Visiting the Morgan Library: intersecting worlds of scholarship and fiction

The Morgan Library

Around about this time last year, I visited the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.  The library itself is breathtaking, a grand room full of first edition books, priceless art works, and displays of fiction writer’s manuscripts and letters. To be in the room is to be in the presence of scholarship; this is what is must have been like to have stood inside one of the great libraries of the ancient world, in Constantinople or Alexandria.

I find places like this to be inspiring. They stir up in me yearnings to be a part of the world of scholarship, to join those reading and writing their way into greater insight or clarity about the way things are.

I discovered, while at the Morgan, that they had a Dickens exhibition running. Dickens is my favourite writer. He also stirs up in me yearnings to be other than what I experience myself to be.  When I read a Dickens novel or biography, or go to a Dickens exhibition, I find myself wanting to write fiction about the worlds of teachers and students, about the lifeworlds or the mythopoetics of classrooms.

This morning I opened a book about narratives and fictions in educational research.

Narrative … opens up (to its audiences) a deeper view of life in familiar contexts: it can make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. As a means of educational report, stories can provide a means by which those truths, which cannot be otherwise told, are uncovered. The fictionalization of educational experiences offers researchers the opportunities to import fragments of data from various real events in order to speak to the heart of social consciousness – thus providing the protection of anonymity to the research participants without stripping away the rawness of real happenings. … [These] are stories which could be true, they derive from real events and feelings and conversations, but they are ultimately fictions: versions of the truth which are woven from an amalgam of raw data, real details and (where necessary) symbolic equivalents (Yalom, 1991).

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press. p8

I wonder if this is where these recent blog posts are leading me and why I find Britzman’s phrase about ‘ethnographic opera’ so apt. I’m guessing that this is why it seems right that my blog is called ‘Degrees of fiction’.

The indeterminate zones of practice

Donald Schon, author of ‘Educating the Reflective Practitioner’ (1988)

…as we have come to see with increasing clarity over the last twenty or so years, the problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations …

These indeterminate zones of practice – uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict – escape the canons of technical rationality. When a problematic situation is uncertain, technical problem solving depends on prior construction of a well-formed problem – which is not itself a technical task. When a practitioner recognizes a situation as unique, she cannot handle it solely by applying theories or techniques derived from her store of professional knowledge. And in situations of value conflict, there are no clear and self-consistent ends to guide the technical selection of means.

It is just these indeterminate zones of practice, however, that practitioners and critical observers of the professions have come to see with increasing clarity over the past two decades as central to professional practice. (Schon 1988, pp4-7)

At a lecture recently, I urged students to explore educational ideas for their usefulness rather than fall into a kind of knee-jerk dismissal if an idea was presented in the form of an anecdote, or a speculative essay, or an ethnographic study. Here are the words I used:

At this stage in your careers, I want to urge you to be exploring ideas, not critiquing them. I think our education system has got a lot to answer for in that it instills a kind of knee-jerk critique response to everything we read and hear. It’s like sometimes we want to make judgments even before we’ve experienced the things that the person is writing or talking about. So I do want to encourage you to be exploring the ideas of [the writers you read, or the practitioners you hear], looking for what will be useful to you, looking for what unsettles you, looking for what nudges at your assumptions or informs your evolving thinking, rather than standing back and critiquing it.

This prompted one student to turn to another in the lecture and ask, ‘What’s Steve got against critical thinking?’, and another wrote on his blog:

… part of determining what ideas might be useful to us is surely to see which ideas stand up to, not just our own experiences, but also the weight of evidence, scholarly analysis and examination of their own internal logic and consistency.

Phrases like ‘the weight of evidence’, ‘scholarly analysis’ and ‘internal logic and consistency’ have a convincing ring to them. We live in times which value efficiency, ‘evidence-based best-practice’, explicit outcomes and measurement. We live in an era proud of the fact that we’ve put behind us the superstitions of religion and mythology and have developed a rational and hard-nosed aversion to anything which cannot be verified by numbers or logic. ‘Where are the facts? Where is the proof?’

We have heard this cry before, from Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times.  It’s an attitude which has seeped out of the scientific laboratory (where it rightly belongs) and into places where it has no right to be (such as the English classroom, where students are now asked to use the text as evidence for their ability to locate the meaning, a most dreadful perversion of the function of the poem or novel).

***

At Schon’s memorial service in 1997, a colleague said

Don shows us how metaphors tacitly invade our thinking to name and frame understandings. The heart of reflective inquiry, then, is to identify and criticize the mechanisms of metaphor that lead to understandings; in doing so, we manage to facilitate a process of ‘frame restructuring’ in which we come to new understandings.

What metaphor has tacitly invaded teacher education?

This morning one of our most thoughtful, widely read and engaged students posted a concern he had about a recent assignment.

I’ve just been thinking [whether] reading other student blogs for ideas, although it’s not the strongest form of academic evidence, could possibly count towards “relevant research” [for my assignment]?

There’s a metaphor lurking in the background here, an oppressive one that makes this student uneasy. It’s an epistemological metaphor, telling this student that learning to teach (or, at the very least, learning to do well in teacher education courses!) is to be able to distinguish between valid knowledge (rigorous, logical, evidence-based) on the one hand, and reflection, anecdote, and speculation on the other. One can sense the tension in the way he frames the thought: it’s like he’s saying I get so much out of reading my fellow students’ blogs, seeing what they’re making of things, learning from their responses to our readings or the lectures, or their experience in prac classrooms. But does this count? Is it valid ‘research’? Is this ‘the strongest form of academic evidence? Can I use it in my assignments?

Yoram Harpaz (and many others) remind us that we make sense of the world through our engagement in communities of thinkers, people working together in engaged and deep ways trying to make sense of ‘the indeterminate zones of practice’. Our common sense (as opposed to the confusing rational-scientific metaphor which has invaded our thinking and framed our understanding) confirms this. We learn to parent (for example) from bringing up our children and drawing on the resources around us (partners, other young parents, our parents, the books we read, the conversations we have with professionals in the field, the courses we do, and through trial-and-error), drawing on all of these to inform our practice. This is how we learn. Schon reminds us that this is how all professionals learn. Effective learning is that which is informed, useful, and which opens up possibilities for effective action consistent with our goals and values.

To learn to teach is to belong to, and draw upon, a community of thinkers-and-doers.  The hyphens remind us that this is one set of people, not (as some would have it) a world divided into two groups, the thinkers and the doers. These thinkers-and-doers include our teachers, our parents, our former teachers, our fellow students and teaching colleagues, the authors of the books we read, the presenters of the courses we attend.

To be in the grip of the scientific metaphor is to be made to feel uneasy about the fact that intuitively we know we learn from our colleagues and from our practice. If my student could more easily allow himself to be invaded by the ‘learning communities’ metaphor, he would know he could draw on his fellow students’ blogs if indeed they help him to understand, and to act effectively in, the complex  ‘indeterminate zones of practice’.

References

Schon, Donald A (1988) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

Dickens, Charles (1854) Hard Times

Harpaz, Y. (2005). “Teaching and Learning in a Community of Thinking.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 20(2): 136-157.

The dark hours that deepen the senses

I’ve been mildly unwell this morning, so I’ve been in bed for most of the day. For some of the time, I read War and Peace.

I just finished a chapter about a young noble woman being drawn, despite her French education and artistocratic background, into the spirit of a Russian folk dance. The scene is full of hints of the unconscious.

Rilke

The scene, the book, the day spent in the internal space of my bedroom with the door shut, took me somewhere near a place that Rilke described as

… increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret …

I love the dark hours of my life
which deepen my senses;
in them, as in old letters, I find
my daily life already lived
and, like legends, distantly beyond.

Certain literature deepens the senses and takes us into these dark hours.

Mark Edmundson, in Why Read?, suggests that this is one of the functions of the humanities in general and English teaching in particular, to help us grapple with the big existential questions like What does it mean to live a good life? How are we made happy? 

Humanism is the belief that it is possible for some of us, and maybe more than some, to use secular writing as the preeminent means for shaping our lives. That means that we might construct ourselves from novels, poems, and plays, as well as from works of history and philosophy, in the way that our ancestors constructed themselves (and were constructed) by the Bible and other sacred texts.

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?, p. 86

Thinking about English teaching like this (instead of thinking about it exclusively in terms of gaining literacy skills or learning how texts are constructed) opens the windows of the classroom and lets fresh air in. Students sense the relevance of the subject; it’s then connected to the questions that matter to them as they make the transition into adulthood.

1985 BBC 'Bleak House'

After reading the War and Peace chapter, I turned on my iPad and browsed through some old BBC TV programs. I found a 1985 adaptation of one of my favourite novels, Bleak House, so I watched the beginning of it.

I’ve tried to find a clip from the beginning that I could post here, but can’t. Let me try to describe it.

The beginning of the first episode is slow and dark, and I found it utterly absorbing. We see a close up of the thoughtful face of a young girl. There’s a grandfather clock ticking slowly in the background –  no music, just the sound of the clock –  and then we hear a woman’s voice telling the girl that her life is going to be a life of drudgery and duty, and that it would have been better if she’d never been born. We then see the child grown up and arriving in London for a meeting about a new line of work (no doubt involving drudgery and duty). She makes her way to the meeting, but we see only glimpses of her through a thick fog, various people picking their way through the mud of a London street.

By the end of ten absorbing minutes, I found myself asking questions: Was this really what London was like 150 years ago? Is this what some parts of the world are like now? Is such a life inevitably ‘nasty, brutish and short’, or is there room for kindness, as Dickens implies, on streets like these? Are people born to lives of inevitable drudgery? Does duty imply drudgery? They were my questions; another viewer would have others.

Then I looked again at the beginning of the more recent (2005) BBC adaptation. (You can view it here.)

2005 BBC 'Bleak House'

This 2005 version is so different from the 1985 one: the breathless pace and anxious mood, the switching back and forth so that we’re introduced to many principal characters and central themes (as opposed to the handful of characters and the single theme we experience in the 1985 version).

The 2005 version evoked new questions for me. Are the differences between the two versions reflective of differences between 1985 and 2005? Why do Esther and Nemo stare at each other in the street; is life full of encounters that aren’t planned but are somehow meant to be? Are there undercurrents in life that our rational minds know nothing about? Why are some people (like Lady Deadlock) apparently trapped in a life that they despise? Again these are my questions; a class of students would have so many different ones.

After watching both versions, I wanted to be reminded of how Dickens himself begins the novel, so I re-read his opening paragraphs:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor
sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As
much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from
the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a
Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine
lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots,
making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as
full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for
the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses,
scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers,
jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill
temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of
thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding
since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits
to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points
tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits
and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the
tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and
dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on
the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping
on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and
throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides
of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of
the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching
the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.
Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a
nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a
balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

This is rather like the 1985 TV adaptation. More questions. Were we in 1985 less aware of the possibilities of story-telling in film? What does the 2005 version do that is missing from the 1985 version? Is it qualitatively better, or just different because it reflects a 2005 perspective rather than a 1985 one?

***

We talk a lot about making questions the centre of our teaching. But , at least in the recent past (has the new English National Curriculum started to redress the balance?), these tend to be questions about texts as objects for analysis: how they work, their forms and features.  The questions that Edmundson is encouraging, and the questions that animate me (and, I’m suggesting, animate students) are questions that are more to do with life, with the real world, than with the texts themselves.

Texts as windows rather than texts as objects.

Bleak House with footnotes: fiction and academic writing

I’ve recently returned from two weeks in America, and spent some of that time at places like the Arts Institute in Chicago and the Piermont Morgan Library and Museum in New York. I’ve seen lots of very, very beautiful things.

One of the effects of all of this has been to prod my thinking about the arts, and their relationship to research. I keep seeing things that move the viewer or listener, and I keep thinking about the limited readership and impact of the world of academic writing. It’s not true for the established academics, of course – the Britzmans, Shulmans, Darling-Hammonds – but for people like me, it can be a bit of a game, where you get published to rack up the points but it doesn’t have much impact on anything real.

Perhaps the moment that made the biggest impression on me in America was when I visited an exhibition dedicated to my favourite author, Charles Dickens. At the entrance there was a large poster with an introductory overview, part of which quoted T. S. Eliot roughly along the following lines:

Dickens created characters of greater intensity than human beings, characters who belong to poetry like figures of Dante or Shakespeare.

As I read these words, shivers started to run along my spine. I had to sit down for while, before going through the door.

Why such a strong reaction, I wondered? What was it about those specific words? I think I located at least one part of the explanation.

Dickens created characters ‘of greater intensity than human beings’. He exaggerated virtues and foibles, traits and mannerisms, in order to explore and expose tensions and issues that were not seen clearly by Victorian England. He created vivid, complex worlds. His readers were moved. His novels had an immediate and powerful effect.

The contrast with the much of the academic writing that researchers publish in journals is stark.

Is there, I’ve been wondering, any chance of a researcher writing a piece of fiction – a short story or even a novel, or some poetry, or a film, or a photo story – which is footnoted and has an extensive annotated bibliography? A kind of Bleak House with footnotes? Is this kind of thing being done anywhere within academic circles?

I think this is where this American experience has been leading me, to thinking about the possibilities of an academic fiction, different from New Journalism (in that it requires a kind of explicit academic rigour not expected of a Truman Capote or Norman Mailer) but also different from more traditional narrative inquiry (because it’s wanting to go beyond using narrative techniques in reporting real events; it’s wanting to write fiction with composite characters and invented dialogues and scenes).