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.
In the story I told a couple of posts ago, the King immediately sets off, filled with a sense of righteous indignation and clear purpose, and yet suddenly finds himself languishing in prison. He’s stuck. Imprisoned.
There’s enormous pressure on the Queen to do something quickly. To act. To move things along. To stop sitting by the window and get serious. But she resists the temptation, and takes her time. She sits in the uncomfortable tension, and waits for something to emerge. This is the mythopoetic version of what Margaret Somerville (2007) has called a ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’.
The story ends with the Queen and King in an eternal embrace. I was unsettled by this image when I first heard the story, but I now know how important it is. Without the King’s courage and commitment to justice, there is no story.
The story of the King’s call to arms and the Queen’s journey is played out in schools and universities all the time, though we tend to forget the importance of the Queen’s journey and then wonder why the King gets stuck.
Here’s one example.
We want our kids to be competent in reading, writing and maths because we know this is a personal and public good. Too quickly, though, we go the King’s route, and set up Naplan and MySchools, learning outcomes and year level achievement levels, none of which are bad in themselves, but all of which are problematic without the deeper knowledge that comes from the Queen’s Journey.
The Queen is there to remind us that learning to read, or becoming adept with numbers, requires engagement, immersion, play, experimentation and time to make personal connections. It is, for most of us, never a linear process. The King is impatient, wants to step the children through a predictable and ordered and efficient process. (Brian Cambourne described this beautifully in 1995 in a little article called ‘Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: twenty years of inquiry’)
Teachers live in this tension, trying (often with great success) to create spaces for the rich meanderings, the engaging play, but egged on (not always productively) by the King’s voice telling them to get a move on, to get serious.
There used to be a lovely ten minute video on YouTube (it’s no longer there, unfortunately) where Professor Peter Elbow talked about the writing process. Based on his own undergraduate experience with writer’s block, Elbow tells the story of how he discovered the importance of ‘making a mess’ before trying to make more clear sense of whatever he was studying. Step One: you just played freely with ideas, not worrying about their relevance, their clarity, their intelligence. You just launched yourself into a rich but uncertain and meandering process. Step Two: you took a step back from the material and brought your disciplined and analytic mind to bear to make sense of what you had explored, to sift and order and structure.
This is the King and Queen in their eternal embrace.
Cambourne, Brian. (1995). Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49(3).
Somerville, Margaret. (2007). Postmodern Emergence. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education,, 20(2), 225–243.
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.
Why did I hesitate when, last week, someone called my research methodology ‘narrative inquiry’? Why am I drawn instead to talking about ‘a mythopoetic methodology’?
Narrative inquiry, as I understand it, involves the use of narratives – people’s stories – to get at dimensions of a phenomenon. It sees these stories or narratives as forms of evidence, as data that can be drawn on to inform useful insight about the way the world is. Even the most subjective strand of narrative inquiry – autoethnography, the telling and analyzing of the author’s own stories – has this sense of bringing to the surface, or subjecting to the gaze, pre-existing data in order to study it.
Mythopoetics is about something slightly different. It’s about creating something new. It’s not about unearthing and making sense of what exists already; it’s not about gathering data. It’s about the scholar submitting him/herself to the novelist’s or the poet’s discipline, finding words for intuition and the products of the imagination, and then subjecting those words to the disciplined process of distinguishing between the clever and the authentic, the slick and that which resonates with how the writer actually experiences life.
I’m wondering if the different approaches of Jean Clandinin and Margaret Somerville is significant here. Clandinin’s focus is on the stories that people tell and how these stories creates identity: stories to live by. Somerville talks about a methodology of postmodern emergence, an approach which privileges waiting patiently and with an open mind in the place of unknowing, immersed in certain almost meditative practices in order to allow meanings to emerge.
Mythopoetics is in the Somerville camp.
If I’m right here, about this distinction, and if I’m in the mythopoetic rather than the narrative camp, will my faculty – see that there’s room for the mythopoetic in a faculty collaborative research project? As we investigate, for example, the field of mentoring and professional development in a climate that privileges accountability and standards, will those leading the projects see a role for mythopoetics?
As soon as I typed that sentence, the theme of my Prague talk popped into mind. What do stories do? They agitate, complicate, induct and animate. That’s the role they’d need to play in the bigger project, doing their work first on the research team itself, then as part of the research team’s findings.
It’s important, for myself, to keep in mind that I’m not a researcher doing narrative inquiry, but someone trying to understand and practise a mythopoetic methodology.
How do I come to know anything? How do I know that what I think I have come to know has any kind of validity or usefulness? Are ‘usefulness’ and ‘validity’ two quite distinct things?
These seem, suddenly, quite pressing questions. My workplace is moving towards a more collaborative approach to research. I’ve already begun work in a small research collective, and the signs are that I’ll soon be working in a much bigger one. The bigger collective will be working on projects of ‘national and international significance’. I know that I’ve been moving, in recent years, to a more consciously articulated ‘way of knowing’, which I’ve been calling here (following Macdonald) mythopoetics. In my bigger research team, I’ll need to be able to speak about what I think I can offer, as (for example) a research team investigates something like the connection between a nation’s desire to raise standards of professionalism and the introduction of accountability measures.
What contribution might mythopoetics make?
(I’ve picked this example because it was the question addressed in an excellent seminar at my university given by a visiting scholar last month.)
If I try to imagine a research team working on such a project, it’s easy to see how more traditional researchers might employ their methodologies to help come up with knowledge that is both useful and valid.
The statistician would look (as the visiting scholar did) at a wide range of national and international data to tell us something about student achievement, levels of teacher education, professional development trends, accountability measures and so on. The emphasis would be on the longitudinal and the big picture.
The sociologists and the critical theorists would contribute knowledge about societal dynamics and differences, and about the nature of the discourses operating (and their tensions), and about power differentials; we’d end up knowing more about the worlds in which policy makers, administrators and practitioners talk and think about their work, and about societal pressures that shaped certain decisions and outcomes.
What would mythopoetics contribute? As a mythopoetic scholar, what might I come to know about professionalism and accountability? How could I be confident that what I might know could be either valid or useful?
The mythopoetic approach seems to sit on very shaky ground. It rests on the belief that the unconscious is real, that it knows things, and that there are ways to access that knowledge. A mythopoetic methodology, then, is a communication between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Its sources are intuition and the imagination. It is, as Margaret Somerville has called it, a methodology of emergence. It involves patiently sitting with a question or an issue and allowing meaning to surface, then wrestling with what emerges in order to put it through some kind of refiner’s fire to test its validity and usefulness.
It is the methodology of the novelist and the poet, confronted with the blank page and guided by what emerges through the rigorous and disciplined attention given to the craft of creating an object that approximates, as closely as possible, a sense of the real, the authentic.
It is Proust coming to understand family, love and memory; Tolstoy making sense of war; Rilke opening our eyes to the invisible and numinous.
At this year’s AATE conference in Sydney, I was on the look-out for sessions that would help me think about what English teaching has become or is becoming in a changing world. One of the exciting things about being involved in a profession for an extended period of time is when we find a writer or a presenter who shakes up our thinking, shows us new possibilities for the work we do.
It was over 40 years ago, when I first experienced this. A colleague lent me a book called The Secret Places by David Holbrook. Here was a writer bringing the world of the unconscious – the worlds made more visible through the writings of Freud, Jung and Winnicott– into the English classroom. Of course it had always been present: poems and novels have always had a powerful relationship with dreams, intuitions, instincts, nightmares and the imagination. But Holbrook put two apparently unlike fields – psychoanalysis and creative writing – side by side, and the juxtaposition pointed to the powerful possibilities of allowing disaffected students to write more freely, to draw more confidently from their imaginations, to see their spontaneous imagery as being neither fanciful, distracting nor shallow.
There have, of course, been ground-breakers in English teaching since. But for a while, now, it’s been my impression that as a profession we’ve been more concerned with expansion (into the visual and the digital), classification (in attempting to name the proliferating strands of English teaching content) and consolidation (doing better what we’ve been doing before, often in the face of an unsympathetic neoliberal agenda). There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and indeed one of the best sessions I attended (Wayne Sawyer’s Effective Teaching in Low SES schools) did all three inspiringly well.
But where, I wondered, was the new thinking about English teaching?
There was a hint of it in the opening address on ‘The rhetoric and poetics of English, Media and Drama’ by Professor Andrew Burn. On the surface this was all about expansion, classification and consolidation. It made sense to Andrew (his presentation was so relaxed and informally inviting that it would seem strange to call him ‘Professor Burn’) to think of the ways that traditional English teaching, media and drama might work together to create a more embodied experience of story and culture. He showed some examples of student work created in this area of overlap between the three subjects. Here, in this opening address, there was the suggestion – as there’d been for me with David Holbrook – of what might freshly be seen if we brought together areas that in the past had been seen as separate.
But it was in the final conference keynote given by Professors Bill Green and Jane Mills –called Screen Culture, Literacy and English teaching: a matter of affect – that a more radical and stimulating juxtaposition was explored. In some ways, their intention was to point out the differences between film and page, and to argue that the discourses (and the use of the word ‘literacy’) brought to film from the world of literature – of analyzing imagery, finding words to describe meaning, locating themes, identifying techniques – was inappropriate. Film, said Jane Mills, is ‘beyond language’. Cinema, she suggested, is about the love of the moving image, it’s about bodily impression; the point is to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. To appreciate cinema, we must learn to simply touch the visual surface with the eye. Loving the screen with the senses, she added, falls outside the rhetoric of explanation. Experiencing film as it should be experienced, she concluded, ‘goes well beyond our current ways of thinking about English’.
The effect of all of this on me was not, I’m guessing, quite what the speakers intended. They, I think, wanted us to be looking for alternatives to our text-based language – the language of analysis, coherent narrative and explicit meaning – for our appreciation of film. I left the lecture theatre thinking about the importance of body and affect for English teaching more generally, including the way we study written texts.
What would English teaching look like if we were freed from the shackles of our curriculum’s emphasis on analysis and identification of techniques? What would the English classroom be like if, instead of studying Romeo and Juliet in order to help us ‘understand and interpret’, or ‘respect the varieties of English’, or be able to name the ways in which it has ‘the power to evoke’, or to ‘develop an informed appreciation of literature’, we instead studied it in the way that Professor Mills was urging us to experience film: to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, to touch the surface with the senses in a way that falls outside the rhetoric of explanation?
David Holbrook’s insights didn’t come out of nowhere; they came out of his time’s intellectual engagement with the scholarship of psychoanalysis. Similarly, the insights of Green and Mills come out of current scholarly preoccupations to do with the body, affect and the senses. David Abram wants to remind us about ‘the spell of the sensuous’. John Armstrong writes about the ‘secret power of beauty’. Giles Deleuze inspired a school of thought exploring the ways in which our bodies were ‘desiring machines’ affecting and being affected by other bodies. Margaret Somerville asks us to take notice of the ways in which paying attention to affect and bodies leads to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world. These are just a few of the scholars simultaneously drawing on and tapping into a 21st century zeitgeist which requires us to reimagine culture, individualism and the nature of knowing.
Perhaps Bill Green and Jane Mills are a part of this movement, suggesting that there’s a more radical imagining of English teaching that might bring it more in line with what our age requires of us?