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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week was probably the highlight of my and everyone’s term in the Politics of Nature module: I took the class to Kew Gardens. We had a wonderful time, great weather and a brilliant learning experience. Unsurprisingly, the students love getting out of our dingy classroom at UCL, travelling to Kew and having the chance to explore on their own as well as talk together, with me, about the politics of botanical gardens past and present.
When we arrive at Kew, we go straight to the imposing Palm House and contemplate its size, beauty and majesty from outside. The activities we do next were suggested by the brilliant Dr Caroline Cornish, who also facilitated our entry to the garden (for free!). I send the students on a bit of a treasure hunt, asking them to have a wander round for 20 minutes or so and look particularly at the signage, to consider what Kew is telling us about the garden and who they are as an organsation, as well as what we might like to know but is not there on the signs. They love having a good explore and the phone cameras all come out. We come back together and students have usually noticed that the signage tells us the plants’ names and area of origin, some scientific facts about them, their usefulness for medical or technological purposes, and perhaps any work that Kew is doing to conserve them, particularly if they are rare. What is not usually explained is how or why the plants came to be here in London.
We then report to the rubber tree, and with a bit of interactive discussion – particularly from students who might come from countries where rubber plantations have been a feature of the landscape or who can make an educated guess about what the consequences of rubber monocultures might have been – we discuss its history and how that links to the history of Kew. Whilst now a delightful day out for tourists and keen gardeners, as well as hub for scientific enquiry and conservation, Kew was deeply involved not only in technical work of figuring out how to propagate and grow rubber on an industrial scale for industrial purposes, but also in commisssioning ‘explorers’ to take the seeds from Brazil (illegally!) in the first place. This is usually an interesting surprise to the students… which leads of course to some questions about why the signage doesn’t mention any of this fascinating and dark history. We also think again about how imposing and impressive that glass house is, considering that it was built as early as 1848, and how its magnificence and technological sophistication would have legitimised and celebrated the imperial endeavour. (‘How do you think they heated it?’ I ask. ‘No,’ I say, ‘Don’t look up…. look down!’) We talk about what Kew might want to do now to make repairs for this involvement in colonialism, including supporting botanical science and biodiversity in formerly colonised countries as well as providing an honest reckoning with its past to its visitors. We also talk a bit about why the latter might not be happening, a theme we will pick up later in the term when we discuss the National Trust’s work to tell truthful stories about their collections and the backlash they have experienced as a result. In their portfolios for this week, they are invited to writen new signage or guides for Kew, which many do, often to great effect, and last year a student wrote an impassioned letter to the Director entreating him to lead Kew towards new decolonisation projects in order to attract new audiences.
I also ask the students to write, if they want to, about what the experience of learning in the garden was like. After all, we could learn about the history of the rubber plant, the grandeur of the Palm House and look at examples of Kew’s signage back in the dingy classroom, using slides. They generally write about how actually being there helps them translates theory into practice. They also write a lot about enjoyment and pleasure, the joy of exploration and the feel and smells of being in a glasshouse. They definitely relate the week’s learning to new topics of their own discovery, too: one student spent some free time in the garden up on the treetop walkway, where she saw a huge flock of parakeets, leading her to research these birds and reflect on the nature of ‘invasive species’ and which get controlled, and how, building on our reading about native plants.
I think there is an intriguing epistemological dimension to outdoor learning that I haven’t quite yet put my finger on. It seems that standing in the very place that the rubber tree is growing at Kew, in the very glasshouse where it was originally propagated, and engaging in the history and present of that incredible building whilst enjoying its heat and humidity, its lushness and earthy smells, is epistemologically significant. That is, that the very knowledge we are engaging in and developing as a class is different from what we could know from a dry old, cold old Powerpoint. If, as I tend to argue, knowledge is the emergent property of sets of relationships within communities who know how to do certain sorts of things, then being there is a different way to being in relationship with Kew and its past and present practices. The very familiar pleasure that we feel on a day out at a nice garden is complicated by bringing it experientially into contact with some of difficulty of straightforwardly enjoying these places with these histories. The act of hunting out and really looking closely at the signage puts students in charge of their learning – in a sense they are engaging with primary data here – whilst also reminding them that there are many ways to read, and write, these signs, of the sort that they will often encounter in their role as consumers of pleasurable days out. Perhaps the bodily association of learning and critiquing with the pleasures of being a tourist and visitor, will engender a lifelong criticality that nevertheless won’t ruin the real and evident enjoyment that such places offer. Perhaps by having conversations and building relationships among ourselves in beautiful places, we will be closer as a group, with all that shared, emotional, embodied experience, and this will enable more, deeper, critical and analytical conversations for the future with each other and to other people we might spend time with in gardens and glasshouses.
I’m still thinking about it. But somehow, in my bones, I know that something happens to a class when we escape the bonds of the classroom and all the norms that come with them. We will be doing more outdoor and out-of-classroom learning as the term goes on.
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?
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.
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
***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.