Critical pedagogy group meeting: the Space Project 23rd November

On the evening of  Wednesday 23rd November, the Critical Pedagogy discussion group had its second meeting at the Space Project in Leeds, described as a radical education project. Of the small group that attended half had not been at the initial meeting so this meeting started with a brief report on what had been discussed then but quickly moved on to a discussion of why each individual was interested in the topic. In some cases it was a concern to develop a more relevant and critically engaged approach to teaching within higher education. In others the interest is to see if critical pedagogy has anything to offer when thinking about engaging with groups and communities outside of formal education. One of the reasons that the Space Project was interested in starting the critical pedagogy group in the first place is to explore how it might be relevant and useful for engaging with groups beyond the university who could be brought into the project and use the space. There seemed to be a general consensus that a critical pedagogy should be ’emancipatory’, in itself or in its objectives. Emancipation from what was not explicitly discussed although it became clear that there was a shared dissatisfaction with many aspects of contemporary society and defective democratic political processes. Likewise, the meeting didn’t start with any attempt to define critical pedagogy in advance.

Apart from the inside and beyond the university distinction, there was also some discussion of the difference between critical pedagogy as a set of teaching methods and techniques and as a process. One concern was about how to change the relationship between teachers and students and get away from the so-called ‘transmission belt’ and ‘banking’ models of education where teachers are seen to have the knowledge, students suffer from a knowledge deficit and it is just a question of the former transferring their knowledge to the latter who ‘bank’ it for later use. In practice this leads to forms of hierarchy and dependency and ignores the knowledgeability of students and that knowledge construction is a continuous social process. It implies knowledge is a ‘thing’ of some sort and down plays the fact that knowledge is always incomplete, always developing, always partial and open to negotiation. Students are assessed in terms of how much knowledge they have absorbed and can reproduce competently. The participation in and awareness of knowledge as a process is confined to the academic. Critical pedagogy opens the possibility that the relationship between teacher and student could be one of collaboration in a knowledge construction process where the historical, social and contingent nature of knowledge is recognised and exploited in a joint project that respects and utilises the knowledge and reasoning capacity of students. Critical pedagogy introduces and embeds criticality into the content and process of teaching and learning, a process where the distinction between teacher and learner breaks down so that everyone is a collaborative learner. However, it is still the case that not everyone will be equivalent in terms of their expertise and experience or their facility to articulate these in discussion. There will be different sorts of ‘cultural capital’ attached to individuals. Clearly the collaborative knowledge construction process would need to be able to exploit individuals’ expert knowledge and broader experience without lapsing back into the disabling hierarchical ‘transmission belt’ model. This requires the critical problematisation of the notion of legislative expert knowledge and the development of non-hierarchical forms of consensual decision making. Expert knowledge, like any other, is contextual and historically contingent and subject to change in the face of challenges and changing circumstances. This is usually a process that is confined to other ‘qualifying’ experts. But when the expert knowledge is deployed in a collaborative process with ‘lay persons’ in real life situations about which they are already knowledgeable, intellectually and in their lived experience, then the expert knowledge can be modified through exposure to concrete situations that require consensus based pragmatic decisions and actions that cannot be simply ‘read off’ from expert knowledges.

That this is in fact very hard to achieve in the current educational context of assessment, metrics and measurements was also a point of discussion. Several of us have experienced the resistance to these ideas, or, more accurately since the ideas are rarely discussed, to the practice of these ideas, by students. It can lead to anxiety and discomfort as putting this into practice subverts expected and familiar roles and procedures. It may well be that the intention is to empower students and broaden the context within which they think and understand, but this is experienced as a threat very often, of lecturers not doing their job properly and jeopardising the students’ ability to perform according to assessment criteria. Basically they want to know what knowledge they need to reproduce, what are the best books and articles to read that will give them the answers and how many references are deemed to be sufficient, and so on. Critical pedagogy as a set of techniques and practices may prove very difficult to apply in practice unless the organisational context simultaneously embraces critical pedagogy as a process that modifies the administration and assessment of learning outcomes. This may not be quite such a problem outside of and beyond the organisation of formal education.

There was some discussion of ‘levels’ or modalities of criticality and a distinction was made between ‘surface’ or shallow versions, as in the examples of quality circles, suggestion boxes and so on, and the deep criticality of questioning the surface reality, getting behind it, seeing how contingency is packaged and presented as taken-for-granted ways of thinking and doing,  custom and practice, exposing and examining the underlying social process of construction, of framing, the networks and mechanisms of power and control, interest and repression, inclusion and exclusion. This is clearly fundamentally connected to the analysis of ideologies and ideological processes. The first ‘surface’ criticality reproduces the status quo, the second questions and problematises it. The first ‘perfects’ and focuses on the resilience of the existing reality. The second, by demonstrating the contingency of reality, as represented and as materially existing, as the result of specific contingent historical events and processes, demonstrates the world was different before it got this way and could be different from what it is now, and so opening up the discussion of possibilities.

There was some discussion of the knowledge and knowledgability of individuals, groups and communities beyond the university and the Space Project. One suggestion was that critical pedagogy as a process might suggest a way of aligning with radical groups and issues and bringing to struggles and movements a broader explanatory framework that recognises and exploits the existing knowledge and experience of the group  and that has strategic and practical significance.  As an aside, this is where I mentioned Harry Collins’ research on ‘interactive expertise’ where, for example, a group interested in critiquing and campaigning against certain forms of biotechnology recruited and worked with experts in biotechnology and where the experts and the lay members of the group learnt from each other, developing the more technical aspects within a practical social and political context. An example of this perhaps closer to home is the process whereby various specifically focussed anti-cuts movements, for instance against the cuts in HE and another against the attack on pensions, come to identifying the common connection their issues have and recognising the broader underlying system that each are a symptom of – the ideologically and powerful interest driven process of privatisation and hyper-marketisation. This coming together of groups and issues has developed ‘on the ground’ as the groups have formed links and communicated largely via the Internet and social media. But a wide variety of students and academics from different disciplines and with different expert knowledges have contributed to this development right from the start and increasingly academics and research students are in discussion and participating in ‘teach-ins’ and other events in newly emerging public  events and spaces including occupations, sit-ins and squats.

Finally there was some discussion of the way forward. Two strands to follow were identified. One was to do some reading and research on the ideas around critical pedagogy and alternative forms of education. This might take the form of a traditional study group. The other strand was to look for and think about concrete examples of what could be seen as a critical pedagogy in practice. This could include some aspects of the current occupations, for instance, but could also look at some examples from Italy, South America, and so on. What we didn’t leave the meeting with was a reading list. The final decision was to find a way of including anyone who is interested who cannot make all, or indeed any, of the meetings. Some sort of on-line presence and reporting would seem to be the obvious solution. Again, no concrete proposal was made other than to have a dedicated Facebook group. This will probably happen but, as was noted at the time, not everyone is in or wants to be in Facebook. Another suggestion was a blog, or a section in the Really Open University web site. Look out for announcements any day now. In the meantime theses notes are my recollection of what was discussed at the last meeting with a few additional observations. No doubt others will add to these and, where I have misremembered, put me right!

Leeds Radical Library – ‘crisis’ discussion group

The Space Project in Leeds has recently started a new initiative, the Radical Library Collective. In addition to accumulating books and resources that encourage critical, systemic political thought to help  understand the society we are part of, the project aims to encourage “a culture of discussion”  through a reading group New Weapons, by inviting speakers and hosting book launches. In January next year the the first discussion group meetings will address the issue of Crisis. Quoting from the blurb on the Space Projects Facebook community page:

From bankrupt PIGS, revolting Greeks and an £1 trillion hole in Italy abroad, to riots, banker bailouts and strikes at home, wherever you look these days there’s banter about ‘crisis’. But what crisis? Where, and for whom? Facilitated by Leeds Radical Library, this first discussion series, Crisis!, aims to provide a lively forum for debate about some of the key issues of our time: what is capitalism and why does it seem to break again and again? Taking short, weekly texts as a starting point, we want to explore the history of capitalist crisis to find out what ‘our crisis’ has in common with previous crises, and what might be unique about it. While economists and bankers whom we’ve never met or elected seem able to make more and more decisions about the way we run our lives, Crisis! aims to unravel from the very beginning the modern day myths about ‘finance’, ‘capital’ and ‘democracy’.

It would be great if some ‘out-of-towners’ could come along. Hopefully the discussions will be blogged.

Occupations as human mic

Process is politics at Occupy Wall Street – Salon

I have recently become aware of the so-called ‘human microphone’, a tactic adopted by the Wall Street occupiers when their use of megaphones was banned. A great description of how this works can be found on the excellent Literary Kicks blog Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works. I think the human mic is a powerful metaphor for the growing number of occupations spreading around the world, about 2000 I think at the last count. One of the complaints about the occupations that is becoming increasingly common is that there are no clear objectives or set of alternative policies. This is entirely unreasonable. Who these days can claim (truthfully  and realistically) to have clear objectives or a well thought out and realistic strategy for getting there?  Our government, the US government, the EC Commissioners? The only clear and thought-out strategy there is any evidence for at the moment seems to be Goldman Sachs’ strategy, by a combination of recruiting influential politicians as advisers and consultants and taking over governments’ economic policies via their (unelected)  place men and alumni ‘technocrats’. (See What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe for an account of the Goldman Sachs Project).

For a number of years now there has been much hand wringing and regret about the atrophy of civil society and the demise of public spaces for open and democratic discussion. The pervading acceptance that the current system is the least bad and that there is no alternative (TINA) – the basis of the argument that we are now in a ‘post political’ era – leads to and legitimates the conclusion that all that remains to be done is the find the most efficient and managerialist methods of administrating capitalism and consumer society. Life’s shit and the best we can do is to make it a bit less smelly for the docile and deserving. The importance of the occupations, at this stage of the game at least, is to open up and re-politicise spaces in civil society, to develop both a negative critique and exposure of the lies, corruption, injustice,  hypocrisy and inhumanity, to make visible the human face and experience of those that suffer as the ‘collateral damage’ of the system, and (although I am rather ambivalent about some aspects of this) to smoke out and make visible to all the links between corporate power, political complicity and the state ideological and material apparatuses of repression.  At the same time, and more positively, the occupations are fantastic experiments and demonstrations of citizens ‘doing it for themselves’ – providing tentative intimations of different sorts of non-hierarchical and consensual organisation, of alternative values and forms of sociality and conviviality. It is through networks of city occupations, alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Space Project in Leeds, through initiatives like the Really Open University, and more recently Tent City University and the Bank of Ideas (to name but a few) that the critiques, ideas and values are transmitted and amplified  into and throughout the public domain through mainstream, citizen and social media, coalescing into an ever widening and deepening public awareness and debate about the state we are in, and the systems of interest, power and irresponsibility that  got us here. Where we are denied the ‘megaphone’ of meaningful and effective representation in our defective, subservient and co-opted political system the human microphone of the new and growing radical and critical spaces is becoming a formidable weapon.

Saramago quote #2

Today, calling a government socialist, social democratic, conservative, or liberal is to ascribe power to it, that is, purport to identify something in it that is not really there but in some other place far out of reach – a place where you can see the filigree outlines of economic and financial power, a power that invariably eludes us when we try to get closer, that inevitably counter-attacks if we whimsically wish to reduce or regulate its domain, subordinating it to the common good. In other, clearer, words, then, what I’m saying is that people do not choose a government that will bring markets within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions governments to bring people within its control.

The Notebook,  page 19 Clear as Water

The social construction of top footballers?

Interesting item on the Today programme on BBC radio 4 this morning on how a large study of childhood cohorts shows that children born in August systematically under achieve all their lives compared with children born in September. This is because of the structure of the school year. I didn’t follow this completely as I only heard some of it. However, Matthew Syed (author of Bounce) gave the example of top footballers. The vast majority apparently are clustered in birth months where they were amongst the older boys in a school year. They were bigger, stronger, more likely to be picked by PE instructors and sports masters, more likely to experience success and status, more likely to develop to the extent that they will be selected by club scouts, and so it goes on. Conversely, younger boys are more likely to experience mediocrity or failure and so on. It is the case that in any one school year their will be children nearly a whole year apart in age. I need to find the study reported and see how this translates into academic achievement, if it does.