Where is my tribe?

My book, Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities, is written and published.

There is a part of me that wants to leave that project behind and get involved something new. But the unpalatable reality is that I need to be involved in the publicity and marketing for the book. My colleague Anita Collins has designed a webpage for me, at steveshann.com,  and I know I need to get out there and let people know about the book.

My website

My website

But who? And how?

A couple of nights ago, some neighbours came to dinner. One of them told us how a gardening project she was involved in at a local primary school was helping to turn around some disaffected kids. I asked her if she’d ever thought of becoming a qualified teacher; she’d be very good.

‘I’m way too cynical about schools,’ she said. ‘There’s so much pressure to teach the syllabus, to conform, and there are so many demands and rules and procedures that have nothing to do with good learning.’

Afterwards, I realised that she, and the many teachers who struggle to reconcile their ideals and visions with the everyday realities of the classroom, are the people I’m writing for. It’s the struggle I’ve been involved in all my teaching life. If it’s true that we write the book that we wanted to read, I’ve written a book of non-cynical stories, of stories that suggest that no matter how oppressive or pervasive ‘the system’ seems to be, teachers can keep their vision alive, their ideals in tact. The classrooms of these teachers are vibrant places.

On the long drive back from Melbourne last week, I listened to an interview with Seth Godwin  where he talked about marketing and finding an audience. He suggested that the first step in any successful marketing is finding your tribe, the people who are interested in the same problems as you are, and who want to know your solutions.

My tribe is made up of those teachers, many of them new to the profession, who are scared that the system will snuff out their ideals and their visions, and want to hear a more encouraging story.

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

The body without organs … further thoughts

Body without Organs

Body without Organs http://bit.ly/UCll3T

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.

Getting published

On the 6th of February last year, I wrote the following in a post on this blog:

This morning I began a story which I’ve called ‘Sally and the Universarium’. It’s unfinished and unrefined, and perhaps unwisely I’ve decided to post what I’ve done so far. Spurred on by a rather pleasurable hubris,  I’ve imagining myself as a try-hard Dickens, and am hoping that by publishing this first ‘installment’, I’ll feel a healthy pressure to finish the story quite soon … though I can already feel it slipping out of my control and wanting to go somewhere other than where I first intended it to go.

Over the following ten days, I wrote seven installments of the story, then took it down from the blog, tidied it up a bit, and sent it off to a journal.

This morning the journal arrived (Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education) with my story in it.

Seeing a story or article in print is a special pleasure. But there’s always that worry that it then sits there, between the covers of the journal (or whatever the electronic equivalent is), alone and unread.

So I thought I’d write a quick post today, giving a link to the story, and to the other four articles I’ve co-authored over the past few years.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.56 am Sally and the Universarium

This is a story, set sometime in the future, where Sally and her classmates visit an unusual building, the Universarium. Their guide, Wilson, takes the school group through a series of rooms – the Science Room, the History Room, the English Room and so on – which turn out to be very different from what Sally was expecting.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.10.23 amBoth Alike in Dignity (co-authored with CeCe Edwards, Libby Pittard and Hannah Germantse)

In September, 2012, I discussed, with three of my former Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education students, the possibility of writing some educational fiction together, as a means of exploring some of the tensions and challenges of the practicum experience. The result was a story about a lesson that Allan, a preservice teacher on his first prac at Nullinga High School, gives to an English class. His task is to introduce Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while his mentor, Susan, observes. Allan loves words and loves Shakespeare and he comes to the lesson with some optimism, despite previous behaviour problems with some of the students. He has a detailed and imaginative lesson plan, and, from his point of view, the lesson goes remarkably well. Susan, however, is critical. The story is about what happens next.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.01 amCommunity and conversation: tackling beginning teacher doubt and disillusion (co-authored with Hannah Germantse, Libby Pittard and Rachel Cunneen)

Based on the teacher education course experience of two students (Hannah and Libby), this is a partly playful (we made academics like Deborah Britzman, Jean Clandinnen and Margaret Somerville into characters in some of our scenes), partly heartfelt attempt to highlight the continuing importance of flesh-and-blood, face-to-face contact between staff and students (and student and student) in this era of online learning.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.07.51 am Mythopoetics in the English Classroom (co-authored with Rachel Cunneen)

 This is an article based around letters written to each other about English teaching. The language of story and poetry, mythopoetic language, is at the heart of our English discipline. It is language designed to enrich our comprehension of our inner lives, a language that helps us to see beyond the literal, beyond the world revealed to us through other disciplines like science
and mathematics, history and geography. In this it shares an epistemology with the other creative arts, though our medium – the language of words – is different. Our mythopoetic discourse helps us see the world more fully.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.08.23 amAgitation and Animations

At the beginning of 2010, I taught a first-year undergraduate unit called ‘Literacy for Teachers’. Something of significance in relation to the students’ learning seemed to have happened during this unit, and this article is an attempt to write about it.

This ‘something’ is quite difficult to pin down. Descriptions of content, structure and student responses are relatively easy to write about, and tell a part of the story. But there’s an elusive something else.

This ‘something else’ is connected to the lived life of the classroom: the moments of uncertainty and embarrassment; the false starts (by teachers and students); the yearnings and little risks taken; the personal projections and identifications; the wrong assumptions; the missed moments. The agitations and animations. These agitations and animations, felt and expressed more in passing moments than in statistics and questionnaires, have always seemed to me to be essential elements in the learning drama.

I’m working this year on the manuscript of a book of short stories, to be published by Sense Publishers. Some of the above will be included, together with other stories set in secondary schools and universities. The book is tentatively called Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities.



George Eliot, Middlemarch and ethnography

Can the fiction that George Eliot wrote be thought of as a kind of ethnography? And, if so, what implicit lessons might her work have for academic ethnographers?

These are questions raised for me by two texts I’ve recently read, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (read over three weeks of the summer break) and an article called ‘Ethnography: problems and prospects’ (read this morning).

Middlemarch is a wonderful book. Through reading it, I

  1. learnt more about the wider social and political contexts, in particular about class and gender relations, the background and intent of the Reform Bills, the impact of the coming of the railways.
  2. learnt more smaller contexts, such as the nature of life in a particular rural village which, although fictionalised, was clearly informed by knowledge of existing towns and villages
  3. reflected freshly on the nature of human desires, idealism, selfishness, solipsism, relationships, vicissitudes, and in particular about the co-existence of ethics based on aesthetics and duty
  4. was reminded of the way human events and relationships are shaped by both conscious and unconscious motivations and impulses, and how these are affected by, and affect, the bigger context (whether that’s a relationship, a community or a nation).
  5. thought about the possibilities that a member of a marginalised group (Eliot as a women) could have an impact beyond that assumed was possible, given contemporary notions about the distribution of intelligence, capacity and duty.
  6. contrasted the previous insight with the concluding thought about one of the novel’s main characters, who, Eliot wrote, ‘Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, thought they were not widely visible. Her full nature like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are no so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomb.’

The novel, in other words, engaged, informed and moved me. It had an impact.

The article on ethnography has, as its largely unstated assumption, the idea that ethnography – the study of the world through some kind of participation in the lives of human beings – involves the pursuit of some version of objective truth about what is being studied, and is a theoretically-neutral technique. The article traces tensions and differences between various groups of ethnographers, but rejects the idea that ethnography’s aim is just to tell one version of many possible truths. The author rejects the point of view

… that the choice of context by ethnographers is necessarily arbitrary, in the sense that a host of different stories could be told about any situation, each one placing it in a different temporal and spatial context. From this perspective, ethnography is simply one means among others for telling stories about the social world, stories that need not be seen as competitive in epistemic terms. Of course, given this orientation, there would be a puzzle as to why anyone would go to the trouble of engaging in ethnographic fieldwork. Why not just write fiction in the manner of novelists and short story writers? (pp7-8)

Yes indeed, why not, especially given what surely our experience (and novels like Middlemarch) tell us: that truth is an elusive and many-sided beast, experienced quite differently depending on the background and vantage point of the viewer.

How important it is, then, to represent the world in more complex ways, with many possible meanings present and possible.

How much more likely such ethnography (fictional or not) will engage, inform and move.

How much higher its potential impact factor!


 (Martyn Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: problems and prospects, Ethnography and Education, 1:1, 3-14, DOI: 10.1080/17457820500512697) in which the author

The Queen’s Journey: Meditation 1

In my last post, I wrote a version of the story ‘The Queens Journey’. It’s probably the story that has had the biggest impact on me in my life, and the one I’ve told the most often. I thought I might use this post (and perhaps the next couple of blog posts) to wonder aloud why this might be so.

I remember at school (now over 50 years ago) never being able to feel that scientific explanations of the world were satisfying. When we studied light, or energy, or momentum, or the periodical table, there were always questions unanswered. At the time, I couldn’t work out what the questions were, except they had something to do with, ‘So what is it that causes all of this to happen?’ When we were studying photosynthesis, for example, or life cycles, it seemed that the scientific explanations always stopped short of explaining what it might be that lay the heart of all these processes, what it was that animated them, gave them life, set them going, made them happen.

I went to a religious boarding school (prayers every day, chapel at least once and often twice on Sundays), and perhaps I might have believed that the answer lay in the Bible or in the stories the chaplains told us. But I wasn’t convinced of this either. Both explanations – the scientific and the Christian – seemed to stop short of venturing into the territory that seemed most interesting to me, territory which seemed connected to uncertainty, complexity and mystery. Nor did either of these two explanations talk to each other. There was lots of talk about complexity in science and mystery in chapel, but neither was quite what I think I was sensing was missing (though I had no words for it, no real way of articulating this to myself or anyone else).

Much later in life, I was introduced to Jung’s thinking, and then, through him, to the world of Western philosophy and discussions about ‘the thing-in-itself’. All that seemed much more interesting. What animates the world?  ‘Nature naturing’ (Spinoza)? Will (Schopenhauer)?  ‘The will to overcome’ (Nietzsche)? These seemed attempts to name what seemed to be left out of the scientific and Christian explanations. These seemed to be attempts to enter into a kind of grappling with mystery, complexity and uncertainty.

Then I remember seeing an interview with Joseph Campbell where he talked about the masks of god, and how we humans are not capable to looking directly at the source of all being, but can only get glimpses through contemplating masks and signs. At around about this time I began to realize that this is what certain kinds of stories did for me. They gave me glimpses. I remember writing in my Masters thesis the undoubtedly unoriginal (but new to me) insight that it made sense to think of our DNA as being animated by the same energy, and being structured by the same patterns, that we find in the big stories. Or at least that in telling and hearing these big stories, we were somehow ‘in the presence of the life force’. And that this was about as close as we would ever to get to being able to think about this ‘thing-in-itself. Or at least as close as I would ever get.

For me, the story of the Queen’s Journey is a story about what’s in our DNA.

I imagine DNA as being characterised by all these little electrical charges, full of attractions and repulsions, operating according to patterns that we experience all the time and yet which feel mysterious. We sense our lives being shaped by unknown forces, and at the same time we operate as if it’s we ourselves who are calling the shots. Active and passive. Potent and impotent. Attractions and repulsions. Impulses and resistances. Possibilities and limits. Lots of opposites, lots of tensions. Jung’s writing is full of them.

So is the Queen’s Journey.

Story as agitator

 The issue of impact has been troubling me. My kind of writing is unlikely to have the kind of impact that shows up on citation indexes. Perhaps I can strategically place my articles in high-ranking journals but that’s not the kind of impact my kind of writing is really after.

What am I after?

I want to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. When I write those words, who am I thinking of as the audience? Who am I wanting to agitate, unsettle, induct and animate?

It’s teachers and education students, people in the field, rather than the readers of journals (though, that’s not entirely true; I do want to find and involve myself in an academic community discussing the kind of methodology I’ve been exploring here). But essentially the audience I’m wanting to reach are the teachers who come to my workshops, my students here at UC, my past students.

A former student responded, last month, to one of my stories in a way that has become familiar to me.

Oh my god, Steve [she wrote in an email]. Your story. Just finished it. I am left feeling… feelings. …  I read the first half of the story, then I had a break for a few days, came back and started again from the beginning and [scribbled] comments as I read … questions and thoughts and connections. It started to feel like a conversation between the margin and the story because everything I commented on somehow came up later in the story, and a couple of times I just had to write “yes!” … [It] is so heartbreaking and raw… raw like a nerve.

I said this response was familiar to me. It reminds me of the teacher who threw my book, School Portrait, across the room after reading the opening chapter, then finished it and needed to get in touch with me. Or the person who moved house to live in Canberra after reading it, because she wanted her children to attend the school I’d been writing about.

Impact. I know my stories, my scholarship, my writing, can have impact; it’s a very different kind of impact from the one valued by universities.

But is it?

One of the things I’ve come to know about myself is that people value the way I sit quietly in a conversation until something emerges. This is connected to Somerville’s ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’, and what I’m calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’m imagining myself in a bigger research team, investigating (to use the example I’ve been using in these last posts) the tension between professional learning, higher standards and greater accountability, and making a contribution to the team’s understanding of the issues by drawing attention, in a number of ways, to the lived lives of actual teachers. One of the main ways I’d do this would be to write fiction, to tell stories concocted in my imagination but sourced from my (and other teachers’) experience, and told in such a way that certain issues or factors sitting partly in the background, factors rendered invisible by the garish bright light of the rational intellect, might come into view.