I have been silent here for a while, finishing my book and getting the manuscript to the publishers.
It’s now there and in production.
The publishers and I have been working on the cover and blurb. Nothing is set in stone as yet, so if anyone has any feedback on what you can see here, I’d love to hear it.
Stories matter. Stories speak about complex aspects of our lives that intuitively we know are important but for which the language of rational discourse is often inadequate. Stories draw on archetypal structures and evocative language in ways that create affect: they penetrate, provoke, and disturb.
This is a book of nine stories about teachers and students. A young woman sits in her first teacher-education lecture and wonders what kind of a tribe she is joining. A preservice teacher clashes with his mentor teacher on a practicum. A teacher and students inhabit an online space with unpredictable consequences. Sally discovers the Universarium. Joseph writes a story that undoes his therapist. Sylvia struggles to free herself from an oppressive discourse about the nature of teaching. Two siblings support and console each other through their complex inductions into classroom lifeworlds. A secondary student goes missing and police, the media and his teachers wonder why. A teacher-education academic wrestles with elusive ideas in order to prepare a lecture that he hopes will make a more-than-passing impact.
There is no other book like Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities. It not only tells nine gripping stories; it also both positions these stories as part of a growing scholarship about story-telling, and provides practical ways of using the stories in teacher education and professional development.
Steve Shann is a teacher and writer with over forty years experience in primary, secondary and tertiary classrooms.
Keywords: Classroom lifeworlds, mythopoetics, teacher education, story, affect
A couple of months ago I wrote a couple of posts in which I was trying to get my head around the Deleuze/Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs (The Body without Organs and Seeing Multiplicities and assemblages). I had a strong intuitive sense that this concept was relevant to what I’ve been trying to see more clearly about teaching and learning, and the blog writing was helping. But I sensed that I hadn’t quite got it. So I wrote a fictional story (it’s to be included in my new book (Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities: mythopoetic provocations for teachers and teacher educators). The story is about an academic preparing a lecture and trying to make sense of, and be clear about, the relevance of, this concept of the BwO. In the story, the academic thinks back to an incident that happened in one of his first year’s as a classroom teacher. I’ve drawn here on my own experience; it’s the story in the blogpost A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom. The academic uses Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the BwO to help him conceptualise what happened on that day. Here is the relevant passage of my story:
For weeks, now, he has been trying to understand this weird concept. He’s read about it in Anti-Oedipus, and more recently in A Thousand Plateaus. He’s read commentaries, and even tried to write about it on his blog. For a while, it was a concept that kept slipping out of his grasp: one moment he’d think he got it, the next he’d read something that made it obvious that he was still a long way off. And then – and wasn’t it like this with much of learning generally? – this accumulated tangle of confused and jumbled thoughts about what the term could possibly mean suddenly resolved itself, almost overnight, through no disciplined synthesis constructed by his conscious mind. One morning he woke up, picked up a commentary on the concept of the Body without Organs, a commentary that he’d already read and highlighted several times, and this time it all made sense. Even more satisfying was the realisation that it was saying something about his memory of that hot Friday afternoon in his second year of teaching, and that perhaps it might say something useful for beginning teachers. All bodies seek to persevere in their own being (the phrase is Spinoza’s). Each body, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s way of saying this, is a desiring-machine seeking to join with other desiring-machines in order to increase flows of intensity. At a certain point, however, bodies find themselves organised into relationships and couplings which constrict libidinal flows, and there’s an instinctive and often unconscious move to create and occupy what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs (the BoW), but which might perhaps more accurately (but clumsily) be described as ‘A-milieu-less-constrained-by-organisation’. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari speak poetically rather than logically about this BwO.
… you have one (or several) … you make one, you can’t desire without making one … It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. … on it we penetrate and are penetrated. … The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them … the BwO is also full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance … Where psychoanalysis says “Stop, find your self again,” we should say instead, “Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our BwO yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self.
It’s what first Andrew, and then the rest of the class, were discovering and then occupying on that Friday afternoon. They, and their teacher, both found and created a space where behaviours were not organised from without, where there was license to experiment, create and play. It was a move towards a de-stratification in order to allow for more flow, greater intensities, a more animating experience for a body.
… It is where everything is played out. … A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. …The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree – to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced. It is nonstratisfied, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity … That is why we treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism and the organisation of the organs, before the formation of the strata … the organs appear and function here only as intensities.
Such a strange, unsettling, subversive concept. And what do they mean that they ‘treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism’? Again he thinks about the steamy atmosphere in the classroom on that February day, and the dormant energies of those boys slumped at their desks. The soupy mix in the egg, the soupy mix in the classroom: a milieu out of which new organisms take shape (become extended?). He and the class, in those minutes following Andrew’s question, were making their own BwO. They were freeing themselves from a previous way of being organised (by a teacher, a classroom, a curriculum, a task), and creating the right conditions for energies (potential intensities) to be released and to flow.
their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers …
… you must bind me with tight chaffing ropes
so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast …
[The Odyssey, Book 1217—280 Fagle translation]
So Odysseus commands his crew as they approach the Sirens and their ‘urgent song’. They obey and they all survive.
There’s a siren song that we English teachers heard some time ago, but unfortunately we listened and got waylaid. It was the song of the explicit outcome.
This is taking longer than she thought it would. Filling in a plan for the poetry lesson seemed like such an obvious and helpful thing to do, especially given the warm and encouraging supervision of her mentor teacher. But she kept getting stuck on the ‘Lesson Outcomes’ box.
‘It’s important,’ her mentor had advised, ‘that the outcomes are explicit and measurable, otherwise you’ll have no way of knowing if you’ve achieved your aim, no way of knowing if the students have learned what you want them to learn.’
It seemed so reasonable, so useful, this advice. She had a tendency, she suspected, to get lost in her love of stories and words, and maybe the students didn’t learn anything particularly useful as a result. Being explicit should help.
But what was it that she wanted her students to learn? And did she want Sophie (who loved their present text and wrote poetry herself) to learn the same things as Brad (who thought English was a waste of time and was desperately trying to get by to please his parents)? Did she want Ayati (who was struggling with the language) to be learning the same as Desheng (who wanted to be a doctor, was a high achiever, but who struggled to see beyond the literal)?
‘The students will respond to the text in various ways,’ she wrote, but immediately scribbled it out. She could hear her mentor saying ‘too vague’, and ‘not measurable’.
‘The students will understand that poetry can open our eyes to the previously unseen.’ She liked this. It was what Maxine Greene had always said about the function of literature. But how would she measure it? She giggled inwardly as she imagined a test which said ‘describe what you you could see before and after reading this poem’. Desheng would go ape.
Perhaps, she began to think, the problem was with the assumption that lurked beneath the whole idea of outcomes, the idea the English teaching was entirely to do with teaching what can be made explicit and what could be measured. What had her own English teacher done, she wondered. How had she become someone in love with the English language and the stories it continually tells?
Her mind drifted back to her own school days and lessons spent where the students read their favourite poems, where they played with language (along with her teacher) in ways that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, where the school librarian would bring each Tuesday a box of books (different genres, different lengths) for the students to choose from. Were these the keys to her love of English? Or was it the friendship group, and the time spent listening to Alysha? Or perhaps it was the work they all did on preparing a school play?
English, for her, was more about engaging with the world through language – something she now realized she’d been doing from the moment she’d been born. Birds fly, fish swim; people language.
Outcomes were a distraction, a siren call. Could she tie herself to the mast and resist it?
Brenton Doecke has just published a review of a recent book on English teaching. The review is wonderful; the book sounds timely. Both are deeply encouraging.
The review’s title is ‘A new beginning?’, and we English teachers need a new beginning. In staffrooms, in the press, around dinner tables, in syllabus documents and rubrics, we are subjected to discourses attempting to define our job as if it were some offshoot of science: examine the elements of a text, closely observe the evidence, construct logical analyses of author’s intent and the techniques used, etc In the week which marks the passing of Maxine Greene, it’s good to be reminded that the function of literature is not to crawl under the microscope but ‘to awaken, to disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard and unexpected’. (Releasing the Imagination, p28). Literature, she says, resonates. Our job as English teachers is to make available the forms with which the life within our students (already resonating, even if wordless) might be expressed, and to help those same students receive the resonances from the words around them.
This is what (it seems to me) Doecke and Yandell are reminding us of. A new beginning? Yes. But a new beginning of a once-vibrant sense of what it meant to be an English teacher.
The review, and the book, tell the story of two English teachers who know that ‘at the heart of the work of every committed English teacher is a capacity to suspend his or her preconceptions about the value of a literary work in order to entertain other interpretations’ (140). It’s the story of teachers who enable their students ‘to make the set texts their own’, who know how to help their students ‘locate these texts in their own life-worlds’ (141).
For Yandell, the version of English and English pedagogy that Monica and Neville enact in their classrooms, though ‘recognisable’, ‘is underrepresented – indeed, scarcely acknowledged – within the dominant, policy-oriented discourses of literacy and literacy instruction’ (Yandell 2013, 66) that currently hold sway in England and indeed other countries like Australia, where standards-based reforms have been implemented over the past few decades. This managerial dis- course is full of rhetoric about the rigour that teachers need to exercise in order to bring their students up to the desired level of achievement, but while Monica and Neville do not shy away from the responsibilities imposed by such mandates, they are also driven by a richer understanding of the learning that can occur in classrooms. Indeed, Yandell shows how they enable their students to explore dimensions of language and experience that far exceed the expectations prescribed by curriculum outcomes specifying what individual pupils should be able to achieve at each level of schooling. The crucial point of difference here is that, rather than treating reading as an individual ability to be measured against pre-defined standards of accomplishment, these teachers conceive of it as a social activity that opens up rich possibilities for social engagement and an exchange of ideas and experiences that reflects a deep respect for what everyone brings to the classroom conversation. (141)
Doecke reminds us that this version, while underrepresented, is ‘recognizable’. I hear it in the discussions of beginning English teachers when they talk about why it is they wanted to become English teachers, and when they attempt to visualise the kind of English teacher they want to become. They’re motivated by their own love of words, and by the energetic contribution this love has made to their own lives. These young teachers are in danger, of course, of being swamped by the more dominant discourses shaping our curricula and classroom practices. But there is (I want to believe) a potential army out there ready for Doecke and Yandell’s ‘new beginning’.
I would like to think that it’s an army of mushrooms such as Sylvia Plath described:
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
Brenton Doecke (2014) ‘A New Beginning? John Yandell’s The Social Construction of Meaning: Reading Literature in Urban Classrooms’, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 21:2, 139-149, DOI: 10.1080/1358684X.2014.897040
I’ve been thinking recently about how thoughts are formed, how they move from something vaguely intuited or perceived to being more clearly understood and articulated.
I think about this quite a lot these days. I watch myself, I observe my teacher education students, and I think back to the secondary classrooms I taught in.
The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a slow process. At least it’s slow for me, and I know it’s been slow for many of my students (university and school). Insights or understandings rarely arrive fully formed. For example, as my last few blog posts have documented, my understanding of what Deleuze and Guattari meant by the term ‘body without organs’ kept shifting (and indeed it’s shifted a lot since I wrote those last posts). I’ve had to read and re-read sections of their books. I’ve needed to write the blog posts, in order to allow my emerging thinking to become worded, so that I could sit with it for a bit. I’ve gone through gloomy times when I thought it was too complicated a concept for my brain. I’ve read commentaries and watched some online lectures about Deleuze. I’ve let things percolate. I’ve gone back and adjusted my provisional understanding of the ‘body without organs’. I’ve (finally) written a fictional story about someone wrestling with, and then applying, the concept. It’s been a slow process, never linear, constantly looping back on itself.
It’s made me think about the lifecycle of a thought.
Jung once compared (in The Psychology of the Transference) the psychoanalytic encounter between doctor and patient to an alchemical process: encounter, mixing of the raw materials, blackening (and seeming death), emergence of the elixir (new life). Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ has a similar pattern to it. Perhaps the lifecycle of a thought is similar: encounter, confusion, despair, emergent new form. Something like that.
The image that comes to mind (perhaps only because Deleuze and Guattari at one point liken the body without organs to an egg) is of the slow process as the matter within an egg takes shape over time, and only emerges into the fresh air once it has gone though countless changes.
It is for this very reason that too much of school- and university-based learning is, for many students, not real learning at all. There’s so little time for that slow, hesitant, sometimes distressing (but perhaps telelogically driven) process to take place. There’s a reading and then a quiz, and then the students are moved on to something else. Even the idea of a cumulative curriculum (‘In week 1 we do x, in week 2 we build on x by doing x+1) doesn’t fit what I’m describing here as the more chaotic but still patterned lifecycle of a thought.
I was a school teacher for thirty years, a psychotherapist for ten, and for the last four years have been an academic. These last four years have partly been about trying to understand, more deeply, the experience of the previous forty.
During these four years I’ve been searching for a methodology; I’ve now settled on what I’ve been calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’ve been searching, too, for a writing genre or form that works for me; writing fiction is increasingly my thing. I’ve also been casting around for some theoretical lens that might help provide the language for what I see though a dark glass darkly; the strange, tangled and complex language of Deleuze and Guattari continues to illuminate.
I want to bring this D&G lens into my current project, which is to write a short story about a small group of teachers attempting to manage within a problematic structure.
In my story, these three or four teachers are trying to manage their own individual and collective desires to do work which is in accord with their values and their needs (both of which are complex). And these values and needs sit in some kind of tension with the values and needs of the structures within which the teachers work. The story is therefore going to be about power, agency and motivation. This is just another way of saying that it’s going to be about libido.
There are a number of D&G concepts which I think are going to be useful (though it’s something of a challenge to think of ways I can employ concepts like these in a short story).
The body without organs
This is a wonderfully slippery and rich concept.
I’m imagining a teacher as a body without organs, ‘a body populated by multiplicities’ (Thousand Plateaus p34), animated by ‘forces at work within them’(p. 35). ‘A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs … is distributed according to crowd phenomena’ (p.34)
I’m also imagining the hierarchical structure within which the teacher works as a Body without Organs. This hierarchical BoW reacts to the ‘forces at work within them’, to the the libidinal flows and intensities in the following way:
An apparent conflict arises between desiring-machines and the body without organs. Every coupling of machines, every production of a machine, every sound of a machine running, becomes unbearable to the body without organs. Beneath its organs it senses there are larvae and loathsome worms, and a God at work messing it all up or strangling it by organizing it. “The body is the body/it is all by itself/and has no need of organs/the body is never an organism/ organisms are the enemies of the body.”* Merely so many nails piercing the flesh, so many forms of torture. In order to resist organ-machines, the body without organs presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier. In order to resist linked, connected, and interrupted flows, it sets up a counterflow of amorphous, undifferentiated fluid. In order to resist using words composed of articulated phonetic units, it utters only gasps and cries that are sheer unarticulated blocks of sound. We are of the opinion that what is ordinarily referred to as “primary repression” means precisely that: it is not a “countercathexis,” but rather this repulsion of desiring-machines by the body without organs. (Anti-Oedipus p9) [Thanks Greg Thompson for pointing me to this passage.]
None of this makes logical sense. How can a teacher be both a BwO in conflict with desiring-machines and at the same time a libidinal-charged desiring machine? That’s what I’m enjoying about D&G; they seem to be pushing into rich territory that lies beyond that which can be explored through logic.
Exterior masses and internal aggregates
A valued colleague and I had conversations last year about the intrapsychic. Does it deserve our scholarly attention? Or should we instead be focussing our attention on the ways in which identity and agency is energetically brought into being by social context and relations? Post-Freudian psychoanalytical theory has wanted to emphasise the interpersonal and social at the expense of the intrapsychic.
I like the way D&G restore a balance. When they write ‘ There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages … [Thousand Plateaus p41], they’re not just talking about external assemblages. In their preceding paragraph they write:
Above all, it should not be thought that it suffices to distinguish the masses and exterior groups someone belongs to or participates in from the internal aggregates that person envelops in himself or herself. They are always relative, changing, and reversible, but between different types of multiplicities that coexist, interpenetrate, and change places—machines, cogs, motors, and elements that are set in motion at a given moment, forming an assemblage productive of statements: ‘I love you’ (or whatever) … [Thousand Plateaus p41]
So, when I’m writing my story, I’m wanting the writing to come from (even if it never mentions) an awareness of these teachers as ‘statement-producing mechanic assemblages’, populated and animated by by libidinal flows and intensities between the different kinds of multiplicities that co-exist, interpenetrate and change places’.
Gently tipping through a meticulous relation with the strata
I love this much quoted and rich passage from A Thousand Plateaus.
Staying stratified—organized, signified, subjected— is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever. This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bring forth continuous intensities for a BwO. Connect, conjugate, continue: a whole ‘diagram,’ as opposed to still signifying and subjective programs. We are in a social formation: first see how it is stratified for us and in us and at the place where we are; then descend from the strata to the deeper assemblage within which we are held; gently tip the assemblage, making it pass over to the side of the plane of consistency. It is only there that the BwO reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines. (Thousand Plateaus p187 )
I want its spirit to infuse my story, a story of a group of teachers trying to find a way of gently tipping an assemblage to mark out a small plot of land.