On failure

In my last post, I focused on an ongoing debate about obscurantism that is occurring in regards to academic writing. In it I said I wanted to talk about writing obscure work in regards to a specific paper and explain the thought process and why, ultimately I think it failed on its own terms. In 2013 I published in Studies in Philosophy of Education a paper (co-written with Ian Cook) called Mapping Teacher-Faces. The first point I would suggest is that this is a highly specialised journal, catering for a very specific readership. As the abstract suggests,

This paper uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of faciality to analyse the teacher’s face. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the teacher-face is a special type of face because it is an ‘overcoded’ face produced in specific landscapes.

Now this may appear pretty obscure stuff, and I do wince a little when I read that. Obviously in the paper  we define these terms, and apply them to what we see as a problem with much of our discourse about education, namely what do we mean by change, an implicit assumption in much of the school reform impetus that seems pretty ubiquitous in the contemporary moment.

The paper emerged from an empirical problem that arose from some research I was doing into NAPLAN, Australia’s literacy and numeracy tests. In a large survey of teachers that asked them about NAPLAN, focusing on positive and negatives, impacts on their teaching and school, there was a certain ‘regularity’ to the responses. Now, in terms of the responses they could be described as being roughly 80% negative about NAPLAN and 20% positive. This may or may not be surprising, at the time NAPLAN was very much in the news. However, with the exception of the 80/20 division, the responses were remarkably regular. How is it that a survey of almost 1,000 teachers records similarities, not just in terms of content (it may be expected that teachers like/dislike similar things) but in terms of phrasing, tone etc? Presumably experience is uniquely perceived, how is it that language becomes regulated in this case? The argument that we develop in the paper is that institutions, and the histories that saturate those institutions, act as a form of authority as to what is possible to be said.

I suppose I should say that I am deeply interested in what constitutes change, particularly within institutions. In other words, how do we ‘know’ change when we see it? What are the essential ingredients or characteristics that show that there has been a decisive rupture with what has occurred previously? Or what is new? Why should we desire this difference, presumably change is not inherently positive. I have been thinking about these questions since my UG Honours degree in History and Literature from UWA, where I spent years thinking about change and continuity in the context of history, and how often what we understand as the new can be thought of as a return of the old. My thesis was on fascism and Nazism, and its constitution as a new-old movement deeply rooted in mythologised notions of volk, blood, leadership.

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But I digress.

My point was that defining ‘newness’ or ‘difference’ is not as easy as we think. I think this is a particular problem for education discourse, the appeal of ‘the new’ is seductive, and it is used in a variety of ways with one of the most obvious being a certain commodification – if you can convince people that something is new, it is much easier to sell. Often I think we don’t really want something new, rather we want something comfortably similar, and their may be good reasons for this.

For me, the most interesting philosopher of the new is Gilles Deleuze. In his book Difference and Repetition, a book Deleuze himself said is “full of academic elements, it’s heavy going”, Deleuze grappled with what he called simulacrum,  that is, those things that appear to be different/new but are really repetitions. In the end, his argument was that the only difference that is new, that is difference in itself, is thought. This has been something I’ve been thinking through for years.

There is much talk around in education these days about change, as a society we appear to have a fetish for innovation, and social media appears full of exhortations for teachers to change. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to this, but I often find myself asking what is really different in what is being proposed.

The implications for teachers are complex, as Graham Nuthall maintained. Teaching is inherently a rhythmic, traditional repetition of patterns and memories, passed down through experience.

One of the most significant things about culture is that it becomes so much a part of ourselves that we can no longer see it for what it is. The more familiar it is, the more it is like the air we breathe the harder it is for us to see it.

School teaching is like that. We all spend at least 10 of the most formative years of our life in school. We all become, through this common experience, experts in what it means to be a teacher and a student. As we often jokingly complain, everyone is an expert on schooling.

I have been involved in research on teaching and learning in classrooms for about 40 years, and it has taken that long for me to understand just how much of what we do in schools is a matter of cultural tradition…

But to get back to the paper, it was an attempt to think through why it is so difficult for teaching to change, to become different, rooted as it is in a normative expression of culture that continue to suggest that the teacher should do this, say this, act like this. It tried to theorise the limit points of disposition, of the extreme historical philosophies that could be held and still claimed to be doing teaching. It was enormously fun and challenging to write. It went through 6 reviewers, because each time there was a split decision, one reviewer loved it and one reviewer thought it was absolute pants. At the time I thought this was a sign that it was cutting edge, a testament to its innovation.

But ultimately, the paper has been a failure thus far because it has attracted little interest. I think there are three reasons possible for this:

  1. It is too obscure. Reading back through it now the paper seems a bit smugly convinced of its own cleverness, and as such fails the test of audience. No one really reads it because it is written for itself.
  2. I think good theoretical work is where ideas and contemporary problems meet such that a conceptual contribution can be made to debates. As I reflect on this now, I wonder how urgent the problem of the meeting of culture and teaching, the theorisation of difference and repetition, as subjectivity actually was. After all, as Deleuze said:

A theory is exactly like a box of tools… It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate… It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.

3. It just might not be very good.

Ultimately, it is probably a combination of all three of these. On the one hand, if I had my time again, I sometimes wonder if I’d write this paper differently. It would be well discussed and cited, and I could bask in the glow of an academic done good. Utility and all that. But I probably wouldn’t. Ultimately academic writing shouldn’t be about popularity, it served a necessary purpose in thinking through a problem. And we can never know how ideas will be taken up, which work resonates, and why. There is no controlling readership I guess. Ultimately, I learnt a lot from the writing of this paper, perhaps some thoughts on what not to do in the future.

One thought on “On failure”

  1. Hi Greg, to me that sounds like a fascinating problem to work through. I’m really intrigued by your starting point – the similarities in teachers’ responses, right down to phrasing, the whole concept of newness, and the requirement now to be ‘innovative’ which seems to be resulting in a whole lot of sameness. I noticed last night on Twitter that everyone is now an expert in using Project Based Learning, a very complex pedagogy which was barely spoken about 2-3 years ago. It’s the same phrases, the same innovations, the same rationales…

    But to get back to your post, from what you’ve described, it does seem that your paper is increasingly relevant as people try to define and redefine teaching – Mitra’s SOLE and ‘Granny Cloud’ for example.

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