Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution”

Anxiety, excellence, and reflexivity in the classroom

Today we have a new guest post. Last month Roxani Krystalli published an article on teaching and learning reflexivity in the world politics classroom. In this blog post, she discusses some of the anxieties that arise when embracing reflexive pedagogies and articulates her hopes for what reflexive inquiry with and about the natural world may make possible.

A few weeks ago I gave three lectures as part of the required introductory module to international relations that all 500+ students who study this subject must enrol in during their first year. Colleagues in the department, which draws together scholars from a range of disciplines, co-teach this module, meaning that we are each responsible for a themed week every semester. My lectures centred on the theme of ‘the environment,’ prompting students to reflect on what counts as environmental knowledge, what forms this knowledge takes, how we can meaningfully get to know our environments, and what all these forms of knowledge might have to do with political action.

I find it difficult to teach—not just ‘about’ the environment, but about anything at all—in the abstract. I prefer teaching ‘with,’ rather than ‘about.’ Teaching with the environment, in this instance, involved making offerings of different ways to ground ourselves in place as teachers, students, and learners. My favourite offerings are questions, each paving one path for engaging with the world. I asked the students to recall how they began to learn the trees, birds, or clouds near their home when they were children. I asked them to consider whether they would recognise the geese that regularly fly over St Andrews, or how they might get to know the flowers that bloom here, even if they did not know that the birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese and even if they could not name the specific flowers.

The birds honking overhead were pink-footed geese

Beyond recalling and considering, I invited students to spend some time outside, noticing, wondering, paying attention. They could, if they wanted, download an app that helps them identify birdsong, or name plants, or they could take a walk with someone who knows this environment well. They could focus on one sense over others: What does West Sands beach smell like? I encouraged them to think about the environments that are dear to them here in St Andrews and then to focus on getting to know one aspect of those environments. What would getting to know the trees look like, and how might that change their—our—education and experience of politics?

Many students are at once intrigued and overwhelmed by these offerings, which I consider to be part of an approach to teaching and learning that encourages reflexivity, though I am more interested in the practice than the label. The fascination with the world beyond the classroom is perhaps obvious, and the overwhelm stems from realising how little knowledge (let alone language) some of us have for the features of that world. How did a politics and international relations education come to be devoid of geese honking, and where might we begin to put the honks back in?

When I consider this question, I bump up against the anxieties of performance. It helps, yet again, to be specific. Much inquiry – in the Q&A following lectures, in tutorials, in Office Hours – begins and ends with assessments: “Can you help us answer the set essay question for the team-taught module?” “If I want to argue X, would that be okay? Would that be enough?” The question at the heart of such inquiry is “how can I do this well?”

This is a question I know intimately, and one I simultaneously worry about. I worry about the questions that this form of inquiry displaces, the birds we do not hear when we direct anxiety towards the essay instead. The anxieties of excellence were drilled into my own encounters with educational expectations, starting at too young an age. When teaching students for whom the question of “how can I do this well?” is an urgent one, I feel a sense of empathy—and a simultaneous desire to set this question aside, or at least to consider it alongside the other questions that make so many of these students (and their teachers) anxious in this era: How can we live together and enable life amidst so many sources of violence, grief, and threat to life?

It is possible to carry the overwhelming (there is that word again!) magnitude of this question alongside worries about performance. (Telling someone not to worry about performance or excellence is akin to telling a distressed person to “calm down,” a plea that rarely has the desired effect). My hope is that reflexive offerings in the classroom—invitations that ground people in their environments, in their bodies and senses and relations—widen the scope of what we notice and direct attention and care towards. Locating ourselves in place and in the body, in the senses and in the world, may actually broaden, than relieve, sources of anxiety. But it also offers us potential forms of companionship and ways of sense-making that can make it possible to imagine different ways of living and relating in an aching world.

Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. She is currently the co-Principal Investigator of a research project on the politics of love and care in the wake of loss.

The Politics of Nature in the UCL Art Museum

We did more experiential learning this week, this time in the UCL Art Museum. We are incredibly lucky to have an impressive art collection at UCL, related to the Slade School of Art. And we are even luckier that it is staffed by deeply knowledgeable curators who helped me put together an exhibition of artworks that helped us think about various aspects of how nature is, and has been, depicted.

Students in the UCL Art Museum with a work by Winifred Knights in the foreground

I’ve been working with the Art Museum to deliver teaching using its collection for a few years. Before that, I used to take students to the many free exhibitions in London and it was a chance conversation with a student who put me in touch with the UCL curators and made me realise that I could do the teaching I wanted to on our very own campus! This is a huge privilege (in our exhibition we had a Turner!), but wherever you are, there is probably an art gallery or museum in your town that would fit the bill, depending on what you want to teach.

What I want to do in these sessions is enable students to understand artworks as political objects: to become critical readers of the visual, to see through the facticity of images and understand the ways in which pictures are often generic and repeat familiar ideas, thereby reproducing and relegitimising them. The reason we take them for granted as reflections of reality is more to do with the way they repeat key narratives that we are used to and take to be commonsensical than any actual correspondence to an independent world. This is quite different from an approach that might, for example, focus on how works are made, or what their deeper meaning is, or an appreciation of their aesthetic qualities as such. You can read more about how and why I teach in art galleries here.

#teaching

If you want to have a go at getting out of the classroom and doing some teaching with artworks, here are a few tips and ideas.

  • Be clear about your purpose: there are lots of different reasons why you might want students to engage with artworks, but make sure you are clear in your own mind about it, so they and you understand the purpose of the exercise. Otherwise, you will have a nice time, but it might be a bit aimless. In my case, for my politics of nature class this year, I wanted students to understand that the ways landscapes and the rural have been depicted for centuries is often generic. Works in the pastoral tradition prettify the hardships and difficulty of rural lives, whilst images of the sublime invite rugged individualism and mastery. One of this year’s students – herself a student of the Slade Art School! (I am very excited to see her portfolio!) –  explained decolonial readings of the idea of the sublime reminding us of earlier reading about the dangers of narratives about the ‘lone, enraptured male‘. A range of different works, on the face of it all different, all lent themselves to making these points which reinforced work we are doing throughout the module.
  • Relatedly, be clear about how the work in the gallery relates to the rest of your module: I included artworks that depicted colonialism and enslavement, building on last week’s work at Kew, helping students see how pastoral, sublime and picturesque artworks legitimised enslavement and glorified adventurers like Captain Cook (depicted heroically at his death in a work by Bartolozzi), whilst depicting indigenous people as ‘savage’ and ‘close to nature’ in ways that deprive them of political agency. The works also picked up other themes in the module, for example, returning to ideas we encountered in our week of queer ecologies about how parks and beaches have been celebrated in art for certain sorts of leisure and relationships (the courting heterosexual couple, for example) and not others.
  • Provide context through reading and other materials: For this week, we read a chapter by Nomi Lazar on discourses of ‘primitivism’ and an article by Jennifer Peebles on the ‘toxic sublime‘ to support students in noticing these discourses in the artworks. I also provided short ‘flipped classroom’ materials on how we can look at artworks as political objects and on the genres of ‘pastoral’, ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque’. I did my best to relate the discussion back to these materials as we discussed the works.
  • Teach students how to look: Tate Modern’s studies show that visitors on average spend about eight seconds looking at each picture! By creating an exhibition of just a few works (I used ten, which was probably too many if I’m honest), you can get students to look at bit more closely. Encourage them to stay with a few works that interest them rather than trying to look at every one. I always suggest that they spend time sketching. No-one actually did that this year, but in the past students have stayed in the gallery for longer than the allotted time to look and draw. This is the best way of getting them to notice all the details, especially in complex works. It’s also worth spending a bit more time getting them to describe the key features of a work before launching into questions about what political work it is doing. That way, students often help me notice things that I hadn’t seen myself!
  • Work with curators: The way I have always put my exhibitions in the UCL Art Museum together is to ask advice from the curators. I tell them the broad themes and concepts from the module and then they pull out a range of artworks. I always want to use them all, but with painful difficulty they help me whittle it down to a manageable exhibition. Their deep and extensive knowledge of the collection makes this easy and fun work – whereas slogging through the catalogue myself would have taken much longer. Two curators also kindly helped me by circulating among the students and talking to them about the histories of the works, how they were made and what other interpretations have been made of them, drawing on in-depth knowledge that I just don’t have. This is gold dust, and much appreciated by the students! Curators and education teams at public galleries have always been equally helpful.
  • Make it fun: attending an exhibition is a pleasurable experience. Bringing that enjoyment of art and being together in a different sort of space into an encounter with close looking and critical thought leads to a different kind of embodied learning that will hopefully stay with students as they encounter more works of art in future. I usually encourage the students to wander round as if they were in any other exhibition, as well as giving them encouragement to look closely and sketch. I give them a few questions about each artwork, some of which require some close and slow looking. I give them a chance to do all this before I start circulating round and helping them. Unfortunately, this year, every time I started talking to a small group of students about a particular artwork, the whole class gathered round to hear my wisdom. This is probably because the Art Museum is a small space and I was using my teacher voice, but it did take away from the joy of individual discovery a bit, as well as depriving them of chances to chat with the curators, who were also on hand. I need to think about how I avoid this next year. There is probably a bit of me that enjoys being the centre of an attentive crowd a bit too much that I need to keep an eye on….
  • Don’t be scared of difficulty: Some of the questions we asked in the Art Museum were confronting, particularly when looking at a picture of a Jamaican plantation with enslaved people in the foreground, using the tradition of the pastoral to make this scene look pretty and ‘natural’, or the way that Captain Cook is portrayed as a saintly, Christ-like figure being brutally murdered by Indigenous people. Looking at the exquisite Turner watercolour depicting the first steamer on Lake Lucerne, we asked ourselves whether it would have been better if the Industrial Revolution had never happened – delving into how even if we wanted to disentangle it from dispossession, capitalism and colonialism, it is hard to see how we ever could, despite wanting to keep a lot of the benefits that have accrued to the lucky ones like us. The discussion was difficult and sometimes faltered, but in some ways that is easier in a space like an art gallery than it is in a classroom. This is partly because we were not staring right at each other but looking at an object and partly because silence in a gallery is ordinary and expected, as we let the questions sit, and not awkward or embarrasssing. It is also fine just to wander off and look at something else when in an exhibition, and therefore easy enough to exit a conversation if it’s getting a bit intense.
  • Think about assessment: For my class’s portfolio assessment, students may (but do not have to) write labels for the artworks in the gallery to help visitors understand the key ideas we have discussed or write an entry for an exhibition catalogue. Last year, lots of students did this to good effect, with some particularly beautiful catalogue essays. Students can also make their own artworks and are encouraged to reflect on how they reproduce or disrupt the discourses we see in the exhibition. The UCL curators would love to hold an exhibition of the same works for the public with labels written by my students plus responses from members of the UCL community and visitors. Subscribe to this blog if you want updates on this, if and when it happens!

I hope this might give you a few ideas about teaching with art. Artworks also aren’t by any means the only types of objects you can teach with and I love to hear other people’s ideas about object-based learning and how we can make it work in our discipline. Let us know in the comments if you have an approach that really works well.

The secret(s) of happiness

On Friday I took my class to the beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden to learn about queer ecologies as part of my Politics of Nature class. (One student said: ‘I can’t believe that we’ve been reading about queer ecologies this week and then the tour we did here was all about queer ecologies too! What an amazing coincidence!’ Thus was the line ‘anything that happens in this class that causes you to learn probably did not happen by accident’ in next year’s syllabus born.)

After the outdoor class itself, I told students I would park myself on a bench and they were welcome to come and have a chat about anything at all and ask any questions about the class, the readings, the rest of the module or whatever they wanted. One pair of students sidled up to me and said, ‘You always seem so happy! Can we interview you and find out your secret?’ So they did. Their hypothesis – that I spend a lot of time outdoors – was a good one. It’s certainly true that I was grinning from ear-to-ear all afternoon in the Chelsea Physic Garden (and so were most of the students most of the time), whereas in a timetabling meeting earlier in the day, I was a bit less joyful. The conversation about happiness developed in lots of directions, though, ending up in a long discussion about whether there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ and how far practices of ‘self-cultivation‘ are important for politics.

This got me to thinking about how far happiness is a skill and, if it is, is it a skill we can deploy in our teaching? And is it a skill we can teach to others?

Happy students in the Chelsea Physic Garden

The students were correct – I am a pretty happy person, at least at this point in my life. I wonder what exactly it was that they noticed and were responding to, though. I think they can probably tell that I enjoy teaching them, chatting to them, being outdoors (or indoors) with them, hearing their ideas and trying out my own in their company. They were probably picking up the fact that I smile a lot, that I interact with them informally, that I am friendly, warm and open. That I have a sense of humour – I laugh at their jokes (when I understand them) and enjoy things that are silly or ridiculous. I am guessing that they find me enthusiastic about both the subject material we are working with and about them as people, their own interests and enthusiasms and jokes.

Mostly all this comes pretty ‘naturally’ (or automatically) to me, but that’s not to say that some days it isn’t a bit of an act. We all have an act that we do when we’re teaching, right? And mine is often joyful enthusiasm. It tends to work, probably because it goes with the grain of who I am and what I believe. It’s important to me that students trust me, and each other, and enjoy the work, so they’re not scared to make mistakes. I believe that we learn best when we feel relaxed, safe, even joyful. That learning takes place in communities and emerges out of strong relationships. And, as a question of values, I want to try to disrupt hierarchical relationships where I can. I also – with a nod to Jennifer’s post last week –  really want students to do the reading because they want to, because I have conveyed to them emotionally and viscerally how much I love this work in order to intrigue them and get them interested in finding out more. Therefore I can draw on the skill of happiness – if that is what it is – to get the class to go the way I want it to and bring the joy of learning to us all.

I know some people really worry about inhabiting an informal persona in the classroom, and there is certainly no one way of teaching. It’s always going to be a case of whatever works for you. But if you are formal or reserved – perhaps insisting on Dr Surname rather than your first name or trying to avoid any emotional connection with students – because you are afraid that warmth and friendliness will breed disrespect, I would suggest that you could experiment with finding other (better?) ways of drawing your boundaries, if you want. Although I am in many ways a ferociously serious person, as a woman of short stature, casual attire, with my LGBTQ+ lanyard always on display, curly hair that generally will not be ruled, the ghost of a Northern English accent, a friendly and smiley demeanour, and a sense of humour, I am relatively vulnerable to being underestimated and even mansplained at on first meeting. Though usually not by students and it doesn’t usually happen twice. As my brilliant colleague, Emily McTernan, explains people are generally pretty good at negotiating these sorts of microaggressions and passing acts of disrespect – and it seems to me that if we are acting, speaking and living with a sense of ease and joy, we are all the better at those negotiations. Power is always there, of course. Students are humans and therefore some won’t behave very well, or even indulge in abuse, and the people on the end of all that are, of course, the same people who are always on the end of abuse and micro-aggressions. Still, do we want that behaviour to be the thing that sets the tone for everyone else? Or can we push back firmly and confidently on nonsense precisely because we cultivate strong relationships and connection? There’s only one way to find out and that’s to try out a range of repertoires until you find the one that suits you.

Happiness is looking closely at a toad

But how do we develop and expand the range of emotional repertoires we can draw on?

Another disclaimer first. Whilst I am not the most privileged person in the world, it’s certainly true that the main reason I am happy a lot of the time is because of strokes of good fortune far too numerous to count. To put it very bluntly, a lot of life’s problems that really make people miserable can be solved by money and autonomy, and, whilst far from wealthy, like a lot of academics who have won the lottery of a secure, full-time job in the UK, I live a nice life. I’ve also been lucky so far in terms of my own health and, by and large, that of the people I love. Such a lot of good luck sometimes feels unbearably fragile. It is also almost embarrassing to admit to, in a world so broken. But as the inspirational Roxani Krystalli reminds us, people who are in pain do not ‘want others to live lives devoid of joy or to tell stories exclusively about suffering’. ‘Joy,’ she tells us, ‘is not a threat to peace’ but rather ‘animates resistance’ to war.

But lots of people are lucky – even luckier than me! – yet don’t seem that happy. So, what do I put it down to and can it be learned and taught? Well, at different points in my life (some in childhood and some embarrassingly recently!) I know I was taught some things that I suspect contribute to the fact that I’m usually in a good mood. I was taught to love music, nature, gardens, stories, art and comedy. I was taught to notice the little things, to look carefully, to feel grateful for small blessings and mercies, to plan for the worst but hope for the best. I was taught that to look forward to something, and then to remember it, is almost as good as experiencing it. I was taught a sense of wonder, curiosity and awe. I learned that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, no, not even singing loudly to dad rock.* I was taught that it’s important to work hard, to challenge yourself, to take risks, to keep practising, and I also learned to draw boundaries, to rest. I learned to try to see the best in people, to be more forgiving than judgemental, not to label, to value relationships, friendship, love. I learned that if you feel a negative emotion, you can notice it and allow it to play out, without thinking it will last forever. I learned that if you have talents, and you put them in service of other people, then you will have more yourself. (Pretty sure there’s a parable in there somewhere…) I learned that if someone gives you feedback, they are probably trying to help, and that you don’t have to agree with them, but they also might be right. I learned to try and live my values but also to go easy on myself when I fell short. I learned to say sorry when I was wrong (or even might have been wrong), to listen to other opinions but not to hatred, to accept a compliment or an apology gracefully, to raise an eyebrow rather firmly at a micro-offence or an attempt to take advantage. And, you will no doubt know, everyone** from the North of England is taught to make others laugh and to take pleasure in the absurdities of the world.

These are all things that I myself have had to learn. And by ‘learn’, I don’t mean that I can recite them as a set of rather pious*** rules for living. I mean I learned the only way we ever learn – the hard way – through embodied practice, through doing them, through making mistakes, through discussion, through feedback, through trial and error, through good teachers. And I muck lots of them up several times a day, just like everyone. But implicit in all of this is a conviction that people and their dispositions and behaviours are not static or fixed, that the future isn’t written yet, that we can always do better.

By and large, these practices are also all things that I teach. By this I mean that, alongside modelling them as part of my ‘teacher act’, I also take any opportunity to notice and promote discussion and meta-cognition in class when I see them playing out. As I explained in previous posts, I demonstrate to students that I want to have good relationships with them by learning their names and I facilitate and make space for conversations about what to do when we get things wrong, how we might go about learning, what sorts of practices and norms help and hinder our work together. I encourage them to value collaboration and relationships above competition in the way that I structure the assessment and opportunities for feedback (more on this in a future post). I create opportunities for them to make friends, if they want to. I push them to notice the details and to observe the world around them in lots of ways, from using social annotation to asking them to put pictures of the natural world on Padlet boards to getting them to write, or even podcast, about what they are noticing in nature. I give them readings that I myself enjoy and I ask them to relate their reading to their own lives and values, as well as asking them to write about how they live, and how they would like to. I push them to develop the skills they might need to put their talents in service to the world. I get them to read stories, to listen to music, to look at artworks and to produce their own if they want to learn how, or to get better. I trust them. I shower them with micro-affirmations whenever justifiable. I try to encourage them to trust themselves and each other. I do my best to say sorry when I get it wrong and to accept apologies and compliments quickly and with ease. I try to be kind but assertive when invisible lines of respect and courtesy are crossed. And if I can, if it isn’t unbearably weird, I narrate those apologies, those acceptances, those negotiations and boundaries, so they can see what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Also, I don’t know if I’ve told you, but I’m pretty funny with the jokes.

I don’t think anyone learns to be happy from a ten week module, even if they were pretty lucky to begin with (and lots of our students aren’t, of course). Still, we might plant a seed, or water a seedling that’s already growing, or nourish a plant that’s going to bloom early and well. It all matters. And perhaps those same skills also teach us to deal with adversity, those times when we cannot be happy.

Happiness is only one emotion and there are lots of others in your classroom and in mine. I’d love to know what emotions you are dealing with in your teaching and whether there are any you have learned or try to teach.

*Today it was Eagles, since you are good enough to ask

**Approximate figures

***I sometimes accuse myself of piety, but my friends’ daughter, aged 6, was puzzled by this (once the concept had been clarified), saying, ‘But she can’t be pious! She’s cheeky!’ I’m glad I had the chance to explain this – I don’t want you getting the wrong impression.

‘We sit in silent judgement’: the ‘visceral rhetoric’ of classrooms

On Friday, it was the first seminar of the year for my Politics of Nature module – a couple of hours of pure joy each week in autumn term in the midst of a job with less teaching and more admin than there once was in my life.

I take very seriously the advice that we could all stand to take out a bit of content from our teaching. Less is more when it comes to deep engagement. I therefore allow my first seminar of the year to breathe a little, taking the opportunity to get to know the students, answer their questions in full and set the tone for the work that lies ahead. I have discovered that it really does pay dividends to do this. When I was a new teacher – piling in all my knowledge and all my enthusiasms on students so that it felt like a tidal wave – I used to suffer as much as the next person from the silent classes, where getting anyone to say anything was like pulling teeth. My classes these days – with hard-won experience – are much livelier and chattier, and students quite often tell me that they find them a place where they feel they belong and can talk openly.

There are lots of things I do that cumulatively help me achieve this – and no guarantees, of course, that one year things won’t go wrong. But that first session of the year that sets the tone is really an important one. I’m therefore going to tell you what activities I do and also some thoughts on my embodied pratice. The activities are easy enough to adopt, but I think it is the combination that makes it work.

As regular readers know, I start out by making a public commitment to learning everyone’s name. They have already filled in a questionnaire where they may have given me a pronunication guide, and I have already looked up their online UCL record, so I have seen a photo and I know their year and programme. We go round and introduce ourselves, perhaps with a bit of detail about why we’re in the class. The questionnaire (I may write more about this in a future post) will already also have helped me to get to know them a little, so if relevant, I can refer to that in passing in conversation. For example, ‘Oh yes, you’re the student doing your dissertation on farming? Great to have your expertise in the class!’

Next, I make sure that everyone understands what a ‘norm’ is (as there are many Politics students in the class, someone can usually give a really pithy definition by this point in their degree). And then, I ask them to find out the name of the person or people sitting near them and have a chat about what the norms have been in University seminars up till now and how useful those classroom norms have been for learning. A lot of animated conversation and laughter usually ensures. Then we go back into plenary and we discuss those norms, how they feel and whether we want to carry on with them or do something new.

I want to stress now what this activity isn’t. It is not an exercise in crowd-sourcing or agreeing ‘ground rules’. This may be an activity that works for you – in which case, as they say, carry on. But whenever I have tried this, it always ends up with a pious recitation of very nice rules, all of which go unobserved for the rest of term. My activity is something different. It is a conversation in which we really try to reflect on how it feels to be in a classroom, what is going on in everyone’s head, what our fears, frustrations and insecurities are, and how hard those things are to change.

Lots of things reliably come up in that conversation. One student this time said, ‘As everyone on my degree programme knows, in seminars, we sit in silent judgement.’ The whole room burst out laughing – clearly this hit a nerve. Students talk about not wanting to speak unless they are certain of the answer. About fearing the judgement of others if they get something wrong, even though they know that they are putting the brakes on their own opportunity to learn. About the constant worry of ‘cancellation’ even as they also fear that hate speech will not be addressed because of ‘freedom of speech’. About imposter syndrome and feeling stupid. About resentment towards the person who ‘sounds clever even if he [yes, they say, it’s usually a he] hasn’t done the reading’. There is so much going on under the surface of our classrooms.

The one thing I don’t try to do in these conversations is solve all this. And this is where the embodied practice comes in. I was listening today to a great podcast with Stephanie Larson who has written a book about ‘visceral rhetoric’ (which I am now so excited to read!). Her research is not on classroom dynamics, but she does use one classroom example to explain what ‘visceral rhetoric’ is. She explains that whilst a long tradition in the study of rhetoric assumes a deep commitment to argument and rationality, it is often embodiment and emotion that in the end enable listeners to come to judgement: ‘the body of your professor will tell you something before that person even speaks. You could imagine yourself in a large lecture: that person who walks on stage, stands behind a podium (if they can stand) is going to […] shape audiences’ perceptions of credibility, of how good of a professor this person is going to be.’ Whether we are lecturing or not (and I avoid it as much as I possibly can, which I may also write about another day), students are looking to our ‘visceral rhetoric’ to set the emotional tone of the classroom experience, to decide if they trust us, to enable their own effective practice of visceral rhetoric to emerge.

So, what I do is try to be relaxed, open and calm as they tell their stories about classroom norms. I really listen. I don’t fill every pause, but let the silence sit as the feelings and the courage to speak bubble up slowly. I try to display warmth and understanding. I sympathise. I smile and laugh with them. That laughter is incredibly important, actually – the public, joyful, communal, and embodied acknowledgement that we do some ridiculous, self-defeating things because we’re scared or judgemental or both. I don’t come up with rules or even many suggestions, though I do ask questions like, ‘And is that a helpful norm?’ or ‘How would it feel if we didn’t do that?’ or ‘Will we try to do something else in this classroom?’ I do my best to show that I understand it’s complicated. We can’t sort this all out rationally with a set of rules. We have to work at it slowly and patiently, as a set of embodied practices.

Usually – as this year – we end with a mutual commitment to do our best. To say no to hate speech but yes to getting things wrong. No to shunning but yes to challenge. No to holding forth pointlessly and yes to questions. No to fear and yes to learning. There will be times it won’t work, when it will be hard, when someone will go away from my classroom feeling miserable or wishing they had said something or nor said something, or deeply angry with me for correcting them. There will be plenty of times when I kick myself for insensitvity and occasions when I front up and apologise. The point is not to get it perfect, but to notice when we don’t and to keep going. I’ll let you know how it pans out this year. Meanwhile, feel free to give any of this a try yourself and let us know what happens.