A Book Informed by Relational Cultural Theory
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Connected Teaching is informed and inspired by Relational Cultural Theory (RCT). The premise of RCT is that the experience of engaging in growth-fostering interactions and relationships is essential to human development. RCT’s founding scholars believed the theory would be relevant in many different settings, but this is the first book to apply it to teaching and learning in higher education.
What is Relational Cultural Theory?
A Q&A with Dr. Harriet L. Schwartz
To understand Relational Cultural Theory, or RCT, we have to understand the theory’s history. Relational Cultural Theory was developed by Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist, and her colleagues, working in the Wellesley area beginning in the late 1970s. These women – Miller, Irene Stiver, Janet Surrey, and Judith Jordan (the latter three who were psychologists) believed that prevailing human development theories failed to explain the experiences of their clients, themselves, and other people they knew. These dominant human development theories suggested that separation and independence were developmental goals and ideals, signs of a fully developed adult.
Conversely, Miller and her colleagues believed that people need connection, need to be in relation. In their view, a goal of development is to be able to engage in healthy growth-fostering relationships. They saw the other developmental theories as dismissive of the real lives of women, and harmful to men as well, by creating an expectation that to need others was to be weak or less-developed. This idea of individual success, of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps – is definitively western and male. Our culture continues to reify this myth of individual success – the stories we hear via the media often make it sound as if high-achievers get there on their own. When in fact every successful person has had people behind them and with them who have provided – coaching, connections, and often resources. People, of any gender, need connection, grow in connection. We are at our best when we have growth-fostering relationships in our lives.
How does RCT relate to teaching and learning?
When teachers and students think they should go it alone – that to ask for help or support shows weakness – they or we are then at a disadvantage. We all need connection. While much of the work of teaching and learning is done independently, relationships and even single interactions, are critical for many learners, and I would add, critical in the lives of teachers as well. We all need connection.
How does connection foster growth?
Here’s an example, I meet with a student online, on a video call. We are meeting because she is struggling with part of the research method she is learning. She begins to describe where she thinks she is stuck. I share that I struggled with this part too when I was learning the method – she seems a little bit relieved. We talk through her confusion and slowly she gains clarity. Through our back and forth, she increases her understanding and grows a little more confident. She seems energized and ready to move on. I feel energized from the interaction. In a career of teaching, this moment probably doesn’t seem significant to me, but it may be significant to her. Whether or not she remembers it years later, it was a small turning point in her dissertation work because in that moment, she got unstuck and was able to move forward.
Relational Cultural Theory gives me a lens through which to understand what went on in that routine, but important interaction with a student. She was learning in connection. Several elements of RCT are evident in this interaction. First, we see what Jean Baker Miller called, The Five Good Things, five elements of growth in connection: energy, sense of worth, movement, knowledge, and desire for more connection. These aren’t linear and in fact are both elements and outcomes of a growth-fostering interactions and connection. When we see these Five Good Things in an interaction, they are usually small, they aren’t giant leaps (of knowledge or growth), they are small but often significant in some way. This is growth in connection.
What is mutuality in RCT?
We see mutuality in the example above – that both teacher and student feel energized and validated, both are impacted by the other. Mutuality in RCT suggests that both people grow and are enriched by the interaction or relationship. Mutuality sounds like a nice thing – both people grow or benefit – but it’s more profound than that, mutuality is essential in RCT which promotes a view of power that shifts us away from a power-over stance to a power-with stance.
What is power-with in teaching?
To move from a power-over stance in teaching to a power-with stance is to work to reduce the power differential between teachers and students, and also to acknowledge that if a teacher assesses student work, that teacher always has some degree of power in the learning relationship. We don’t serve students well if we pretend there is no power differential because then they have to live with the tension of knowing we will assess their work and that affords us power.
However, there are strategies that help us reduce the power differential. First, transparency – sharing with students why we have made certain decisions about a course, including the readings we choose and the assignments we design. Second, we share power when we give students choices – choices among readings and within assignments. We can’t always do this because some readings are core, but when I can, I try to offer students a few relevant articles and let them select the one that feels most relevant. And third, we share power when we invite and are truly open to student feedback about the course.
What is meant by "cultural" in Relational Cultural Theory?
RCT requires us to be mindful of cultural context in our work. This is another departure from much of the human development literature, in which human development is typically considered without regard to social constructions of identity and systems of privilege and marginalization.
In the context of RCT, we cannot understand human growth and development, without understanding how social constructions of identity shape experience, how we are met in the world. This is true in therapeutic work, leadership, and of course, teaching.
For example, in teaching, I need to be careful not to generalize my own academic journey which happened in a middle-class predominantly-white context. I can only truly know my academic journey, what it took for me to succeed as the person I am, met in the world in the ways I am met, and in a particular time in US history. There are certain obstacles I just didn’t face because I am perceived as white. It’s not that I always initiate explicit discussion with students regarding this, but I need to be mindful of the way cultural context shapes each person’s academic journey and try to see each student through a lens that is more broad than my own experience.
I also need to be aware that these constructions of identity are always with us. For example, even if I bring my best intentions as a white person to my work with students, race is in the room. U.S. culture imposes a racial power structure and we’re all immersed in it every day. I can do my very best to be an anti-racist and I can hope to understand myself and the history and context of racism enough to be a good teacher to all. At the same time, the learning spaces I create are not impervious to the US culture of racism. Teaching through an RCT lens keeps me cognizant of cultural context and I believe this makes me a better teacher. And to be clear regarding identity, social constructions of identity, and the historical and cultural implications of all of this – I am still learning, and always will be. Understanding identities – my own and others’ and my related blindspots and gaps – this is a lifelong process.
*This text is adapted from a plenary session presented at the 2020 Lilly-Bethesda Virtual Designing Effective Teaching Conference
What resources do you recommend for someone who wants to learn more about RCT and/or be involved in RCT communities of practice?
Miller, J. B. (2012). Toward a new psychology of women. Beacon Press.
Miller, J.B. & Stiver, I.P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Beacon Press.
Banks, A. (2015). Four ways to click: Rewire your brain for stronger, more rewarding relationships. Tarcher/Penguin.
Jordan, J.V. (2017). Relational-cultural therapy (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.
Walker, M. (2019). When getting along is not enough: Reconstructing race in our lives and our relationships.
RCT Overview and History:
Robb, C. (2007). This changes everything: The relational revolution in psychology. Macmillan.
International Center for Growth in Connection
Connected Teaching is a terrific resource for graduate courses including adult learning, education as a relational practice, Relational Cultural Theory, and courses designed to prepare graduate students for teaching assistant positions.