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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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.

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?

Affect, art and scholarship

Earlier this month, a story that I had written with three young teachers was published in English in Australia. It is a piece of fiction, though we did try to follow the poet’s craft in that we drew from personal experience, we allowed our intuitions and our imaginations to shape what we created, and we worked hard to make our story ‘ring true’, to meet some difficult to define but keenly felt criteria of verisimilitude.

There have already been some interesting responses to our story. A beginning teacher wrote to me to speak of his relief at seeing in print something that made him feel that his own experiences were not isolated ones. An experienced teacher wrote to say that he recognised certain truths in the story about the complicated relationships between mentor teachers and those learning their craft in a practicum. Others, including one of my co-authors, have talked about the way the story changed their perceptions. It seems that the story has produced an affect, or many different affects.

I work in a university and I am therefore involved in research. Readers of this blog will know that I wrestle with the nature of my research. In relation to this story, the questions I often ask myself are these:

  • Is my research – in so far as it’s connected to stories like this one – to do with mapping and theorising the kinds of affects produced? In other words, is the scholarly act to do with stepping outside the writing of the story and researching its impact?
  • Is the actual writing of the story a scholarly act in itself? If so, what can we call this kind of scholarship? If not, what does it lack that scholarship has?
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

This morning I have read a wonderful book chapter which, while it doesn’t obviously answer my questions for me, certainly contributes to the complicated but interesting mix of thoughts in my head. The book is Deleuze and Research Methodologies, and the chapter is called ‘Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy’ by Anna Hickey-Moody.

I want to try to summarise the argument. I’m going to do this without opening the book again, because I know that if I do I’ll be tempted to quote large chunks of it, as it’s chock full of evocative phrases packed with resonances and (for me, anyway) affect. Her chapter rests on Spinoza’s philosophy, and on Deleuze and Guattari’s.

Affect is the imprint made on the body/mind by a body’s contact with its environment. With other bodies. These are not necessarily human bodies; bodies are assemblages of many different kinds. When a body is affected (made more or less powerful in its ability to act) by another body, this affect is registered in the body (as a feeling, or perhaps more as a changed state) and in the mind (as a thought, an image, an act of imagination). The body is changed by that contact. The subjectivity (or subjectivities) of the body is (are) in continual flux as a result of this perennial process. (As I read about this in the chapter, I’m feeling more light being shed in my labyrinth, more light on the three syntheses, and indeed a shifting feeling that perhaps I’m not in a Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth at the moment so much as exploring a tunnel or path or territory that is connected to other territories that I’ve found compelling in the past … there are links being made, and this is pleasurable).

A work of art is such an assemblage (in the case of our story, made up of connections and flows and interruptions made possible by the four authors talking, writing, being affected by each other, words being produced and seen and responded to, memories being evoked by the words and the subsequent exchanges, and so on). This assemblage is what Hickey-Moody (following Deleuze and Guattari) calls a ‘bloc of sensation’ … and here I cannot stop myself from opening the book and quoting her definition: ‘A bloc of sensation is a compound of percepts and affects, a combination of shards of an imagined reality and the sensible forces that the materiality of this micro-cosmos produces’ [94]. Art, she suggests, ‘has the capacity to change people, cultures, politics. Art is pedagogical’ [91].

As I read the article, I kept thinking of my two questions. Is she saying that job of the researcher is to map the affects that such a bloc of sensations produces, to document the ways in which art is pedagogical? Or is it to write about the world in such a way that our research papers (or our story, for example) produce affects, are in themselves blocs of sensation?

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.

Secondary English: lost in the forest?

As with all good mythopoetic literature, a folk story is  layered enough to contain many meanings, and the story of Hansel and Gretel is no exception. This morning it came to mind as I was thinking about an article I’d just read about English teaching.

First the article.  It is called ‘The Challenge of English’, and it’s written by a senior English teacher at a Victorian private school. (It’s a school that I have a family connection with, as my grandfather was its Headmaster for a while and my father was brought up on its grounds.) The author gives advice to Victorian students beginning their final year of English studies.

First he describes the nature of the English course. It is, he says, ‘an English course that develops a variety of language, interpretive and writing skills. It is a course based on the use of language; every outcome has language at the heart’.

He then explains how best to tackle the course.

There is an implicit metaphor in the way he describes this course, that of a scientist observing, dissecting, describing and analysing an object.

Students need to have a mastery of their texts [in order to develop] insights into the key themes, characterisations and ideas of the text. [Students need to] have a thorough understanding of the structures, features and conventions used by writers or directors to construct meaning …. In what ways do the narrators present their stories and what are the limitations of their narration in respect to biases, personal beliefs and their world as they understand it? This is the sort of question a thoughtful VCE student should be asking. [With the section of the course devoted to the language of persuasion], the task of the student is … to surgically analyse [the language of texts] to demonstrate an understanding of the ways language and visual features are used to present that point of view.

This is all good, sound advice. Given the nature of the English course, and the way student responses are marked against explicit and measurable outcomes, to advise anything different would be irresponsible.

But the subject has wandered far from where it has its home. And that’s where the story of Hansel and Gretel comes in.


Hansel and GretelIn the story, all at home is not beer and skittles, and the children – Hansel and Gretel –  are forced to leave and venture into the forest. They attempt to find their way back, but in the end are lost deep in the forest where, desperately hungry and tired, they stumble across a small house, tantalizingly made of bread, cake and sugar. As they begin to eat the house, an old woman comes out of a door, a woman who seems kindness itself.

The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said: ‘Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.’ She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.

It turns out they’re not in heaven at all, but in the clutches of a cannablistic witch.

Then she seized Hansel with her shrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and locked him in behind a grated door. Scream as he might, it would not help him. Then she went to Gretel, shook her till she awoke, and cried: ‘Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for your brother, he is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.’ Gretel began to weep bitterly, but it was all in vain, for she was forced to do what the wicked witch commanded

What was it about the newspaper article that had me thinking about the story of Hansel and Gretel?

It’s been my sense for some time that secondary English teaching, as it has been represented in curriculum documents and assessment protocols, has lost its way. It’s been cut off from its home (more about that later), and, in its search for some kind of recognized position alongside valued school subjects like maths and science, has tried to establish itself within the neoliberal discourse. It’s found itself feasting on a house made of cake and sugar. It has been seduced by the promise of rubrics and measurable outcomes into thinking that its real value lies in its potential to raise literacy standards and teach communication skills. For a while outcomes and rubrics gave us some relief, some welcome bread and cake, a sense that we could explain to the students what we were looking for and how they could succeed in our subject. But, instead, we find ourselves in a place where we’ve lost touch with our true home, the deeper essence of our discipline.

Which is what?

I’d like to come at this (in an attempt to do what good stories do) meanderingly.


Last weekend I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.

There’s so much in that book that made me think, both about my own life and about the world in which I live. That’s the thing about great books, isn’t it; they make you think, they help you to see more, they give you words for feelings or intuitions that until then had remained below the surface. They help nudge us towards a greater connection with the world: the world out there or the world inside.

At one point Winterson has one of her characters say:

I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

This reminds me of Digger in David Malouf’s Great World,  who was ‘dizzied by the world. He could never, he felt, see it steady enough or at a sufficient distance to comprehend what it was, let alone to act on it. ‘

And this, in turn, reminds me of Spinoza, who said that our limited faculties mean that we are only able to comprehend a miniscule portion of what is, a tiny bit of the vastness that only ‘the eye of eternity’ can take in.

Reading these things doesn’t just help me make sense of my own confusions. They connect my experience to that of others. I am consoled that it’s not just me that finds things so complex, so dizzying, so endless. Reading these things tells me something about the nature of the world. Ironically, I end up knowing more, being less dizzied, more able to join in.

I do not read these books in order to dispassionately observe, dissect, describe and analyse. They are not objects like that. Instead they are minds with which I strive to have some kind of relationship; they are voices I listen to in order to know more about the world that I’m in. The focus here is not on the text-as-object, but on what happens when I, as reader, open myself up to a conversation which involves trying to see the world as the writer, or one of the writer’s characters, might have seen it, or to understand something more about a character’s – and therefore a human – experience . I’m not outside, looking in at the text. The text and I are standing shoulder to shoulder, looking together at the world and sharing thoughts about it.

English has lost its way because its become text-centric. The proper object of study for any discipline is not, as the article implies, the text; it is the world in which we live, and we enter into a relationship with useful texts only in order to help us understand that world just that little bit better.


I want to explore this idea some more in my next post.

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.


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.


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.

An idea that feeds the mind wholly with joy

My writing has copped its fair share of tough critiques. I’ve told the story elsewhere of the reader who confronted me at a conference, suggesting at one point that I wouldn’t know if my arse was on fire. A highly respected book publisher (it was Hilary McPhee) once wrote in the margin of one of my paragraphs, ‘This is embarrassing to read’. Colleagues and reviewers often give me feedback which falls distressingly short of the uncritical adulation I’d felt sure the writing deserved.

Then, last week, I received a reviewer’s response to an article I’d submitted to a journal:

… the approach appears innovative but the article lacks substance. .. there is very little analysis here … There are also far too many rhetorical claims … The teacher’s role here needs to be given far more detailed treatment … [Ideas tend] to be unproblematically and somewhat naively dealt with.

I’ve been wrestling, since receiving this feedback, with two opposing tendencies.

The first is to worry that I don’t know enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t understood things deeply enough. The danger here is that I end either being frozen into inactivity or setting on the impossible quest to know everything before I write another word. The article under review at the moment is about Spinoza’s ideas and their applicability to education. I have read a fair bit of Spinoza’s work and many commentaries; I intuitively sense Spinoza’s grasp of something deeply true, and his ideas illuminate my experience. But there are parts of his writing I don’t understand, and no doubt there are important commentaries I haven’t read. There is an internal voice saying that I won’t be ready to say anything until I’ve understood everything.

The second tendency is to go in the opposite direction. I catch myself becoming too superficially accommodating. Because my job depends on me being published, the temptation is to pacify the reviewer in whatever way will get the article past the gatekeepers. I imagine that this is what students in my classes are tempted to do when I critique their work; if that’s what Dr Shann wants, well, I want to pass this unit, so that’s what I’ll give him!

But I’m 65, have read and taught and lived a bit, and I know from experience that resisting these temptations and taking the critiques seriously always improves my writing. (I rewrote the paragraph that Hilary found embarrassing, and many of the other paragraphs in that draft as well, and she published a book that we all, I think, felt reasonably pleased with.)

Usually an unfavourable comment is the result of flaws in my writing that have led to misreadings and misunderstandings.

In the case of last week’s reviewer’s comment, I’m guessing that the critic has misunderstood what I’m trying to do, and that’s probably because I haven’t been clear enough myself about what it is about Spinoza’s ideas that I think are so useful for classroom teachers struggling with the complex world of the classroom.


What is it that Spinoza’s worldview offers the teacher? I think it’s his idea that everything is a part of nature.

Most who have written on the emotions, the manner of human life, seem to have dealt not with natural things which follow the general laws of nature, but with things which are outside the sphere of nature: they seem to have conceived man in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom. But they believe that man disturbs rather than follows the course of nature …[But] nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to a defect in it; for nature is always the same and one everywhere …

Spinoza Ethics Third Part

The complex and often challenging world of the classroom seem, especially to the beginning teacher, a place beyond comprehension, an unnatural world where motivations are malevolent or mysterious, and where ideals are luxuries best quickly abandoned. Talk in the staffroom tends to re-inforce this unhelpful view of things. ‘They don’t want to learn. They’re just hedonists. There’s no point in trying to teach them anything.’

I struggled with this during my early years as a secondary teacher. My aims, I was sure, were noble, my methods were raw but on the right track, my subject-matter was relevant and intrinsically interesting. So why did some of the students resist?

Over time, and with the help of writers like John Holt, George Dennison, A.S.Neill, Michael Armstrong, Rudolf Dreikurs, R.F. Mackenzie, Virginia Axline and many others (all of whom encouraged me to understand the lived life of actual children, and to see that their actions, including their resistances, made sense if we took the effort to observe and think), my experience of the classroom shifted. I became more able to work with what was there.

Spinoza, when I discovered him while working as a psychotherapist, helped make sense of all this. Spinoza reminds us that all creatures in nature are intent on persevering in their own being, that all of nature is working towards increasing its own potency. When we know this in our bones, we experience the classroom differently. We’re less likely to be discouraged by the student who is challenging, and more likely to wonder how we might reach his natural urge to become a more powerful and successful adult. We assume that powerful positive natural processes are present, that these include doubts, resistances, uncertainty and instability, and that understanding and working with these is possible, healthy and likely to lead to greater teacher effectiveness.

All of this is linked with having some adequate understanding of the nature of things. Spinoza begins his unfinished work ‘On the improvement of the understanding’ (1677) with these thoughts:

… seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else (3)

love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength. (5)

The chief good is … the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature. (6)

A story that a former student of mine, Aaron Kingma, tells about one of his earliest teaching experiences illustrates this very well. He’d been assigned to a very tough class of Year 8s.

There were ten boys, all of whom had been placed in the class due to some combination of behavioural and learning difficulties … The boys “fed” off each other, and I was informed in no uncertain terms that it was an administrator and not a teacher who decided that it was a good idea to put them in class together; I heard quite a few jokes about teaching them being an extreme sport!

The first few lessons were a trying time for myself as a young teacher …

Midway through my second week with the boys, I had arrived early at school, was the only one there and had forgotten my key to the science block. I was sitting on the back of my car and trying to prolong the remnants of my morning coffee because I had nothing better to do than wait for my colleagues to arrive. “Jake”, something of a ringleader among the year 8 boys, shuffled past me saying “mornin’ Sir” in the gruff manner of a year eight boy. I watched him sit down on the steps of the science block, where to my amazement, he pulled out a dirt bike magazine and began reading it. This was a boy who claimed to hate reading, and vocalised his objections forcefully when someone tried to make him.

After a couple of minutes, I went over and joined him. I managed to strike up a conversation with him about riding, and he seemed to know everything about every bike on the market. I joked that I was looking forward to next year so that I could afford a new one, and much to my amusement he was quick to offer his opinions about which one it should be. I ventured a bit further and asked him where he had learned all of this, and he held up his magazine and said “from these”. Another teacher arrived at that moment, and I went into the staffroom with a new perspective on not just Jake, but his classmates as well.

Has this student read Spinoza? I don’t know, and that’s not the point. It’s more that Spinoza’s view of things helps us to understand our experience. Student behavior makes sense. There’s a reason why some students resist. Students want to learn. Our students are potentially teachable if we work intelligently and courageously to improve our understanding.

These are offshoots of an eternal and infinite truth ‘which feeds the mind wholly with joy’.