Teaching to the Unconscious

…the universe in its emergence is neither determined nor random, but…an intuitive, non-rational process….If our daytime experience is needed for awakening to the phenomenal world, our nighttime experience is needed for communion with those numinous powers from which the daylight forms themselves come into being

Thomas Berry, “The Dream of the Earth”

…the unconscious, the most subversive element in psychic life, seems to be catching up with us”

Jane Gallop and Carolyn Burke, “Psychoanalysis and Feminism in France”

The presumed linkage between time spent and measurable outcomes, which guides so much schooling assessment and evaluation,1 rests on the singular assumption that teaching is directly “taken up” as learning. if teaching is a “perfect fit” with learning, why are schools filled with issues of discipline, lack of motivation, and failure? Why is there always so much going on “outside the lines”? But if teaching is a “perfect fit” with learning, why are schools filled with issues of discipline, lack of motivation, and failure?2 Why is there always so much going on “outside the lines”?

It is our argument that the heavy drivers of time, measurement, and a narrowly productive status quo, which define so much of U.S. schooling today, not only fail to match the complex world in which we learn and live, but also sacrifice the diversity necessary for creative responses to the inevitability of change. We are inviting here a look “outside,” to the fertile, unpredictable, immeasurable and even unruly dimensions of human experience, for an enlarged site of teaching and learning in, for, and about change. We explore the notion that what’s outside the lines constitutes a rich soil, fertile with the shit, so to speak, of our unconscious as well as our conscious lives. What lies “outside” is available for teaching and learning of another, richer ilk, akin to the nested, overlapping, and often unpredictable ecosystems of the natural world.

As Anne’s dream, with its wild swings between exaltation and terror, reminds us, “the ‘between’ of perception and conscious is there–even if we can’t see or control it.”3 This “between” might be conceived as the negative space in a picture of teaching and learning, the space that is not pointed to, for example, by looking at student products or outcomes; it is a space we find highly enticing. While

the unruly and unresolved dynamics of self and society that reign in that space between perception and cognition cannot be directly observed or regulated, those dynamics can be accessed indirectly. They can be engaged with and responded to indirectly, metaphorically, through literary allusion, through the difference between address and response…through attention to the absences which structure what is present, through attention to that which does not fit.4

As Gallup and Burke observe, the unconscious is always at our heels whether or not we are aware of it, “catching up with us” in the classroom as elsewhere, threatening the stability of pedagogy as definable intent that does–or in fact could with any reliability–result in predictable, measurable learning.5 This is made visceral in the Noblet Marseilles version of the Tarot deck:6

The Fool, Tarot Merseille de Jean Noblet (1650), refreshed by Jean-Claude Flornoy, (2001)

The card representing The Fool pictures a figure striding to the right while beneath and slightly behind him to the left an unidentifiable creature extends its claws toward his bared genitals. The figure is unaware of this creature, and his stance is poised, open, and in motion, precariously available as he sets out to learn the world. The fool, standing for the unconscious, might be described as an early form of the perpetual motion machine: he can turn up anywhere, and always brings element of surprise. This seventeenth-century representation anticipates our contemporary understanding of the complex relationship between human beings and the world, between “inside” and “outside” as a crux of learning.7

Other educators have looked to the unconscious for clues to larger, deeper ways of understanding human drives, propensities, resistances, and capacities as learners. Confronting the challenges of addressing their own and their students’ deep assumptions about human difference, researchers have looked to psychodynamic theory to explore what lies beneath people’s conscious beliefs about “self” and “other.” Grasping these elements of the unconscious has helped educators address “the contradictory nature of stereotypes” in ourselves and our students.8 Ann Berlak, for instance, offers us ways to teach about and to students’ adaptive unconscious, by generating role-plays that call up old scripts with new responses, in order to inscribe alternative patterns.9 In these frameworks the unconscious is a somewhat mappable terrain; by inferring something of these aspects of ourselves and others, we can teach “to” the unconscious and in this sense provoke different kinds of learning.

Here we attend to those aspects of the unconscious that remain more elusive and wild, even uncontrollable, the playful or disturbing dimensions of ourselves that cannot be directly harnessed in teaching. For Ellsworth, the “self” capable of the kind of rational performance most often sought in classrooms is itself illusory: “The fact of the unconscious then, ‘explodes the very idea of a complete or achieved identity’–with oneself through consciousness, or with others through understanding.” Using the film studies notion of “mode of address” to talk about who the teacher and the curriculum “think students are,” Ellsworth describes the “eruptive, unruly space between a curriculum’s address and a student’s response [as] populated by the difference between conscious and unconscious knowledge, conscious and unconscious desires.” Rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning; she claims that it is actually this “resistance to the banalities of normalization that makes agency possible.” If such a thing as a “perfect fit” were possible, it would in fact guarantee that no learning would happen here.10

Here’s another story, where hopefulness and the fear of crisis intersect uncertainly. In May 2013, Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore host a two-day workshop for faculty members teaching in the Tri-College Environmental Studies Program. The first day is full of doom-and-gloom, and we are feeling very discouraged about this new venture of ours. We find ourselves wondering how, amid so many pressing concerns, we will possibly be able to motivate our students. How can we teach ecologically, without leading us all into despair?

But then Mark Wallace, a Religion professor at Swarthmore, opens the second day of presentations with what he identifies as the “delicate, special, strange flute-like sound” of a wood thrush: “I wake up every morning to this spectacular sound, although I haven’t ever seen one. Its population has been cut in half since the 1960s; and doesn’t come to feeders; it lives off of grubs and insects on the ground….This is my approach to Environmental Studies. I know, from teaching religion, that stories of destruction don’t motivate students. I try instead to do advocacy scholarship: not just sharing data, facts, and information, but inculcating a deep sense of spiritual kinship, love, and passion for the natural world, a family connection that will make them care about preserving it. We won’t try to save the planet if we don’t fall back in love with it.”11

At the end of Mark’s presentation, however, a colleague confesses that, as a late riser, “those birds in the morning bother me tremendously!” He elaborates on his various stratagems: purchasing an air gun to drive them off, and–when this does not work–switching his bedroom to distance himself from the morning song that disturbs his sleep….And so, he asks, how do we judge a song such as this one? Do we assess it as beauty? Or as a crisis, needing intervention? One man’s inspiration, it turns out, is another’s murderous rage. How to accommodate such diversity? How to teach ecologically?…. The classroom is almost by definition contained by four walls, and when we think of going “outside” it, we’re usually talking about going some other place, on a field trip (as we describe repeatedly in Chapter Two of this project12). We are suggesting, however, that recognizing the aversions, dreams, fears and longings located beneath and beyond the conscious, cognitive work we do in the classroom, as well as in faculty workshops, gives us access to yet another “outside,” poses another way of creating unexpected intersections among the individual, the classroom, and what lies beyond: “a pivot point between our inner and outer worlds.”13 This “outside,” a space of uncertainty, incompletion, conditionality, and learning, is in fact a quality of experience: it is an outside that is paradoxically located inside each of us.

We bring passionate curiosity to the question of how best to acknowledge those “unruly and unresolved dynamics of self and society,” because we see them as clues to classroom life as part of a larger ecosystem. We bring passionate curiosity to the question of how best to acknowledge those “unruly and unresolved dynamics of self and society,”14 because we see them as clues to classroom life as part of a larger ecosystem. We know the exhaustion–also the fear, frustration, anger, disaffection, sense of futility–that can arise, both in our own work and that of our students, when we teach and learn without clear limits. On the other hand, we also recognize the exhaustion of the drive toward the “perfect fit,” the curriculum and pedagogy that engender full (and presumably measurable) understanding. This kind of education, in which the classroom acts as bounded container, leads to unsustainable teaching practices, marked generally as “teacher burnout”–or as boredom. Recognizing such exhaustion as part of the system, a signal to its shifting nature, leads us to turn, now, to locate the resource of the unbounded unconscious in the context of ecological thinking.

  1. Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency:A Study of the Social Forces that have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962); Jeannie Oakes, et al.,”Schooling: Wrestling with History and Tradition,” in Teaching to Change the World, 2nd Edition (Columbus, Ohio: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006), 2-39; Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
  2. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 44.
  3. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis, 2005), 50.
  4. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 51.
  5. Eric Toshalis, “The Identity-Perception Gap: Teachers Confronting the Difference Between Who They (Think They) Are and How They Are Perceived by Students,” in Culture, Curriculum, and Identity in Education, ed. H. Richard Milner (New York: Macmillan, 2010), 15-36.
  6. Tarots Marseille de Jean Noblet,” 1650, refreshed by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2001, accessed July 17, 2015.
  7. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 48.
  8. Rachel Martin, Listening Up: Reinventing Ourselves as Teachers and Students (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2001), 62.
  9. Ann Berlak, “Challenging the Hegemony of Whiteness by Addressing the Adaptive Unconscious,” in Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 47-66.
  10. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 41, 43-44.
  11. Mark Wallace, “The Introductory Environmental Studies Course,” panel discussion at the Tri-College Environmental Studies Workshop, Swarthmore College, May 16, 2012.
  12. Chapter Two: Playing
  13. Ellsworth, Places of Learning,47.
  14. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 51.