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”

 

Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.

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Once upon a time….

InviteIn this post we outline the rationale behind a workshop that we facilitated at the Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. We also share resources that provide opportunities for colleagues to reflect on how they might engage students using a range of stimulae – poetic, narrative, experiential and somatic.

Our story begins…

Once upon a time a long time ago the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. One day a wicked fairy cast a spell on the lovely princess, cursing her to never learn. The alarmed King locked the princess far away from the world in a high ivory tower. In time the princess was granted 3 A’ levels and set out for university. But one day, quite unexpectedly, the princess fell into a deep intellectual stupor. Her teachers lectured and talked, and talked and lectured, but the princess never seemed to learn. Each term she sat an exam, and each term she passed her exam, but at the beginning of the next term she had forgotten everything that she had known. The King and Queen despaired.

One day four benevolent fairies appeared and endeavoured to lift the hateful curse which blighted the princess’s university life:

Poésie, who spoke in many tongues and was the most charming fairy of all, offered a linguistic charm, ‘Whosoever reads these words shall feel at ease with the whole world, and will never feel doubt or shame even though their tongue may stumble over unfamiliar sounds and concepts. I give you the gift of confidence.’

Tale, who was never quite in the real world and who aspired to panache, brought a storybook, filled with devices, fancies and imaginings, ‘Whosoever lives these stories shall have the fairest prose of all. I give you the gift of academic writing.’

Sentio, who was a very practical fairy who applied herself to every task, brought a puzzle, ‘Whosoever puzzles this puzzle will grow wiser and wiser as each day passes. I give you the gift of reflection.’

Mind, an unassuming fairy who thought about everything a lot, brought nothing and said nothing, but offered the rarest gift of all: silence. Quieting the noise of the world, Mind gave the gift of concentration.

Why a fairy tale?

In keeping with the theme of the conference, we were inviting our colleagues to suspend the rational world of enhancement and embark upon a journey to a realm of enchantment. It was our job, as facilitators, to create a space in which that realm could be constituted – a space ‘in which it is once more possible to think’ (Foucault, 1970).

Excavating that space from the silted-up landscape of an academic conference – enchantment obscured under layer upon layer of convention, physical and intellectual: congested rows of chairs, an awkward rattle of cups and saucers, knee-balanced laptops and academic posturing, the imposition of ill-fitting theory, and the tyranny of properly referenced slides – is never an easy thing!

We are creatures of habit and convention, and do not always react well when our expectations are disrupted. But we were convinced that the value of our workshop – the possibilities for enchantment – lay in our colleagues experiencing for themselves the activities we had designed rather than listening to us explain the theoretical underpinning for our practice. The use of fairy tale was an interpellation to possible attendees – we are going to try something new, please come and join us if you think this might be your kind of thing!

But what do you do with all the theory and the explanations if you don’t want them cluttering up your space? It felt like it wouldn’t be enough to just demonstrate the activities and end with ‘trust us, this works!’.

Our solution was to create an additional online space where we could deposit the ‘useful clutter’. We then invited our colleagues – we handed out hard-copy invitations to delegates (see above) – that included the URL so that they could access these resources either before or after the workshop.

You are cordially invited….

If you would like to share in and comment on the resources we created for this workshop, please click on the links below

Poésie’s gift of confidence.

Tale’s gift of academic writing.

Sentio’s gift of reflection.

Mind’s gift of concentration.

Tale’s gift of academic writing

In this post Jennie Mills shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

The activity

This workshop activity harnessed the shared culture of fairy tales, and the inherent pleasure of stories, not as a prompt to reflection, but as a stimulus to action in order to transform academic writing.

In order to engage participants with Helen Sword’s elements of stylish academic writing, I translated some of her main tenets into the familiar apparatus of fairy tales:

  • frogs that change into princes represented how worthy academic titles can be transformed into engaging, illustrative and playful proclamations;
  • a lost glass slipper represented concrete nouns – actual people doing things to actual objects;
  • sleeping princesses represented characters – heroes, villains, agents of transformation;
  • tall towers represented settings – locations in time and space which ground the abstract in the concrete;
  • talking mirror represented what Sword calls ‘voice and echo’ – identifying the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in the text, eschewing the passive voice, and abandoning assumed authority;
  • and finally, an illustration of a fairy reading a book represented narrative sequence, the structure which puts all these elements into play with each other, and which asks the author what story do they want to tell?

Each of these was one face on a cube, and each cube was accompanied by a ‘key’ which offered more detail and questions and instructions.  Each group was given one cube, one key and an abstract taken from a randomly selected academic journal (all the abstracts were listed as ‘most cited’ or ‘most read’). The task was to roll the ‘story cube’ and re-write the abstract following which ever principle landed face-up in just 5 minutes. Using the abstract was a convenient way to provide an example of academic writing in order to model this approach, in order to encourage participants to use these principles in their own writing and as a tool to explore academic writing with their students. It may be more effective to use the technique on examples of their own writing.

Each group chose one of their re-written sentences to read out, starting with the original version and then offered their new story cubed version. The transformations were striking – and effectively made the point that writing in a direct way communicated complex ideas in a more engaging way than writing in academese.

Discussion

This activity used elements of fairy tales as metaphor, but didn’t really engage with fairy tales as narrative. Is there an engagement with fairy tale which is more authentic?

Please use the comment facility below to contribute to the discussion.

Sentio’s gift of reflection

In this post Natasha Taylor shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

The activity

Sentio’s story is about ‘learning by doing’. It is about transforming experiences into moments of wonderment.

In the slideshare ‘space ‘ participants were encouraged to imagine a world in which students are the best possible learners. They immerse themselves in the lecture experience, taking in the information presented to them and thinking about how it applies to the wider subject. They embrace seminars with enthusiasm, raising questions and exploring answers with each other. They complete their assessments, demonstrating they have achieved a critical understanding of the topic.

In appreciative inquiry terms, this process of ‘envisioning what might be’ is underpinned by the anticipatory principle; what we do today is guided by our image of the future. It sets the tone for what is to come in the workshop space.

All of our activities were rooted in experiential learning.  My activity involved a puzzle. Participants were split into groups of 4. In turns, one group at a time, they came to the puzzle table. In front of them was a set of equipment.

Teams were given the instruction that they had to use all of the equipment to make the bongos play, without typing keys on the keyboard. They were given 90 seconds to solve the puzzle. After the time had timed out, the group returned to their seats and the equipment was disconnected and laid out afresh in preparation for the next group.

The Makey Makey was chosen primarily because it provides a quick and accessible task for groups of different backgrounds.  The bongos and bananas work because they are  fun, non-threatening items. The cartoon-style illustrations gave the task the feel of a game. Music here is about simple sound making. It is a visual, aural and tactile activity, The task is not oriented towards a specific topic or piece of knowledge so everyone approaches it on equal footing (arguably though it is about electronic circuits and you may have someone in the group who analyses the problem in that way).

In order to connect the bananas to the bongos, two of the leads were needed. Each lead needed to be connected to a banana at one end, and the Makey Makey circuit board at the other.  However, simply doing this was not the end of the puzzle; tapping the bananas at this stage does not work. The key to working out this problem was to trace the circuit and to recognise that it had to be earthed. In practical terms this meant little more than connecting one wire to the ‘earth’ connection on the circuit board and holding the other end in the hand to complete the circuit. Once the circuit is complete, one can make each bongo play in turn by tapping the bananas with the hands.

The interesting thing about using the Makey Makey was that it also works at another level – it turns the table into a ‘maker space’. The inventors of Makey Makey developed it as a tool for exploring the world around us in different ways. They argue we can all participate in changing the way in which the world works. Makey Makey is a tool for helping people to see what is possible and see themselves as agents of creative change in their real lives. It allows anyone to ‘smash’ computers with every day objects. It is inspiring at an abstract, motivational level, but there are practical applications. Maybe we could turn a stair case into a piano to encourage people to exercise. Maybe we could use a simple household object to help people with disabilities to use the computer. The key is that a perfect world cannot be created by one or two experts and helping our students to realise this opens their minds to the exciting world of knowledge.

There was the great potential for learning to take place in the short space of 90 seconds. The puzzle tests team roles, abilities to work strategically, understanding how circuits work, experimenting with conductive and non conductive materials. If that had been the end of the puzzle and I just gave the class the answer, what would they take away with them? A memory that they had done something fun/a bit strange? But what else?

The puzzle activity was not about demonstrating that experiential learning is good. It is – hopefully all four of our activities demonstrated this – but I wanted to expose the idea tthat experience  alone is rarely sufficient for learning. In order for it to have deep impact (and become a moment of wonderment) there has to be reflection. Authentic and meaningful reflection is an important part of the learning process. It fosters critical thinking, connections, deep understanding, and metacognition.

Reflection is a bit like exercise. We all know that it has benefits, we know it is something we should do, we know the basic principles of how to do it. But we struggle to make time for it and make excuses for not doing it. Sometimes we hope it just happens anyway, embedded in all the other stuff we do.

As teachers and academics, we know our students should reflect on their learning experiences, and we probably tell them. But I suggest they need help and guidance to better understand how to do it.

One way of doing this is by teaching them to ‘freewrite’.  Freewriting is a technique popular amongst writers for increasing productivity, confidence and creativity. It is useful for tackling writer’s block.

In the simplest terms, you set a time limit and then just write. You have to keep your hand moving or your fingers typing at all times; you must keep writing even if your mind wanders or goes blank. If you are bored or distracted, ask yourself what is bothering you and write about that. You should not worry about spelling or grammar and you should not pause to read over your work and correct mistakes. You have to carry on writing, no matter how much you think it might be nonsense.  When the time is up, read through what you have written and highlight any useful sections that you want to come back to.

This is an approach which can be used in a number of different ways with students.  You could use it at the start of the class to get students to reflect on the level of understanding of a topic they currently have (what have they learned up until this point). You can use it at the end of a class to help students reflect on what they have heard/seen/done and identify and areas of misunderstanding. You could use it in one of those tricky moments when students are silent and unwilling to discuss things in small groups. Or where a class discussion is too intense, to get students to refine in their minds the contribution they want to make.

I asked each workshop participant to have a go at freewriting. For three minutes, they had to sit in silence and write about what they had just experienced at the table.

Discussion

Do you use any freewriting techniques with your students? If so, what is their reaction?

Mind’s gift of concentration

In this post Jenni Carr shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

 

I remember clearly the day I fell in love with Foucault. I was introduced to him by a matchmaker called Stuart Hall. There were others at the party. Stuart first introduced me to Ferdinand de Saussure and then Roland Barthes. Both had interesting things to say and were entertaining company. But Stuart had saved the best for last, he introduced Michel Foucault explaining that “relations of power, not relations of meaning” were Foucault’s main concern. Boom! I was enchanted.

My Foucauldian love affair continues today. I teach a course that asks students to engage with a number of different theoretical frameworks in their assessed work – Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism and psychoanalytical theory, in addition to post-structuralism. Much as I love ‘theory’ generally and enjoy the process of scaffolding students’ understanding of these frameworks, my heart still skips a beat when a student asks for help with “that discourse stuff”. And students ask this a great deal! Over the years I have had to accept that not everyone experiences ‘love at first read’ when being introduced to Foucault. This is troublesome for students studying this particular course because, although the other frameworks are used as analytical lenses at certain points, it has a post-structuralist underpinning throughout.

The course itself is quite unusual in that it explores the relationship between ‘the personal’ and social policy, arguing not only that social policy shapes our lived experiences, but that our personal lives shape social policy practices. To understand this central theme of the course students have to grapple with a rather different conceptualisation of power. This conceptualisation disputes the notion that power is a ‘thing’ – an object that is deployed in a top-down manner. Power is not an object in itself – power circulates, and power is embodied only in sets of relationships. Within this course power is a threshold concept. And students studying this course can spend a lot of time in a messy liminal space before they cross this particular threshold.

Richard Rohr has described occupying this liminal space as being akin to “when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” The activity I chose for this workshop is one that I use to support students within that liminal space.

The activity

The process of contemplative reading involves short periods of meditation interspersed with group reading, in a round, of a text and immediate responses to that text:

  • Sit quietly and relax our minds and bodies for one minute.
  • Read aloud, slowly, the entire text, each of us reading one or two sentences, “passing along” the reading to the left to the next reader.
  • One minute of silence and reflection.
  • We share a word or short phrase in response to the reading—just give voice to the word without explanation or discussion.
  • Facilitator reads the short passage again.
  • One minute of silence and reflection.
  • We share longer responses to the text—a sentence or two. We listen attentively to one another without correcting or disputing.
  • Another minute of silence.

The text I selected for this activity uses relatively simple, if provocative, language to talk about social policy and how it impacts on our lives – both personal and professional. The text is about how and why we both ‘care about’ and ‘care for’, and therefore links directly to the course that I teach. It is also worth mentioning that it is a text that I found very affecting when I read it for the first time. It was designed to encourage the delegates to draw on their own personal experiences to react to the relations of power expressed in the text.

An experienced Foucauldian analyst would readily see the concepts of discourses, counter-discourses, discursive formations, subject positions, resistance and excess embedded in the text. But I am not suggesting that anyone experiencing a contemplative reading of this text will immediately escape that “terrible cloud of unknowing”. What I am suggesting, however, is that when we value students’ (or in this instance, delegates’) engagement with texts that speak to their knowing and feeling self we create a space that can feel less threatening, less stress-inducing and make them less likely to flee.

Discussion

Have you used any contemplative practices to support your students’ learning? If so, how? What were the outcomes?

Please use the comment facility below to contribute to the discussion.