SRHE 2016 Educational birds – Singing for freedom ‘Old Tongue’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Jackie Kay’s poem, Old Tongue

The following reflective pieces were taken as ‘fieldwork’ for our SRHE 2016 paper on metaphorical inquiry.

 

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Catriona:

This poem highlights the way in which language is part of our identity and that sometimes learning something new actually invokes loss and even a connection with the past.

This sad tale of transition hits me in two ways. Firstly, it reminds me of the trauma of moving to France when I was a student and being completely lost in another language before eventually finding all those new words at once exhilarating and stimulating. However, unlike the narrator in the poem, I didn’t feel like I was ‘turning back’ or that ‘I would have taken them in,/swallowed them whole, knocked them back.’ For me, it was quite the opposite and I was desperate to absorb as many new words and sounds as possible with the aim of becoming French, becoming other…

The phrase ‘It made my mother’s blood boil’ made me smile (and not only because of the real ‘Scottishness’ of the phrase – she may have lost her words but not the sound). It reminded me of how upset my own (Scottish) mother was when – as I became increasingly fluent in French – I muddled up words, used the wrong prepositions as I substituted French syntax for English. There was a sense of betrayal. Yet it was this love of French, this desire to become French that was my intrinsic motivation to pursue my studies and keep going through the PhD. I have never lost this ‘new tongue’ and it has enriched my language, my ‘old tongue’ endlessly.

However, I chose my exile. For the narrator in the poem, this imposition of another language and culture is not made by choice. It makes me wonder – given that English is the lingua franca of higher education – how many others feel like that. How many of our international colleagues or students are economic migrants who arrive in our institutions, their ‘own vowels start[ing] to stretch likes bones.’?

The sense of rage, of helplessness, and finally in the last words, of defiance implies that the ‘old tongue’ lives on regardless despite being ‘lost’ and ‘buried’, the entire poem itself rejoices in the sounds and intonation of that same language. On a very personal way, it also evokes my own transition into higher education where I was struck by the inadequacies of my own language, particularly in English Studies. Like the narrator in the poem, ‘words fell of my tongue’ as I was forced to learn and become fluent in academic English. I remember returning to my hometown in a former industrial part of Scotland where I was mocked for ‘having a posh university accent’. I had abandoned my roots.

This imposition of English, of academic English in particular, in order to succeed in the world of academia and its paralysing and empowering effect on both staff and students is the thread that comes through both of these critical reflections of the poem. In one of our workshops, which we ran in Singapore, one of the participants was herself a Scottish academic who had lived there for a number of years and she chose to read the poem aloud to the group. She wept. The act of speaking those Scottish words aloud that had been ‘buried’ inside her triggered an emotional response. But also, as her tongue wrapped its way round those long forgotten words, she still knew them. As a learner and as a teacher, her ‘old tongue’ continued to speak to her. Another layer of identity to be unravelled…

Jennie:

The most striking aspects of Kay’s ‘Old Tongue’ relate to ideas of agency. Loss is a consequence of compulsion, a driving out, compelled by unidentified (or unidentifiable) external forces. Linguistic dislocation is an unconscious reaction to relocation. The result of this is similarly unseen, the gradual processes of loss not initially perceived, cannot be stopped until it is too late. Words fall, lost – although not lost. They still leave echoes, and can be recalled and listed in memoriam. It is this memory of what was before which perhaps creates the emotional experience of loss more than the actual changes in linguistic register. This knowledge of the ‘wrong sound’ – can only come from a remembrance of the ‘right sound’ – which was homely, and in which identity and sense of self and the expression of that self were aligned. This dislocation of self – can only be realised within the person who knows the before and after. It is imperceptible from outside. The new words which ‘march in’ are not ghastly if they have always been your words – ‘scones said like scones’./ Pokey hats into ice cream cones’. The poetic richness of language becomes functional, imaginatively sparse, anchored firmly to a prosaic explanation.

This speaks to my own loss of disciplinary familiarity. When I was 28 I was forced ‘south’, changing fields from the critical traditions of English Literature, which celebrates subjectivity and creative interpretations, revels in metaphor and reading against the grain to academic development. Immured in the social sciences, I felt compelled to swap pokey hats for ice cream cones.

My ways of disciplinary knowing become Kay’s lost language. They stole away, did a moonlight flit, loading the cart with academic identity, confidence and prestige leaving behind only a debt of methodological uncertainty. What happened to these ways of knowing? Kay’s poem seems uncertain, they are wandering and might be found, they are buried in her new alien land. In my own practice, like Kay, I try to call them back, ‘like calling in the sea’. I want them back, I want the right sound in my mouth, the old disciplinary ways of knowing which for me are forceful, powerful vehicles through which we can know more profoundly. In order to engage academics in pedagogic exploration, I reach for ways of expression which ‘gie it laldie’. This power can only be mastered as Heaney phrases it ‘in the language of first utterance’ – which for me is the creative, the poetic, the subjective, that which is powered by the force of critical imagining.

Yet, I pause. Is this desire to ‘gie it laldie’ and to find succour in my old ways of knowing, even now my disciplinary bones have stretched, and as I have grown into a new identity, like calling in the sea? It looks like my work is having impact, but the sea would have returned anyway. Has my new language, the language of learning and teaching, with its frameworks, paradigms, and data, born of the social science ‘south’ stealthily become my own? Is this professed desire to ‘gie it laldie’ – to express academic practice in an ‘old tongue’, a tongue which is lost, just a performance which testifies to my loss.

 

 

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – singing for freedom ‘The Moment’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Moment’.

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The following reflective pieces were undertaken as ‘field work’ for our conference paper at SRHE 2016, ‘Educational birds: a hybrid metaphorical enquiry’.

Catriona

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.

Jennie

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”

 

A learning and teaching treat each day

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The ‘Cri’ or manifesto for academic moments of wonderment

In this post Catriona Cunningham provides the provocation for our first ’round table’ conversation. Focusing on the activities we developed for a conference workshop, Catriona  reflects on this workshop.  The other members of the blog team will respond to Catriona’s poetry in the coming weeks.

If you would like to contribute to the responses, please use the ‘leave a reply’  facility below.

In their manifesto for Creoleness,[i] the three authors proclaim that their language began not with a word but with a ‘cri’ – a sound that belonged to no language, nor to a specific culture, emerging instead from the land itself.

Bear with me.

In academic practice, we have no common language, no one language but across our organisations and institutions we do share common ground: we aim to enhance teaching and learning. In our workshop my colleagues and I wanted to excavate this landscape further – we wanted to (re) enchant the Academy, sing it into being. This was no song, however, as the lyrics and melody have not yet been formed. In fact, we were forging our own ‘cri’.

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The provocation

In the beginning was a sound, an unfamiliar flow of words in a language
That belonged to no-one in the room.
Instead the mind attached itself to tone, mood, sounds –
A kind of primordial soup, perhaps.

Then there was a four-sided object
Around which we asked you to structure your story.
Find the common language.
Find the words.
Shape shift?

Making connections was the next task.
Putting unrelated objects together to create
Something new.
Ha. Now there’s a definition of academic practice.

Finally, we all gathered together around a shared text
Read aloud by individual voices
That were at once quiet, loud, angry, hopeful.
A pluricultural and pluridisciplinary
Cacophony.

Reference

[i] Barnabé, J., Chamoiseau, P. & Confiant, R. (1989). Eloge de la créolité (In Praise of Creoleness). Paris: Gallimard.