This course was an extensive exploration into the possibilities of collaborative pedagogy. The participants, assistants, and faculty worked together both in preparing and performing the culminating performance, Mexico es una fosa común (Mexico Is a Mass Grave), and in creating this dossier as a final project. The collaborators chose not to sign their contributions in order to freely coauthor their various sections. We used Tome, a collaborative authoring platform.
Pedagogy of Stones
by Jesusa Rodríguez
Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her[…] We live in her midst and know her not. She is incessantly speaking to us, but betrays not her secret[…] Everyone sees her in his own fashion. She hides under a thousand names and phrases, and is always the same.
–Georg Christoph Tobler
The mystery of nature is our mystery—stones are the most amazing example of austerity and resistance, claiming their right to occupy a place in the universe, yet with no egoism. Our bones are minerals—stones reconnect us with nature.
Small piles of stones, or milestones, are ancient markers of paths and trails, the oldest network of communication in existence, and yet they have not always been attributed the value they truly possess.
These piles do not delimit or mark frontiers; rather, they join towns, and as such, peoples.
These piles of stones also serve as human witnesses in landscapes, on hills and mountains, denoting true solidarity and giving advanced warning to those who will walk the path next.
For years I’ve used the simple exercise of having people who have chosen to engage in group work build a pile of stones. This exercise, so simple and profound, helps heighten our awareness of the importance of collective work and very quickly establishes a series of common codes among people who barely know each other.
It also helps us evaluate, in a very short period of time, how a newly formed group of people choose to tackle what will become a common objective.
The exercise consists of asking each person to select a stone and bring it to the group. I do not specify either the size or shape; I ask for nothing more than a stone.
Once the participants have gathered in a circle, I ask them to display their stones so that everyone can see them.
The goal of this exercise is to stack one stone on top of another one by one, attempting to reach the greatest height possible—one stone on top of another, and another, and another. That is all.
We all work in silence.
Each participant must place his or her stone on the pile at the right time, always respecting the premise of reaching the greatest possible height without knocking down what has already been built.
I tell them that the fate of the world depends on us building the pile.
The amazing thing about this exercise is that it allows us all to perceive the nature of every member of the group: the selection of the stone is arbitrary and carries a wealth of information about the person who has chosen it in an intuitive manner—in a way, we’re seeing their intuition materialized.
Was it picked carefully?
Was it picked from the sidewalk right before the exercise began? Maybe it’s not even a stone, maybe just a piece of cement chosen carelessly?
Was the task taken too seriously?
Was it taken as a joke?
During the process, each participant behaves in a non-premeditated manner, and we’ll discover that, in the end, we all approach this simple exercise the same way as we approach everything in life.
All of the qualities that emerge in the stone-selection and stone-placement process provide useful insights into peoples’ personalities and the ways in which each one approaches work within the collectivity.
Some people avoid risk even to the point of skirting the objective: they will place their stone to one side.
Some people use their turn placing the stone as an opportunity to show off. Others, in contrast, approach tentatively.
During the exercise, as the stack starts taking shape, the degree of concentration in the group begins to grow. So does the respect for each other’s work. People start paying attention to their breathing, both individual and collective. Above all, they become aware of the amount of attention that each one has for the people who will follow them.
At the same time, the suspense increases in direct proportion to the challenge that gravity and balance pose within the exercise, a factor that helps avoid the dispersion of the group.
The final result of the exercise is always telling and beautiful because the pile of stones represents the collective and the work that everyone in it is capable of doing together. For that reason, it is important to reflect collectively on the result. Stones placed on the side are moved away and their owners asked to reposition them as essential elements in reaching the common goal—attaining the greatest height possible. Every stone must be essential to the goal if every participant is to be an essential part of the collective effort. No one gets to stand on the sidelines if they are to be part of the group.
The language of stones is such that all we have to do is listen to them to obtain a bit of wisdom. This is probably why our ancestors in all cultures of the world left their messages engrained in stone to transmit their ways of ordering the universe, allowing those messages to reach us and the many generations that will follow ours.
One stone on top of another—it’s that simple.
When it’s the last participant’s turn to add the smallest stone, we understand what it means to contribute a grain of sand and understand the chain of solidarity and harmony that, in the end, combines all of the elements that make up infinity.
Collaborative Pedagogies: Situated Knowledge
The collaborative pedagogies that led to and that make up this dossier come from decades of working closely with others through the Hemispheric Institute (Hemi) and, more particularly, through the close working relationship Jesusa Rodríguez and I have developed over the years.
Her stone exercise makes visible a practice that underwrites everything we do and that we followed in creating the dossier.
On the most basic level, I might delineate the process as convening a group, establishing a clear goal (pile the stones as high as we possibly can without the structure falling), finding the right place (flat ground), being explicit about the stakes (if the stone structure falls, the world falls—that is, we agree the project is important to us), and working together in silence until we accomplish our goal. At the end, we reflect collectively on what we have accomplished.
This dossier, like the stone exercise, is about learning more than teaching. There was no teaching how to pile stones. No one complained that they did not know how to balance stones. The exercise did not depend on expertise. There was anxiety, yes. It felt, at times, like a high-risk operation. But, one after the other, we piled the stones higher until we were done. If anyone had taken the easy way out and simply balanced their stone against the existing pile, Jesusa removed the stone and made that person balance it on top.
The point was straightforward: We all need to participate fully if we are to reach our goal. No one is dispensable. And so we all felt responsible to the stone structure and to the group. We were proud of it. We looked after it for days. When a cleaning person knocked it down and swept it away, we were crushed.
The exercise, in short, took a group of people and created an actively engaged “we.”
But how is the project of creating a dossier together similar to piling stones?
At Hemi, we convened a group through an open call for participants. The selection process prioritized people from diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds who wanted to work at the intersections of activism and art. Letters of support had to explicitly address the question of whether the applicant could work well in a group and under precarious conditions. We found the right place. Chiapas shares a border with Guatemala, so migrants through Central America must traverse it on their way north. Additionally, Chiapas was not home to any of us—we were all in a state of estrangement, dependent on each other and open to repositioning ourselves in relation to what we thought we knew and took for granted. We also established our goal clearly: before leaving Chiapas, we would create a digital dossier of our work together during the three-week course. What were the stakes? The migrants we met explicitly confirmed our conviction that studying the topic of forced migration from Central America through Mexico was important. And urgent. They wanted something to come out of the time we spent with them, something that might help them. Many of us felt a responsibility for them. We studied everything we could and worked closely with activists, photographers, and human rights lawyers who put their lives on the line to advocate for migrants. The stakes, we knew, were high.
We all came from different backgrounds and had different levels of expertise. How could we work together? One of the tips we took from the pedagogy of the stones was, where does our contribution fit? I asked people not to raise their hands in class but to listen for the right place to intervene. Where does your rock fit? You put it when it fits. Don’t sit there for an hour, raise your hand, and then regardless of whether it fits or not, you just say what you want to say. It’s an important way of getting us to listen to each other differently, and also to take responsibility for both a conversation and a class.
Interdisciplinarity and multi-linguality were for us not simply a theoretical concern, but the condition of everyday engagement with each other. Although English was the language of instruction, as the call for participants made clear, many other conversations took place in Spanish. One conversation with a deaf migrant took place in sign language. Monolingual participants had to rely on others, which only deepened the working relationships. Although there was a great deal of discussion, again there was no teaching, as such. We engaged actively with the theorists we read. Each person responded individually in the course blog and built on arguments others had posted. But when it came time to write up our findings in the dossier, we all agreed to do so collectively, without signing our contributions. It was a collaborative project, and we wanted to make that clear to readers.
If we had to synthesize this pedagogical practice into a few points, what would they be?
The first and most important: we are all knowledge creators and bearers. We all learn through interaction with others. As the Aymara expression has it, jaqxam sar—“to be, I have to walk and talk with others.” Therefore, we depend on each other to be, to learn, to know. This implies some level of trust to enable the openness to engage and share ideas.
Learning is a process.
Knowledge is not something we have, but something we do, always in conversation with others, whether those others are the practitioners and theorists who came before us, or the people in the room with us.
Knowledge practice depends on the politics of the question (as our colleague Ricardo Dominguez has long claimed). One of the questions that organized all of our work had to do with the invisibilization of the process of forced migration. If 800,000-1,000,000 migrants cross the Mexico-Guatemala border every year to escape excruciating poverty and violence in their home countries, where do they go? At most, 20% reach the US, although only a fraction of those remain permanently. So what happens to them? How many of them are killed? Or jailed? Or forced into sexual slavery? Or sold for body parts? Or deported? Why don’t we hear about it in the United States? Even the hotels we stayed in during our visit to the shelters and to human rights centers made it easy to overlook the conditions of violence and exploitation that surrounded us. It’s so easy not to see. How do we make this situation visible to others in ways that might resonate with them, even spur them to action?
Knowledge practice also depends on the politics of location. From where do we ask the question? Under what conditions do we ask it? It proved very different to ask the question about the ways migrants are rendered invisible in conversation with migrants themselves. Instead of a subject à object relationship, ours was subject à subject. The migrants, too, were producers and bearers of knowledge; they understood their predicament, they evaluated their best chances, and they knew what, politically, they would like to see changed to improve their lives.
We witnessed firsthand the ways in which the official discourse in Mexico assures migrants that they are welcome and that they have rights while, at the same time, the ubiquitous checkpoints and legal double-speak put them in heightened situations of risk. We came to think of this as “situated knowledge.” We came to understand the situation differently by virtue of being there, spending time with the many people involved in the migration crisis, and allowing ourselves to understand that we, too, could and should intervene in whatever ways possible.
Yet, we never lost sight of the painful economic disparities between the migrants and us. Although some of them were the same age as our participants, and they were able to dance and talk together, we were able to get back on the air-conditioned bus, and they would have to continue their dangerous journey on foot. This realization of privilege-related inequalities was integral to our self-reflexive process. Brutal, seemingly unbreachable inequalities continue in spite of everyone’s best intentions. It made many of us more determined to continue our work. Some participants have kept in touch with migrants they met and continue to advocate for their well-being.
This dossier reflects these conversations and, at the same time, provides the scholarly materials and data needed to back them up. Situated knowledge, then, does not mean that we follow our “gut” or emotional instincts, but that we put ourselves in a place where we can gain greater insight and experience. The place itself challenges us to make sense of what we see and hear and of what lies just below the surface. We can create a research project that asks different and better-informed questions. Knowledge production as a relational practice means that we need to see and hear in order to be able to know (we need to be there), but we also need to know in order to see and hear more deeply.
My role, as an educator, was not to “teach” the participants what the problems were, but to create the conditions in which they could analyze and understand for themselves the complex economic, political, and social pressures that make it impossible for humans to remain “home” and the heart-wrenching choices they make to protect themselves and their families.
On another, more basic level, location posed a challenge when it came to creating our dossier. While Chiapas enabled us to mobilize knowledge production in more affective and politically engaged ways, it made it very difficult to upload the work of 30 participants to the online platform, Tome. The internet constantly went down. We would negotiate: “okay, everyone shut down internet access for now, and only two people will upload now, then two later, and so forth.” Like building the pile of stones, we needed to wait for our turn, knowing that the success of the project depended on it. Even the Internet performed the decolonizing lessons we learned from the Zapatistas: no, we don’t always have access to everything. Sometimes we have to wait. Patience, combined with stubbornness.
Part of our commitment to sharing the work we were able to do in our short time in Chiapas means making sure that migrants in the shelters and advocates in the human rights centers have access to it. While we will share this dossier with them, our second edition will be bilingual. Participants have already volunteered to translate.
Collaborative pedagogies do not always work. We sometimes fail to reach our desired goals. Sometimes it’s hard to assess why. Sometimes the material conditions are lacking. In past offerings of similar, immersive courses, for example, participants accomplished some very fine work, but we did not have a digital platform that we could work on in Chiapas. The transfer to the digital had to happen later, back in New York. By then, the group had dispersed, and people’s attention had moved to other projects. Being able to complete the English-language version of the dossier in Chiapas, then, was vital. We all saw what we had accomplished.
But sometimes the collaborative pedagogies fail because of the makeup of the group. Some people are less open than others, less trusting or not given to sharing. It’s not surprising—our education system values the individual “genius” who creates “original” work, as if there were such a thing. However, if there are enough collaborative people in a group, they can often raise the level of the interaction. Sometimes one or two individuals are disruptive—they may walk out or kick over the stones. But again, a strong group will self-regulate. Sometimes, the balance is wrong, and the group will not reach the heights that Jesusa or I feel that they can reach.
So sometimes I have felt that collaborative work has failed, but there is also a lesson in that, one that we can explore together. Collaborate work demands self-reflectivity. Sometimes, after getting to know the group, I feel that I have to lower the bar. But not often. And not this time. I am very proud of what we accomplished together.