Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Prerequisite for play?

"She's got absolutely no touch," my mother whispered over-audibly during the performance of Celia Buttercup.

"Phff, she's one of her pupils, they're all the same," she puffed with a certain disdain, "well-drilled but no musicality."

That, I suppose gives a glimpse into the value system into which I was born.

So, I would like to thank Cath Ellis for inspiring me to write this post which is annoyingly keeping me from sleeping at 6.00 am in the morning.

Her 'Some thoughts on theory' has helped me understand better my relationship to theory and perhaps a certain amount of the conflict which existed in the early days of  Dave Cormier's Rhizomatic Learning Course between people who had difficulty in understanding the others. I had read it before, but not paid it the attention that now I feel it deserves, I apologise.

In her post, she lays out what she considers well-reasoned advice in how one can participate in a course on rhizomatic learning based in part on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, a pair of French counter-culture heroes of 'deconstruction.'  I confess to not having dwelt much of my previous life on their no doubt important (no irony) work.

Before I continue I would like to give a few references to my relationship with theory.

Taken in order of appearance, the following randomly remembered instants from my life,  will illustrate what I consider to be the problem of much of education, at least in France and explain why I find Cath Ellis's suggestion to spend two hours a day making notes with D&G not the only way forward towards learning for an uncertain future.

Learning to teach.
On arriving in France, by accident, I had no means to make a living, and no means to communicate with the inhabitants beyond vague remnants of school French grammar classes and a few relics of disconnected vocabulary. (Ah yes, I also had been forced to read but not to act out Les Mouches of Sartre)

I could, I reasoned speak English and people would perhaps pay me to 'teach' them to speak. As I prepared for my first class, with a group of (for me) intimidating business people, I was in a total panic as to what I had let myself in for.

The Cambridge-stamped book which I had been given to 'teach', was in a language that I did not understand. Suddenly, I felt dispossessed of the very language which I had been brought up to speak. What on earth was the 'Present Continuous'?  and why was I expected to press on a cassette player to hear some disembodied BBC sports-presenter give a commentary of a football match between Martians and Manchester United? I didn't question, Cambridge seemed like they would know better.

Learning to cry, learning to live.
It was not in my plans to find myself in ill health on my own, with an infant.  It was not in my plans to find myself confronted by nervous and moral exhaustion.  When you are at a low ebb, expressing it helps.

Critical analysis, my friends, is hard, it had never been in my plans.  I thought that that sort of thing was reserved for loonies!

Deconstucting the language within which one has been bathed and bred is not straight-forward, is not something one can do by reading self-help books.

Others may be able to tag what they consider symptoms of an ailment you are suffering from, speak eloquently on theory of "transfer", be a walking catalogue of Freudian slips but when you are the subject in question it is of no succour to tag your pain.

They may be able to describe, discuss, deliberate, but ultimately they will have to have been there themselves to really start to understand.

It's absurd, it's uncomfortable, it's life. 
I cried in class, it is not what I intended.
The students were much nicer than I had feared.
I tried jovially to tell them to do exercise 6.
My body knew better; that going through the motions of teaching wouldn't be enough to get through the day.
While they were filling in the gaps, I wept.

Needing theory so not as to feel alone.
"Epiphany", pronounced "epifaarnie" with the stress on the third syllable is all that I remember of the literature classes of the university teacher that I had the misfortune to have to follow during the year I spent studying for French competitive exams to qualify me to teach my language.

Katherine Mansfield was murdered in Clermont Ferrand in the mid 1990's.
I know this may be a surprise for you, but believe me, I was witness to the crime.

How do we allow teachers to get away with the murder of Lady Scarlett, or unsuspecting authors, artists, in the amphitheatre, 'with the literary criticism'?

I had a book of terms for literary criminals in my book-case, I mugged it up for the exams, I knew it perfectly, I had it off pat. I even got reasonably good at the game, could hold my own in the game of literary commentary, in the classroom.

It was fun. I like games, I fully understand that gamers get together and get off on serious lectures and the dreaded disco dance at the end of the conference.
We need company.

Needing theory, so as not to feel alone.
It came to me in a rush, when I was weeping. I started to get a taste for grammar (of all things!!). I started seeing English tense structures graphically, dynamically, simply.

It was bloody irritating.  I drew pictures, I drew pictures, I drew pictures...they moved.

These pictures didn't exist in the Cambridge books I had been given to teach.
I spoke with the analyst, he suggested that I look into it, do some research.

I did research to keep me sane. I feared that I was not sane.  I did it because I didn't want to be alone, to see what I saw.

It's so much more comfortable to be conform to expectations.  I was rather surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed reading the books on time, prepostion, grammar, space, philosophy, it was fun.

I worried that I was turning into a nerd. I didn't recognise myself.

Making maps
When your plans don't work, the plans that others give you, you rip them up and start again.

When you fear you have nothing more to lose, you begin to learn to live.

Certainty maybe comforting but it is no question an illusion...even certainty how to play Deleuze and Guattari.

Living critically on the edge of reason is not the same as being reasoned.  Guattari was not working in a psychiatric hospital to keep the patients quiet, to give them their dose. He was a marginal militant doing ground-breaking work on the edge of the reasonable. You don't write Mille Plateaux by numbers, by formula, off pat. It is an embodiment of a deconstuction of a system.

Critical pedagogy
I don't believe that Dave Cormier's interest in Deleuze and Guattari is simply academic (though I may be mistaken), I do believe that he is putting his life and soul into including people in a pedagogy which he feels and reasons challenges many current educational practises...but not just.

There are many ways of dealing with our human condition made up of  complexity, uncertainty, chaos. Language, music, dance, science, faith, would be among those means of making sense of this.

Theory has been developed over the years to help us live with our fate, theatre is another. Shakespeare didn't read Shakespearean literary criticism to write bloody Hamlet, he was immersed in a culture, he had to write, he did. Maybe his parents would have preferred him to conform and sew gloves?

If I am engaged in critical pedagogy, it is because I am unhappy at the games that some adults ask children to play to secure them (us) in their certainty.  My daughter asked to play violin when she was five years old, a French academic musical school destroyed all joy, all curiosity she had for the instrument by making her spend three times as much time scribbling abstract notes on lines than on letting her make noise and listen.

My students weep in the belief that they will never speak English because the system makes them fill gaps in disembodied texts and then makes them feel bad when they can't make sense of it.

Yes, now I understand the need for defining terms, the reasons why articles in scientific journals are not necessarily poetic masterpieces or great rap. I understand that it takes time to get to grips with the world of Deleuze and Guattari, if you were not raised over a number of years in their shadow.  It took me years to master French. I did it for love.

I am writing this for love. I don't want to hurt anyone.

Blogging, Bonnie Stewart writes here in her article "the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale"
"requires you to dare to paint a map in your own voice".

Well Bonnie, I read some blogs over the years and at first thought,

'Blimey, I could never write that, with the long words and all!"
I lurked at conferences and thought
'Bloody hell, I could never speak with such assurance with all those references." 

I read Paul Prinsloo's article this night

A few years ago, I would have freaked at the long words in the title. 

Tonight I didn't;  it made sense.

This makes sense much more now. 

Guattari working with the lunatics in the asylum, got them to engage in theatre. The catatonics (the immobile ones) seemed to perk up a bit if he gave them a mask.

He was curious.

He asked one,

"Why do you move when you are masked?"

He continues the story;

"He never answered me, then one day he said, 'because it's not serious.'"

Rhizo14 worked for me because it was not too serious Cath.

This is my voice.


  1. Repeat after me and along with Frank Zappa: without deviation from the norm, no progress is possible. No deviates, no progress.

    I don't know D&G from the ampersand in the middle, but I do understand this pushing through the semi-permeable sheets of what we blithely call reality. I don't really recall what rhizomatic learning is, but I dig regularly in the ground and see a crazy alive substrate. I live and work in an artifice, a construct, that I am constantly and futilely fertilizing with my own sweat and shit. Is this what you mean by rhizomatic learning? I don't know French hardly at all living in my backward little hollar, but I do understand your search for sanity. Idiosyncratic and self-absorbed, I am the cat plinking on a piano and that sometimes has to be enough. I am not speechless, it's just that so few so rarely hear my croakings and when they do, they mistake me for a frog. No deviates, no progress. No progress, no deviates.

    1. Terry thank you for letting me hear your croakings, I wouldn't mistake you for a frog. I can very quickly find others who would benefit from listening to you in greater length. Starting with myself. Are you free for a hangout next week any time?

    2. I would enjoy a bit of croaking. Tuesdays are good as are evenings.

  2. Thanks for this post Simon and the blog posts you linked on twitter. I followed your fairy trail reading new posts and re-reading some - it was good for my current thinking Here are some random observations.
    Paul Prinsloo's reference to Freire's concept of 'reading the world' made me think about ideas on autonomous learners referred to in and in jenny mackness' linked post. If all learners behaved like young children then they would learn by engaging with the world - a sort of personal theorising of the world.
    The bad experiences you described for yourself and your daughter seem to me to be about theory disconnected from experienced practice and your success was get past the malign experience and seek out sources to complement your personal theorising. So you were using the theories posed by others as an autonomous learner.
    One of the things that I am thinking about is the resilience of rhizo14 in two areas. How did it/ could it support a diversity of autonomous learners? How did it/ could it deal with clashes/ misunderstandings arising from this diversity?

    1. Hi Frances
      Thanks very much for your comment.
      I shall respond quickly and then come back to other points either here or in a blog post.

      When you say 'if learners behaved like young children then they would learn by engaging with the world.'

      My immediate question is what for a young child (or adult) does 'Engaging' with the world 'entail' - it might be worth thinking here of feral children - I have a reference here stocked somewhere.

      I think engaging with the world entails 'relationship' 'culture' 'ritual' 'language'.
      That is quite enough to deal with for now :-)

    2. Hi Frances
      On the question of support of diversity of autonomous learners, it is a very tricky one. I think the clashes are inevitable, indeed in the case of rhizo14 there was a confrontational structure I imagine intended to deconstruct and offer lines of flight.

      However the order of the questions was perhaps tricky and the length of the course inevitable meant a lot of wasteage if people did not immediately buy into it.

      The question of conflict concerning changing learning relationships is one which with my colleague we have seen each time. As Dave says - many people can get quite shirty about stuff that they are attached to at different levels - aggressive even. I think that as an potentially emerging community it is for us to negotiate these difficulties - as I think we are attempting to do. That requires the ability to accept change in any direction. It requires trust in the other that they are not on the make (sometimes we get it wrong) but generally there are some people with much to lose than others.
      If you are a starting out PHD candidate looking for tenure you are not in the same place as others later on in their lives. Those sort of questions need to be dealt with.

      I also think that giving up concentration on a single 'joker/trickster/animator' role is an important step... D&G were two and then a crowd. It is difficult to be perceived a crowd alone. Dave took a back seat as far as possible but...there's that feeling of responsibility to the course - the community. Very tricky. That is no longer an much.

      So in the end my question would echo Dave's Why do we teach? Why are we teaching? Why are we researching? With what idea of relationships?
      Well I have a very clear answer to those questions.

      I enjoy and I am being transformed by such conversations as I can have from others like yourself.

      In the end I think it is a question of respect, humility, and a good dose of appreciation of the absurdity - preferrably with good humour :-)

      What binds us is absurdity, darkness, doubt and the need for meaning...

    3. The 'enforcing question' I browsed quickly the blog post u gave me (thanks for that) I think that we get stuck in a sort of binary oscillation with 'enforcing independence' which doesn't necessarily allow for a line of flight.

      For me the question is rather one of what are the forces (attractors) operating in the environment with which one can create disruption in the rituals particularly classroom rituals - I think that from experience it is a question of analysing the nexus of discourses running through the discourse space and then seeing how to transform them - notably through networking with others outside the classroom and indeed stopping thinking in terms of a fixed teacher role - I find it easier with team teaching than individually.

    4. What I am thinking is that is that autonomous learners might be ones who can find and follow their lines of flight - maybe as you did when you did research to keep you sane. Contrasting that with your previous experience of rote learning, that might damage a learner's sense of autonomy. In rhizo14 there was a lot of valuable discussion of how teachers might help facilitate learners' lines of flight beyond the classroom - that's great. I found myself wondering how autonomous learners might (move to ) do that for themselves.

    5. What determines "rhizo14" is of variable geometry. Community is not space it is like a void a particle accelerator.

  3. My lines of flight started very early :-)