My new book

book cover draft 1 JPG copyI 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.

The blurb

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

Seeing multiplicities and assemblages

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.

The body without organs


Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

This morning I started reading Chapter 2 of A Thousand Plateaus. It’s called ‘1914: One or several wolves?’

I read the first few pages and had no fricking idea what was being said.

This was frustrating, given that I’d been reading Chapter 1 and thinking that I was beginning to get some of this. But it the fog descended again. It was as if D&G were making sure no reader reached a premature and superficial conclusion about what was being said, so started to mess with minds again.

(It’s been so reassuring to listen to some podcasts by very intelligent and well-read philosophers and to hear them saying, in the middle of an otherwise animated conversation: ‘… but this bit makes absolutely no sense to me’. Do we teachers do enough of this in the classroom?)

D&G were getting in a lather about Freud, and his Wolfman case. Freud was, they were saying (I could tell this much) completely missing the point.

They seemed to be particularly upset that Freud felt the need to continually reduce the richness of the Wolfman’s unconscious to a single Oedipal cause. Freud kept asking the question ‘What does the wolf represent?’, ignoring the fact that the Wolfman himself described a dream with many wolves in it, a pack of them. Freud wanted to identify a singularity when it was multiplicities that were present.

This was helping to regain some sense of connection to what they were saying. I understand multiplicities and the shallowness of explanations that imagine a singularity. A classroom for example. I cringe when I hear someone (and sometimes that someone is me) talking about a ‘receptive’ or an ‘unmotivated’ class, as if it were a single organism. Even talking about a student as ‘switched on’ or ‘unengaged’ doesn’t sit well, especially when I remember the number of times I’ve sat in an audience and been switched on by one speaker and utterly unengaged by the next. These seem properties to do with some other entity, something composed of multiplicities.

And all of that is helping me make more sense of D&G’s concept of ‘the body without organs’. A classroom is a body without organs, made up of multiplicities with their different flows and intensities, and being plugged into (or disconnected from) other bodies without organs (the students), similarly made up of multiplicities.

This seems to be what they’re saying in the following two passages:

A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena … Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organisation of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organisation. Lice hopping on the beach. Skin colonies. The full body without organs is a body populated by multiplicities. (34)

The metrical principle of these multiplicities is not to be found in a homogenous milieu but resides elsewhere, in forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido, which constitutes them from within, and in constituting them necessarily divides into distinct qualitative and variable flows. (35)

I’m trying to push myself to see what follows from all this. What is it that this way of thinking is helping me to do (rather than explain – see last post)? What is the affect?

I think it’s helping me see that the importance of lesson planning (the subject of one of the units I’m teaching) is less to do with creating a structure for a singularity (the class) and more to do with unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (the teacher-planner) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (the students) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways, into ‘forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido’.

It’s helping me to see the ways in which a group of us working together on e-Portfolios which tell our academic stories is less to do with finding a way to tick the boxes when it comes to our annual performance review and more to do with … ‘unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (each of us as individual academics) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, and also colleagues and structures with whom we share our work) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

It’s helping me to see that student motivation is much more than a function of the fixed attributes  (the socio-economic background, the intelligence, the existence of ambitions and fears) of singularities (the individual students) and more to do with … ”unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (me as teacher, the class, each of the students) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, the curriculum, the school, the community) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

The ‘helping to see’ in itself is an unblocking and stimulating. So the seeing is more than just an interpretation, a way of understanding or theorising. It’s a way of acting.

[The source of the image of Deleuze is here.)


Time to mull

imaginationtree2.jpgIn October last year, I wrote a series of blog posts as I tried to get my head around Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.  It was hard, sloggy, not-entirely-pleasurable work, and I wasn’t sure that I was making much progress. I tried to find connections between what I was reading and a story I knew, and then to ideas I have about teaching, all interspersed with healthy doses of blind speculation about what D&G were actually meaning. I ended up writing about an article (by Anna Hickey-Moody) that helped make sense of some of it.

But then the momentum lost energy, the hard yakka petered out, and I forgot about Anti-Oedipus. I’d read about a quarter of it, but wasn’t moved to read more.

Instead I started working on other things.

The revision of an article (‘A love towards a thing eternal’)  on Spinoza and the lifeworlds of classrooms (which I’ve been working on for over three years now) took a couple of weeks.

Then I wrote what I hope is a more coherent articulation of the connection between fiction and scholarship (‘A mythopoetic methodology: Storytelling as an act of scholarship’).

Finally, over the past month or two, I’ve been writing a couple of the short stories to be included in the manuscript that I’m contracted to submit to Sense Publishers around the middle of this year.

It was when I was working on the second of these two stories that I had a mini-epiphany. My break from Deleuze and Guattari wasn’t a break at all; something had continued to work away beneath the level of my consciousness.

This became evident when I found myself creating a character who, like me, was finding some of the ideas of D&G strangely relevant, and who surprises himself one day by reflecting on an experience in Deleuzian terms. This character has been trying to work out why a particular event took place in the way it had, and so he’d been speculating about its root cause, the one factor that might explain what took place. But then he says:

Not root cause, but what Deleuze and Guattari would call something like the simultaneity of multiplicities each of which represents an assemblage making and breaking connections with other assemblages. Lines of flight, seepages through gaps, planes of immanence, desiring machines coupling and uncoupling with other desiring machines.

The surprise was how easily this came out, and how naturally it seemed to describe what this character had been experiencing. This wasn’t me slogging away to try to understand something not-a-little foreign and indigestible; it was me drawing on a way of seeing the world that I had, to some extent,  internalised.

The epiphany was not exactly that. I’ve known, of course, that lots of learning is like that. You work hard at trying to serve a tennis ball, nothing seems natural but you persist, progress seems non-existent, you leave it for a few days … and then, at the next practice, it’s as if your unconscious has been at work smoothing over the rough bits, making necessary adjustments to the way you think and the way your body functions, and the serve seems to work!

The epiphany was more to do with the way we too often undermine this process in our education system by denying the need to just ‘sit on things’ for a while. If there’s a common complaint from most students and teachers, it’s that there’s too much pressure to get content covered. It leaves so little time to let ideas or potential insights settle so that they can then percolate in the background. Too little time to let things be sorted out at some level beneath our conscious awareness. Or for the apparently aimless mulling that we do if we are given some relief from the cancerous need to tick things off on an endless to-do-list.

Had I been tested on my understanding of D&G in September (how those two would turn in their graves at the thought of a short-answer quiz on their key concepts!), I would have done poorly. I’d still struggle, I’m sure, but perhaps not quite as much.

I’ve since begun to read parts of D&G’s A Thousand Plateaus. It’s offering up its ideas a little more easily. Is this, perhaps, me becoming a more receptive reader, as a result of what I’ve been describing here?

Affect, art and scholarship

Earlier this month, a story that I had written with three young teachers was published in English in Australia. It is a piece of fiction, though we did try to follow the poet’s craft in that we drew from personal experience, we allowed our intuitions and our imaginations to shape what we created, and we worked hard to make our story ‘ring true’, to meet some difficult to define but keenly felt criteria of verisimilitude.

There have already been some interesting responses to our story. A beginning teacher wrote to me to speak of his relief at seeing in print something that made him feel that his own experiences were not isolated ones. An experienced teacher wrote to say that he recognised certain truths in the story about the complicated relationships between mentor teachers and those learning their craft in a practicum. Others, including one of my co-authors, have talked about the way the story changed their perceptions. It seems that the story has produced an affect, or many different affects.

I work in a university and I am therefore involved in research. Readers of this blog will know that I wrestle with the nature of my research. In relation to this story, the questions I often ask myself are these:

  • Is my research – in so far as it’s connected to stories like this one – to do with mapping and theorising the kinds of affects produced? In other words, is the scholarly act to do with stepping outside the writing of the story and researching its impact?
  • Is the actual writing of the story a scholarly act in itself? If so, what can we call this kind of scholarship? If not, what does it lack that scholarship has?
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

This morning I have read a wonderful book chapter which, while it doesn’t obviously answer my questions for me, certainly contributes to the complicated but interesting mix of thoughts in my head. The book is Deleuze and Research Methodologies, and the chapter is called ‘Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy’ by Anna Hickey-Moody.

I want to try to summarise the argument. I’m going to do this without opening the book again, because I know that if I do I’ll be tempted to quote large chunks of it, as it’s chock full of evocative phrases packed with resonances and (for me, anyway) affect. Her chapter rests on Spinoza’s philosophy, and on Deleuze and Guattari’s.

Affect is the imprint made on the body/mind by a body’s contact with its environment. With other bodies. These are not necessarily human bodies; bodies are assemblages of many different kinds. When a body is affected (made more or less powerful in its ability to act) by another body, this affect is registered in the body (as a feeling, or perhaps more as a changed state) and in the mind (as a thought, an image, an act of imagination). The body is changed by that contact. The subjectivity (or subjectivities) of the body is (are) in continual flux as a result of this perennial process. (As I read about this in the chapter, I’m feeling more light being shed in my labyrinth, more light on the three syntheses, and indeed a shifting feeling that perhaps I’m not in a Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth at the moment so much as exploring a tunnel or path or territory that is connected to other territories that I’ve found compelling in the past … there are links being made, and this is pleasurable).

A work of art is such an assemblage (in the case of our story, made up of connections and flows and interruptions made possible by the four authors talking, writing, being affected by each other, words being produced and seen and responded to, memories being evoked by the words and the subsequent exchanges, and so on). This assemblage is what Hickey-Moody (following Deleuze and Guattari) calls a ‘bloc of sensation’ … and here I cannot stop myself from opening the book and quoting her definition: ‘A bloc of sensation is a compound of percepts and affects, a combination of shards of an imagined reality and the sensible forces that the materiality of this micro-cosmos produces’ [94]. Art, she suggests, ‘has the capacity to change people, cultures, politics. Art is pedagogical’ [91].

As I read the article, I kept thinking of my two questions. Is she saying that job of the researcher is to map the affects that such a bloc of sensations produces, to document the ways in which art is pedagogical? Or is it to write about the world in such a way that our research papers (or our story, for example) produce affects, are in themselves blocs of sensation?

On playing and starting a PhD


Beginning a Masters or a PhD is meant to be a deadly serious business, and in obvious ways it is. It will be a major preoccupation and devourer of time. It has implications for how one lives one’s life (for a while, at least), and therefore has implications for living standards, work-life balance and important relationships. It inevitably will involve significant sacrifice, struggle and uncertainty. So one had better be sure before one begins. It’s a serious business.

But the necessary sense of seriousness can be taken too far, especially if it circumvents play.

Play, we know, is an essential part of all significant learning. We have to muck about with ideas, try things on for size, imagine possibilities, experiment and take risks, even pretend. My daughter once wrote scores of pages in ‘fairy writing’ before she knew what the letters were (and is now a lawyer involved in deadly serious trials).

The temptation, starting out on a higher research degree, is that a candidate skips the playing stage. An impressive application to a university is followed by a serious meeting with supervisors where topic, theoretical lens and methodology are discussed and a timeline is proposed. The pressure is on to finish within a certain timeframe, so there’s no time to waste. (See for example, How I broke up with my supervisor)

Too often, this leads to tension, stuckness and a deadend.


Because the candidate never had the chance to play.

What does play mean in this context? Lots of anxiety-free conversations and writing about possibilities. Lots of thinking about what the candidate loves and fears, what moves and disturbs the candidate, and what might be fuelling the impulse to become a scholar. Permission to imagine, and experiment, and to wonder aloud without the candidate worrying that he/she is revealing his/her knowledge gaps or indulging in foolish fantasies. Time. Lack of pressure. Play.

These things are not easy to make space for, given the pressures. But it’s out of this space that the really serious work can grow.

When I did my Masters, and then my PhD, I had no idea really why I was wanting to spend all that time ‘away from the real world’. I knew there was some unconscious impulse, that it felt right in some hard-to-define-or-justify way. My supervisors, all of them, were happy to give me time, and I took it. I mucked around in the world of ideas, I let one idea or author lead me to another, I meandered for a long time. When it was time, my supervisors asked me to think about refining my research question, about being explicit about a theoretical lens and an emerging methodology. But they didn’t rush this.

I finished both Masters and PhD in the required time frames, without a sense of undue haste or of avoiding the inevitable complexities.

I was given time to play.

Thinking about theory

Theory is all very interesting for some people, and I guess I have to know it because it’s required for our assessments. But really I think what’s going to make me a good teacher is the experience. I learn from doing, not from reading about stuff.

It’s a sentiment I hear a lot from students.  As I slept my way through my undergraduate degree, some forty years ago, it’s a sentiment I used to share. I learnt a little theory in order to pass my assessments. Any deeper connection between theory and practice pretty much passed me by.

But my relationship with theory changed as soon as I started teaching and I realized how little I knew. In some ways, I was like a doctor who snoozed through the lecture on how to treat a broken leg and then found himself in a war zone.

I discovered three important things about theory.

Good theory is consolation. When I found myself becoming overwhelmed, it was wonderful to discover that other teachers had felt similar feelings and were trying to think their way to a more powerful practice. In my early years, I read a lot of John Holt, George Dennison, A.S. Neill, Neil Postman and R.F. Mackenzie, and I discovered a whole community of teachers who struggled with some of the same issues as I did, and who found consolation in exploring relevant educational ideas. It felt better to be a part of a community of such thinkers. Ever since I’ve had a preference for theorists who convey a sense of the complexity and unpredictability of our work (Barbara Comber, Elizabeth Moje, Rudolf Dreikurs, Carl Jung, Howard Gardner, David Perkins) over those who imply that the art and craft of teaching is just a matter of using a model.

Good theory brings courage.  We feel most discouraged when we feel alone, without help. In my early weeks with Andrew, I just wanted him to go away; I didn’t know what to do. As I read the paragraphs from Dreikurs’ book about possible motivations behind a power struggle, I no longer felt alone. Dreikurs knew about boys like Andrew! There was a way through this tangle! Even before I’d read about his suggested approaches, I felt a sense of relief and renewed optimism. This was explored territory.

Good theory builds effectiveness. As a young teacher, I kept experiencing situations for which I had no strategies.  Discovering ideas that led to more effective action made a difference.  Holt taught me that certain kinds of teaching makes children say stupid things. Dennison taught me that apparently random acts of violence in the playground are governed by an intricate set of unspoken rules. A.S. Neill told me that a certain kind of self-government is not only possible but builds a sense of ethics. Neil Postman showed me how to use questions to enliven learning. R.F. Mackenzie encouraged me to link learning to bodies. Each of these ideas changed my teaching for the better.

Good theory does all these three things. Theory learned just to pass a university assessment does none of them.

Carl Jung

Jung reminds us that, of course, no theory explains everything.

The moment one forms an idea of a thing and successfully catches one of its aspects, one invariably succumbs to the illusion of having caught the whole. One never considers that a total apprehension is right out of the question. Not even an idea posited as total is total, for it is still an entity on its own with unpredictable qualities. This self-deception certainly promotes peace of mind: the unknown is named, the far has been brought near, so that one can lay one’s finger on it. One has taken possession of it, and it has become an inalienable piece of property, like a slain creature of the wild that can no longer run away.

Jung ‘On the nature of the psyche’ CW 8, 356.

But it would be a mistake to imagine, as I once did, that therefore theory has no uses at all.


[Images from Antaryamin’s blog]

“Don’t we learn to teach on the job? What’s the point of theory?” A post for my students

An introductory video

The story

‘Didn’t I ask you to read the paragraph and then respond to the stimulus question?’ I asked the blond-haired boy in desk at the back of the room.

This was my first year of teaching English, and this day (somewhere into week 3) was the first lesson with my Year 8 class when I’d felt that at least most of the class were engaged in the task I’d set them.

But not Andrew.

He slowly turned his head as I spoke, and looked calmly and challengingly at my face. He didn’t say anything.

‘Andrew, didn’t I ask everyone to read the paragraph and respond …’ For some reason, I could feel the confidence draining out of me.

‘Mmm. Let’s see,’ he finally said slowly. ‘Yes, I think you did say something along those lines.’

The casual way he tossed this back at me was confusing. So were the feelings of anger welling up inside me. How dare he speak to me like that! What was going on here?

‘So?’ I said.

‘So?’ he replied.

‘So do it!’ I said, struggling to stop myself from shouting.

He smiled and picked up his pen, then held it up as if saying, ‘Here’s the pen. See, I’ve picked it up, and I’m now going to write some meaningless words in order to show you what a pointless exercise this whole thing is.’

I walked away from the desk, feeling utterly defeated.  Why couldn’t he see that I didn’t want him to be doing meaningless work? What was going on in this exchange that had left me feeling so weak?

It’s now forty years since that exchange, yet I still remember the boy and I still remember the feelings of helplessness I felt on that day, and on subsequent days, as I struggled to control my urge to win the battle with Andrew.

Moments like this one help force us to examine our assumptions. I entered that Year 8 classroom with a number of assumptions about students, about my subject, and about teaching, and not all of them were helping.

My assumptions included:

  1. I’m young and enthusiastic, and my enthusiasm will infect my students.
  2. Students need a classroom environment that is relaxed and friendly, where they can express themselves freely and explore ideas without fear of ridicule.
  3. If a student is not responding to what I’m teaching, there’s a reason for it, and trying to see things from the student’s point of view is going to help.
  4. I need to be flexible and responsive in my teaching.
  5. Students like to succeed, and if I show them how, then they’ll work hard.
  6. Teachers generally talk too much.

Looking back now, I can see where some of these assumptions came from. When I was at school, I was bored by teachers who talked too much, and at university I fell asleep in lectures (until I stopped going to them). If I was given the freedom to explore things in my own way, I loved learning and worked hard.

There was another reason why I assumed that, if I took an interest in my student, then they would respond. At the age of 10 I was sent by my parents to boarding school. My father was a diplomat, he was regularly posted overseas, and my parents believed that I needed to be brought up in my native country and that my schooling needed ongoing stability. To begin with I hated it, and found the teachers distant and their teaching uninspiring. But then, as I entered my later secondary years at the boarding school, I was taught by teachers who seemed interested in my ideas and development, who loved their subjects, and who thought deeply about education. I responded immediately to these teachers, and assumed that all students would respond like this, given the right circumstances.

Of course I didn’t articulate these assumptions at the time. I was not really aware that I had them. It was only after my tangle with Andrew that I began to began to see that my asssumptions were inadequate.

Andrew’s quiet, successful rebellion continued, and it continued to get under my skin. I tried different tacks – chatting with him about things that had nothing to do with school, ignoring him, threatening him with school punishments, keeping him in at lunch time – but he continued to quietly undermine my confidence, my sense that I had any legitimate authority.

One day I wrote a long letter to my aunt, who was a teacher herself and was now working as a teacher trainer, telling her of my struggles with Andrew, and asking her advice. She sent me a book and suggested I read a chapter from it, and encouraged me to write or ring her to talk through the issue.

The book was by Rudolf Dreikurs, and was called Psychology in the Classroom. That night, I read the chapter recommended by my aunt.

Rudolf Dreikurs

Dreikurs suggested that all student behavior had a purpose, that it was all aimed at gaining some sense of belonging or connection, but that some students pursued this in irrational ways in the mistaken belief that their behaviour would result in them achieving the acceptance they yearned for.

At first, I found this confusing. If Andrew was wanting to belong, why was he going about it in ways that not only angered me but also seemed to alienate him from many of his classmates? But then I realized that in fact he had earned some kind of respect or recognition from those around him; his classmates could see that he held some kind of power, that he knew how to undermine authority.

I read on.

Dreikurs looked at those students whose behaviour was in some ways troubling, and suggested that these students fell into four categories. There were those students who attempted to achieve recognition by attention seeking. There were those who continually displayed feelings of inadequacy. There were those who were motivated by feelings of revenge. And there were those who challenged the teacher’s power.

I read the chapter several times. I did this not because I was going to be tested on it, not because I was going to do an academic assignment and needed to demonstrate that I was ‘keeping up to date with the research’.I did it because my previous thinking was inadequate and I was experienced distress as a result. I was reading it to help me to solve a real problem in the real world.

As I read, I kept looking to see what Dreikurs might say about a student like Andrew At first it seemed to me that Andrew fitted into at least three of the four categories. But the one that resonated the most was the last.

Andrew had sucked me into a power struggle.

I remember, still, the moment I read a sentence which said something like this:

The moment the teacher engages with the power struggle, the teacher has lost.

Dreikurs had concrete advice about what to do in situations like this one. I followed the advice, and my relationship with Andrew changed markedly. He did all right in that class, and I survived.


All of that happened in my first year of teaching, exactly forty years ago. I’ve still got the book, and my teaching was permanently affected by what I read in it, and by what happened with Andrew.

Dreikurs helped to free me from the limitations of some of my assumptions. His ideas helped me to survive the challenges of those early years, and gave me ways of being more effective with students like Andrew.

Dreikurs was no a panacea, of course. He helped then, but he didn’t help with other students and other situations. I continue to find aspects my assumptions about teaching and learning inadequate. I continue to have to learn and adjust.

But his theories helped, as do all good theories, whether they come in books, lectures, conversations with more experienced colleagues or our own flashes of insight.

No theory is universally true, always applicable, the solution to every problem. Yes, we learn on the job. But without theory, we remain relatively trapped by the inadequacy of our underdeveloped assumptions.

Ethnographic opera

Deborah Britzman

In Chapter 7 of the 2003 edition of Practice Makes Practice, Deborah Britzman asks questions of her own ethnographic studies.

… the ethnographic promise of a holistic account  is betrayed by the slippage born from the partiality of language .. .From the unruly perspective of poststructuralism, ethnography can only summon, in James Clifford’s terms, ‘partial truths and ‘fictions.’ …These positions undermine the ethnographic belief that reality is somehow out there waiting to be captured by language. (244)

Her solution is to

borrow discourses and tack them onto other discourses …  my narrative was to write a Rashomon of student teaching, an ethnographic opera where voices argued, disrupted, and pleaded with one another; where the high drama of misunderstanding, deceit, and the conflicting desires made present and absent through language and through practice confound what is typically taken as the familiar story of learning to teach. I tried to write against the discourses that bind the disagreements, the embarrassments, the unsaid, and the odd moments of uncertainty in contexts overburdened with certain imperatives. I tried to do this by provoking and contradicting multiple voices: the ethnographic voice that promises to narrate experience as it unfolds, the hesitant voices of participants who kept refashioning their identities and investments as they were lived and rearranged in language, and the poststructuralist voices that challenge a unitary and coherent narrative about experience. 247

And her rationale for this approach is to remind us of the purpose of this kind of research, which is not to authenticate a particular truth but to trace ‘but not without argument, the circulation of competing truths’ (251).

The reason we might read and do ethnography, then, is to think the unthought in more complex ways, to trouble confidence in being able to observe behavior, apply the correct technique, and correct what is taken as a mistake. Ethnographic narratives should trace how power circulates and surprises, theorize how subjects spring from the discourses that incite them, and question the belief in representation even as one must practice representation as a way to intervene critically in the constitutive constraints of discourses. 253

Writing ethnography as a practice of narration is not about capturing the real already out there. It is about constructing particular versions of truth, questioning how regimes of truth become neutralized as knowledge, and thus pushing the sensibilities of readers in new directions. 254


I find this both reassuring and unsettling.

It’s reassuring because I think this is what I’ve done in my own writing, though without the sharp self-awareness and introspection that Britzman is so good at. I’ve written case studies with competing viewpoints from different perspectives, ethnographic opera.

But it’s also unsettling. Isn’t there something in all of this that is unsaid? When we write this kind of ‘ethnographic opera’, we make decisions about which voices to include, how to present them, and we make judgments about structure and balance and tone. Britzman says all this; ‘It is about constructing particular versions of truth’.

But what she doesn’t say is how this differs from writing fiction. Presumably she is using her records of actual conversations and actual observations, and she is not consciously editing these to present a particular point of view … yet she must be. I do. I can’t see how you can do a piece of ethnographic research without doing this.

And once you’ve started down that (very useful) track, where is the line between, on the one hand,  making decisions about (say) form and, on the other,  inventing dialogue, especially when in the end one’s purpose is to ‘think the unthought in more complex ways’ or ‘push the sensibilities of the readers in new directions’?

I think in all this I’m wanting to make the case for fiction, rather than wanting to cast doubt on Britzman’s approach, which I find stimulating and liberating. Perhaps I’m just wanting to go a bit further than she seems to be wanting to go. If all poststructuralist ethnographic research can be seen as ‘degrees of fiction’, what stops us from creating composite characters and inventing scenes?


I’d welcome comments from researchers or writers more experienced than I.

Research projects and abandoned mines

I’ve just come across a beautifully expressed antidote to my implicitly hubristic last post (Bleak House with footnotes). Conjuring up (for me, at least) an image of an ant’s nest, Clare O’Farrell reminds us that our work as researchers is important, no matter how limited its immediate impact.  Her post is called ‘The social utility of art and scholarship’.  She quotes Geoffrey Galt Harpham as follows

[Research is] an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations.

Clare then adds herself:

Harpham argues that every little bit counts and is worth the effort: an approach that one also finds in Foucault’s work. It is the optimistic view that every human action, every human investigation makes a difference, no matter how tiny.

All this reminds me of something that happened over 20 years ago.

I’d slogged my way through three or four re-writes of a book, it had finally been published, it had a brief life in the media, and then it disappeared from view. I’ve still got unsold copies the publishers sent to me some years later, when they were clearing out their warehouse. Though I’d loved writing it, and while the students I’d written about told me they enjoyed reading it, I was disappointed that it hadn’t made any contribution to conversations amongst teachers about education.

Then, at a conference of English teachers in Sydney a year or so after the book was published, I was tapped on the shoulder during a break by a clearly agitated middle aged man.

‘Are you Steve Shann?’ he said belligerently. When I nodded, he added, ‘Have a seat. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.’

We sat down on some seats in the conference hall, and he then proceeded to harangue me.

‘I’m a school principal,’ he said, ‘and I’ve been teaching a while and thought maybe I needed to freshen up my thinking a bit. So, before going on my Christmas camping trip, I went to a bookshop and your book caught my eye. One rainy day, my wife and I lay in our tent reading, and I started your book. When I got to about page 10, I threw the book at the tent wall and shouted, ‘This bloke is so out of touch, he wouldn’t know if his arse was on fire!’

He paused for a few seconds, and I had the impression that he was rather enjoying the panicky look on my face.

‘Then, later, I picked up your book again and continued reading. And there was this one bit, Steve, that really got to me. I found I had tears running down my cheeks. I was moved by those stories of those kids, and I’ve been telling my staff that they have to read your book.’

I have no idea, of course, whether they did, or what they thought, or whether it affected anything. But it was nice to hear that my abandoned mine (to use Harpham’s image) had been revisited.