Johnson, 1996): color,
culture, class, character, context. We move from ourselves to others, from the
personal to the professional (understanding and accepting those with whom we
work), to the political (understanding and relating humanistically to society as
a whole). Certainly, all of us understand how our communities move outward from
our immediate families to our neighborhoods, then our cities, or other
associational communities. The real tensions are created when we start to push
students to understand how the actions at one level of functioning do, in fact,
affect the other levels of functioning.
Examples of Negotiating Personal, Professional, and
Am I the teacher or do I align myself with the
Professional Role: Identification/Responsibilities of an Adult
Personal Experience: Identification/Empathy with the
Tension between our personal and professional selves
has been addressed by practicum supervisors for years, both in education and
human services. On a personal level, CSL interns, as inexperienced group
leaders, may feel an anxiety concerning their ability to really carry out the
activity. This anxiety often leads to a need for control as they try to identify
with the mentor teacher's ability to be responsible for a group of children. On
a more theoretical level, what we might label as "professional" functioning, the
young practitioner is, however, committed to giving the children a voice. The
identification that young practitioners have with their students forces them
into the tensions created by competing needs-the need to be in control of the
group, and the need to allow the individuals in the group to have some power
themselves. This time of transition in teacher training, from student to
teacher, is a difficult time-when one can empathize with both positions, both
sets of needs, and still find it very difficult to integrate these needs into a
win-win solution. As a student told Robert Coles (1993): "I talk myself blue in
the face, but in the middle I can see them tuning out on me." (p. 42) This
situation generalizes to most community service roles in which adolescents or
young adults find themselves torn between taking the adult role in an
authoritarian manner versus putting themselves in the peer role as a "friend" to
the students with whom they are working.
this particular CSL experience, students worked in teams when they went to their
placements. Here again, we saw students in dilemmas as they attempted to
facilitate negotiation strategies among elementary school-aged children at the
CSL sites, while often having major difficulties negotiating among themselves as
they planned their lessons. Students compartmentalized by planning together the
ground rules for their sites while not operating with clear ground rules
themselves. Like any group, CSL interns need training and practice in working in
cooperative or collaborative learning groups. Most students attempted to set up
ground rules among themselves when they first began planning how to present
their CSL peace-making activities. Those groups that had difficulty tended to
take this ostensible group planning session and make it a series of individual
activities. Each group member would choose specific activities to present and
the rest of the group would agree to let her lead that activity on her own. This
solution, though it allowed for continued group cohesiveness on a minimal level,
did not move the CSL interns into the type of successful negotiation they were
simultaneously trying to facilitate among the children at their CSL sites.
However, it should also be recognized that re-entry adult women also experience
similar difficulties in moving to more collaborative modes of learning (Taylor
& Marieneau, 1995, p. 11).
The tension between
the personal and the political roles were the most difficult for the students to
recognize and address. They seemed much more difficult to deal with than the
personal-professional conflicts. We believe that this interface is the most
difficult for all of us who work within the peace movement. How do we really
"walk the talk?" For example, students were able to understand the danger of
revenge as a catalyst for much violence in our world-locally as well as
nationally and internationally. At the same time, we-as humans-are often unable
to successfully find an alternative for revenge when dealing with our own anger.
Similarly, most of the students came from rather traditional homes where
competition is seen as a necessary and advantageous aspect of our society,
though in this course students also agreed with much of what they read about the
role of competition in the politics of social injustice in our society (Kohn,
1992). In our society, the tension between the needs of the individual and the
needs of the group is one which we do not easily resolve. Usually, we seem to
have resolved this tension by denying the interface between our personal and
political selves and prioritizing the needs of the individual.
a growing body of evidence that suggests that many young women have not received
the kinds of social (Gilligan, 1982) or educational (Belenky, et al, 1986;
Gilligan, Lyons, & Hammer, 1990) support they need to feel they have either
the strength of voice or the power of agency necessary to achieve social change.
Yet, there is little doubt that they frequently have a strong sense of caring
about the well-being of others. Daloz, et al (1996) have observed the importance
of "finding work in the world" as a means of strengthening compassion for others
by understanding and valuing difference. This underscores the importance of the
kind of experience students were introduced to in our CSL course. Although
epistemological development is a slow process, and students struggled to
articulate personal reflections on their experiences, they still marshaled the
courage to go into new and different settings to teach skills that they were
just learning themselves. Therefore, even if we did not succeed in helping
students achieve dramatic developmental transitions, we did succeed in providing
sufficient support for them to have the gumption to take new risks. As Pirsig
(1974) has observed: "The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long
enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's stale opinions
about it. But it's nothing exotic. That's why I like the word." (p. 273) Our
students may not have achieved anything exotic, but they did foster gumption.
They attempted to act on a sense of caring, even if personal reflection to
achieve a sense of agency was difficult.
One of the identifying features of a good CSL experience is
its ability to offer the opportunity for reflection on and integration of the
CSL experience. Typically, this reflection is accomplished in a process seminar.
This seminar is designed to offer students the opportunity to understand and
speak about the contradictory messages among their personal, professional, and
political levels of functioning-to work to better integrate their beliefs with
their behaviors, their personal goals with the needs of the others at their
service site. However, we found that our students began feeling increasingly
stressed by this part of their weekly course. Students seemed to relax more
during the theoretical part of the course where readings were discussed and
sometimes information was presented didactically than they did during that part
of the course where they dealt with their own behavior and concerns.
Constructivists (Daloz, Keen, Keen, & Parks, 1996; Duckworth, 1996; Kegan
1982) often recognize the need for creating an "optimal mismatch" in supporting
new thinking in students. Challenging students with a situation which causes
them to question their current thinking can promote understanding of the world
in increasingly more complex ways. Yet, facilitators must avoid confronting
students with teacher-centered analyses that are far beyond their level of
experience and theoretical grasp.. This only causes students to shut down and
embed themselves in the safety of their current thinking.
"optimal mismatch", the "optimal challenge" for students is based on both their
developmental position and the number of variables we ask students to balance at
once. For example, a CSL intern who is in personal-professional tension between
the personal need to lesson one's anxiety about succeeding-leading to a tendency
to act in a punitive manner so that things don't get "out of control"-and the
professional commitment to win-win situations and group problem-solving. If we
were to raise this issue of "letting go" before the intern felt self-assured
enough to consider this option, the student might likely decide that
student-centered approaches are too high risk or "peaceable classrooms" are not
long for the real world. Instead, we offer the intern the challenge to engage
the students in determining group expectations and rules when the student feels
comfortable with the content and procedure of the activity and ready to accept
this challenge concerned with behavior management.
When we asked
students to identify the tasks they wished to accomplish during the seminar part
of the course, they came up with several purposes-only one of which was better
self-awareness, or what we would have considered reflective practice. In
addition, students felt that this open-ended time was very important in terms of
: 1) offering support (without an in depth look at the problems), 2) offering an
opportunity to problem-solve through peer suggestions (rather than working on
problem-solving strategies oneself), and 3) offering an opportunity to let off
steam, a place to express one's feelings (without generating solutions).
In an attempt to better tolerate the level of intensity created by examining
the contradictory and/or conflicting roles identified in the course, we looked
to Gardner's (1983/1993) Theory of Multiple Intelligence to help us offer
students new ways to think about their experiences without necessarily
processing the material in a typical linguistic fashion which identifies the
problem and seeks immediately to determine a solution. We tried to move away
from painful soul-searching for resolution of what we recognized as conflicts
across the three levels of functioning. Instead, we tried to help students feel
more comfortable living with these ambiguities by offering them a variety of
ways to express the tension they experienced.
As Coles (1993) has noted,
new group leaders are often caught between the personal and professional issues
of behavior management. It might be that an intern needs to learn to tolerate
sitting with a set of conflicting goals-one to ensure an orderly classroom
oneself and the other to engage the students in sharing the responsibility for
determining "order". Sometimes resolution that is forced too quickly isn't
really resolution at all, but a clever way to avoid the issue at hand.
Therefore, at times we encouraged students to abstain from problem-solving and
to focus only on an accurate description of the situation facing them. Students
made drawings or designs, engaged in role plays, worked with metaphor, or tried
movement as expression-all diverse routes to the seeing, hearing, and feeling
that are part of the gumption-filling process.
More time needed to be
spent honoring those experiences that students could clearly see as successful
and helping them identify their own strengths.. More time needed to be allowed
for students to analyze their experiences without the pressure of always
understanding more. We needed to slow down and remember that integrating one's
various roles is a life-long process, not something that needs to be completed
during one course or one CSL experience.
We looked for ways to help
maintain a balance of a sense of competence with challenge, an "optimal
mismatch" of ideas that keeps moving students forward in their thinking, while
not exhausting them. While we continued to encourage students to acknowledge the
internal conflicts they encountered, we tried to offer them the support and
safety they required to have the courage to acknowledge what they experienced
that they did not understand.
One strategy we used to help with the
challenge for self-reflection involved asking students to identify a peace-maker
of their own choosing and to study the works written by that individual. We
asked students to pick someone from their own field, someone whom they admired
and wanted to emulate. Through study of that person, students can better
understand some of the struggles that a peace-maker faces in integrating the
personal, professional, and political aspects of their character. We wanted the
students to consider the sources of their peace-makers' commitments, how their
peace-makers sustained themselves in this work, how their peace-makers coped
with the complexity of "walking the talk," not merely as a political figure or a
professional figure, but across all three levels of functioning in their lives.
Most students left this course feeling that their work had just begun.
Some really felt they needed a break from their own self-reflection. Others felt
a new sense of balance at having considered some things they had not previously
considered in terms of their own values and goals. As faculty, we, too,
recognized the need to identify the gains made as well as the need to feel at
peace with the work yet to be done. We emphasized the need to find self-esteem
in one's willingness to recognize new issues without necessarily being able to
immediately resolve conflicting ideas. We tried to help students find value in
the process of the journey, rather than the security of "having arrived." A
colleague reminded me of the importance of seeing this work as a life-long
journey in which we progress by taking small steps. There is a lovely story by
Loren Eisley that we heard only after our last class session, but which we plan
to share with future groups of students:
A young person walked along the
beach picking up starfish and throwing them back into the water. It was a warm,
lovely day which followed a violent night, and the entire beach was covered with
starfish who had been washed on shore the night before during the storm. A
couple came along and saw the young person throwing the starfish back, one at a
time. "Why are you doing that?" they asked of the young person. "You will never
be able to throw all these starfish back into the water in time. There is no way
you will be able to save all of them. What does it matter if you manage to throw
back this one or that one?"
"That is true. But," said the person as one
particular starfish was lifted up and positioned to be tossed, "it matters to
this starfish." And with that, the person threw the starfish back into the
As we reflect on what we have learned about
ourselves and our students through the CSL course, it has been difficult to
achieve an optimal balance among critical self-evaluation, high expectations for
students, and recognition of positive accomplishments. There are many ways in
which this experience illustrates the recent transposition in pedagogical jargon
that is embodied in the phrase: learning and teaching. Just as we expect
students to develop a sense of reciprocity in their placements, we need to
promote and embrace the same sense of reciprocity in our teaching. We hold onto
our aspirations for these students to strengthen their own voices through
personal reflection and experiential learning; we have not abandoned our faith
in their abilities to perceive social needs and political injustice; we still
believe that we have planted the seeds that will grow into a stronger sense of
self and foster the gumption it takes to be an agent for social change for the
Where we succeeded the most was in fostering gumption, and
we need to validate that in our practice as instructors. The students' struggles
with personal reflection seem to be part of the process nurturing the emotional
intelligence (Goleman, 1995) that will contribute to the transition to a new
sense of self (Kegan, 1982; Belenky, et al, 1986). Yet, this is a slow process,
and there is an enduring tension in balancing the demands for support and
challenge (Daloz, 1986). While we see the need to continue to push for
reflective practice, we recognize the need to embrace "how far we can help them
learn," rather than how fast we can make them learn (Duckworth, 1986). No doubt,
we need to continue to provide personal, professional, and political challenges.
At the same time we need to embrace and nurture the gumption-filling process so
that students become intrinsically compelled to work for social justice.
Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N.,;
Tarule J. (1986) Women's ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books.
(1993) The call of service: A witness to idealism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Daloz, L. P. (1986) Effective teaching and mentoring. San Francisco:
Daloz, L.P., Keen C. H., Keen, J., & Parks, S.D. (1996)
Common fire: Lives of commitment in an age of complexity. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dawson, Eric. (1996) This story was told by Eric Dawson, Director of Peace
Games International, at the Peace Action Awards Dinner, May, l996.
Duckworth, E. (1996) Second Edition. "The having of wonderful ideas" and other
essays. Teachers College Press: New York.
Eisley, Loren. (l969). The
unexpected universe. Orlando, FLA: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Howard. (1993). Second edition. Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's
development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gilligan, C., Lyons,
N.P., & Hammer, T. (1990) Making connections: The relational worlds of girls
at the Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional intelligence. New York: Basic.
(1982) The evolving self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Ulric. (1996). Personal Communication. Cambridge, MA.
Kohn, Alfie. (1992)
No Contest: The Case Against Competition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Levin, Diane. (1994) Teaching Young Children in Violent Times. Cambridge, MA:
Educators for Social Responsibility.
Pirsig, R.M. (1974) Zen and the art
of motorcycle maintenance. An inquiry into values. New York: Bantam.
Taylor, K. & Marineau, C. (Eds.) (1995) Learning environments for women's
adult development: Bridges toward change. New Directions for Adult and
Continuing Education. Number 65, Spring 1995. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
1. The course described in this essay was taught by Linda
Brion-Meisels and Barrie Wheeler, and Luke Baldwin consulted with them in
analyzing their reflections. Brion-Meisels and Baldwin are the primary authors
of this article. Return to the Journal of Pedagogy,
Pluralism & Practice Main Page
Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Fall 1998 Issue Main Page
Editorial - Luke Baldwin in Memoriam
Luke Baldwin and Linda Brion-Meisels - Fostering Gumption
Jim Cummins - Rossell and Baker: The Effectiveness of Bilingual Education
Brenda Matthis - Stories From The Other Side of the Screen
Wade A. Carpenter - The Grand Bazaar
Sarah Nieves-Squires - Cultural Identity and Bilingualism in the Puerto Rican Reality
Mary Ann Johnson - The Ebonics Debate
Angela María Pérez-Mejía - His-panics and Mine
Donna Cole - English as a Second Language
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A Professor of Education and Psychology at Lesley for over forty years, Dr. Linda Brion-Meisels is also a founder of the Peacable Schools and Communities Group. A member of the Lesley University Diversity Council and Affirmative Action Advisory Board, Dr. Brion-Meisels is actively involved in developing community partnerships and new service learning opportunities.
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