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Sisyphus Redux: Toward Pedagogies of Resilience

posted: 5.19.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

If we teach students of traditional college age, we work with young people that, in primary school, experienced 9/11/01 and the beginning of two wars.

Children who attended public school in those years grew to maturity through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They and their families endured the brunt of the 2008 economic downturn, and continue to experience long-term unemployment and underemployment, as well as housing displacement, overburdened healthcare, mental healthcare, and criminal justice systems, food insecurity, and the storms and floods of climate change.  The wars and the recession have brought to our classrooms combat veterans and dreamers with no immigration papers, or children who were born in the US but whose parents, because they were born elsewhere and have no papers, face deportation.

In other words, we are living through the consequences of history. We also experience these events—either from our own direct involvement, or through our teaching.  It is far from easy. As Pam Whitfield so cogently describes in “Why Teaching Developmental English Breaks My Heart,” we all, on some level, have dealt, as communities and as individuals, with difficult personal, local, national, and global circumstances. We are all in search of an antidote for burnout, or at least a pain reliever.

Although I have neither antidote or pain reliever, I am working toward pedagogy of resilience. This pedagogy germinates from my own experiences of surviving school as an ADHD learner—and from years of teaching and learning in times and places that seemed to cultivate anything but survival.

But I was lucky. In my late teens, I discovered “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus.

The plot of Sisyphus seems easy enough to comprehend. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a rock up to the top of a mountain. Each time Sisyphus reaches the mountaintop, the rock falls back down to the bottom of the mountain, and his apparently pointless labor begins— again and again, for eternity. As teacher/scholars, and as students, we perhaps can identify with this eternal plight. We give our all to our work, only to watch it come crashing down, ending one phase of exertion and beginning another.

Yet—there is a catch. Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Why happy? Because in the midst of his toil, Sisyphus discovers that, in Camus’s words: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.” As our hero descends the mountain, he realizes that he has survived yet another round of the cycle—and that the cycle itself is absurd. Camus identifies this realization as a moment of consciousness, a moment of acute awareness that, if one is paying attention, can render great happiness.

I have taught “The Myth of Sisyphus” for two academic years in a row, in two very different cities, and in two very different institutional settings.  Last year, we read and wrote about Sisyphus in a small converted office building in a strip mall in the Bronx, and this year on one of the largest university campuses in the southwestern United States. I have asked students to synthesize moments of happiness that they have found in their larger struggles, and I have engaged in this writing with them through a series of blog posts, which I have listed below.

This year, as part of their final writing project, students have engaged in creating t-shirts, websites, and daily planners to document their survival of their first year in college. Through this documentation, they hope to inspire next year’s first-year students to carry on in spite of the odds pitted against them. That is, in the wake of reading Sisyphus, students address both the difficulty of their struggles and their strategies for surviving the difficulty.

As I write the last blog post of this academic year, I have just finished evaluating the students’ final projects and recording their grades.  Even as my first academic year in the southwest has ended, I am still processing the results of the students’ responses and innovations to this experiment in the pedagogy of resilience.  For the next step, I will compile the students’ digital work on a website for the entering class of 2018.

But for the moment, the desert heat is beginning to settle over the valley where I now make my home.  I think of the cool white t-shirt that one student made to fulfill final writing project requirements, with drawings of flowers and a quote from Sisyphus. The quote reads: “He is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

And so the summer begins.

To see another practical application of these ideas, see “Who Gets to Graduate?” by Paul Tough.


Blog Posts Based on “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus

Persistence  (1/23/12)

Engage—and Boldly Go Outside the Comfort Zone (4/24/12)

The First Day of Class: A Lesson in the Absurd (9/24/12)

The Sisyphus Year (5/21/13)

In Caring There is Hope: A Response to “I Don’t Like Teaching” (6/17/13)

Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus (4/22/14)

Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness (5/5/14)

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