Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Moment’.
The following reflective pieces were undertaken as ‘field work’ for our conference paper at SRHE 2016, ‘Educational birds: a hybrid metaphorical enquiry’.
This entire poem spoke to me as an extremely powerful metaphor for knowledge and raises the pertinent issue of ownership of knowledge. In our current exploration of how students learn and in particular the positioning of the student as co-creator of knowledge. This shift in teacher-student power has implications for the role of knowledge in the ‘supercomplexity’ that is the contemporary university (Barnett) as well as who controls and therefore owns that knowledge.
In my context, the first stanza strikes me as an apt description of the PhD process. The fact that there is no full stop throughout the whole stanza gives such a strong sense of the length of the process. The positioning of ‘you’ at the beginning of the third line draws in the reader at the ‘centre’ and forces us to look inwards, to reflect on what it might mean to us, as individuals. This inclusive ‘you’ brings the reader closer to the narrator, but this sense of self that is brought out through the use of the word ‘centre’ is further emphasised through the enlarging sense of space spreading out from the ‘room’ all the way to the ‘country’. This vastness of time and space highlights the extraordinary depth and breadth we go to in our ‘voyage’ with all its connotations of peril and adventure to cross the threshold and reach the other side. The doctorate. But who is the gatekeeper? As the poem continues, doubts creep in, reading through the lens of learning and teaching, the imposter syndrome grows and ‘No, they whisper. You own nothing.’ The insidiousness of these voices, which is highlighted by their plurality imply the impossibility of ever truly crossing that threshold to the other side. The gatekeepers – for the PhD students – are their supervisors of course but they are also the academic establishment. The chilling words at the end of the poem ‘You were a visitor, time after time/climbing the hill, planting flag, proclaiming’ emphasise the precariousness of knowledge. As PhD students, with each new discovery, new reading and new argument put forward is the sense that you are getting closer to that moment of ownership, of validation. And yet, as the poem expresses so poignantly, this is an ever-elusive process. For once you have the PhD and you in turn supervise others, you realise that actually ‘the cliffs fissure and collapse’ as you are not really the gatekeeper you had assumed existed. The more you read and learn and even teach, the less in control the knowledge becomes and in fact the more ambiguous everything feels… Working with this ‘found poem’ in workshops, participants respond to this metaphor and begin to probe their role in terms of gatekeeper or owner of disciplinary knowledge. Discussions around whether we can ever actually ‘own’ what we know or if everything is in fact known only in its relationship to what has been before emphasises how individual our contexts are. This may seem obvious but in fact, it is not. When we talk generically about ‘knowledge and understanding’ as a key benchmark for our disciplines, this glosses over the complexities the poem draws out as well as the way in which the individual has been shaped by and in turn shapes their own knowledge and then translates it as teachers and learners. Without reflecting critically on what this poem as metaphor means to me, these messy layers of ambiguity would have been left unexplored and the assumptions remained under wrap.
The powerful inversion of ownership in the final lines of Atwood’s poem asserts an unfamiliar and uncomfortable authority. The emphatically end-stopped lines admit no challenge. What you thought was is not. Hard work, journeying, success does not mean possession, even though this is the story that you tell. The sense of just reward that you feel is fallacious. The right of ownership, not just disputed but denied, is not just material – of a room, of a dwelling, of a domain, of a community, of a nation. It is also deeply entwined with mastery of your own narrative, you stand not only in the centre of your space, but also at the centre of your story: ‘knowing at last how you got there,’.
For me this speaks of the reflective self, and uncomfortably confronts idea of the reflective practitioner that I promote in my academic development work. For example, I draw upon the work of social anthropologist, Geertz (1995) asking academics to position themselves within the parade of their lives, representing where they have come from in order to understand their pedagogic assumptions, and to ‘own’ their future development. It speaks to my allegiance to narrative enquiry which I believe sustains multiple truths, but which still creates ‘knowledge’ to be transferred and exchanged. I wonder, can you truly deal in that which you don’t own?
In Atwood’s poem it is at the point of certainty, of attainment, of tenure that knowledge disintegrates – melting back into its component parts. All which was comforting and secure retreats, ‘soft arms’ ‘unloose’, the language which you thought was your own is reclaimed, high ground is leveled, you have no medium within which to exist: ‘you can’t breathe’.
So, which certainties does this poem interrogate? What is this contested property? Knowledge? Narrative? Identity? When I first read this poem I thought of it as knowledge – that is imagined and reimagined, which belongs to no-one but belongs to the world. We stake our claim, we proclaim our interpretations (which we often present as certainties) but each fresh clutch of academics supplants our readings, rushing up the hill to plant a flag of their own. Like most academics I rushed to interpret the academic world through its research activities. But now, I read it again, and I wonder whether this could represent learning and teaching. We speak of ‘our students’, ‘our practice’, ‘our teaching philosophies’ – we impose ownership, we are recognised, certified, exhibited in offices, we tell stories of our teaching and about who we are as teachers. But perhaps Atwood’s poem prompts us to question this. Are the unloosing trees our students moving into independence, taking back their language as they learn and then unlearn, as they draw away do we gasp for air wondering how we can be teachers when we no longer ‘teach’?
If we relinquish our acquisitive grip on education, the story of our practice is no longer our story alone, and we can no longer be the truthful tellers of it. Rather we are the sum of many stories, and it is in the ways in which we are found by students that we earn our place in the world.
“We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round”