There are some kids who are plain unteachable

a-clockwork-orange-004I’m designing a teacher education unit I’ll be teaching in the new academic year, and it’s not easy to locate (amidst the seven pre-determined learning outcome, the seven mandated Graduate Teacher Standards, and the three compulsory textbooks) its beating heart, the thing that will determine whether or not the unit will have enough spirit and spunk to provoke, in useful ways, the students who will be here in just over a month.  Learning outcomes and Graduate Standards don’t provoke; they’re more like the sides of a cattle pen, making sure we go where those in charge want us to go. Textbooks rarely stimulate, telling us how things are rather than  inviting us to think, explore and create.

The unit is called ‘Teaching strategies and learning theories’. Yuck. The title implies that becoming a teacher is all about being told how research by theoreticians has led us to strategies that work. That’s crap. Thoughtful and resilient practitioners, wrestling with actual problems and drawing intelligently on useful philosophies and theories, have led us to strategies that work sometimes with some kids. There’s always more to find out.

I will require my new students to be thoughtful and resilient practitioners. Few of them will have had any teaching experience, many of them will be feeling unsure, and a few of them will be angry when they discover either that there are no simple answers. To survive in teaching, they’ll need to observe, experiment, analyse, adapt and persist. That’s what I want them to experience in this unit.

So I want to start not with the Learning Outcomes, the Graduate Standards or the textbooks, but with a Provocation, one that requires them to explore the territory described by the outcomes, standards and textbooks. Provocation first, not outcomes or standards or some author setting out the territory before the pre-service teacher has been thrown in the deep end.

But what Provocation?

There are some kids who are just plain unteachable.

That might do it.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.41.07 am

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?

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

Entering the Deleuze and Guattari labyrinth

It’s time now to plunge into the Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth, following the trail without knowing either where this trail leads or whether I’ll be able to find my way back to the Queen’s Journey and the line of thinking I began in the last post.

Yesterday I wrote about the first two synthesis, the connective synthesis of production and the disjunctive synthesis of recording. (See, I’m trying to keep the way out of the labyrinth in mind, but it’s about to disappear.) These are the first two of the three processes which are D&G’s equivalent of ‘the-thing-in-itself’, or perhaps more accurately the way ‘the-thing-in-itself’ manifests itself in the world, operates, functions. The first (the connective synthesis of production – Freud’s instinctual drives) leads part objects to connect and create and/direct flows of energy. The second (the disjunctive synthesis of recording) doesn’t just record/register/create some representation of the connections and creations and directions (as I suggested yesterday); it disconnects, redirects, prevents, blocks flows of desire.

This morning I’ve been re-reading parts of Anti Oedipus and the commentary about this second synthesis, the disjunctive synthesis of recording, and this is the trail I want to follow this morning. I’m not sure yet whether the trail is my own thought process, set off by reading this morning, or whether I’m actually following a trail made by D & G. We’ll see … perhaps.

D&G have this concept of a body-without-organs, with which these part-objects somehow interact, and which seems to have the function of buggering things up while at the same time claiming to be the source of all the activity. They describe it as being, or as having, a slippery surface on which the desiring machine’s productions are recorded (in signs, language, memory?). In this act of recording production on the surface of the body-without-organs, flows are interrupted, purloined, blocked, claimed. They talk about this as anti-production. It’s a kind of messing with all the production so that it somehow dissolves, is thrown back on itself, and then needs to be repeated (the energy is irrepressible) but in a changed or different form. The thrust here (or at least a possible meaning which makes sense to me) is that D & G are trying to explain difference, they’re trying to explain the inadequacy of the Freudian implication that we’re stuck with our neurosis/psychosis/Oedipal triangles, stuck in endless cycles of repetition. They’re explaining, perhaps, creativity, new possibilities, freedom from a process determined entirely by instinctual drives.

One of the examples used (was it in Anti-Oedipus or in the commentary) is of the baby’s mouth (a part object) instinctively attached to the mother’s breast (another part object). This is the connective synthesis of production. But the baby isn’t in the grip of this instinctual connecting and sucking forever, just as none of us are in the grip of our instinctual drives the whole time. There are moments of disjunction, or perhaps more accurately an eternal process (to do with signs, representations, memory) which disengages the production machine, where meaning or direction or instinct is repulsed by the body-without-organs, and a new form of production is therefore made possible.

I’m stumbling along the path here, and there’s not a lot of clarity. But I can see, I think, enough to know that D & G are trying to make room, in their metaphysics, for difference, change, creativity.

My Ariadne’s thread here is the Queen’s Journey story. There is difference, change, creativity in the story. I’m thinking that this is part of the DNA that D & G are trying to explain.

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.

Mythopoetics and narrative inquiry: what’s the difference?

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.

Mythopoetic knowing

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.

Creating accessible texts for our students

The great majority of my students complain that the literature we ask them to read in our courses, the literature we require them to reference in their assessment tasks, is dry, inaccessible and unhelpful. A few persist and find (as I do) a community of scholars which connects and extends. The majority do what is needed to pass, forget what they’ve read, and are then easy prey for the staffroom cynics who tell them that academic learning is useless.

Art Bochner (Bochner, 2012)has some sympathy with this majority. Writing about the kind of research literature which dominates our courses, he remarks

Readers are not encouraged to see and feel the struggles and emotions of the research participants. Normally, we deprive them of an opportunity to care about the particular people whose struggles nourish the researcher’s hunger for truth. Thus, narrative inquiry has evolved as largely a cognitive activity in which investigators present themselves as disinterested spectators, surveying, watching, analyzing, and reporting at a distance about people’s personal, institutional and cultural lives. Although contradictions, emotions, and subjectivities may be recognized as concrete lived experiences, they usually are expressed in forms of writing that dissolve concrete events in solutions of abstract analysis. The reader is left to look through a stained glass window, to use Edith Turner’s (1993) apt analogy, seeing only murky and featureless profiles. The concrete details of sensual, emotional, and embodied experience are replaced by typologies and abstractions that remove events from their context, distancing readers from the actions and feelings of particular human beings engaged in the joint action of evolving relationships. 159

He concludes

If our research is to mean something to our readers — to be acts of meaning — our writing needs to attract, awaken, and arouse them, inviting readers into conversation with the incidents, feelings, contingencies, contradictions, memories, and desires that our research stories depict. 158

I agree. That’s why I’m drawn to what Bochner calls ‘fictionalised ethnography’ and what I’ve been calling ‘mythopoetic scholarship’.

At the same time, though, there’s an inherent danger in this move to create accessible texts. The challenge is to resist the lazy or over-committed student’s demand that everything be made easy, the growing tendency in the current competitive higher education environment to sacrifice rigour for instant gratification. Fictionalised ethnography could easily slip down this slope. We need to write stories that unsettle as well as attract.

If, as Bochner says in this article (and I love the way he says it!), ethnographic fictions are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world’, then significant struggle needs to have given birth to the knowing and be a consequence of the telling.

I’m pretty sure Bochner would agree.  He sees these kinds of stories as being ‘a material intervention into people’s lives, one that not only represents but also creates experience, putting meanings in motion’.  157

 *****

Bochner, A. P. (2012). Autoethnography as acts of meaning. Narrative Inquiry, 22(1), 155-164.

 

 

A means of knowing and a way of telling

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

For months, maybe years, I’ve been wrestling with how my love of story (telling them, reading them, writing them) can be reconciled with the serious research/scholarship world I find myself in. Can a story be considered scholarship? I’ve asked myself (out loud, often on this blog). I’ve hacked my way (it’s not been unpleasant) through journal articles, and I’ve been connecting all this with things I’ve learned during my years as a teacher and a therapist, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that, yes, writing fiction can be considered scholarly, both because writers are involved in a scholarly search when they’re trying to write a particular kind of fiction, and the act of publishing the resultant story is a scholarly act in itself, because it’s a powerful way of communicating insights; I’ve suggested, in my writing and in a recent seminar, that a certain kind of fictional writing is both a scholarly method and a scholarly form.

If you’ve hacked your way through that last sentence, you’ll understand better my uncertainty about whether to laugh or cry. I’ve been trying to find the words to say what I’m thinking, my phrases are often frustratingly convoluted and unnecessarily wordy … and yesterday I picked up an article by Art Bochner who said all I’ve been trying to say in a simple, clear sentence.

Stories, he said, are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world.’ (Bochner, 2012, p. 155)

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Bochner, A. P. (2012). Autoethnography as acts of meaning. Narrative Inquiry, 22(1), 155-164.