Paul Carter: Material Thinking

I’ve been thinking further about Munday’s ideas about the classroom as a site for problem-solving or mystery, and realise how these link with the reading I’ve done in connection with my interest in practice-based research, and the ideas of Paul Carter in particular.

Carter is an Australian artist and writer, who has written widely about practice-based research, and also introduced the concept of ‘material thinking.’ According to Carter “ … creative knowledge cannot be abstracted from the loom that produced it. Inseparable from its process, it resembles the art of sending the woof-thread through the warp. A pattern made of holes, its clarity is like air through a basket. Opportunistic, it opens roads.” (Carter 2005: 1)

Carter develops these ideas further in his essay ‘Interest: The Ethics of Invention’ (2007), where he describes practice-based research as a form of creative inquiry that builds on a “double movement of invention” – from “decontextualisation,” during which “found elements are rendered strange” to “recontextualisation” whereby “new families of association and structures of meaning are established” (Carter 2007: 16). Carter describes a method of inquiry that is open-ended, spontaneous and fluid. This characterisation chimes with Munday’s advocacy of ‘mystery’ in the creation of learning environments that are immersive and exploratory, rather than focused on solving particular problems: classrooms that “become a living breathing organism or “space for a more vital and immersive understanding of existence.” (Munday 2012: 8).

Carter also writes about how practice-based research emphasises the process of inquiry above the final result of that process.  The process of exploration has value as an end in itself, an act of “invention” with the “primary purpose” to “study, document and valorise these periods in which the usual logic of combination is suspended.” (Carter 2007: 22). According to Carter, “the distinct focus of creative research, is located neither after nor before the process of making but in the performance itself … (Carter 2007: 19) This also resonates with Munday’s thinking, especially in the passage where Munday quotes the philosopher Marcel (out of whose work Munday’s ideas grow), describing “a mystery” as “something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not before me in its entirety. It is as though in this province the distinction between in me and before me loses its meaning” (Munday 2012: 8).

Marcel’s description of the learner’s total immersion in their object of study is surely comparable to Carter’s concept of performance. Based on these connections and resonances between the ideas of Munday and Carter, it seems as if practice-based approaches to research and learning offer one way to unlock the potential of ‘mystery’ as a pedagogic tool.

 

Carter, P. (2005) Material Thinking: the theory and practice of creative research. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press

Carter, P. (2007). ‘Interest: The Ethics of Invention.’ In: E. Barrett and B. Bolt (eds), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, 1st ed. London: I.B.Tauris

Marcel, G. (1949) Being and Having. London and Glasgow: A & C Black

Munday, I. (2012) The classroom: a problem or a mystery? Oxford: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (Conference paper)

Kador, Chatterjee and Hannan: ‘The materials of life: Making meaning through object-based learning’

This Chapter on Object-Based Learning (OBL) helped me contextualize my own direct experience of this method in the micro-teach session.

The authors show how OBL resonates with a range of different learning and teaching models and theories, including Kolb’s ‘experiential learning cycle’, Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences” or Vygotsky’s ideas about the importance of “social learning.”  As Kador et al argue: “Material culture can be a catalyst for social interaction, as encounters with objects inspire conversation and encourage people to share their experiences and ideas.” (Kador et al 2017: 62)

They also make a strong argument for the effectiveness of this method of learning for those with specific learning difficulties: it “moves the learner and their own engagement with the material world centre stage to the learning process, and thus allows them to take charge of their own learning experience and the meanings they may construct from it.” In this way “it offers opportunities for the considerable proportion of the population –  including among the UK and European student body –  who experience specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ ADHD.” (Kador et al 2017:  65)

Finally, they argue that OBL has value “not just for subjects and disciplines that have traditionally drawn on collections, such as anthropology, archaeology, art history and geology, but across the full spectrum of academic disciplines taught at university.” This resonates strongly with my own experience of the micro-teach session, which drew together an eclectic range of approaches to OBL from a diverse selection of courses and disciplines.

REFERENCE

Kador, T., Chatterjee, H. & Hannan, L.  ‘The Materials of Life: Making meaning through object-based learning in twenty-first century higher education.’ In:  Carnell, B. & Fung, D. (2017) Developing the Higher Education Curriculum: Research-Based Education in Practice. London: UCL Press.

Further Thoughts on Nixon’s ‘Interpretive Pedagogies’

In answer to Lindsay’s questions:

  1. Are all views worthy of our efforts to understand them?

Yes, to the extent that only once you’ve made the effort to understand them can you make an informed judgement about their value or worthiness. Obviously in a teaching context the ways in which views are expressed, analysed or debated is important, especially in the case of views which may be offensive or challenging in some other way to members of the class. Nixon’s argument, that draws on Bauman’s ideas about pluralism and the role of the public educator in “forming interpretive frameworks within which radical differences of value and belief can be held in critical tension” is clearly relevant here: developing the skills to analyse, critique and learn from the views and ideas of others, even and especially when they differ from our own, is surely one of the central purposes of higher education. In thinking about ways to create an environment where these ‘critical tensions’ can be explored and debate, Munday’s arguments about the classroom as a space for mystery rather than problem-solving are a useful stimulus. See my blog post on Munday for further thoughts about this.

2. To what extent should traditions be protected (from other/new ideas)?

Traditions don’t merit privileged status in relation to new ideas, but nor do they deserve to be treated with less rigour or respect. As many of the readings on the T&L unit illustrate, debates around educational policy and purpose are always informed by the debates that have gone before. And Susan Orr’s presentation that encouraged us to consider UAL and our own institution’s origins and historical evolution, in order to contextualize current policy and practice, was another useful reminder of the way that past traditions inevitably inform the present situation. Link to the collaborative UAL history doc created during her lecture HERE

This doesn’t mean we should slavishly follow past practices or give them undue weight, but nor should we assume that simply because they are old they are wrong or irrelevant to present situations. The poet and critic T.S.Eliot (himself an eclectic mix of radical and conservative thinker and creator) wrote a very influential essay called ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ which explores this relationship between the individual creative practitioner (in this case, poets) and the historical contexts out of which their work inevitably grows (either in opposition or tribute.) As this extract shows, the terms in which he makes his argument are out-dated (eg the assumption that poets are men) but his definition of what he terms “the historical sense” is timely and relevant, showing how tradition and the contemporary are not necessarily binary opposites:

“the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; … This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” (Eliot, 1921)

 

3. Is a technical or ‘useful’ education a second-rate education?

Not necessarily: it’s possible to provide first-class education, formal or informal, that focuses on the development of technical skills with clear practical applications. This could be delivered in a formal academic environment or else within the work-place in the form of apprenticeships or on-the-job learning.  I would argue that in a University context, this type of teaching is also entirely valid and valuable, but that it should take place alongside other types of by learning that develop complementary skills. For example, in the degree I teach, the BA in Film & TV, we aim to help our students become critical practitioners with a range of technical and creative skills, but also the ability to reflect critically on their own work, that of others, and the contexts within which work is created. This critical reflexivity is central to the ethos of the course: at its heart it involves equipping students with the skills to address questions that begin with ‘how?’ but also those that start with ‘why?’

4. How can the technological and the cultural be merged? I.e. is it possible to teach for liberation and transformation, AND to prepare students for socially useful occupations?

I’m not sure it helps to think of these as binaries, or as being in opposition to each other. To a great extent the technological and the cultural are already merged and it might be more useful to think in terms of developing student skills to understand how these elements can be disentangled, or the relationship between them understood. In his seminal book on Media theory, Television: Technology and Cultural Form’ (1974), the cultural theorist Raymond Williams warns against what he terms ‘technological determinism,’ an ‘immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view of the nature of social change’ whereby ‘new technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the condition for social change and development.’ (Williams, R. 1974: 5) Rather than seeing technological change as something with its own self-generating agency, that happens independently of culture and subsequently shapes it, Williams argues that technology and culture are inextricably linked – decisions about what to develop are shaped – consciously or unconsciously – by a whole complex of cultural ideas and assumptions.  As outlined in my response to question 3, I would argue for an education that equips students with the skills to disentangle the relationship between technology and culture, and to understand how they each act on the other.

Eliot, T.S. (1921) ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in ‘The Sacred Wood.’ New York: Alfred A Knopf

Williams, R. (1974) Television: Technology & Cultural Form. London: Fontana

Nixon’s ‘Interpretive Pedagogies’

This chapter, from Nixon’s book Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education, investigates a range of historical examples to illustrate his thesis that “pedagogy cannot be abstracted from the conditions that shape it and within which it exerts its own shaping influence” (Nixon 2013: 30).

Nixon begins with an examination of different and “conflicting notions of ‘public education’” and focuses in particular on what he terms the “tension between public education operating as a form of social control and reproduction and public education that aspires to be liberating and transformative” (Nixon 2013: 17).

Drawing on the work of Zygmunt Baumann (1987) Nixon shows how current debates about the function and value of public education connect with historical debates that go back at least as far as the 18th Century, when a distinction was made between the ideas of ‘education’ and ‘enlightenment.’ In this 18th Century context education was valued as a tool of social control: “the idea of the public educator was central to this task of extending the powers and ambitions of the state into the hearts and minds of its subjects” (Nixon 2013: 17).

This approach, which situated the educator as an agent of the state, changed with “the advent of post-Enlightenment modernity” in the late 19th and early 20th century, embodied in the work of figures such as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. As Nixon says: “central to these changes was the emergence of a new order of intelligentsia, the authority of which was asserted through its radical independence from both state and society.” (Nixon 2013: 17 – 18). In this new world order the public intellectual becomes  “the self-conscious, critical and questioning cortex of modernity.”(Nixon 2013: 19) With the rapid dismantling of old certainties, and their replacement by what Nixon terms “a radical pluralism,” there emerged a requirement for “new kind of intellectual authority.” (Nixon 2013: 19) that “can only be exercised by those who adopt an interpretive stance to the pluralist world.” According to Bauman, paraphrased by Nixon, this interpretive stance “involves crossing intellectual, disciplinary and cultural boundaries; developing new syntheses from apparently disparate traditions; and forming interpretive frameworks within which radical differences of value and belief can be held in critical tension” (Nixon 2103: 19).

In the second half of the chapter, Nixon turns his attention to the public quarrels between C.P.Snow and F.R Leavis sparked by Snow’s ‘two cultures’ thesis. I’ll discuss this in another blog post.

What is striking in the analysis Nixon puts forward is how many of the questions that resonate through the world of higher education today (how do we define its purpose, how do we judge its value, who is it for and what should we teach them?) are issues that have also resonated in previous eras. This is illustrated by many of the other readings from this unit: for example Kant’s ideas about the University as a model for world peace, as described by Palmquist.

Today’s debates continue conversations that were started centuries ago and are likely to continue long into the future. The tensions between different conceptions of higher education remain contentious and unresolved. Does that matter? Perhaps not. As Bauman, summarised by Nixon, suggests, our pluralist world demands thinkers capable of moving beyond binary oppositions towards creative synthesis, with the capacity to form “interpretive frameworks within which radical differences of value and belief can be held in critical tension” (Nixon 2103: 19). If that is the ideal of the public educator today, then perhaps its only fitting that Universities themselves remain a focal point where those unresolved tensions are continually tested, re-calibrated and debated.

Nixon, J. (2013). Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London: Bloomsbury

Whitehead: Universities & Their Function

Whitehead published this piece in 1929. By then he was a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard, following an earlier academic career as a mathematician in England (during which time he collaborated with Bertrand Russell on his Principia Mathematica). The context for his book, The Aims of Education, of which this is one chapter, was a moment of growth in universities “in number … size, and in internal complexity of organization …” A growth that, according to Whitehead, begged the question, what are universities for?

Whitehead’s thinking places emphasis on the critical importance of ‘imagination’ – both as a tool of education and also as the object of education. Interestingly he makes the case for this in the context of the growth in the number of business schools courses at this time (1929 was also the year of the Wall Street Crash – would more business studies courses have helped avert that disaster?) In some ways, that could be compared to the more recent expansion of creative arts courses at university: also examples of education that combine the practical with the theoretical and abstract.  He argues, convincingly, that “at no time have universities been restricted to pure abstract learning” and that knowledge is not the main commodity of a university – that function was put out of business by the invention of printing in the 15th century. Instead, universities are places where students learn to think, with the imagination a critical faculty that makes this possible and valuable (not simply in an economic sense but socially too.)

According to Whitehead, by encouraging imagination, universities foster an “atmosphere of excitement” that “transforms knowledge.” That insight chimes with the thinking of more recent educational theorists, such as Mezirow, who also place emphasis on learning as a transformative process.

Finally, Whitehead’s argument also places emphasis on the importance of the university as an environment for risk and experimentation – a place where failure is not just forgiven but positively embraced. This chapter is full of terms that evoke the excitement of real education (“adventure,” “illumination,” “transformation”) but also its fundamentally experimental and exploratory nature. “You must be free to think rightly and wrongly, and free to appreciate the variousness of the universe undisturbed by its perils.” Again, this argument, which Whitehead puts forward in the context of the expanding number of business studies courses he had witnessed, is also relevant to creative arts education today. It demands a way of thinking about such issues as employability in a more, dare I say it, imaginative way than is sometimes the case. In order to equip students best for the world beyond university, it is, important that their time at university insulates them from its “perils,” notably the peril of becoming over-cautious through fear of failure.

Whitehead, A.N. (1929) Universities & Their Function.

Ian Munday – The Classroom: A Problem or A Mystery?

Munday’s argument – that builds around the distinction between ‘problems’ and ‘mysteries’ – is a provocative one, with profound implications for the way that we think about teaching and the classroom – both as a physical space and as a shorthand for the learning context more broadly.

Drawing on the work of the existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, Munday argues that “mystery equates with being, problem solving with having.” In this formulation, problem-solving implies the idea of identifying something external to the self that needs to be managed, contained or enclosed. According to Munday, “though researchers from different backgrounds may perceive the classroom in different ways, they arguably share one thing in common, namely that they see it as a site for solving problems – teachers and children will be emancipated, students will become more effective learners, patients will be ‘cured’” (Munday 2012: 1).

Again citing Marcel, Munday suggests that this approach, built around the concept of ‘having’ is problematic or damaging because “it generates an economy in which the ‘other’ is always posed as threatening. Her existence means that what is ‘mine’ can always be lost or destroyed. Indeed through its negation ‘having’ is coterminous with desire, covetousness and a whirlpool of anxieties.”

Munday goes on to list several elements of teaching practice that can be seen as examples of a problem-solving approach:

“Here are some of the things I was advised to do during my year of teacher education. I should (1) plan everything to the finest detail … (2) Create seating plans for students, (3) present clear learning objectives and outcomes, (4) differentiate materials to accommodate particular needs, (5) give the students rewards (if there were any) for good work/behaviour (6) produce classroom contracts that students could sign in the first lesson.”

Many of these read like examples of good teaching practice that are still promoted today, but Munday argues they can be seen as problematic because they are built on an approach that shapes the classroom as a limiting, constricting or enclosing space defined by an internal / external dialectic that separates the individual self – student or teacher – from the materials being explored in the class. This is the point where Marcel’s concept of “mystery” steps in to suggest a potential alternative approach (I was going to say ‘solution’ but that reveals how deeply the idea of problem-solving permeates the way we tend to think about these ideas – precisely the habit Munday seeks to challenge):

“If ‘having’ is to be sublimated into ‘being’ then this requires a transcendence of the internal/external dialectic, a suturing of the wound between me and the world. This is the essence of mystery: ‘A mystery… is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not before me in its entirety. It is as though in this province the distinction between in me and before me loses its meaning’ (Marcel 1949: 109).

By seeing the classroom as a location that embraces ‘mystery’ rather than encouraging problem-solving, it also becomes, according to Munday, the “space for a more vital and immersive understanding of existence.”

As I said at the start, I find Munday’s argument provocative. At first sight it seems to challenge some of the accepted tenets of teaching as outlined in the list quoted above (learning outcomes and objectives etc, detailed teaching plans etc), but I’m not sure it’s quite as diametrically opposed to these principles as it might seem to be. It depends from whose perspective the classroom is viewed as a space to embrace the mysterious: the learner or the teacher. If one focuses on the learner’s perspective, it is surely possible for the teacher to create an environment that allows for the open-ended and immersive experiences that Munday champions, whilst still structuring this around certain specified learning outcomes and objectives and also planning a structured (but flexible) approach to the class. Even a seating plan isn’t automatically in opposition to this ideal (the plan could be to have no plan). In other words, I don’t see Munday’s article as an argument in favour of a no-preparation, totally freeform approach to teaching: rather it is a stimulus to think more imaginatively about how to shape the physical and conceptual space of the classroom to make possible an immersive and satisfying experience for all participants. As Munday concludes: “To acknowledge mystery is not to embrace naïf optimism where everything must be uplifting. That said if classrooms are allowed to be spaces of mystery, then a vitalism that has been exorcised from the profession may make a return.” (Munday 2012: 9)

I’ve written another blog post HERE that links Munday’s ideas with Paul Carter’s writing about the potential of practice-based research as a pedagogic tool.

 

Marcel, G. (1949) Being and Having. London and Glasgow: A & C Black

Munday, I. (2012) The classroom: a problem or a mystery? Oxford: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (Conference paper)

Thoughts on Aoun: A Learning Model for the Future

Aoun’s account imagines how education might be re-framed to respond to rapid technological change, in particular the emergence of super-powered computers and AI that threaten (or promise?) to encroach on what has traditionally been seen as human territory. In the process, these changes challenge the accepted orthodoxy of what higher education is designed for: in a context where computers control information, an education system that prioritises the accumulation of knowledge above the ability to analyse or think critically about the world is without value or a viable future. Humans will need to carve out alternative areas of activity that differentiate them from machines, or else risk becoming obsolete, at least in an economic sense.  His analysis seems to build on a type of technological determinism (do we have no control or say in how technology might be developed, licensed or exploited in the future?).  It could easily sound pessimistic or fatalistic, but this is counter-balanced by Aoun’s optimistic prescription of an antidote to this emergent threat:  a new ‘humanics’, driven by education, that encourages the development of the new ‘literacies’ necessary to survive and flourish in this brave new world.

Aoun identifies three categories of literacy that will be crucial to making human society “robot-proof”: technological, data and human. These literacies will, in turn require development of 4 cognitive capacities: critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility. In essence, he argues that to survive the world that machines are building, we need an education system that builds on those qualities that make us different from machines: imagination, creativity, empathy, the ability to work collaboratively and to harness diversity in order to build new and surprising things.

Whilst Aoun’s account implies the need for an entirely new approach to education, I was struck by how many of his ideas resonate with the approach to teaching and learning that underpins the courses I teach with colleagues at LCC. Teaching on the BA in Film & TV necessarily involves our students to grasp the challenges of ‘project-based’ learning and of working collaboratively in teams that are diverse in a whole range of ways (culturally, levels of experience, interests and ambitions etc). We also aim to encourage entrepreneurship, with projects that give the students freedom to define and shape projects that grow out of their own interests and enthusiasms and that in many cases connect them with practitioners from the world beyond the college.

One of the challenge throughout this is how to strike a balance between giving our students full creative freedom and defining boundaries or restrictions within which the work should take shape (the sort of limitations that most of them are likely to face when they move on to work in the commercial world of film or TV beyond university). This links, of course, to the issues touched on by Ken Robinson, in the extraordinarily popular Ted Talk that Aoun mentions: specifically the importance of failure as an educational tool. It can often be a real challenge to explain to students that failure has a value, especially as they move closer to graduation. For example, I’m currently overseeing some of our 3rd Year students working on their final graduation films.  All of them, for entirely understandable reasons, are focused on producing the most polished and impressive films possible: they are thinking of their show-reels and an artefact that can be their calling card as they seek work after graduation. I want to help them achieve that, but also to re-assure them that the process of making their film (the twists and wrong-turns, the experiments and risks that don’t always pay off) is as important as the artefact that results from that journey. In a world where students are continually asked to project themselves into their own professional futures, how do you create and protect a space where ambitious failure can be an entirely valid outcome that teaches more than a cautious success?

Arun J.E. (2017) ‘A Learning Model for the Future’ from ‘Robot-Proof.’ Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

 

 

About Me

I’m a Senior Lecturer on the BA in Film & TV at London College of Communication. I teach across all 3 years of the course, but have special responsibility for Year 3 students as Head of Year.

I joined LCC in February 2017 having previously worked in the TV industry for more than 20 years as a documentary producer, director and MD of a BAFTA-nominated Production Company (Wavelength Films). I also worked previously as a Part Time lecturer in the Department of Film, TV & Media at UEA, but my current role is my first full-time permanent teaching post.

I teach a variety of modules at LCC, including practical film-making (drama and documentary), industry contexts and professional development as well as contextual history and theory. This involves a wide range of delivery methods, from one-to-one tutorials, to group workshops, seminars and full cohort lectures. Assessment also takes a variety of forms: from group presentations to portfolios of creative work or formal academic writing (essays and dissertations etc). I’m also involved in course planning and administration.

I aim, where possible, to draw on my own experiences as a professional practitioner in my teaching at LCC. By studying for the PGCert I hope to extend my range of teaching methods and approaches and to explore different ways of building on my previous professional experience to create learning experiences for my students. I’m also keen to learn more about student-centred learning and identify ways of bringing more of this into my teaching.

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