Echoes from the streets in our classroom: A collaborative autoethnography in a Business School in Brazil
Since 2013, Brazil has been suffering from a political crisis characterized by intolerance between people with different ideological positions. In this paper, drawing on a collaborative auto-ethnography, we propose (1) a discussion about the effects of political rivalry and the severe government attacks on the education system, and the consequences for the classrooms in business schools, and (2) sharing our experience as scholars and professors who support critical positioning as a basis for teaching in a top-tier university in Brazil. We describe how polarization, and a politically sensitive scenario influenced the routine of classes and interactions with undergraduate students. We argue that empathy is fundamental for circumventing possible incidences of intolerance or political divergence in the classroom. At the same time, it is required that professors maintain their authenticity and not give up their political and ethical values, which are fundamental to how critical thinking is promoted in business management classes.
It was August 2017 when during a break from class I heard the following quote from a business student in the hall of the university department, where I teach psychology: ‘Here comes the left-wing professor talking about those boring topics again’. At that moment, I began wondering, whether all the spread of hatred, coming from the Brazilian political situation, was impacting me and my faculty colleagues. I also started to think about it, while I was teaching organizational psychology in a business administration course. Was I, in some way, affected by the hatred being spread because of the political chaos we were facing in Brazil? After all, I identified with the left-wing in the political spectrum, and, with the students, I dealt openly with themes that revealed my ideological positioning. If I stood by that behavior, could I compromise the excellent relationship, I could otherwise have established with them? If I stepped back or stopped doing this, would I be failing to develop an open dialogue on sensitive subject matters; or worse still: Would I be reducing my students’ opportunity to learn?
Over the last two decades, Brazil has had a period of increasing openness to dialogue on ideological approaches in business schools (Barros et al., 2011). However, a set of social, political, and economic factors has contributed to an extremist configuration of Brazilian political polarization that is permeated by narratives of hate. I could feel that the tension one would usually attribute to football fans, in heated, important matches had infiltrated politics, and somehow this could affect the way I taught my classes. The board of directors at the university had not expressed any rule or direct order regarding the matter. However, since I consider the processes of learning and teaching a two-way street, it was necessary for me to look into how to deal with this new scenario, should this political polarization manifest itself in the behavior of the students.
Wide public demonstrations against the political party system and parliamentary democracy were held between 2012 and 2013 in several countries. In Brazil, an important protest took place in June 2013, during the government of Dilma Rousseff (Fernandes et al., 2020). It became commonplace to hear phrases like ‘No more Marxist indoctrination, enough of Paulo Freire!’ in protest marches (Haddad, 2019). A wave of intolerance washed over the country, especially after 2013. Groups took over the streets and felt legitimized to argue for anti-democratic, sexist, homophobic, and racist proposals.
This hateful scenario was reinforced in 2018 with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president (Pinheiro-Machado and Scalco, 2020). Since his election campaign, Bolsonaro has hatefully attacked what appeared to challenge the ‘traditional values of the Brazilian family’. In both basic education and university education, attacks also became frequent, as these were places that he and his voters perceived as fields for the dissemination of ‘gender ideology’ and a ‘cultural Marxism’ agenda. The university was often described as a ‘shambles’ (Barbosa, 2021).
Image 1: Protest in favor of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in the capital of Brazil, Brasilia. The yellow stripe reads no more Marxist indoctrination. Enough of Paulo Freire – Photo from Streit (2015).
The phrase ‘Enough Paulo Freire’, which appeared on a banner during the demonstration against the Dilma Rousseff government in Brasília in March 2015, caused controversy on social media and even provoked a response from the UN, defending the Brazilian educator. The history teacher responsible for it said:
It is a friendly face for a cruel project – work aligned with Marxism and tyrannical regimes, like Fidel Castro’s. People ask for more education, but the MEC (Education Ministry) follows the PT (Workers´ Party) ideology. Criticize little Paulo? Oh, not that! Paulo Freire is a sacrosanct figure! I’m fed up! Pedagogy of the Oppressed = poor things and Marxist indoctrination; I wouldn’t recommend it for my dog. (Streit, 2015)
In this context, initiatives have emerged, such as the Escola Sem Partido (School without a Party) movement, whose main motto is ‘education without indoctrination’, and whose supporters include the Bolsonaro family. In general, the texts of these projects invoked neutrality in the face of what was deemed ideological, political, and partisan indoctrination. One of the most controversial points of these projects lies in the idea that in schools, educators should not discuss themes and contents that may go against the moral convictions of ‘traditional families’. The ‘School Without a Party’ movement created false alarmism and promoted an atmosphere of fear and criminalization of left-wing educational practices.
Beyond moral attacks, the professors’ fears were based on concrete, political actions. Educational policies have been suffering from increasing budget cuts, and Bolsonaro usually calls humanities students ‘useful idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ (Barbosa, 2021). During the electoral campaign, in a lecture for entrepreneurs, Bolsonaro said:
Brazilian Education is sinking. We must debate gender ideology and the 'School Without a Party'. We should ram inside the MEC (Ministry of Education) with a flamethrower to get Paulo Freire out of there. (Haddad, 2019: 1)
He also added:
They say you have to have a critical sense [in education]. Go to Japan; see if they are concerned about critical thinking. (Haddad, 2019: 2)
As a humanities professor, many feelings overwhelmed me during this period, but I must highlight the main two: fear and sadness. I felt this process could undermine our freedom in the classroom. A space where I, in principle, should debate and build knowledge and engage in critical thinking together with students, became a space of control and constraints. In this respect, I wondered: What was my stance, and what were the stances of my colleagues and students regarding this situation? What is our role in this process?
To answer these questions, I organized a discussion with a group of colleagues and students, where we could share conflicts and emotions related to the experience of being in a business school during a period of polarization in politics. The discussion with my colleagues was about the challenging experience of facing internal truths regarding education and the place of critical thinking in a business school, given the polarization in politics that arose with an elected far-right president. With students, conversations were about their feelings and thoughts about their experiences in humanities classes.
This article is structured in three parts. First, the methodology is described. In contrast to the above introduction which explained my initial motivations in the first person, the methodology section starts portraying a collective experience, mine along with the two co-authors’. To denote this change, we begin to use ‘we’ in the text. After the methodology, we present four discussion sections: (1) what it means to be a critical management teacher at a business school; (2) the Brazilian political situation; (3) political intolerance and fear in the classroom; and then, (4) authenticity and empathy in teaching. Conclusively, the final considerations are addressed.
Methodology: The journey of a collaborative auto-ethnography
This article began as an autoethnography. My goal was to share my emotions and thoughts as a psychology professor, assigned to teach business students about other aspects than those constrained by a mainstream business-oriented mindset. When acting as a professor, I understand that I do not teach only theories of psychology applied to administration, but I also problematize them within a sociopolitical context, which raises ethical questions. Therefore, I take a critical position in the Business School, which deserves reflection, especially in a scenario of political polarization.
After some time working alone with my thoughts and emotions, I decided to team up with some colleagues to carry out a collaborative autoethnography. Although I was already sharing my emotions about my experience of being a critical management teacher in a business school with colleagues and students, I was writing the article on my own. As it was a topic that was stirring my emotions heavily, I thought it would be more fruitful to take this journey with others. The combination of multiple voices analyzing social phenomena creates possibilities that autoethnographers cannot attain in isolation (Chang et al., 2016), thus encouraging us to go beyond individual storytelling and reflection (Nordbäck et al., 2021).
We, the three authors of this paper, are master’s and PhD students at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), who research business administration, organizational studies, and public policies. All of us have some degree of connection with FGV, whether as a professor, master’s student, doctoral student, or researcher, at times performing two or three of these roles at once. We met during classes that covered critical studies in management, contemporary thinking and capitalism, and other spaces for study and research. In the following three paragraphs, we present our backgrounds and interests as scholars.
I am Ana Carolina, I have a degree in psychology, but I focused my academic career on Business Administration. I finished my master’s, and I am doing my PhD at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in the Organizational Studies department. I have a career that spans over fifteen years within multinational and national companies in Human Resources. I also work as a clinical psychologist.
I am Marcela, a historian, who also has a master’s in Public Policy from the university, where Ana is a professor. As the youngest author (25 years old), I have experienced many of the situations mentioned by Ana, and my generation is closer to the one currently attending the business school. My experience at FGV as an undergraduate and master’s student (2014-2021) was marked by political agitation, and during this time, I engaged in various debates concerning social rights and the feminist movement. I attended FGV with a full scholarship. Therefore, I was able to contribute to this article by bringing in the contemporary Brazilian political context and its influence in higher education spaces, especially in FGV.
I am Carlos, an economist and PhD student in Organizational Studies at FGV. I have been researching Brazilian business schools since 2014, and I am interested in qualitative research with an ethnographic approach. My contribution to the paper was to construct the arguments and methodological process of collaborative autoethnography. I also encouraged Ana to share more of her experience, questioning her thoughts and emotions related to the situations she described.
After Ana’s invitation, we started thinking about how to gather interpretations of the profound political changes in the country, and how her experience could impact critical management teaching in one of the most traditional business schools in the country. As our discussions were related to our experiences, emotions, and identities (Haynes, 2018), autoethnography was considered an appropriate approach, as it contemplates the study of a group through the personal experiences of the author (Tienari, 2019). The most significant advantage of this methodology is the ability to ‘illuminate social phenomena and experiences that would be difficult to capture through other qualitative or quantitative methods’ (McDonald, 2013: 397). It has also been a fruitful methodological approach for the study of relationships and interactions between subjects, identities, and experiences in business schools.
After meetings, presentations of ideas, and discussions of our arguments and data, we chose to use vignettes to bring together principal elements of our interactions. In autoethnographies, vignettes are used ‘as a means of enhancing the representational richness and reflexivity of qualitative research’ (Humphreys, 2005: 840). As the three of us went through different types of interactions, the use of vignettes made it easy for us to create narratives about ‘expressed opinions, or particular terms used in the participants’ comments’ (Hazel, 1995: 2).
For the elaboration of the article, we followed the three stages established by Chang et al. (2016) for collaborative autoethnography.
a) Preliminary data collection: The authors wrote and reflected on their own experiences as a professor, researcher, or student in the face of political polarization in the country, and later we shared the reports between us. We focused on the points and situations that bothered us, generated indignation, and even embarrassment for not knowing how to deal with them.
b) Subsequent data collection: Later, we wrote and reflected individually on the interactions between us and other professors and students in the business school. When we shared our experiences, we started to make sense of the relation between us, and the politically historical moment for the country. We pinned the most convergent and divergent points about our interpretations and shared our reports and writing.
c) Data analysis and interpretation: We gathered our personal accounts and decided which aspects could be theorized and chose the points that stood out the most. We discussed which excerpts would be relevant for writing the article in detail and decided on its structure.
What does it mean to be a critical management professor at a Business School?
Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) is well known, not only for its distinguished professors and business courses, FGV is also one of the few business schools that has a pedagogical interest in critical thinking as part of its curriculum. The institution is divided into eight different research departments, and three of those directly promote critical discussions – Organizational Studies, Social and Juridical Fundamentals and Public Policies. The professors associated with these departments are mainly sociologists, psychologists, historians, and political scientists that study social and historical problems in Brazil, in dialogue with disciplines such as Marxism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, and Brazilian social theory. Those are the professors we became closer with during our time at FGV.
The model of business education at FGV was historically constructed under North American influence (Lima et al., 2020) and adapted itself with contributions from Brazilian social theory, thereby, becoming a hybrid college situated in the Global South (Alcadipani and Bertero, 2012, 2014). This aspect can be seen in the main curricula of both undergraduate business and public policies courses, which have classes on Brazilian history, sociology, and many other elective courses that offer theoretical tools to develop critical thinking in managerial studies.
Unlike traditional models of managerial education, where administration is described as a moral and politically neutral technical activity (Dyllick, 2015; Millar and Price, 2018), in FGV there are research groups that engage in critical approaches and invite students to reflect and denaturalize knowledge. We have research, teaching, and an organizational practice agenda based on Critical Management Studies (CMS) and Critical Management Education (CME) that understands management as a political, cultural, and ideological phenomenon. This approach understands managers not only as professional managers, but as people, and is attentive to social groups, whose lives are affected by management activities and ideologies (Alvesson and Willmott, 2003). This process is achieved with professors questioning students and raising their awareness about the world around us. This questioning occurs through dialogue between educator and student, which, according to Freire (2018), is a basic condition for knowledge.
Dialogue presupposes a relationship between two or more people debating a given topic, where each of them may or may not have the same perspective on the subject being discussed. Given the context being described in this work, where political tension and the climate of intolerance are present in the everyday lives of Brazilians, how is the dialogue between professors and students then conducted?
The Brazilian political context
Vignette 1 – In 2014, my first contact with the student body as a freshman at FGV was at an informal event where veterans sang their 'anthem'. I was not the only girl, scholarship holder, and leftist that got scared because of the lyrics: 'we will not let motherfu** communists get in here'. I found myself in a polarized space, where I was not included. Mostly white guys called the 'leftist' group 'feminazis' and people that 'victimized themselves'. I found my 'troupe' and soon enough we closed ourselves in a bubble. After 2016 and all the political agitation, this was a mechanism we found to avoid confrontation. Between 2014 and 2018, Facebook groups became a 'battlefield' between students’ political views. I have seen many colleagues attending protests in favor of a 'military dictatorship' and supporting Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign. During 2018, I was scared of speaking up during classes, parties, and social events. The tension was growing, and the groups separated themselves into 'clustered' ideology spheres. I felt like I didn’t belong, and I didn’t even have the strength to dialogue anymore. From my perspective, the leftists felt isolated and were always 'targeted' by other students’ attitudes and comments.
Marcela’s story illustrates the political conflicts and what she felt as a young student at FGV during the ongoing polarization of Brazil. To continue this narrative, we must keep in mind the political and historical context of Brazil, especially the so-called recent History. Like other Latin American countries, in the 1980s, Brazil was seeing many significant political disputes over the re-democratization process. Various social movements, especially student movements, occupied the streets in protests for the construction of a liberal democracy, built upon the expansion of political, social, and civil rights, which were all restricted by the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Thus, in the political and social arena, what was at stake was the dispute over which state would be built after the authoritarian period, and one of the main concerns was the reduction of the historical inequalities which had structured Brazilian society (Arretche, 2018).
The first democratic governments faced the challenge of promoting social cohesion amid the biggest inflationary crisis to hit the country in 20 years, and the ‘ghost of authoritarianism’ (Casarões, 2015). Henrique Cardoso’s macroeconomic policy axis inaugurated the first phase of neoliberalism in the Brazilian State, which was characterized by economic stabilization and slow progress in reducing poverty and inequality (Sallum Jr., 1999; Amann and Baer, 2002).
In 2003, Lula (Workers’ Party – PT), a trade unionist and representative of the left spectrum, was elected with 61.27% of the votes against the candidate that represented the political status quo. Lula’s election raised concerns on Wall Street about whether he could commit to carry out the reforms initiated by Cardoso’s government (Kingstone and Ponce, 2010). However, some predictions were proved wrong, as Lula’s government promoted a macroeconomic policy, oriented towards the global capitalist market (Kingstone and Ponce, 2010), and which, therefore, promoted an inclusive paradigm of Brazilian neoliberalism (Saad-Filho, 2020). Under Lula’s government, the higher education system was expanded, and scholarships were provided to include the working class in private schools.
In 2011, Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party – PT) was elected as the first female Brazilian president, and, according to Saad-Filho (2020), she started to promote a government policy called developmental neoliberalism. The political tensions in this context caused mass protests in June 2013, led, above all, by university students and individuals outside of organized social movements. The absence of defined agendas and the general discontent with Rousseff’s government set the tone of these demonstrations. For a generation born between 1980-1990, who entered higher education in the 2010s (like Marcela), this was the most significant political manifestation in the streets, and it represented the ‘limited power of left neoliberalism’ (Saad-Filho, 2020).
In June 2013, what took young people to the streets seemed to be the recognition of the failure of the alliance between the social inclusion paradigm and a market-oriented policy, in other words, progressive neoliberalism (Fraser, 2017). Months later, the streets continued to be agitated, and in November 2013, a tense electoral race put the Workers’ Party governance in check. Rousseff’s impeachment was accompanied by social and political tension in the streets, institutional spaces, social media, and traditional news. Michel Temer took over the Federal Government and endorsed a series of acts that were market-driven, such as fiscal austerity and massive budget cuts, especially in higher education (Mancebo, 2018).
In 2018, the election of Jair Bolsonaro symbolized a victory of authoritarian discourse and right-wing ideology (Singer et al., 2020; Porto et al., 2020; Pinheiro-Machado and Scalco, 2020). In the cultural sphere, the ‘family and traditional values’ rhetoric was used as a tool to endorse a model of ‘minimum state’ (Andrade, 2019). Universities were attacked as spaces of ‘bedlam’ and serious budget cuts were made concerning federal investments in college education, leading to an educational crisis in the symbolic, political, economic, and democratic spheres (Haddad, 2019; Saldaña, 2019).
How is this reactionary neoliberalism expressed in the classroom? Even before Bolsonaro, scholars had pointed out that the coexistence of pleasure (linked to a purpose and professional pride) and suffering (linked to the precariousness of working conditions and the frustration of teaching) delimits the daily life of professors in contemporary times (Coutinho et al., 2011). At non-public colleges, this seems even more symptomatic, since the students play a role as ‘consumers’ of an ‘active good’, namely, their education (Almudras, 2021). The tendency of educational privatization promotes draining out the public sphere, and, under Bolsonaro’s government, the political context is reinforced with the defiant attitudes of students towards critical debates. In this sense, Brazilian professors are facing a dispute in their classes concerning their educational project and political beliefs – distinguished mainly by a culture of hatred, perpetrated against educators, which is directly supported by Bolsonaro (Bemvindo, 2018).
The context of the Brazilian crisis is complex and even obscures how the political rhetoric produces feelings and mindsets in post-June 2013 youth (Fernandes, 2019). Let us not forget Gramsci’s warning about the great variety of morbid feelings produced in the interregnum between hegemonic blocks, as the old is dying and the new cannot be born (Fraser, 2017). Fear, sadness, extreme political anxiety, intolerance, and hatred are some of the feelings perpetuated by the contemporary conservative neoliberal crisis in Brazil, which has created a set of young, polarized minds and hearts (Safatle et al., 2020; Andrade, 2019; Pinheiro-Machado and Scalco, 2020).
Political intolerance and fear in the classroom
Fundação Getulio Vargas is a top-ranked, South American business school. AACSB and EFMD/Equis-Accredited, FGV is composed of elite students, some of them scholarship students. At this point it is important to understand the socio-economic profile of students that attend FGV. Brazil is a country of deep inequalities, and the average income of a Brazilian household per. month is U$ 202,00. The business major program in FGV has many students, whose families receive the equivalent of more than 50 minimum wages per month (29% of the student body). Furthermore, 46% of them live with more than 12 minimum wages. This can explain why 61% do not have any kind of scholarship and bear the costs of U$1.000,00 per month of college tuition. Race and class social markers intersect within this scenario, since 83% of the student body is white (Gazeta Vargas, 2021). In terms of gender, nowadays, women comprise the majority of business majors at FGV (59%), a historical record in a school that is more than 70 years-old and that was predominantly occupied by men until the beginning of the 21st century.
Therefore, we were dealing with a small elite (maybe the 0.1% of the richest families in the country) that could become future leaders of large companies and start-ups. Should we, professors of the humanities department, not have a fundamental role in the way leadership conducts business in the future? However, in the face of hatred and political polarization, would openly discussing with students, by making them question and be aware of thorny management issues, be undermined, since critical thinking has always been closely related to left-wing positions?
These questions arose for us when, in April 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro published a video of a student confronting a grammar professor on his social networks, claiming that the professor had spent 25 minutes of class time discussing politics. ‘A professor has to teach, not indoctrinate’, wrote the president as he shared the one-minute, 54-second-long video. While holding the camera, the author of the video said:
I’m not paying for a course to hear your partisan, political opinion. I’m paying for a course with a grammar class. I’m going to record and show all of your classes on the Internet, okay?
When we heard about this case, it crossed our minds whether it could happen at some point at FGV. Faced with this fear, would we end up making any changes to our conduct in the classroom? In Ana's case, she realized that the preparation of classes and the way she was conducting the dialogue was not being done openly. At that time, she was conducting a survey with some start-up founders, basing her methodological procedure on some suggestions that Alvesson and Willmott (2003) had proposed for the emancipatory goals of critical research to be successful. Ana realized that the authors’ suggestions were, in some way, influencing her way of structuring and conducting the classes. She was avoiding the use of specific words (such as capitalism, male domination, manipulation, and repression) to not load the classes with terms that could be seen as very negative and that could be considered in opposition to the system (Alvesson and Willmott, 2003). She started to question herself: Would I be exaggerating, filtering some lines in a way that could end up reducing the pleasure I get from teaching, and harming my dialogue with the students? Since the real dialogue does not start from a supposed ‘neutrality’ (Freire, 2017), to what extent am I letting the authors’ suggestions undermine my freedom in the classroom? And regarding my department colleagues – are they also feeling concerned about the content they are using to teach?
Ana shared her impressions and feelings with her colleagues to try to answer these questions. She asked how they felt and were going through the experience of teaching in political polarization. It was evident in conversations with Ana’s colleagues that there were different experiences in the classroom; each professor sought another way of dealing with the delicate political context that we Brazilians were going through. Teaching practice was significantly impacted by this historic moment. As previously mentioned, political tension has been present in the daily lives of Brazilians as citizens since 2013. From 2013 to 2018, intolerance became the watchword. Much hatred was involved, mainly directed at people with left-wing political positions, and therefore making professors, who had declared their critical positions, more vulnerable.
From 2019 to the present day, intolerance has been giving way to somewhat less excessive sentiments. Not that hatred has disappeared from the political scene, but in the face of the economic, political, and social disasters brought about by Bolsonaro’s government, hatred towards the left is less pronounced. Many regret having supported this government, admitting that voting for Bolsonaro only to oppose the Workers’ Party candidate had not been a wise choice. Thus, the questioning of Ana’s colleagues, about how the current political situation in Brazil was impacting their critical management teaching in the Business Administration course, generated different answers based on the timeline of the recent Brazilian political crisis. Long-tenured professors were impacted by a trajectory of greater political tension inside and outside the classroom, while new hires had not taught at this business school during the height of political intolerance.
Additionally, Ana spoke with four students. Her intention was, initially, to understand how they had experienced her classes. How did they comprehend and feel the critical remarks she provided in class? From their responses, she also wanted to reflect personally on what they had said regarding their experiences in her class.
From the accounts of both professors and students, and her personal reflections with Marcela and Carlos, Ana realized that two themes were becoming significant throughout the study: authenticity (remaining faithful to political convictions and a certain ethical position in teaching) and empathy (embracing the different perspectives that students bring into the classroom).
Authenticity and empathy in teaching
Vignette 2 – 'During this moment of political tension, have you changed the way of promoting critical thinking through your classes?' I started conversations with other professors with that question. One of them told me: 'At first, I was thinking about self-preservation and questioned myself whether to say something. But I quickly gave up this stance. Firstly, because I wouldn’t have been able to do my job, it wouldn’t have worked. Secondly, because I’d go mad, paranoid, I’d just be distorting what I do, right?' Another colleague commented about the importance of maintaining a reflexive core within the courses, regardless of how difficult that may be 'because setting aside critical thinking is not just a threat to our professions, our jobs, but also to the pleasure we get from it'. 'I believe we, as professors, can never exempt ourselves. We will be the ones to challenge the hegemonic narratives they [the students] will face', adds another professor that also participated in the conversation with Ana.
The conversation with the first professor reveals that, at first, there was a reflection on how far to take his critical position in the classroom. Facing intolerance within a political context, fear can arise as an emotion that limits teaching performance. Can I say what I think? The account shows that, despite these fears and the reflection on how to act in the classroom, the decision, said the professor himself, is to give up these ‘preservation’ mechanisms, so that he can continue with his class in his own way, that is, in an authentic way. The second professor brings an important element to the debate: satisfaction, the pleasure that might be lost if we stop doing our duty.
The threatening feeling that some professors felt was related to the concrete threat of losing their jobs and to the more subjective threat of losing one’s purpose and pleasure at work, because improving the ability of students to reflect and make judgements is an essential element of their work. Being overly concerned about what others think should not be the most important thing. What is most important is the implementation of a class plan that is aligned with ethical standards and has the content developed by the department.
The conversations with professors reveal a desire to preserve their professional goals, to maintain the motivation to bring to the classroom what they believe is crucial for learning. As a result, there is a concern with maintaining an authentic position in regard to the students and the course being offered.
The concept of authenticity is present in several central topics in management studies. Apparently, there is a consensus about its meaning – authenticity refers to what is real, genuine, or true. However, many studies use the same lexicon to approach the concept from different perspectives and apply it in different contexts (Lehman et al., 2019). Although authenticity has received attention from scholars in the organization field, its use can be questioned. Within Critical Management Studies (CMS) in particular, this kind of discourse has been considered ‘as forms of neo-normative control – a sophisticated way for modern capitalism to tap into the very existence of the employee’ (Mogensen, 2018: 221), and as an incentive for growth in productivity (Fleming, 2009; Cederström, 2011; Pedersen, 2011).
However, we consider authenticity to be a genuine means for individuals to resist in situations of social coercion (Durkheim, 1915; Foucault, 2001). Thus, authenticity is not seen as an individual answer to organizational strategies (Pedersen, 2011), but as a way for professors seeking to be as honest and sincere as they can with their beliefs, values, and prejudices (Chickering et al., 2015), thus preserving some of the pursuit for truth, transparency, and genuineness (Plust et al., 2021).
In recent years, authenticity in teaching has been an increasing research interest (Plust et al., 2021). Although not uniformly defined, authenticity usually points to ways of understanding teaching as being intuitive, involving self-reflection and the educator as a sincere, caring person. Plust et al. (2021) present studies regarding authenticity in professors systematically. The results show that authentic professors are congruent, caring, open to encounters, and becoming critically conscious. Congruent teachers recognize their value judgments (Rabin, 2013) and act accordingly, so self-knowledge is an essential factor in this process. However, congruent teachers did not have immutable self-knowledge but rather a continual readjustment of their self-concept in the light of new experiences (Plust et al., 2021). Caring is about valuing students’ flourishing and presenting the topics to students in a way that reflects their passions and interests, offering them what is meaningful to their lives (Plus et al., 2021). For this, the teacher must know the student (Rabin, 2013):
Vignette 3 – 'When you’re in front of a class and block communication with the students, your semester is bad. We know that. So, the daily task is to dribble the defense. It’s a very delicate game. It’s like you have to read who’s listening to you', comments a colleague on the challenge of establishing a connection with the students. Another professor, when I asked him how he reached out to students during these times of political polarization, said: 'I started questioning: what led most of these young people to this kind of ultraliberal discourse? It’s the value of liberty. Well, what do I now? Now my course begins with questioning liberty from another standpoint, from a non-neoliberal standpoint, seeking to dismantle what is deemed natural on the matter'. Another professor also follows the same reasoning, seeking to identify a theme that might sensitize the students more: 'When I deal with subjects related to health and productivity, the students pay more attention'.
A fundamental aspect that demonstrates authenticity is the professors’ openness to encounters, which relates to their capacity to promote meaningful dialogues with other professors and students (Plust et al., 2021). During these encounters, professors can reveal relevant parts of themselves (De Bruyckere and Kirschner, 2016; Kreber, 2010; Rabin, 2013; Ramezanzadeh et al., 2016) and create non-judgmental spaces for reflection (Carusetta and Cranton, 2005a, 2005b), where students can debate freely, presenting their ideas and experiences (Plust et al., 2021).
Another characteristic of an authentic professor is becoming critically conscious, which means being self-conscious and reflective when examining teaching methods, being open to negotiating the subjects of classes, and being aware of one’s own passions (Plust et al., 2021). Becoming critically conscious also means contesting the status quo, challenging oneself (Kreber, 2010; Ramezanzadeh et al., 2016), and continuing to disagree with conformity (Ramezanzadeh et al., 2017). When asked if he perceived himself as critically conscious, and how he stimulated the critical awareness of his students, one teacher said:
I see myself as critical through the method itself, by trying to ask more questions instead of giving more answers. I try to do this consistently with the students, I try to make them bring out their worldview, their experiences, their activities, what they watch, what they read and so on. I try to suggest relatively open activities that make them question the world and their place in it.
These professors’ statements reinforce how important it is to be authentic, genuine, and attentive in relation to students, and also how important it is to understand who the student is. What are their characteristics? What subjects can make them more sensitive and open to critical thinking? The answers from those colleagues show they also take these questions into account and seek to organize their classes around what makes more sense to the students. In Ana’s case, she understood that it was important to reach out to the students, to talk about their personal lives, and to reflect on any subject. During a conversation, one student told her:
I felt you gave a lot of examples related to our situation… not, like, organizational examples but examples from our lives, you know? That’s really cool, you know? I felt kind of represented, in a way, in your class.
Another one said: ‘The more you explain in a way that has close ties with the market, the more I think it’s palpable’.
These comments from students suggest both that Ana is attempting to connect the class subject with the students’ interests, and with how to communicate, that is, how academic language is adapted so it is best understood and is more in tune with the students. ‘I also think that the language is… obviously, it has to be formal because you’re a professor, but it’s not that dull thing that makes you say “oh, what is she talking about?”‘ said another student. His opinion is shared by a fellow student:
you [professors] explain in such a way that it’s totally easy to understand. Language and the words you choose help us to understand.
These attitudes indicate that professors seek to be empathetic with their students, taking into consideration what the students think and feel when defining a teaching strategy.
Empathy has become a subject of significant interest in many fields, including psychology, philosophy, and teacher training (Bullough Jr., 2019), as it is understood as an invaluable skill in interpersonal and organizational lives (Parks, 2015). There is a wide range of definitions for empathy in academic literature (Coplan and Goldie, 2014). Some emphasize the affective elements of empathy, while others highlight its cognitive aspects (Bullough Jr., 2019).
We consider empathy to be a characteristic that is desirable for students and educators (Trothen, 2016), making us learn about and recognize others and ourselves in relations to others (Bialystok and Kukar, 2018). Therefore, in teaching, aside from being open to the differences in perspectives between students and professors, knowing how to relate to students, their emotions, intentions, and being able to perceive oneself in relation to them is crucial.
A fundamental aspect of empathy is listening. Literature on the intersection between listening and empathy is scarce (Parks, 2015). When assessed together, these concepts outline an attentive and other-oriented communication (Payne, 2005). During times of crisis and suffering, there is a fundamental social need to connect with other individuals (Dolamore et al., 2020), which turns empathetic listening into an exceptional skill for dealing with conflicts within organizations (Bodie, 2012). In a scenario of growing polarization, listening emerges as an ethically important activity (Tietsort et al., 2021), including in the field of education (Huerta-Wong and Schoech, 2010; Rost, 2013), by helping educators build trusting and respectful relations with students (Lasky, 2000). Developing empathy and the ability to respect political differences in the classroom goes beyond the educational environment. As one of Ana’s students said:
I want to learn more about what other people think. To take what I can learn from a discussion, absorb it, and carry what we had with the professor and the colleagues in the classroom around, to other places.
For that to happen, ‘teachers must take responsibility for providing students the opportunity to use not only their voices within the classroom, but their ears as well’ (Laughter et al., 2018: 112).
Listening is a critical communication skill and, thus, an essential element of education in business schools. Some authors consider active and empathetic listening to be one of the abilities that make up emotional intelligence (Conrad and Newberry, 2012). However, establishing a deeper connection between speaker and listener does not happen spontaneously. In addition to being all ears, the interlocutor should receive both undivided and investigative attention, that is, the collocutor should make an effort to identify and question suppositions, to respect, to try to build empathy and, especially, to be free from judgment (Ferrari, 2012; Spataro and Bloch, 2018; Weger Jr. et al., 2010).
The atmosphere of extreme political polarization (McAvoy and Hess, 2013) is affecting educational institutions around the world (Laughtere et al., 2018). Based on our personal experience and from the accounts of department colleagues and undergraduate students, we have argued that the way of conducting critical management teaching in the classroom has changed during the Brazilian political crisis. From 2014 and 2019, political polarization reached its height, and the most frequent emotion among people with different ideological positions was hatred. However, it seems something has been changing. Bolsonaro’s election and the conduct of a fascist policy is not admired by most of our students, since, although most of them adhere to an ultra-liberal policy, they are in favor of democracy.
Some reports show that the political context and hatred towards the left influenced Ana’s and her colleagues’ conduct, but at no point did they renounce their desire to help students be more reflective and critical in their thinking. Despite all the different strategies they developed to deal with this challenge, authenticity and empathy were always there.
All of the professors describe in their stories that they seek to promote meaningful dialogic encounters with transformative potential. They did not mention their standpoints on political parties, but neither did they hide their criticism and reflections on political matters. According to the students that we talked to, FGV is an institution with a wide and diverse range of political views, where professors suggest reflection on a certain logic of the economic, political, and social system instead of an unrestricted defense of a worldview.
Furthermore, empathy stood out when we spoke with the students and professors. Professors sought to integrate multiple information sources from different media, and assess these sources from different points of view, engaging the class in dialogues where opinions might diverge. Another strategy utilized by the professors was to reach out to the students and encourage them to open up about their personal lives, in an attempt to build empathy.
At first, authenticity and empathy seemed to be linked in a complicated way, since these concepts, in a way, stand in opposition to one another. Furthermore, many authors consider that empathy and authenticity might even reinforce oppressive attitudes when interlocutors hold values and convictions about the topic under discussion (Bialystok and Kukar, 2018). Generally, authenticity is considered a virtue that concerns the relationship of an individual with self, while empathy is considered a virtue that reveals our capacity to be open regarding others. If understood in opposition, authenticity refers to a Western notion of ‘yourself’ and empathy to ‘the pinnacle of openness to others’ (Bialystok and Kukar, 2018: 24).
As a result of this investigation, we suggest that authenticity and empathy cannot be understood as concepts that are opposed to each other but are mutually related. While the authenticity of a teacher consists of a certain fidelity to their own ideas (Bialystok and Kukar, 2018), it is not built on firmness and unshakable convictions but on a relationship with the other that recognizes vulnerability and contingencies. For this reason, an educator’s authenticity could not be developed without empathy, without being open toward others. This does not imply that our convictions must be abandoned, but we must accept that what we consider ‘proper’ is constructed in an intersubjective relationship and include a broader category that transcends a reciprocal relation between professor and student. An authentic and empathetic relationship occurs in a wider context.
Considering Taylor’s (1992) philosophical discussions, we can understand that being an authentic professor means doing what is necessary and invaluable, not only to the professors themselves or the students but also in a broader context, where both professor and student are included (Kreber et al., 2007). An authentic and empathetic relationship occurs in a larger social context. A context consists of several levels, including the content of the teaching, the discipline, or the subject area; the psychological environment within the learning group; institutional norms and policies; and finally, the general community or culture where professors and students belong (Cranton and Carusetta, 2004a). Thus, to achieve more authentic and empathetic work as an educator, we must ask ourselves: Have I considered my own and my students’ social, political, and cultural contexts? Have I considered what is important to teach these students in these contexts?
In this way, a conception of authenticity and empathy as an ‘opposition’ between self and other is abandoned, making room for another that understands it as an experience of sharing. Thus, the relationship between authenticity and empathy ceases to belong to the field of rivalry and is put into the field of ethical reflection (and production). Likewise, this is how it is possible to build a true community around learning (Cranton and Carusetta, 2004b; Carusetta and Cranton, 2005a, 2005b; Cranton, 2010), where everyone – professors, and students with the same or differing political views – can socialize and feel they belong to the same space.
The authors are grateful for the constructive insights into the manuscript by the special issue editors and anonymous reviewers. The authors would like to thank teachers and students for their time talking about their experiences during these difficult times in Brazil.
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Ana Carolina Manzoli is a psychologist formed by Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo and works as a professor, clinic psychologist, career counseling, and human resources consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Studies at Fundação Getulio Vargas School of Business Administration in São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.
Email: manzoli.anacarolina AT gmail.com
Marcela Garcia is a historian and public manager formed by the University of Sao Paulo. She also holds a master’s degree in Public Administration at Fundação Getulio Vargas. She works in the public sector as an advisor in the Secretaria Municipal de Assistência e Desenvolvimento Social de São Paulo.
Email: marcelagarciacorrea1 AT gmail.com
Carlos Eduardo de Lima is an Economist, Master in Administration, and Ph.D. student in Organizational Studies at Fundação Getulio Vargas School of Business Administration in São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.
Email: carloseduardodelima AT gmail.com