Theorizing Ecology

Anne: I never answer my cell phone when I’m in the midst of a conversation; this is my way of being present where I am.

Jody (who always answers her phone, which rings frequently): This is my way of being available to “the larger present.”

…reality is open, unspeakable, beyond concept

Timothy Morton, “Practicing Deconstruction in the Age of Ecological Emergency”

For a number of years, progressive educators such as Victor Nolet, Stephen Sterling and David Orr have been calling for “a fundamental change in educational culture,” “a new paradigm for the preparation of teachers“1 that is not just “about sustainability” or “for particular sustainable development outcomes,” but rather re-conceptualizes education as teaching sustainability: “nurturing critical, systemic and reflective thinking; creativity; self organization; and adaptive management.”2 This powerful agenda for educational change, incorporating sustainability not just in terms of content, but also context and process, aims to prepare us all “for lives and livelihoods suited to a planet with a biosphere that operates by the laws of ecology and thermodynamics.”3

We here take the ideas of these and other environmental critics as catalysts for looking closely at what “thinking ecologically” might mean for our pedagogical practice. For both of us, teaching practice has always been centrally about social justice; race, class, and gender have been key markers describing the ground we traverse repeatedly with our students. More recently immersed in Environmental Studies, we have come with surprised awareness to understand ecology as a formative way of thinking-and-doing justice in school. The human categories that have so long marked our way are becoming differently inflected, as our awareness of the eco-system expands: the interior world of the human psyche, the exterior world of identities and relationships, the world of what is not-human are intersecting, colliding, and overlapping in unsettling ways. Postequilibrium ecology and resilience thinking, among other concepts central to Environmental Studies, are helping us re-think our social justice pedagogy.

Over the past few years, as we have undertaken our belated education into the field of Environmental Studies, and expanded our activism into matters ecological, we have begun to see the ways in which the dominant paradigms in education, like classic views of ecology, have been based on a view of human nature as stable, predictable–and so trainable. This view of children as malleable lends itself to a “command-and-control” approach to education that is remarkably similar to outmoded understandings of the “management” of natural resources.4 Such an approach seeks optimization of certain narrow kinds of productivity to meet a narrow set of needs, and a concomitant destruction of the resources–like trust, affection, and an enlarged set of possibilities and commitments–that could make other versions of the future possible.

A clear contemporary example is the testing paradigm in education. Current cheating scandals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are readable, on one level, as the decisions of particular adults and students to “scam” the tests in order to improve their individual and schools’ performances. Expressed ecologically, the widespread nature of cheating suggests that these practices are the predictable consequence of an ecosystem fixed on maximizing a certain kind of productive outcome, despite the dynamic complexity of human beings who (like the natural world of which we are a part) are astonishingly diverse in our perceptions, desires, and inclinations as learners. As Brian Walker, David Salt and Walter Reid explain, ecologists now understand that “the ruling paradigm–that we can optimize components of a system in isolation from the rest of the system–is proving inadequate to deal with the dynamic complexity of the real world.”5

… there is an organic difference between a system of self-sufficiency and a self-sustaining system. One precludes diversity, the other necessitates it

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place


When the cosmos talks to us in its own terms, what does it say? Notice that I am bigger and stranger than anything you have yet imagined based on your experiences to date. And the more you experience and imagine, the bigger and stranger I will get

Alice Lesnick and Paul Grobstein, “The Evolving Systems Project”

We see contemporary ecological theory as offering an alternative model for thinking about education, one based on the understanding that ecosystems are always changing–and that such changes cannot be entirely controlled. Classrooms populated with “the third participant,” “the ghostly traces of what we manage to ignore,”6 exemplify this “new ecology,” which apprehends that “stable structures like equilibrium or homeostasis do not accurately reflect natural systems…wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change.’”7

We find current narratives of postequilibrium aptly descriptive of the nested ecosystems of the classroom, and the varieties of conscious and unconscious processes that are so unpredictably there at play. Timothy Morton’s work, in particular, which urges us to query our presumptions about the “nature” of “nature,” comes quite close to the bone in its description of the rich unruliness of the environment as “the strange stranger…any entity whose arrival we can’t predict, whose being is fundamentally uncanny and unfathomable….There is a strange strangeness in every life form on Earth, quite literally: we share their DNA…yet we aren’t them.”8  Although the role of the teacher in such unpredictable systems follows no recipe, it is critical: demanding an ongoing awareness of risk and opportunity, a willingness to support students in learning that stretches, that may well unbalance and dis-comfort them; asking that we listen and make–sometimes unmake or remake –decisions in the face of uncertainty, stay present with students and ourselves.Although the role of the teacher in such unpredictable systems follows no recipe, it is critical: demanding an ongoing awareness of risk and opportunity, a willingness to support students in learning that stretches, that may well unbalance and dis-comfort them; asking that we listen and make–sometimes unmake or remake –decisions in the face of uncertainty, stay present with students and ourselves.

We are not even “quite” ourselves. Anne’s dream about the “great blue ocean” suggests that the mysterious unconscious both dwells within and encompasses us all. Multiple other ecological metaphors have been evoked to represent this mystery. As Ursula LeGuin puts it, “We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.”9 Virginia Woolf notes that we sometimes prefer that loneliness to accompaniment: “Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we must go alone and like it better so.”10

We believe that ecological narratives, such as those by Morton, LeGuin and Woolf, illuminate our thinking about classrooms filled with these “strange strangers”–the unfathomable dimensions of ourselves and others–and lead us as well into some insight regarding the possibility of sustainable teaching practices in such spaces. All ecosystems, including both natural and built environments, thrive not on optimizing productivity, but on diversity and redundancy.

Ecologists argue that any attempt to manage an ecosystem “should facilitate existing processes and variability rather than changing or controlling them….Prescriptions and cookbook approaches generally should be avoided….the  systems with which we work are idiosyncratic and endlessly varied. No single, detailed prescription can be of much use.”11

We understand classroom ecosystems in this way: filled with abundance, excess, fecundity, and redundancy, “idiosyncratic and endlessly varied.” C.S. Holling underscores the “dynamic, inherently uncertain” nature of ecosystems, which have “multiple potential futures.”12 In such an unbounded context, acting to create resilient, sustainable systems does not entail seeking “prescriptions and cookbook approaches,” but rather paying attention to what’s going on in multiple layers.

We think that attending to a larger range of experience than is often expressed in college courses may enable a more resilient means of teaching than other educational modes currently being advocated. Much “teaching to the test” and outcome-based educational work has short-term optimization as its goal.13 We explore here an alternative in more flexible, open-ended teaching practices that thrive on diversity, even thoughor precisely because-they may include frightening, often unrecognized aspects of ourselves, others, and our histories.

Thinking about what makes it hard for us and our students to rely on this abundance, the huge resource of the universe and the unpredictable interactions of our own unruly selves within it, we continue to work on finding and developing the wherewithal to let down into that struggle, to take on the fears of various kinds that limit our reliance: war, trauma, hunger, political and self-oppression, the very particular pressure, when being schooled, to get it right….

In doing so, we are seeking the resilience of systems, in particular the systems of schooling, but this work also entails the emotional resilience of individuals, and we recognize the necessity of creating a foundation of safety for the kind of pedagogy we describe, a space for open learning in the context of schooling. We look to the notion of a pedagogy like D.W. Winnicott’s “holding environment”14 that is grounded on the dialectic of trust and risk as a container for play and exploration, a dialectic that is unlikely to emerge in a more controlled situation.

We offer here an alternative way of thinking about “unbounded” teaching, of recognizing our classrooms as part of larger ecosystems characterized by limited time, space, and resources, andby an unlimited, often “unruly” fecundity and diversity that do not submit to the limitations of injunction, testing, command or control. The dimensions of minds and feelings that lurk below the surface of our usual classroom selves are essential to the running of that whole system. We believe that acknowledging their role in teaching and learning is crucial to encouraging the expression of difference and variability, from which our mutual responsibility for sustainable systems will continue to emerge.

  1. Victor Nolet, “Preparing Sustainability-Literate Teachers,” Teachers College Record 111, 2 (February 2009), 409, 416.
  2. Stephen Sterling, “An Analysis of Sustainability Education Internationally: Evolution, Interpretation, and Transformative Potential,” in The Sustainability Curriculum: The Challenge for Higher Education, ed. John Blewitt and Cedric Cullingford (London: Earthscan, 2004), 43-62, 56-57.
  3. David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect(Washington, DC: Earth Island Press, 2004), 27.
  4. Holling and Meffe, “Command and Control,” 328-337.
  5. Brian Walker, David Salt and Walter Reid, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining People and Ecosystems in a Changing World (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006), 8.
  6. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 64-65.
  7. Steve Mentz, “Tongues in the Storm: Shakespeare, Ecological Crisis, and the Resources of Genre,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2001), 156-157.
  8. Morton, “Practicing Deconstruction,” 160-161.
  9. Ursula K. LeGuin, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters(New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 148.
  10. Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (1926; rpt. Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris, 2002), 11-12.
  11. Holling and Meffe, “Command and Control,” 334.
  12. C.S. Holling,  “Surprise for Science, Resilience for Ecosystems, and Incentives for People,” Ecological Applications 6, 3 (1996), 734.
  13. Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency; Jeannie Oakes, “Schooling”; Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
  14. D.W. Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (London: Tavistock, 1965).

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.

Reconceiving Sustainability

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” said John Muir, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”

Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice

…opening, always, to infinite possibility is the foundation of stable practice

Shunryo Suzuki, in Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

This project has its origins in a very real question, which we have been feeling in our guts for the past few years: whether, at this stage in our lives, our own teaching practices are sustainable ones.This project has its origins in a very real question, which we have been feeling in our guts for the past few years: whether, at this stage in our lives, our own teaching practices are sustainable ones. In early summer 2011–as we each enter our fourth decade of teaching, and seventh decade of living–we begin co-designing a new freshman writing seminar on the complex relationship between social class, being “in class,” and being “outclassed.”1 We make a commitment to one another to restrain ourselves, to find space for rest and renewal, to help each other manage what we see as the coming overload. But it is clear, long before the fall semester begins, that we are terrible at setting limits as individuals, and even worse at doing so for one another. In fact, working together seems to make things much worse.

We have chosen for our course a rich, complex topic, with tendrils that reach both deep, into the life of the campus community, and wide, ‘round about the world. We bring to our collaborative work on this subject decades of social justice activism, as well as our own fertile academic minds, filled with years of pedagogical experiments that have worked—not to mention lots of new ideas we want to try out for the first time. Talking together of course only stirs that pool, generating more thoughts and possible actions for the class. We also have the help of, and make the commitment to mentor, two seniors at the college who are working as our student partners in a collaborative, reciprocal process sponsored by the college’s Teaching and Learning Initiative2 Their thoughts further complexify our own. Then we are each assigned fourteen first-semester students, which means adding twenty-eight additional hearts and minds to the mix. We agree, as well, to work in partnership with a high school classroom in the city, thereby extending even further the range of the territory, physical and metaphysical, through which we are to travel.

The unpredictable feeds fear. Of course.

And multiplying the parts multiplies the unpredictability.

I love to teach with someone else. It augments the process of diffusion, the spreading out not just of authority and power but of focus that makes the classroom a more equitable and more permeable space”

–Jane Tompkins, A Life in School

More equitable. More permeable. Also more uncontrollable.

In teaching that class, and reflecting afterwards on what happened in it, we uncover a paradox.

We begin by acknowledging the limits–of time, of human energy, of space, money and new ideas: the very real material-and-mental constraints which often make it seem that we are working within a system that is running down. Our initial plan, in sketching out a design for “sustainable teaching,” is to “take” more time, and “create” more space: we will search for naps, practice meditation, swim, do yoga, remind one another to slow down, breathe deeply….

In the process of teaching our course, however, presenting several conference workshops about it, writing several essays, then designing and creating this website and book, we find a complement to our (understandable!) desire to set limits, in the counterintuitive realization that the world in which we operate as teachers and as human beings is an infinitely capacious one. We have the experience of relying on that which we do not know, on the unending supply of the surprising,3 which lies hidden in the complexities of our students’ unconscious, and in our own. Limitlessness, we come to understand, is a richer way to think about sustainable pedagogy than is seeking new and better boundaries.

Jody: In the early 1990s I spend a year as a researcher in the classroom of my colleague and friend, Marsha Pincus, an excellent teacher in an urban school.  One form our work together takes, partly because our days in the same space are so full of other demands, is an exchange of letters. In one of these, I describe a dream:

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“I am in a strange land, perhaps foreign, and you are there as a kind of presence, maybe a guide, someone who lives there.  Two incidents/images stand out ….

We are standing together in a large institution not unlike [the high school where you teach].  You are white, all the teenagers there are black, but then too you have a black daughter. Many of the kids have been rounded up and penned in a huge enclosure, and you ask me to go check on your daughter, who is there. I want to do as you ask, and I go to the top floor. A white woman, a substitute, agrees without emotion to open the entryway to me, but it is too small, I can’t go through, I can only look down on a huge auditorium filled with black teens. There are thousands of them…calmly milling around, and in a while a bell rings and they are no longer detained. I haven’t been able to find your daughter.

When I go outside I am again somehow guided by you, although you are not there. I come to a wide river crossed at the top by another river, so that the two form a large “T.”  The water is crystal clear, and in the distance there are waterfalls. Closer, people with their shirts off are wading. Through this remarkably clear water I see on the bottom a rich tile mosaic of many shades of blue, green, aqua. The sun is bright and this mosaic is dazzling. I realize that I am allowed or invited to enter the water, to wade, and to study (and here this word has an almost spiritual significance) the mosaic.4

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I’m drawn into this mosaic of human beings immersed bodily in an ineffable geometry of color and form: bodies, design, and environment mingle and meld, evoking something of the rich possibilities and vulnerabilities of learning and teaching.

Anne and Jody: When Environmental Studies first begins to emerge as a field of study, it positions itself primarily as a critique of the cornucopia of conventional thinking, in which scarcity is thought of as an economic phenomenon, remediable by entrepreneurs. Environmental scholars and activists replace linear thinking about “disposal” with circular conceptions of recycling resource use; “exploration” and “expansion” are superseded by goals thought to be both more “stable” and “sustainable.”5 We are all encouraged, thereby, to recognize the limits of our various practices.

With the more recent emergence of postequilibrium ecology, which highlights the flux of ecosystems–never in balance, always in recalibration–the ecological vision has become a much more unstable one. It is in that world that we position ourselves, as advocates of a paradox that joins the “cornucopia of diversity” that is the natural world6 to an awareness of the unboundedness of everything that binds us together. We are all interconnected, and those interconnections are inexhaustible.

We think that we can actually learn to rely on the capaciousness and strangeness of the universe—which emphatically includes the unpredictability of our own and our students’ minds. We evoke such strangeness in the dreams that emerge in this chapter. As ecocritic Patrick Murphy observes,

We are continuing to live in a world filled with many strange and unforeseeable things, and an increasing number of them are of our own creation….they contain the nature from which we and they arose. While we cannot exactly trust the wild variability…to provide predetermined answers for every unanticipated occasion.…we can trust that…spontaneity and unpredictability…will open numerous avenues down which to walk into the future. 7

This paradox–that we teach, learn and live in an interrelated world, one that is both limited and unbounded–has emerged for us, over the course of thinking through this project, as our central pedagogical hinge.This paradox–that we teach, learn and live in an interrelated world, one that is both limited and unbounded–has emerged for us, over the course of thinking through this project, as our central pedagogical hinge. We follow here the thinking of a range of ecological critics, as well as that of educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, whose response to the unpredictable “uptake” of the teaching position is not to try and control students’ responses, but rather to celebrate, activate and explore the multiple subject positions that are called into play in pedagogical exchange. We join Ellsworth in her understanding of the unconscious as offering a conditional space in the classroom that can become palpable in its diversity, unruliness, and fertility; where the “unspeakable” can enter in the guise of hunger, desire, fear, “ignore-ance.”8

The unconscious, in our own understanding, encompasses a diversionary “playground,”9 including exhibits of the unimaginable and the bizarre. For us, this is a broad, almost metaphorical term, which we use to reference all that lies beneath, beyond, and peripheral to our cognizant awareness; all that we as human beings are and bring; all that we hope, fear, know and desire, as individuals who are always also part of personal and cultural presents and histories. We re-orient ourselves from the field of performance, where Ellsworth locates herself, to that of the ecological imagination, the linked-to-it-ness of everything, which stretches deep into the varieties of the human unconscious.

Anne: Friends Association of Higher Education, a group of Quaker college educators, has long served as a deep source of nurture for me; I have a number of good friends whose company I eagerly seek out at the yearly conferences hosted by the organization. As I began planning to teach my first Environmental Studies course, I am heartened to learn that the topic of the 2012 conference is “Building Sustainable Academic Communities,” and I invite Jody, my good friend and colleague in the Bryn Mawr College Education Program, to lead a session with me about “Crafting Sustainable Teaching Practices.”

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Early in the morning before we are scheduled to fly to Ohio for the conference, I have a powerful dream, one that figures much of both the hope and fear that ecological activism evokes for me. I find myself in a camp-like setting with many friends, coming to the end of a joyful shared time. We all link arms, and are gaily marching together, when a loud voice announces that the end of the world is coming. We look up to see huge, rolling ocean waves approaching us.

The sight is awesome, and exhilarating. I begin to sing, “Roll on, thou great blue ocean, roll!” as the group moves forward, leaping together into the water. Looking up, we see that the waves are now topped by huge ocean liners, and I begin to worry that they will slam into us; I brace myself for the assault.  As I dive underwater, I realize that I cannot breathe, that this dying will not be glorious, but a gasping struggle for breath….I wake, relieved (as one always is in such situations) that the dream isn’t “real,” that I do not have to struggle, that I am not dying. And yet (as is often also the case) the after-effects of the dream linger through the day, casting an emotional shadow that makes me uneasy about boarding the plane.

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Years later, this dream, and the contrary emotions it evokes, are still very present to me: compounding an astounding sense of the power of the world in which I live, with an overwhelming fear that I and my companions cannot re-direct these dynamics, will be destroyed by them. Attending to the environment exhilarates and terrifies me in equal measure; I fear that it may also terrify my students.

Anne and Jody: The next morning, we co-lead the session we have planned, about the importance of attending to the unconscious in the classroom.10 A keynote in our discussion is Elizabeth Ellsworth’s claim that the best teaching practices are not just “unrepeatable,” but “impossible”–because both we and our students bring to our classroom encounters all our unconscious intentions, hopes, desires, fears. The classroom is full of these “Other” presences, which cannot easily–not ever, really, in Ellsworth’s formulation–be knit into productive dialogue.11

That same afternoon, we hear Stephen Potthoff, who teaches Religious Studies at Wilmington College, describe the work he does as the “dream keeper” for a group of tropical ecology students in Costa Rica. Stephen invites his fellow travelers to investigate how their dreams might mediate their encounters with the beauty, complexity, and mystery of exotic tropical ecosystems. What shape do the students’ journey assume, on the inner stage of their dreams? What effect does the outer world have on their inner life?

Inspired by Stephen’s claim that dream experience mediates a process for confronting and working through the natural fears of going to a new environment, we begin to explore together the possibility of reconceptualizing our shared work in terms of dreams and other clues to the usually unacknowledged presence of the unconscious in the classroom.

Thinking ecologically, we acknowledge that everything we do is hitched to everything else; there is no escaping the larger world in which we operate. Timothy Morton makes this graphic: “something leaks from the dump back into the town, because boundaries are never rigid and thin. Inside the thinking process, inside the meaning process, are the traces of exteriority that these processes struggle to exclude….‘There is no outside’…there is no ‘away.’”12

That there is no “outside,” no “away”–that the “outside” is always “inside,” and vice-versa–also means that we never lack the resources we need to keep the engine going. The image that Merton uses is that of the garbage dump; another that we find useful is that of Maxwell’s Demon,13 canonical, if challenged, in emergence studies as the model for a perpetual motion machine. Opening the door, allowing slower molecules to cross into the second chamber, the demon enables the heat of the system to equilibrate. So too do we, as teachers, guide and nudge, listen and alter the shape of the conversational ebb and flow.

Although the system Maxwell imagines is a closed one, what most interests us is the structure of the open classroom, always re-generated, periodically and temporarily pushed over into a chaotic state by the unruly unconscious of those interacting within it. Sustainability, as we now understand the term, involves repeated acts of energy exchange that are non-depleting, life-giving, capable even of reversing entropy by drawing on, and thereby paradoxically renewing, the resources from which they arise.

As David Orr has observed, all education is already environmental….The point of ecocritical pedagogy is to make its existing environmentality explicit and, above all, sustainable.

–Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies

We see Orr and here raise him one, with the claim that “making environmentality explicit” involves not only making the content of our courses more ecological, but also making our pedagogical practices expressive of ecological thinking.“making environmentality explicit” involves not only making the content of our courses more ecological, but also making our pedagogical practices expressive of ecological thinking. This can happen at the level of language: imagine here the “surplus of cognitive linkage” revealed when a literary critic analyzes the sort of wordplay that “exposes buried links and structures.”14 It can happen at the social science research: consider Bruno Latour’s explanation that every thing is “also an assembly,” every “indisputable fact…the result of a meticulous discussion at the very heart of the collective,” dragging “behind it a long train of unexpected consequences that come to haunt the collective by obliging it to reshape itself.”15 And it most assuredly happens in the world of quantum physics, as Karen Barad makes clear: “To be entangled is…to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair…individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating.”16 As we hope to demonstrate here, deep ecology is also at work in every classroom exchange. The conceptual intersection among all these nodes is an acknowledgement of the interrelatedness of the whole system, from which no part is extractable, and which thereby perpetually renews itself.

And so we step into the realm of the complex, playful, wild, irreducible nature of our natures, both interior and exterior; call on literatures that explore the role of the unconscious in teaching and learning, as well as on the emerging field of eco-criticism; and look to our own classroom experiences as spaces for opening up the implications of ecological thinking for the project of teaching and learning. We evoke a resilient ecosystem, where the playful and the fearful together fertilize unexpected, ungainly, and eloquent responses.

  1. In Class/OutClassed: On the Uses of a Liberal Education,” Emily Balch Seminar, Bryn Mawr College (Fall 2011), accessed July 17, 2015.
  2. Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 6-7.
  3. Anne Dalke and Alice Lesnick, “Teaching Intersection, Not Assessment: Celebrating the Surprise of Gift Giving and Gift Getting in the Cultural Common,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 8 (2011): 75-96.
  4. Jody Cohen, “Restructuring Instruction in an Urban High School: An Inquiry into Texts, Identities, and Power,” Unpublished dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1993.
  5. Greg Garrard, ed., Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Eugene Odum and Gary Barrett, Fundamentals of Ecology, 5th Edition (Belmont, California: Brooks and Cole, 2004).
  6. Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  7. Patrick Murphy, Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies: Fences, Boundaries and Fields (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), 117.
  8. Ellsworth, Teaching Positions, 95, 38.
  9. Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein, “Story-telling In (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond,” Journal of Teaching Writing 23, 1 (2007): 91-114.
  10. Anne Dalke and Jody Cohen, “Crafting Sustainable Teaching Practices,” workshop presented at the annual conference of Friends Association of Higher Education, Wilmington, Ohio, June 22, 2012, accessed July 17, 2015.
  11. Ellsworth,Teaching Positions, p. 17, 18, 64.
  12. Timothy Morton, “Practising Deconstruction in the Age of Ecological Emergency,” in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 159.
  13. James Clerk Maxwell, Theory of Heat (1871, rpt. New York: Dover, 2001).
  14. Mary Thomas Crane, Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 33.
  15. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 193.
  16. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), ix.

Welcome to the Ecotone

It’s an April afternoon, cold and rainy, two years after we start this project. One of us takes a break from writing to visit her mother, who asks, “What are you working on, exactly?”

“It’s a book about teaching. Called ‘Steal This Classroom.'”

“Seal? Why would you seal it?”

“No. Steal.”

“Steel? Like bracing yourself?”

“No. Steal.”

“What are you stealing it from?”

A friend answers:

Stealing the classroom” away from the current power-structures….Stealing away the current capitalistic value system for an ecological based system….like Robin Hood and Little John….stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Another friend rejects that legend, says the title doesn’t really work for him:

Your book uncovers what is hidden behind the ways classes normally interact, attends to the unexpected results of various educational activities. You’re calling up all sorts of things that folks don’t generally notice, revealing the underside of teaching and learning–but you’re not pulling down the system. Your relation to the college is not a criminal one….

This refrain of questions, and their answers, haunt the stories we tell here, which are sometimes ambiguous, less explanations than holding places,

where impasses can be kept and opened for examination, questions can be guarded and not forced into a premature validation of the available paradigms….the work of giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken

Barbara Johnson, The Feminist Difference

We share scenes–in classrooms on our campus, also in an urban high school, a public library, a playground, a prison–where what happens takes us by surprise; then dig into such moments, looking for what else might going on: institutional pressures, socioeconomic differences, tangles with individuals and ideas, diversities not acknowledged but operating. We explore how such moments of uncertainty, often constructed as failure, might be breakthroughs that produce powerful learning for educators and students–how failure itself might not be what it seems.  And while our focus returns always to pedagogy, we move back and forth between micro and macro, enacting a continual interplay across individuals, groups, and institutions, past, present, and future.

We arrive with twenty-some of our first-year students at a small “special admit” high school in the city; in a large corner classroom, twenty-some high school students sit interspersed amid desks and chairs they’ve left open for us. We welcome everyone and explain our activity, the game of “Barometer,” in which we will read statements aloud, asking participants to respond by locating themselves on a continuum from “agree” to “disagree.” We ask for five volunteers from each school. The high schoolers put themselves forward quickly, the college students more tentatively.  I read out the first statement:  People need to go to college to be successful.  The high school students move quickly to “agree,” college students to “disagree.” The division is absolute.  There is intake of breath as I ask, Why are you standing where you are?

Another class is structured around a series of enactments, in which students find themselves “playing” characters from their lives with whom they don’t share aspects of their identities…or whose perspectives or values might disturb or even horrify them.  A white student’s story of her friend group spurs her group’s enactment, and she takes up the role of a character mocking Asian students.  Afterwards, she talks about…how she hasn’t been able to shake off “speaking as.” In an enactment cutting between quick sketches of a Chinese student’s experiences in college and…phone calls with her mother, we witness what she doesn’t share with her mom:  a cacophonous cultural remix at the college, then a humiliating body search at the international airport.

On Halloween, each of the students comes to my class dressed as another. When I walk in, to peals of laughter, they ask if I can identify their costumes. I realize that they’ve been paying much closer attention than I have to how each of them performs and presents self. I’m thinking, what an appropriate ritual for a cluster of courses focused on “Identity Matters!…when one of the students reports having “such a different experience of this day–one of deep discomfort and fear….seeing myself reflected by another…was really disconcerting,… classroom identity is not a whole understanding of my self, and I’ve spent my entire life working to keep it that way…”

This is story-telling as a form of theorizing,

“in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking”

–Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory.”

We teach at a liberal arts college, the kind of place that has small numbers, considerable resources, and other structures that encourage close working relationships among students and their faculty, who share a commitment to teaching for critical understanding.  Our experiences suggest that colleges like the one where we teach might act as a political-and-spiritual cell culture, a hive of resistance groups with the capacity to challenge the leading paradigms in American education.  Although this may not be the dominant ethos on campus (and our college certainly isn’t marketed this way), we construct an alternative tale, exploring a pedagogical orientation that is ecological in the largest sense, engaging teachers and students in re-thinking classroom practices, and our larger lives, as complex, enmeshed, volatile, ever-expanding eco-systems.

We also call on theories to tell stories; not solving the contradictions but abstracting from the immediate, allowing us to see differently what is happening.  We weave through our own voices–stories, images and propositions–those of students and colleagues with whom we have taught and learned.  We offer a dialogue, working across verbal and visual forms, telling some hard stories, inviting others in response, demonstrating the complex playfulness of collaborative and transdisciplinary forms of teaching and learning, incorporating concrete suggestions about how academic and other structures might work to open this up. Our intent is porous and interactive, inviting reader-participants into pedagogical spaces where they might attend to the shifting borderlands between what we’re more familiar with and what feels edgy, new–with the goal of transfiguring what spaces of teaching and learning are and can be-and-do.

We think that, if the liberal arts behaved more like ecology, and less like our human endeavors to control the environment, small U.S. colleges could function more as border ecologies, where we refuse to inherit both the ruins of classical education, and the industrial rigidity of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  Asking what might be possible in the intensity and instability of borderlands, we track the chaotic and unpredictable, both unconscious and environmental, as deeply educative, creative, stretching our zone of the possible.  These are ecotones, transitional spaces  that are testing grounds, places of danger and opportunity. We trace new shapes our teaching and learning take, as liminal spaces and excursions, arising in the midst of separations between school and not-school, self and other, inside and out. Traversing the edges of promise, desire, nervousness and threat, surprising conjoinings that are neither this nor that, contained yet uncontainable, inviting always the unexpected.

Seeing where else this kind of work-and-play might be happening, how broadly we can construe “classrooms” as testing grounds, paradoxically boxed-in spaces that cannot keep their promise to enclose, categorize, or name. And thus can become productive of conditions ripe for breaking through, where real and abstract reverse, melt, the distinction between them disappearing:

The trouble is that when you take an evolutionary view of Earth, an astonishing reversal takes place. Suddenly, things that you think of as real–this cat over here, my cat, whose fur I can stroke–become the abstraction, an approximation of flowing, metamorphic processes, processes that are in some sense far more real than the entity I am stroking…. our immediate experience is a workable approximation that makes sense only on a very limited island of meaningfulness….What disappears is the commonsensical idea that what appears to be immediate is also real….I propose that in order to accommodate…all that Darwinism entails…ecological criticism…must embrace nonessentialism….a platform for recognizing each life-form as…a temporary manifestation of an indivisible whole

–Timothy Morton, “The Mesh.”

This, then, is what follows. All manifestations are temporary.

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.