Teaching to Transgress: Reflections on Transgressive Dialogues and Cultural Enactments in Graduate Psychology Psychoanalytic Education

By Oksana Yakushko


Psychology_compressed_1920x1280At Pacifica Graduate Institute, where we proudly maintain a privileged stance for “depth” psychologies (all psychologies that acknowledge the presence of the unconscious), the election results unusually disrupted and disturbed an otherwise common tendency for all of us to freely engage in political and cultural discourse. The emotional charge of our discussions, paired with the pervasive impact of the election results on the lives of ourselves, clients, and communities, ignited.

I left the psychology research/academic world to teach at Pacifica precisely for this freedom. I became faculty after being trained in psychology, as well as women and gender studies. In graduate school, I read bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress and was naively hopeful that I could enter the dominant psychology/academic world to teach with emotion (aghast, eros), radical questioning, and passion. I hoped to be a radical, feminist, multicultural teacher. Instead, I faced continued pressure to teach “evidence-” and “science-” based education, even if it was related to issues of gender or culture.

I enjoy space made at Pacifica for me and my students to teach and learn from within a liberating and personally-engaged paradigm, drawing primarily on contemporary psychoanalytic, Jungian, and related scholarship or frameworks. However, in this intensely fiery cauldron of emotion that was stirred by the election results, I find myself wondering how to take transgressive stances that also do not enact the very same dynamics I decry in contemporary American politics.

In bell hooks’ (1994) writings, teaching is a form of community building, resistance and healing engagement with the classroom. She encourages the presence of Eros and passion in contrast to supposedly neutral, intellectualized forms of discussions purported to be true knowledge. Yet, I wonder how often I enact with students the dynamics that we so often seek to name and repudiate in the broader culture: dynamics of dominance, projections and rational or emotional bullying/silencing.

In her article on racial enactments in psychodynamic treatment, Leary (2000) highlights that psychoanalytic, relational forms of care require a therapist’s attunement to the presence of sociocultural dynamics. Leary illustrates that these reactions can foster a field for racialized experiences including recreating racist dynamics and structures within the therapy relationship itself. Leary defines racial enactments as “designate interactive sequences embodying the actualization in the clinical situation of cultural attitudes toward race and racial difference” (Leary, p. 639). In my experience, these enactments also occur in teaching, including while “teaching to transgress.” Social TTTpicstructures defining society, even if taught, debated, and dialogued about in classroom settings, are evoked and reproduced. These structures become apparent in who speaks, how often, how the emotional (and intellectualized/interpreted) content is held and by whom, and who is silent or silenced. Additional socially defining structures include: what material is presented as “science” or “knowledge,” what group dynamics are constellated, what perceptions are carried about the teacher, and what is denied or projected in the classroom.

Leary writes not about majority counselor/minority-client dynamics (more typical in the literature) but about complex inter-subjective experiences between therapists and clients who are perceived as representing the “same” minority group. As an immigrant and a woman, as someone whose family faced both political persecutions and relative poverty, as a feminist and post-colonial teacher interested in indigenous work and pre-patriarchal histories, I feel reflected in and by students I work with. I believe that most of them feel safety and rapport in their relationship with me, specifically in regard to their diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Still, while teaching material that has the potential to emotionally activate the classroom, I catch myself wondering about the boundaries of transgression in teaching. I question how much of my own self could or should enter the transgressive classroom. Is it, indeed, appropriate to allow the emotional Eros of transgression that bell hooks evokes when it is uncontained and projective? Am I not enacting dynamics similar to other student experiences in which their own voices and needs are subsumed within group-permitted rhetoric and loud voices?

Leary writes about the therapeutic process of collaboration that can address such enactments between a therapist and a client. In her words, “Collaborative methods may be viewed as supporting the patient’s agency and as providing an opportunity for the patient’s voice to be heard. The patient is encouraged, perhaps even required, to offer his or her perspective on the analyst and the analyst’s activity. This, in turn, requires the analyst to really listen to things he or she may not wish to hear. This would include his or her complicity in racial matters and the patient’s perception of the analyst’s racial experiencing and/ or racial conflicts” (Leary, p. 651). Such collaborations, Leary notes, include an intentional invitation to bring race and racial reactions into therapeutic space, to encourage clients to give feedback to therapists, to work together toward mutual de-construction of stereotypes, to name social structures and histories of oppression and to apologize to clients when such enactments occur.

In the classroom, as hooks (1999) notes, discussions and dialogues that recreate and dislodge dynamics of power between the students and teachers can also be present. Faculty can offer space for student dialogue and feedback; they can create parameters for safe discussions of profoundly challenging personal topics; name the structures of oppression, attend to histories, and locate themselves within these acknowledged privileged and powered positions. They can also apologize. However, unlike the therapeutic space, the role of the instructor is as much a teacher as one of an evaluator (this structure is firmly constellated within U.S. academia); I assign students grades and evaluate them throughout their program! Processing of personal dynamics is often neither possible, ethical nor recommended in teaching; the container of a classroom is nowhere the same as one created in therapy. The primary goal of teaching is not healing.

Examples of my recent struggle in teaching to transgress involved discussions of topics related to understanding how individual and collective unconscious processes operate in relation to current political and social changes. In my discussion of Hollway and Jefferson’s (2013) psychoanalytic qualitative methods, I introduce the notion of studying “defended subjects” – participants who are “subjected” to research studies and whose defenses, reflecting their complex and dynamic unconscious lives, shape what answers are given to researchers in contextual qualitative interviews (i.e. qualitative listening to each other in regard to our current political reactions). While the vast majority of students self-identify as liberal in their political and social views, some students “refuse to be negative,” focusing on hope, future, and the importance of staying peaceful and grounded (e.g., citing Michelle Obama, Oprah, and many others promoting such views). Other students reacted to this point of view as denying them and others the space for their rage and despair. They felt shut down by narratives of peace and positivity and shamed for their strong “negative” states. Their very real, undeniable anger or tears are swiftly present in class, emotionally dominating the feel of the classroom. Yet other students feel disoriented and disconnected; they claim space for “just not caring” because they are overwhelmed enough by life (and their studies). Students from other positions tend to react to them with veiled messages of shame (“how can anyone remain apathetic?”) and blame (“we are in this mess because people don’t care enough!”).

And, then, there I am, the instructor, holding these multiple emotional reactions students bring, trying to draw them into a semblance of teaching points. “This process helps us recognize Hollway and Jefferson’s (2000) position regarding, “defended subjects” who can hold complex divergent reactions even if coming from supposedly homogenous backgrounds” (p. 1). However, turning such personal, raw, emotional discussions into educational points can feel fake, false and, indeed, an enactment of yet another authority reducing our complex lives to a set of arguments to manipulate.

At other times, I teach while holding my own painfully strong reactions to what is occurring in the U.S. and outside (my home country of Ukraine is newly attacked by Russia). I do not feel hopeful; I fear that when Trump builds more roads and airports, Boundaries-Lcuts taxes, expands the military, and gives people more games to play, the U.S., like Russia and so many other post-revolutionary/post-democracy countries, will remain beholden to his autocratic leadership. I, too, feel apathetic at times. At other times, I catch myself running toward the ever-seductive self-control/superego bullying by telling myself to focus on all the good things in my life and not complain. It is difficult to know whether, and how, to bring my emotional “transgressive” reactions (as hooks advises) forward during a class, aware that my position as a teacher is likely to carry far more “weight” in creating the emotional tone of the class. My inclination typically leans toward some acknowledgement of my reactions in the moment and an invitation toward creation of a collaborative space for multiple dynamics and perspectives. In my experience, students, like clients, read and react to our countertransference or enactments. Yet, at other times I have to stick to teaching, and remember that encouragement of collaboratively “sitting with” these reactions is often impractical (classroom material must be covered) and problematic (the classroom is not a therapeutic container).

My students and I are encouraged to read a growing number of scholarly and clinical reflections on the post-election psychodynamic clinical work, including struggles to acknowledge transference/countertransference enactments; yet, I often feel the lack in the literature about the process of teaching, specifically teaching within relational psychoanalytic and critical frameworks. I imagine many of us feel this lack in teaching institutions that permit and encourage political struggle in the classroom, with the balance between transgression and enactment, between the teacher and the student, between power and Eros.


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