Dialogue and Resistance in the Classroom
Carl E. James, Faculty of Education
Volume 11 Number 1 (October 2001)

This article is excerpted from a longer article, Diversity in the Classroom: Engagement and Resistance, that appears in Janice Newton et al (eds) 2001. Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Toronto, Garamond Press). In order to conform to the newsletter format, a substantial portion of the original article has been omitted here. Readers are encouraged to read Professor James' article in its entirety in Voices, available at the York Bookstore.

The new population of students enters university with the expectation that the principles of access and equity will be reflected in the pedagogical approach to their education and that their cultural interests and needs will be recognized and supported. In using a critical approach to education, we attempt to meet these needs and interests while recognizing and validating the students' lived experiences and engaging them in dialogue, dialogue that is premised on the "discourse of empowerment." This approach engages students through dialogue in theorizing about social issues so as to produce transformative action. Through dialogue we provide space for students to contribute to their own learning based on their experiences and with the understanding that they regard the teaching-learning process as one in which their participation is valued. Dialogues also enable educators to learn about the students' experiences in order to build on them. A dialogical approach is moreover a way of inviting students to question, and educators to hear about students' struggles with new or contradictory information. And, it allows students, in bell hooks' words, to "come to voice" (hooks, 1988).

But getting students to articulate their positions in class is not always easy. Indeed, traditional schooling may have taught them that there are right and wrong answers, that teachers are endowed with the information, and that their role is to listen, take notes and be ready to reproduce the notes in the examination. No wonder some are reluctant to talk in class. Many students might perceive the dialogical approach as intimidating. Some might fear being challenged or appearing uninformed or unintelligent. Those who participate might be perceived as "talking too much," and consequently might be criticized. Indeed questioning what students believe or have come to accept as "truth" or "fact" is always a problem.

Students are sometimes reluctant to question things, not because they are unfamiliar with the issues being discussed, but because they accept the idea that some issues are best addressed by "experts," such as the educator/professor, or by people whom they believe understand these issues because of their lived experiences. For instance, white students or male students tend to expect racial minorities or women to address issues of racism or sexism. However, it is necessary to encourage all students to address these issues. They have experiences with these issues as well, and it is important for them to engage in critical analyses of these subjects. It is crucial that students understand that they all bring insights and interpretations, which are informed by their particular identities and experiences.

We must avoid making those perceived as "having the experience" the only voices that are heard on such issues. In not encouraging other voices, we could be reinforcing sexism, racism, heterosexism or classism, in that, as bell hooks points out, we take the burden of accountability away from those who consider themselves exempt, while placing it on those who are perceived as having experiences with the issues.

Sharing one's ideas sometimes means taking risks, and dialogue sometimes produces tension and conflict. Our culture tends to avoid what is perceived as "conflict" or "confrontation." When it arises in classes, it is expected that the course director will resolve it and provide closure. The expectation is that individuals should be made to feel comfortable again. It is, however, not always possible to restore comfort or provide closure to discussions. But we can help students learn how to live with discomfort and manage tension and conflict, and to understand their sources. Sometimes, this might mean engaging them in further discussions about the subject, having them raise questions, and leaving them to arrive at their own resolution and closure. Responsibility for seeking one's own closure is important to the learning process; learning does not begin or end in the classroom with that lesson or with that particular course director. Any discussion might be just the beginning of a long and difficult process. Students should learn that unanswered questions do not always indicate ignorance but can reflect a critical and analytical mind.


When we challenge or question traditionally held views; when new information interferes with individuals' understanding of events, it is likely that students will resist. Resistance will be a part of any classroom discourse in which, as Deborah Britzman (1995) points out, we willfully interfere with individuals' understanding, knowledge or sense of identity.

For example, my attempts to get teacher candidates to comment critically on the educational system in Ontario are often met with resistance because students do not wish to see the flaws of the system. After all, it is where they intend to work after graduation; also, it is the system through which they "made it." Criticisms sometimes even produce tears.

Resistance may be based in other types of beliefs. If students attend classes because they want to know what is on the examination, then they expect the course director to take an approach such that they have in their notes what will be on the exam. When they come in order to find out what the course director wants in the essay, or to discover the political orientation of the course director so as to submit work that will be approved, they will resist any attempts to engage in dialogue because it does not fit their understanding of the purpose of the class.

Individuals want to be liked, and to maintain favourable relations with their peers and the course director; thus, they may be reluctant to respond critically to comments by either. Students wish to receive good grades and may feel that challenging the course director will be to their detriment. Also, they may have difficulty separating criticism of an idea from criticism of an individual. An individual's idea is seen as intimately linked to the person; any criticism of the idea is seen, or received, as a personal matter-even as a putdown or rejection. Therefore, students resist engaging in critical discussions.

Sometimes resistance takes the form of silence. For instance, when I discuss employment equity and access to post-secondary education, articulate, participatory students, usually white males, will disengage from the discourse, particularly in a situation where women or racial minorities are present (more so if they are the professors) or if the general sentiment in the class is one of support for equity programs. Their silence is very noticeable. If they are asked to comment, the response might be, "Everything has been said," or "I don't have anything to say." There are times when students will put forward their ideas and remain silent afterwards. Some might even leave the room. Such actions reflect students' attempts to exercise their power and/or their unwillingness to be challenged on their positions (Delpit 1998; Tatum 1992).

One might assume that members of marginalized groups would welcome the opportunity to participate in class discussions, particularly around issues which validate their experiences. As course directors, we would hope that by providing space for dialogue, students from marginalized groups, whose experiences traditionally have not been represented in the class materials, would "come to voice" and provide their perspectives. But their participation in class is sometimes limited; they too use silence as a strategy of resistance. This might be a result of their skepticism or distrust of the institution's or course director's commitment to interrogating and changing the status quo. Or they might not wish to be made obvious in class, particularly if they are in small numbers. Students are not necessarily convinced that it is safe to provide alternative viewpoints (James 1994).

Further, marginalized group members might not wish to destroy the alliances they have made with other students or call attention to themselves. Consequently, they resist discussing issues that make them "realize or reflect on their experiences with oppression" (Ng 1994, 43), or matters that place dominant-group students on the defensive. For example, racial-minority students might resist any discussions that support employment equity or access initiatives to education by remaining silent or by arguing that the current system of meritocracy is effective in meeting the needs of all Canadians. For these students, maintaining positive relations with their peers, and the integrity of their group with regard to their academic ability might be the basis for their resistance. They are protecting themselves.


We see here a number of contradictions, conflicts and tensions that are inherent in the ways we engage students in the classroom. Evidently, there is no particular approach to teaching that will alleviate the problems we are bound to experience in the teaching-learning process. Probably Deborah Britzman (1995) said it best when she said that we 'cannot teach anyone anything. We can only create conditions where they get to know how they learn, what they wish to learn, and understand what they think they are saying when they say what they say." With this in mind, it seems appropriate that we use an approach to education that provides everyone with an opportunity to share her or his interpretation and knowledge. By so doing, we can provide space for dialogue, and help students to manage their confusions, conflicts, tensions, doubts and ambiguities, all of which are inherent in any learning process.


Britzman, Deborah P. 1995. Comments made at the seminar: "Problematizing Pedagogy." 19 Jan., York University.

Delpit, Lisa D. 1988. The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review 58 (3): 280-98.

hooks, bell. 1988.Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Toronto: Between the Lines.

James, Carl E. 1994. "Access students": Experiences of racial minorities in a Canadian university. Paper presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education, 1994 Annual Conference: The Student Experience. University of York, England.

Ng, Roxana. 1994. Sexism and racism in the university: Analysing a personal experience. Canadian Woman Studies 14: 42-46.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 1992. Talking about race, learning about racism: The application of racial identity development theory in the classroom. Harvard Educational Review 62: 1-24.