Re-Imagining Life Together (Staying with the Trouble)

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

This third blog in our series will explore how our pedagogy reflects our belief in Earth’s entangled banks as a source of wisdom. We model our course design and teaching on our belief that we are all interdependent beings living in webs of relations and education for vocation is a co-creative process. We thrive when we live and learn by re-membering these elements of our identities as individuals and societies. This post will focus on our nature as co-creative creatures and how to teach with co-creativity as a guiding principle.

Most religious traditions have creation stories and the earliest accounts overlap. In the three Abrahamic faiths, God (Elohim Allah) creates the world. However, in Hebrew, the word “Elohim” is plural. Thus, the creation myth reads: “In the beginning, Gods created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is modeling co-creation and thus, if God is creating-with, then creation is a shared work. Does this resonate in the entangled bank?

A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.

– Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

Recent scientific studies have reconsidered competition as the primary mode of interaction allowing cooperation to find its rightful place. Science now tells us that humans favor cooperation over competition, meaning that our fates are bound together and so the work of creating a better future is, too. We are not bound to genetic determinism, but we can improvise and conspire goodness for it is a co-constructive practice. 

Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene explores a shared future of reconfigured planetary relations. “Staying with the trouble” means “learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (1). Since we cannot escape our interdependence and interconnectedness, we are forced to confront our life together as kin (or “oddkin,” as Harraway says). To re-configure our relations, we must unmake, make, and remake; we must indulge in the work of imaginating, speculating, and fabulating a future for all creatures and life forms. This is not fantasy, but justice. Thus, we are drawn into sympoiesis which simply means “making-with.” This is how we have co-created this class together and how we are involving students, the garden, and community partners to co-instruct in our community engaged course.

“Staying with the trouble” means learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

Donna Harraway, staying with the trouble, 1.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) have always struggled with deconstructing the silos of knowledge on campus and building co-creative learning environments. However, with the recent proliferation of legislation aimed at CRT (critical race theory) and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill in the classroom, the essential democratic spirit of learning is under attack. Books have been banned and classroom discussion has been muzzled. This type of revisionist history-telling is not unique to the US, but the scrubbing and sanitizing of school curricula should give us pause. We are witnessing a concerted effort to undermine democracy which propagates systemic injustice. How can we teach our students to be engaged and thoughtful citizens if the classroom is being limited by outside parties invested and interested in erasing histories and identities? Table Fellowship within classrooms means not excluding nor silencing those seated at the table with us and learning is shaped, not by the private interests of powerful politicians, but by our shared web of connectedness.

In On the Mystery Catherine Keller reminds us that “Process [theology] teaches us that we do not exist outside of our relationships. We become who we are only in relation: we are network creatures.” (32). As teachers of this Food and Faith course, we have the power to co-create a more just world through the bonds forged and learning with community partners and each other. We learn as we read, work, write, and eat together. With this in mind, we asked the following two-fold question: What if course design started with the belief that community partners have access to wisdom that we, holders of advanced degrees do not? What would we gain by embracing data-informed student ownership in the teaching of course content and realization of learning outcomes?

Courses that answer the above questions are often housed under the umbrella of Civic and Community Engagement Courses (CCE) and/or Service-Learning and Community Engagement Courses (SLCE). These types of courses affirm that learning is interdependent, requiring co-instruction driven by students and sources of wisdom outside of HEIs (museums, community partners, librarians, businesses, non-profits, etc.). Engaged citizenry also is not satisfied with siloed learning; it challenges participants to make the world better (e.g., civic awareness and responsibility) and has the confidence that they can (e.g., civic efficacy). The story of the evolution of this pedagogy and its impact is well told by Robert Bringle, Timothy Stanton, Patti Clayton, and others, and it is a story worth reading (See Higher Education and Civic Engagement). The benefits of taking up this approach to course design and teaching, especially for first year students, has been documented and shows significant promise for institutions, departments, students and communities. Thus, making space for our neighbor(hood)s as co-teachers models the course content concerning table fellowship.

This is part I of a two-part blog post; please check back later this week for Part II.

Related posts: On community, see Mindy Makant’s Of Casseroles and Community and Re-thinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community (an interview with Nimisha Barton). On Wendell Berry and community, see Jeff Brown’s series on Rereading Wendell Berry on Community and Vocation.

This project is a collaboration between Catherine Wright, Shea Watts, and Harry Workman. Catherine Wright is a transplanted Canadian ecotheologian with degrees in Zoology, Education, and Christian ethics. She is the author of two books, Creation, God and Humanity: Engaging the Mystery of Suffering within the Sacred Cosmos (2017), and an interactive, practical ecotheology book (2020). Shea Watts is a Southern-born theologian whose deep dive into animal studies opened his eyes to the interconnectedness of life, which has resulted in his exploration of the intersection of animals, food production, and faith. His forthcoming book Where The Spirit Is explores the political contours of the early Pentecostal movement in the US. Rev. Dr. Harry Workman is a Wingate alum, a bowtie wearing North-Carolinian, and he is affectionately called the “Pastor of Disaster” since he serves communities devastated by crises. His dissertation explored the weaponizing of food via the green revolution, chemical revolution and industrialization of farming in the south in the 80s. He mourned the loss of Sabbath rest for the land and explored the intimate relationship between the ground, food, farmer, and feast.

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