We Must Listen and Push Back at the Same Time
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The Gradient

We Can Listen and Push Back at the Same Time

As an educator, I believe in the need to readdress the way we use and understand theory in design education. I see theory as a way to navigate both as practitioners and as human beings by applying personal perspectives to theoretical ideas. This requires us to look outside the traditional bounds of theory that are used in graphic design education. It requires us to see theory not as an “opposite” to practice but as something each of us can incorporate and take into ourselves, not mirrored from writers or educators but part of our individual experience.

I try to endorse solidarity and encourage students to explore the prospect of disagreeing, questioning, and challenging that which is presented to them. I don’t see an educational setting as something that should aim for consensus—rather, this space provides room to metaphorically rub up against each other through disagreeing and discussing.

But what follows the ideal of being allowed to disagree is the potential of opening up for dialogue ideas that seek to silence others. Recently I encountered an example of this while teaching a workshop. At the end of the week, unknown to me and the other faculty, two students put up an alt-right flag in the studio space.

To have such an object of hatred hung in our midst was for me deeply upsetting. The event set in motion a trajectory in terms of educator and faculty intervening by discussing the situation with the students responsible and those affected by the action. But what happens when those utterances are more discreet—small snippets and comments in the classroom situation? How much should we intervene? When do you stop a conversation?

In my practice as an educator, as well as a writer and curator, one of the people I’ve been influenced by is the writer and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa and her fantastic book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). In it, Anzaldúa writes about her experience growing up on the Mexico/US border and the geopolitical, structural, and gender-related borders she has battled against as a queer woman. Specifically, she writes about both external and internal image-making as acts of change. According to Anzaldúa, the images we make inside ourselves have the power to create change outside of our bodies. If we create change within, from learning or from listening to others, that force can go on to create “real” change in the world.

Especially when teaching theory I believe we often forget to think about how image-making comes from the body, and that the body is part of making both objects and ideas, as well as enacting those objects. We create from bodies and from experiences, all of which are different and individual. I try to ask myself how to include that in collaborative efforts with students and to think about theory and practice—not as binary—but as inherently intertwined.

Anzaldúa writes: “I change myself, I change the world.”

Following the ideas Anzaldúa lays forward, every voice embodies the potentiality of creating change. For me, an ideal is to move freely across different kinds of borders—disciplinary, structural, and intellectual. But when endorsing such an ideal, what happens when faced with radical and hateful opinions or image-making?

I think the answers to these questions are reliant on regional settings and will not always be the same. But I sense that our position as educators is about to get much more complex and difficult in terms of dealing with students advocating or exploring alt-right, nationalistic, and fascist movements and ideas. We might even find that we ourselves will threaten the ideals we work so hard to put in place in the studio and classroom setting.

As educators, we often act from the position of facilitating students’ own discoveries. But how do we enact this ideal when faced with concepts that so obviously violate ideas we believe in and somehow, ironically, threaten the act of speaking freely?

I believe it is of utmost importance that we need to see and engage with students who advocate alt-right or fascist opinions—also, to not lose sight of the importance of spreading and sharing knowledge, even when faced with such challenges. But when it comes to alt-right, nationalistic, and misogynistic opinions, I find it hard to listen. I find myself being unapologetically angered by it.

Therefore, my question is: When is it time to speak up and push back, and when is it time to listen?


Kristina Ketola Bore is a design critic, curator, and educator based in Oslo, Norway. She is a co-founder of the platform, The Ventriloquist Summerschool, and a subeditor of the art journal Periskop. Learn more.

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