A mockup of the book’s front and back cover

Here’s the latest version of the cover. Soon, I’ll write something about the image (it’s from a painting by Rembrandt), and why we chose it for the cover.

To see it properly, click on the image.

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On writing fiction as an attempted act of scholarship

RomeoJulietPrologueI’m doing my head in at the moment, trying to think about methodology in educational research. This started as a simple blog post which attempted to

  1. describe the project I’m currently working on
  2. ask myself if it’s a valid piece of educational research, or just a lot of fun
  3. wonder aloud whether our project is ‘legitimate academic scholarship’ and if the way we’re approaching this project might be dignified with the impressive sounding word ‘methodology’.

What’s happened, however, is that as I’ve been writing I’ve found myself  asking more and more questions and my thinking keeps getting tangled up. I’ve ditched several drafts.

I’m going to try again.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with three beginning teachers (two in their first year out, one who’s just finished her teacher education course), and we’ve produced a fictional short story. At the moment (it’s not finished) the 8000 word story is called Both alike in dignity, a quote from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. It describes a young pre-service teacher introducing Shakespeare’s play to his class, his mentor teacher’s reaction, and the distressing events that follow. We’re rather pleased with the outcome, though there’s still work to be done before we’re ready to attempt some kind of publication.

How have we got there?

In September of this year, I contacted these three students to see if they’d be interested in being part of a project to write some educational fiction. I described some of the relevant reading I’d been doing (Greene 1995; Stronach and MacLure 1997; Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ; Britzman 2003), and explained to them that I wanted to attempt to write a story, or a series of stories, that would in some way describe classrooms in a way that spoke to the complexity of being a teacher, that troubled simplistic accounts of a beginning teacher’s life. I wanted to look at a teacher’s work in terms of navigating a way through and around competing and intersecting discourses (Britzman 2003), intersecting life trajectories (Massey 2005) and desiring body-minds (Spinoza 1677; Semetsky and Depech-Ramey 2010). We would not set out, I suggested, to demonstrate any particular truth about any set of educational issues, but instead try to produce a creative piece which would evoke visceral responses and perhaps lead to useful conversations and even insights into the lived lives of teachers in schools.

Why fiction? There were two main reasons. The pragmatic reason was so that my colleagues could speak frankly about what they’d experienced without any concern that there might be repercussions for their young careers; we would create a fiction which, while informed by real experiences, transformed these into what Peter Clough calls ‘symbolic equivalents’. The deeper motivation was to draw on what is valued by our own discipline: we were all English teachers and we all believed that the creation of imagined worlds was a valid way of discovering and describing aspects of the world inaccessible to more rational disciplines and discourses (a belief supported by my own background in the ontologies and epistemologies of depth psychology). By writing a story, we felt we were opening ourselves up to discovering something. (And this morning I found a reference to a chapter by L. Richardson called ‘Writing: a method of inquiry’, which I will follow up when I can.)

My three students agreed to be a part of the project, and so we set about creating our story. First we talked together and wrote, them about their experiences and me about what seemed to me to be the emerging themes. I then produced a couple of tentative beginnings to a possible story (we still had no plot line), and we discussed the veracity of the emerging characters. There was a good deal of experimentation at this stage, with me drawing on my collaborators’ writing to create characters and scenes, and my colleagues responding, reacting, suggesting possibilities. Two characters emerged from this process. There was some initial antipathy expressed by some in our group towards these two characters as they appeared in these early versions, so we wrote to each other about how we might flesh them out in a more rounded and sympathetic way, how we might breathe some more convincing life into them.

We still had no plot for our story, and then I remembered an incident that had occurred a year or so ago and which (substantially fictionalised) might provide us with what we were seeking. I wrote a first draft, my colleagues responded,  and an iterative process ensued which saw me producing seven drafts before we were ready to show it to some valued and experienced outsiders. They, in turn, gave us further feedback, which we’re currently working with.

So, in conclusion, while the story was (in the end) written by me, it was a genuine collaboration: the initial inspiration was provided by the actual experiences of my colleagues and drafts of the early sketches and subsequent whole-story drafts were constantly being adjusted, reshaped by their responses and suggestions. While I have been the writer, and while the story has been shaped (largely unconsciously) by my theoretical lenses, it’s a story which has come out of our collaboration in its many forms.

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So, to return to my questions: what is the nature of the thing we have produced? Is it, and the process that led to its production, an example of scholarship? Is it research?

Before I try to answer this, I want to return to what I think is a relevant current preoccupation of mine, which is the question of whether English is a discipline (a valid and distinct way of knowing the world, with its own unique methods of inquiry and forms of representation). Bill Green and Phil Cormack (2008) and Robert Dixon (2012) have suggested that English as we encounter it in schools is a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all. I find myself wanting to suggest that this is precisely what is wrong with school English at the moment, and why students – in general – find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it.I’m beginning to think that we need to reclaim its disciplinary status, or to at least ask ourselves what would be different about our teaching of school English if we were to remember that at its core is the claim that to engage imaginatively with the world through what we read and what we write is to know the world in ways unique to the English discipline.

This is an argument which, obviously, I need to think much more about, both to test out its robustness and to tease out its implications. But it’s an important argument in my current thinking about the nature of our story-writing project.

Our writing of this story, it seems to me, is an attempt to use the methods which our discipline values (in particular, the way our discipline claims that an imaginative exploration through story gives us access to aspects of the human denied to other disciplines) in order to understand better the classroom worlds we experience and in which we do our work. The argument here is that the imaginative act of creating a piece of fiction is to draw on a valid disciplinary practice in order to see more of what is.

This imaginative move is not something that can be explained, though folk like Freud, Jung, Winnicott and Hillman have all had a go. It’s just that it seems to be a useful and disciplinary-valued source of insight.

But there’s a related argument which, while I come to no fixed conclusion about it, seems relevant here. Good theory helps us to see more than we would otherwise, and there are at least two theories that have informed my thinking (and perhaps have informed the unconscious imaginative act itself, though I have no way of knowing if this is the case and, if so, to what extent). A Spinoza/Deleuzian theorizing about desiring and relational body-minds informs the underlying ontology of the story, and Doreen Massey’s notions of the nature of space have directed my gaze at the way in which space is the product of relations. Her view of space is my view of classrooms and staffrooms:

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished.

Further, I’d want to make a distinction between research/scholarship that is designed explain what is experienced and that which has as its aim to make visible what was previously underappreciated or only partially seen (Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ). In our story, we are not just attempting to further our own understanding (standing, as we do, on the shoulders of the educational, disciplinary and poststructuralist scholars who have influenced our thinking and helped us shape our methodology); we are also attempting to contribute in generative ways to the thinking of those who might read our story and who might then find themselves seeing new aspects of, and reflecting in new ways on, their own experiences, perceptions and theories.

References:

Barone, T. (2001). “Pragmatizing the imaginary: a response to a fictionalized case study of teaching.” Harvard Educational Review 71(4).

Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany, State University of New York Press.

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

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. &. Cormack, Phil (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Massey, Doreen (2005). For space. London, Sage.

Semetsky, I. and J. A. Depech-Ramey (2010). “Jung’s Psychology and Deleuze’s Philosophy: The unconscious in learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory online.

Spinoza, B. (1677). The Ethics. London, Everyman.

Stronach, I. and M. MacLure (1997). Educational research undone: the postmodern embrace. Buckingham, Open University Press.

What if …

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’

Yesterday an English-teacher colleague told me she’d read a couple of my recent posts (Spatial Delight and What is) and couldn’t work out what on earth they were all about! So I thought here I would have a go at explaining them, and in particular what I see as their possible connection to our work as English teachers. I do this with some nervousness, as I know from past experience that there are things I think I know in my bones that somehow don’t make their way out from the inside when I try to put them into words.

Much of our educational practice is based on the premise that people’s actions are dictated, and their future constructed, through individual mental effort around objectives. Student A makes it her objective to become a better reader, or to lead a more disciplined and productive school life, or to get on top of a particular skill or topic. She then makes certain adjustments to her daily life in order to bring this about. Her clear focus on an articulated objective leads to a certain outcome, or set of outcomes. A teacher’s job, then, becomes partly to do with motivation, with making the outcomes seem both desirable and achievable. Explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi, etc are all natural and logical implications of such a premise.

There is, of course, a certain truth here. Our imagined futures, desired outcomes, do influence our behavior. It often works when we are clear about what we want to achieve, and then make adjustments so that we can achieve our goals.

But the problem (in education) comes when we take this too far, when we think that this is the only thing that dictates behaviour and constructs futures.  There is a whole area of life that is ignored when we focus exclusively on educational outcomes, as if they were the only motivators, the only means by which to construct a useful curriculum.

What is missing from this view?

I want to approach the missing part from another direction, by describing my secondary students’ reactions, year-after-year, to their experience of ‘doing English’ from Years 7 to 12. It’s something along these lines:

I used to love reading, and I enjoyed it at primary school when we were given an opportunity to write creatively. So I thought I’d really enjoy English, I was actually looking forward to it. But it hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. There was something about the way we had to read, and the way we had to write, that turned me off reading and writing. I found myself finishing fewer and fewer books on my own, and enjoying writing much less. Because I wanted to do well at school, and in English, I paid careful attention to what got me the best marks. I learnt the game, I guess. And I’ve done OK. But I haven’t enjoyed it. I really look forward to the holiday when I can read for my own pleasure. And writing? I don’t know. Will I ever get a chance to write about what I read in a way that actually takes me deeper into the book, that increases my appreciation of it? The writing I do at school gets me good marks, but that’s all.

[See also a blog post I wrote – Play the game – after one of my Year 11 classes.]

There are English teachers  in every school who manage to transcend this tendency, who manage to build on students love of stories and words and ideas so that they come out of English classrooms more knowledgeable, more stimulated, more deeply aware of dimensions of texts or possibilities in their writing. But these teachers, I’m wanting to contend, work beyond the influence of explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi.

It’s something to do with how we conceive of the space in which learning takes place.

To imagine that learning comes about as a result of explicit and focused attention on outcomes is to imagine space as a closed system, where behaviours are shaped by a student’s relationship to defined endpoints. Student X succeeds because he is motivated to achieve Outcome B; Student Y fails because she either cannot or will not submit. The teacher’s plans are predicated on this notion of a closed system which she can, to a large extent, control. The teacher succeeds when she gets all or most of the students in the class to Outcome C; she fails when she cannot.

This is an outdated view of what is. We live not in closed and controlled systems, but in open, dynamic, unpredictable and messy ones. Spinoza painted a picture of the world as being made up of desiring body/minds affecting other body/minds as they bumped into each other, an idea which found its echoes in chaos theory and was given 20th century currency in the humanities by intellectuals such as Giles Deleuze. This is a world of interactions, of relationships, of animated bodies affecting unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes, or, more accurately, where there are no fixed outcomes but just more unfoldings of inter-relational processes. It is what is brought to the classroom – through the body/minds of interacting teachers and students – that determines what happens there, not single-minded adherence to a particular set of explicit outcomes.

When, in an earlier post, I quoted Doreen Massey about the nature of space, what I was trying to say was that if we conceive of the space which is the English classroom in the same way as Massey describes all space, then we see beyond the superficiality of outcomes, rubrics, scope-and-sequences, lesson plans (necessary parts of the picture though these might be). I’m stimulated by the following paragraph because of it describes so much more fully what actually goes on in an enlivened English classroom.

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished. Here, then, space is indeed a product of relations …, and for that to be so there must be multiplicity … However, these are not the relations of a coherent, closed system within which, as they say, everything is (already) related to everything else. Space can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else. A space, then, which is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too. (Massey For Space 11-12)

I called an earlier blog post What is, and I did this because I think Massey is trying to describe space in a way that helps us to see more clearly ‘what is’. Her description of space is closer to the way the world is than some previous descriptions, including the way classrooms have been conceived.

I’ve called this one ‘What if?’, because I’m wanting to explore the following question:

What if we thought about classrooms, about English teaching, about learning as an open interactional space in the way Doreen Massey describes it?

What is

Since the group met earlier this week to share thoughts on the first two chapters of Massey’s For Space, I’ve been sniffing around the rest of the book, opening it at random and reading a paragraph or a small section, trying to find my way into her way of seeing the world. I’m gradually getting a stronger sense of her notion of space as alive, many-layered, open-ended, relational, the meeting place of many trajectories (human and other) of stories-so-far.

It has been sounding very familiar, like I’ve heard another, closely related version of this ontology before. This morning I think I found the connection.

I’ve been wondering whether, in Massey’s view of things, the intra-psychic has a place. What is it, in other words, that gives people (and things) the impetus to enter Massey’s space? What motivates us? What is the nature of our desire?

For some time, I’ve found Spinoza’s to be the most convincing explanation. Everything has an inbuilt desire (conatus) to preserve and grow its own being; this desire is inevitably relational (depends upon others for its fulfillment); and so all beings (animate and inanimate) are necessarily relational. We inhabit Massey’s space because we must be relational.

This line of thinking, this need to find some kind of connection between Spinoza’s philosophy and Massey’s book, is the result of conversations with a colleague about the intra-psychic. Do we need to turn away from our 19th and 20th century’s preoccupation with individual psychology in order to live differently with 21st century challenges? (The brilliant James Hillman, who died late last year, wrote a book called We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse.) Or is there another, more Spinozan way conceiving the individual and his/her desires, instincts and motivations?

So this morning I turned to the index of the Massey book to see if there was a reference to Spinoza. And there was! Massey draws on Gatens and Lloyd’s “absorbing interpretation of Spinoza” in Collective Imaginings, 1999:

Crucial to their argument is the idea of a ‘basic sociability which is inseparable from the understanding of human individuality’ p14 of Gatens and Lloyd, quoted p 188 of Massey’s For Space.

Why does all this matter? Why would it matter to me as a researcher, or to teachers in their classrooms?

It matters to me – and I think it can matter to teachers – because the more clear we are about what is, the more we see, then the greater our chances of acting with effect. I am aware that this sounds like a very old-fashioned view of the existence of The Truth. A colleague keeps telling me that it’s all about finding truths, not a single truth. Yet it seems to me that the philosophical project, if it’s to have an impact on the way people see, experience and act in the world, must necessarily be about trying to discover more and more about what is.

I think that this might be what Massey is arguing too, when she says her project about space is a political project about action in the world.

Spatial delight

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished. Here, then, space is indeed a product of relations …  and for that to be so there must be multiplicity …. However, these are not the relations of a coherent, closed system within which, as they say, everything is (already) related to everything else. Space can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else. A space, then, which is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too. (Massey 2005)

Yesterday a colleague with a particular interest in the work of Doreen Massey invited a number of us to share some thoughts about the opening chapters of For Space.  I’ve never read any of her before, and found some of it puzzling or impenetrable, as I almost always do with a new author who is asking me to think in different ways. But there was enough in the first couple of chapters to make me want to hear more, and it was good to hear the others talking about this, particularly as Massey’s ideas so clearly animated their thinking.

I especially enjoyed listening to the group talking about the enlivened, relational and open space that Massey describes; Massey originally wanted to call her book ‘Spatial delight’. I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic, or at least for there to be a reason for engaging strongly with the world, at a time when too much seems to be happening at an uncontrollable pace in an inevitable and bleak direction. It’s not easy to care and to work when you think it’s all stuffed. I’ve been conscious of fighting against this feeling, and looking rather desperately for signs that it matters what we do.

So the discussion was heartening. It was good to hear about this thinker whose disciplined thinking about space has caused her delight, and has opened up possibilities for engagement with the world.

Then, as we were talking about these two early chapters, and as some of the group were describing Massey’s concept of space – connections yet to flower into interaction, relations forming, multiplicity, an open space of loose ends and possibilities, of intersecting trajectories and of a world being made – I suddenly found myself thinking about my English classroom, in the days when I was an English teacher.

I was an early advocate, in our staffroom, of outcomes and rubrics. I used to think these were such useful ways of making our values and teaching more helpfully obvious to the students. But it wasn’t long before I felt their restricting influence, and during yesterday’s discussion I saw, with greater clarity,  the reasons why.

My English classroom worked best when I allowed myself to be open to its nature as a relational, open, storied space, as a place where the students (and I) allowed our intersecting storied trajectories to surface and, in our engagement with literature of one kind or another, where we went in unpredictable and various ways to making new connections and having new (sometimes troubling) insights.

Outcomes worked against this. As soon as I tried to frame a lesson or project around outcomes (‘students will understand …’, ‘students will be able to …’ ‘students will know …’), I was attempting to create a closed and predictable system. I always, always, had the uncomfortable feeling that this kind of ‘teaching to the outcomes’ was closing down possibilities, that it was squeezing the potential life out of the space.