Preface

We write collaboratively as two experienced teachers, bringing together analytical frameworks from environmental studies with those that attend to the irreducibility and unknowability of the unconscious. We draw on stories from our own teaching, as we advocate for a form of sustainable pedagogy that flourishes amid diversity and disequilibrium. The alteration in educational practice that we describe recognizes and responds to the uncontrollable, yet resource-rich, complexities of classroom life, particularly for teaching and learning as social and environmental justice work. Limitlessness, we argue, is a richer way to think about sustainable pedagogy than is seeking new and better boundaries.

Our commitments to radical teaching rely on long-standing pedagogical traditions with a strong concern for social justice; they also require a readiness to let go of agendas, to pierce the skin of the classroom, recognizing (for instance) the gaps between subjects and objects, between goals and outcomes. (That such a prospect can be scarily unsettling may account, in part, for why so much schooling is organized to assess what is already known, rather than to explore what has not yet been recognized.) On this website, and in its companion book, we tell stories of learning in multiple contexts, hoping to constitute an on- and off-line community that will expand current notions of teaching inside and outside of classrooms.

We philosophize and enact pedagogies that call forth, explore, and propagate those uncertain moments when teachers and students lose hold of what they think they know.  Looking for a way to refresh and renew education, at a time when it is derided and defunded, we begin with “the ecological thought” of profound connectedness, and move across the permeable membrane of self and environment, organism and medium, seeking the sorts of spaces many of us both resist and long to explore, where our histories, nightmares, and desires “blow our covers” as rational subjects. We identify these spaces as ecological events, interconnected and unbounded, ultimately unpredictable and unknowable. Drawing on the language of John Dewey and Walker Percy, we name these as sites of “the live creature,” where we find what we have not sought.

Eve Sedgwick opens her wonderful essay on “Pedagogy of Buddhism” with an image of this sort of movement: that of a cat dropping a small animal before the feet of its human owner. Sedgwick offers this as an example of “near-miss pedagogy,” in which the teacher’s intention fails in reaching the learner.1Eve Sedgwick, “Pedagogy of Buddhism,”  in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003). 153-182. Having attended for years to such “near-misses,” we foreground these slippages in the dialogue of teaching and learning, as instances in which teachers and learners, in our entanglement with each other and with the emergent complexity of our world, are more, less, or other than we think we are.

Such moments appear in the classroom as a stomach ache, signaling the necessity to slow down and listen to painful dissonances; as a prophecy, delivered by an incarcerated student, to guard ourselves against “the cautious, the critical, the committed,” who may block our way; or as a story, told by a trans student, of his father’s description of an echo: “your voice searching all the empty space for a way back home.”2samuel.terry, “The Personal Echoes. Will You Respond?” December 26, 2013 (10:36 p.m.), accessed August 18, 2015, Each of these stories — and many others we have to tell — uncovers a self that does not at first recognize itself, accessing the unconscious wherefrom we often surprise ourselves, a process within the medium of the larger world that is unresponsive to methods of “command and control,” overflowing instead with what we cannot predict.3C.S. Holling and Gary Meffe, “Command and Control and the Resource Management,” Conservation Biology 10 (April 2, 1996), 328-337.

Rejecting the lure of a unified, closed, and stabilized system, we evoke “ecologies” on both the smallest scale (we teach environmental studies), and the largest, following Timothy Morton’s description of ecological thought as “picaresque  — wandering from place to place, open to random encounters”; “surrounded by an otherness, something that is not the self, in an infinite web of mutual interdependence where there is no boundary or center”; ”not fixated, not stopping at a particular concretization of its object.”4Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010), 48

This “outside” space of uncertainty, incompleteness and conditionality is also located inside each of us. Where the intermeshing of everything stretches deep into the varieties of the human unconscious, we follow Elizabeth Ellsworth in evoking a palpable sense of this realm of human experience as diverse, unruly, and fertile.5Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997). We conceptualize the unconscious as broad, almost metaphorical, and use it to reference all that lies beneath, beyond, and peripheral to our cognizant awareness; all that we hope and fear, know and don’t, as individuals who are always also part of personal and cultural histories, presents, vicissitudes.

The question, to which we invariably return, is “what do we do with this, pedagogically?” Educational texts often draw on a literature of cognition to illuminate the nature of learning.  We call on such resources, along with much of the current work in environmental studies and psychoanalytic feminism, but side-step the specific targeting of each of these genres in order to attend carefully to the more ambiguous spaces of learning and teaching.  We have organized this book and website so that form and content inform and interrogate one another.  We conceptualize a shifting relationship of subject and object, foreground and background, organism and environment, as cued visually by the “all over” work of Jackson Pollack, verbally by Paula Gunn Allen’s refusal of the figure-ground distinction.6Allover Painting,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed August 18, 2015;Paula Gunn Allen, “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,” in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1986), 222-244. “Self” and “environment,” “classroom” and “world,” “teacher” and “student” are all transactional, malleable categories, imbricated in one another. Conceptualizing the boundaries of the classroom as permeable, we look to bring the complexity and unknowability of selves, and the complexity and unpredictability of the medium in which they live and learn, into the classroom and out again.

Following the psychological conception of “the universe in process” (as described by Daniel Palmer), with objects understood “as more or less persistent regions in an onslaught of spatio-temporal change,”7Daniel Palmer, “On the Organism-Environment Distinction in Psychology,” Behavior and Philosophy 32, 2 (2004), 317-347, accessed August 18, 2015. we present spaces, times, and material selves as temporary markers, categories through which we engage in and with the world. “Spaces” signify classrooms and other learning places as arbitrarily bounded containers that overflow, short-circuit, re-ignite. “Times” evoke themes of temporal transit and passage, problematizing the conventions of “class time” as measured and unquantifiable. “Material Selves” conjure embodied forms of identity, including gender, race and ability, colliding with each other and other matter in emergent, unpredictable, yet patterned ways that re-charge learning. As counterpoints to the linearity of language, we include photographs we have taken, punctuating and eliding the written narratives.

The web site is interactive, offering points of entry for readers to contribute to the project. Current work that attends to the ecology of the event — such as Patti Lather’s reach toward a social science that features a politics of complexity — models the way in which we envision you, readers, as co-creators who both extend and challenge our project. Students who have engaged with us in the pedagogical work we explore here, along with colleagues with whom we have worked in transdisciplinary settings, already speak here.8Patti Lather, Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern (New York: Routledge, 1991). Inspired by the interviews at Figure/Ground Communication,9Laureano Ralon, “Figure/Ground: An Open-Source, Para-Academic, Inter-disciplinary Collaboration,” accessed August 18, 2015. we also hope for links to locations distinct from our own: those occupied by high schoolers, incarcerated students, urban gardeners, and others with differently hopeful stories to tell about teaching and learning.

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