Piercing the Skin of the Classroom

We write collaboratively as two experienced teachers. Drawing on stories from our own classrooms, advocating for a form of pedagogy that flourishes amid diversity and disequilibrium, we bring together analytical frameworks from Environmental Studies with those that attend to the irreducibility and unknowability of the unconscious. 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.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.

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, 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.) In this companion website and 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.1

Two students in a first-semester writing seminar elect to work together to investigate the college as a “contact zone” where Muslims and non-Muslims interact. When one wants to explore Muslim students’ views on sexuality, the other withdraws from their collaborative project.

In the midst of a fast-moving discussion of identities and schooling, a White student talks about people who lack resources in their neighborhoods and school systems as “they” and “them.” That quick, tight feeling hits the stomach; don’t heed it, succumb to the flow of conversation, until after class when a Black student approaches: This makes me so tired, she says.

Towards the end of a semester exploring the rich intersections of identity and environment, we are prodded by a strange short story, in which plants are sentient, into painful recognition of a dual (dueling?) set of anxieties: we want not to be separated from the world; we also very much want boundaries to protect ourselves from it. “How can we simultaneously be part of such a long history, have such an important influence,” a student asks, “and yet be so late in realizing what has happened and so utterly impotent in our attempts to fix it?”

It is important for teachers to acknowledge the huge range of what’s happening in their classes, some of which we might become aware of, some not: a spectrum that includes not just the audible and visible (how students speak, or remain silent, how they gesture with voice and body), but also all the undergrowth, the desires, fears, and “ghosts” that accompany the classroom “presence” of each one of us.It is important for teachers to acknowledge the huge range of what’s happening in their classes, some of which we might become aware of, some not: a spectrum that includes not just the audible and visible (how students speak, or remain silent, how they gesture with voice and body), but also all the undergrowth, the desires, fears, and “ghosts” that accompany the classroom “presence” of each one of us. Such acknowledging prompts questions, sometimes requires interventions: to speak to this student after class; to offer another kind of feedback on that student’s writing; to offer in-class writing time, an activity structured in pairs, a conversation burrowing into some aspect of text designed to surface some of what lies beneath, or, alternatively, to allow it, for now, to recede.

We may experience such moments in the classroom as a stomach ache, a twinge, an alert, signaling the necessity to slow down and listen to painful dissonances. 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,”2 overflowing instead with what we cannot predict.

Eve Sedgwick opens her wonderful essay on “Pedagogy of Buddhism” with an image of these sorts of movements, an example of “near-miss pedagogy” in which the teacher’s intention fails in reaching the learner: “Cats may be assuming the role of educator when they bring prey indoors to their human owner….perhaps cats who release living prey in our houses are trying to give us some practice, to hone our hunting skills.”3 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.

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.”4

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.5 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 to do with this, pedagogically.The question, to which we invariably return, is what to 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 acknowledge the authority we carry as teachers: selecting texts and assignments, designing experiences inside the classroom and out, assessing our students. But we also look to re-direct that authority: pedagogy as we understand and practice it is less about “leading the student out” (as in the conventional meaning of the word) than about complex people being in relation in a shared space. We work the paradox, acknowledging both that we occupy an authoritative position and that we cannot forecast or control what happens in the richly complex and multifarious exchange that is teaching and learning. In the midst of this, we look to distribute authority more widely: to make the terms of such decision-making part of ongoing meta-conversations, both in our classes and in this book.

We have organized this project 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,6 verbally by Paula Gunn Allen’s refusal of the figure-ground distinction.7 “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.

We present spaces, times, and relations as “temporary manifestations,” categories through which we engage in and with the world. We present spaces, times, and relations as “temporary manifestations,”8 categories through which we engage in and with the world, three areas where we locate elements often covered over by the effort to control teaching, learning, living. “Spaces” signify classrooms and other learning places as arbitrarily bounded containers that overflow, short-circuit, re-ignite: buildings and landscapes, institutions and ideologies, wildscapes and cities. “Times” evoke themes of temporal transit and passage, problematizing the conventions of “class time” as measured and unquantifiable, conjuring instead the multi-layered histories of individuals and institutions: the traces of the past, of experiences, thoughts, feelings that find their way often unacknowledged into the learning space. “Relations” 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–which are interrupted, too, by dreams, stories, and the voices of others than ourselves.

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,9 models the way in which we envision our 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 in these pages. Inspired by the interviews at Figure/Ground Communication,10 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.

  1. John Dewey, “The Live Creature,” Art as Experience (1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980), 3-34; Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 46-63.
  2. C.S. Holling and Gary Meffe, “Command and Control and the Resource Management,” Conservation Biology 10 (April 2, 1996), 328-337.
  3. Eve Sedgwick, “Pedagogy of Buddhism,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003). 153-154.
  4. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010), 48.
  5. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).
  6. Allover Painting,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed August 18, 2015.
  7. 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.
  8. Timothy Morton, “The Mesh,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011): 29.
  9. Patti Lather, Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern (New York: Routledge, 1991).
  10. Laureano Ralon, “Figure/Ground: An Open-Source, Para-Academic, Inter-disciplinary Collaboration,” accessed August 18, 2015.

One comment on “Piercing the Skin of the Classroom

  1. Alli Crandell

    This is a test comment. #2.Reference