We know that learning happens informally and formally, and in all sorts of learning spaces but how often do we pause and consider the serendipitous nature of learning in all its forms? In this blog post Catriona Cunningham reflects on possibilities that open when creative and academic practices intertwine.
August 2016: Helen McCrorie stood on the threshold of her exhibition – opening the wooden door to allow us to enter into the dark and intimate interior of the former meeting house. A symbolic choice of location. We made our way along empty pews before nestling in the corner, right in front of three large screens which flickered between moving images. I could see the outlines of other heads around me but my eye was drawn to the murky glass skylight panel above my head, which cast a sombre light on the room; it felt like we were being watched from above. We were also participating in our own ritual. Our communion. With one another? With nature? With ourselves?
The images on the screen went round in a loop with no obvious demarcation between beginning and end – the ceremony is not the climax here. It is the process that counts. So, we watched the men as they prepared for their own commune. We observed one man’s everyday ritual banal and familiar as he ate breakfast and started to prepare for his initiation into the priesthood. We watched others, a collective of men, who banged and moulded the raw material of wood from their surrounding landscape to create the flambeaux that they would then carry through their local Scottish village in Hogmanay celebrations.
McCrorie’s commentary on these male rituals is far from neutral: the camera lingers on the physical surroundings of each context – the mysticism of the lay priest undermined by the sight of him sitting on the sofa eating his toast and marmalade or by the laddish enthusiasm with which the other priest embrace and slap him heartily following on from the ceremony. There are other juxtapositions: the solemnity of the male procession through the village gently parodied by the close-up of a can of irn bru or by the way in which one of the young man struggles under the weight of the flambeau. Male power and strength, both physical and societal, are thereby questioned and critiqued, albeit without malice. The voiceover commenting on the film is anonymous and androgynous. Ambiguity reigns.
This theme of watching, observing and noticing matters for the purpose of McCrorie’s probing bird’s eye view on our society’s male rituals. But the act of observing her observations inspired me to notice more closely and carefully what I learned. My role in learning and teaching positions much of my reading and observing in the domain of scholarly thinking, of pedagogical research as a way of informing my own academic practice and my work with colleagues as they cross over their own learning and teaching practice into professional recognition. McCrorie’s film made me remember how powerful art and literature can also be in shaping the way we think about learning and teaching.
These simultaneous films going round in loop highlighted to me the rituals of what we do in academic development and how little we question the process of how we recognise good practice in learning in teaching. Are we also trapped in the lacunae where we collaborate to ensure that the process remains the same? In his most recent novel, David Mitchell illustrates the danger of conserving the status quo in a most chilling way. Madeleine Mien’s novel gives us terrifying perspectives of the danger of sacrificing the collective for the individual and for trying to make education fit the purposes of a political agenda. McCrorie, Mitchell and Mien have all influenced the way I think about my own work in the last month alone. The theme of laddism; the danger of the collective; the purpose of society and its rituals. These issues all matter in higher education but it is through creative media that I understand why. My learning cannot be contained to the rules of the academic world. Can yours?
McCrorie, H. The Clock in Commune, video installation at The Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh Art Festival, August 2016
Mitchell, D. Slade House. London: Sceptre Books. 2015.
Thien, M. (2016) Do not say we have nothing. London: Granta.