confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: phenomenology

What does it mean to know a place?

I have just overseen the removal of the final bits and pieces (21 boxes to be exact) from the office in my previous employ.

Such events are significant, they mark a passage from one location to another (in this case to a different country).

The institution itself invokes a host of feelings from nostalgia, to regret, to horror, to ambivalence.  But what exactly is an institution?

Yes, there is the building itself – the stairs, carpeted corridors, the lift that was always breaking down forcing a healthy walk on all and sundry.  There is the particular quality of the light at different times of day and year and face of building.

But, while physical places, the geography of a place, can imprint themselves on you, actually it is people that fix a place, and more importantly, frame the quality of place.

The academic literature, in its usual abstracting manner, talks of the way academics identify with their disciplinary tribes, of how our disciplines feature more strongly in our imagination than our institutional location.  So, the theory goes, we identify more with other mathematicians, or historians, or educationalists than with the particular employing institution.

That may be so.

But again I would suggest even here it is the quality of interactions with particular people within the ‘discipline’ that really counts and defines ‘discipline’ for us.

To say I remember a certain institution really what I am saying is that particular interpersonal interactions occurred that animate my pathic memory of that place.  It is the friendships that are important, the folks we continue to think about fondly, to email, to arrange to meet at conferences.  It is also the pain, the hurtful behaviours.  It is the excitement you gained from working with students.

To say I belong to this or that ‘discipline’ is to say something about the social spaces I frequent where I meet particular others, and hope to meet others who I can form qualitatively positive relations with.

The boxes are packed and taken away.  Next week they arrive in a new location.  And in this location I am forming new relations that will be captured by the short term – place, institution.

That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.

This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’.  In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor.  Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life.  Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.

So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?

Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’.  In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:

Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives

 

For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life.  But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.

Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.

 

There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching.  Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.

As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development.  In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively.  And yes, we try to do this.  But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.

But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same.  Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness.  Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”.  What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics.  There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race.  This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.

For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life.  I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege.  Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent.  It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.

And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.

Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl.  Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future.  In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness.  In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed.  This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed.  In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events.  And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze.  Got it?  I am not sure I have quite got it yet.

Let me try this again.

In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time.  There is no separation between ‘us’ and time.  Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies.  The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice.  This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’).  But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated.  The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning.  The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative  or story in which it is situated.  This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking  up a professional development course.  It will always be this learning at this time for this person.  There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person.  Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.

Is this the lesson from phenomenology?

From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice.  My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone.  Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy).  The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded  into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies.  The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.

 

In conclusion, Van Manen says:

To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.

 

 

 

[Does that make sense?  As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]

 

 

book shelves and emotional de-cluttering

Image

recently i was sat in my home study.  i was worrying (what a surprise) about my preparations for a job interview and presentation.  in fact, it is more honest to say that i was worrying less about the event than whether i would go for the interview at all.  i had been contemplating the matter of academic authenticity.  how would i present myself (my ‘self’) to the interview panel; what story about ‘me’ did i want to relate; was i really up to it anyhow? these are not just doubts about performance but go right to the existential problem of authentic living.  i wondered whether i should re-read some kirkegard, i was sure he could tell me something about authenticity, after all he chose not to marry in order to live a particular kind of authentic life.  choices.  not supermarket choices, but real, substantive, existential choices.  it was while reflecting on this question (no, worrying is much better a word here – i was WORRYING) that my eyes browsed my book shelves.  for an academic book shelves say a lot about who you think you are.  they are a semi-public display of your external identity, your intellectual and professional persona.  obviously this is more true in the context of the institutional office, but the home office is a reflection back on yourself of who you are trying to BE publicly, a particular kind of ‘being in the world’.  

i started to note one book after another that had remained unread, indeed unopened, for over a year.  

why were they there?  

i had bought them during my ‘year of a recovering academic’ (more on that when i am ready to share that particular story).  they had been bought as an attempt to carve out a distinctive and authentic me, me as academic.  the books were bought to bolster, to provide an epistemic bedrock for, a me i thought i wanted to be and who had been resisted by institutional requirements.

all very interesting books.  

all books i KNEW i wanted, NEEDED, at the time.

but they lay there untouched, not utilised in any academic endeavour.  money that could and perhaps should have been spent on other more useful items.  it was. after all an expensive year. recovery is expensive.

they were bought alongside setting up a website and a blog.  all of these would make quite clear who I was – wouldn’t they?

no.

but i worried that the job i had applied for, was now preparing to be interviewed for, would take me further away from this authentic me. however, it became quite clear that the me i had so diligently sought to construct, had put ‘effort’ into making, had invested ego into – was not really there.  what was it that i spent my time reading?  what really animated me as a person, as an academic, as a teacher scholar? 

the books, blogs, websites, magazines were telling me, but i wasn’t really listening. they were telling me that what took my attention on a daily basis concerned matters of spiritual contemplation, the phenomenological experience of ‘being’ an academic, the nature of learning and knowledge, of Buddhist philosophy and psychology.  how many retreats had i been on?  how many times had i sat? how much mindful attention had i cultivated? this mount fuji of experience was transparent to me as i ‘worked’, ‘struggled’, put ‘effort’ into constructing a credible, authentic academic me. 

it is not that issues of migration are not of importance.  these remain heartfelt issues for me.  but i was called to attend to other things.

all of a sudden my worrying stopped.  i had mentally emptied the shelves of this excess matter; put them in boxes labeled “if not opened in a year share with others”.  

as i had hoarded these books so i had hoarded discontent.  as long as those books remained on my emotional bookshelves they would shout insults at me, telling me what a failure i was, that i hadn’t written that article, hadn’t sought funding for that research project.  if i allowed, and it is allowed because i can choose otherwise, to be deaf to what my heart was telling me then authenticity would forever be unattainable.  so i had to un-clutter my academic mind and heart, allow myself the treasure of pursuing what i felt called to do.

the books are still on the shelves. i might get round to boxing them up.  if i don’t it will be less a worrying doubt in my mind as laziness.

Helen Kara

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