Tattooing Scar Tissue

Prison teacher Anna Plemons warns educators against a “progress narrative” of teaching and learning, proposing instead that teaching be more like “tattooing scar tissue”: teaching writing especially involves “taking it slow, making design choices that work with the material reality of the landscape, and understanding that some tattoos are meant to hide older skin stories.”1

Plemons uses the human body as a site to talk about writing, where layers of the past bleed through to texture versions of the present; her approach highlights the complicated ways people “make sense of many nuanced, complicated, relational contexts… acknowledge the furrows, folds, and taut patches which co-author meaning.”2 As with the palimpsest, the action and image of “tattooing scar tissue” suggests a teaching process guided by scrutiny and deliberation–some measure of control punctured by elements of inquiry and volatility.

Teaching and learning through enactments similarly involves participants in working with and across our mind and bodyscapes; layering over events, places, people; acknowledging gaps, leakage, hidden stories; inquiring into this messy relationality: tracings and hauntings of the past, silent elisions and splittings of the present, new possibilities.

My colleague’s question about ir/responsible pedagogy shifts, for me, into a query about whether and how pedagogy recognizes and impacts relationships: with living people, also ghosts, places, things. Reorienting this question redirects my attention to powerful bonds within the enacting group, to the relationship between current students and institutional leakage, to hovering, unspoken questions that both preserve and eclipse the distance between international and domestic students, to our connections with airport security, flags, unknown correspondents.

These questions provoke new ones: How might the concerns–of the (white) student about who perceives themselves as part of U.S. racism, of the (Asian) student who reveals her distance from this, and of the (Black) student who exposes her fear in this enactment–bleed into one another, perhaps opening up new ties? In conversation with a friend, I realize too how many of these enactment stories involve Asian students, who are outside the dominant U.S. black-white paradigm; perhaps this also represents a leakage, one that I need to work more deliberately with.

As groups design their performances, enactments allow glimpses of what’s beneath, what gives rise. Teaching toward this vulnerability requires working for students to feel seen and heard, not “safe,” perhaps, but accompanied in shared unpredictability – by me and by each other.

To acknowledge: my questions about how to stay with this work in times of unease and division; my authority that may propel and also inhibit what students choose to risk. And to desire: from tenderness, and from our learning, new connections.


  1. Anna Plemons, “Tattooing Scar Tissue: Making Meaning in the Prison Classroom,” Talk at Washington State University, March 27, 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. Plemons, “Tattooing.”