What’s critical-creative pedagogy?

Hoberman Sphere Breathing Exercise - KIWI Magazine
What’s a critical-creative pedagogy anyway?

Having just finished the first draft of my last chapter, which is focusing on practice to see how students are using their learning to actually imagine and enact alternative futures, I now have a much better idea of what the central concept of my book – a critical-creative pedagogy – is. This clarity emerging through the writing process has been one of my favorite aspects of this journey, seeing the contours of my ruminations, explorations and descriptions taking shape over days and weeks, as if emerging from the mist of my thoughts, hazy and faint at first until they become visible and (temporarily) solidified in words on the screen and on paper, to be shared with colleagues and friends for discussion. For every chapter, this process has been nerve-wracking, exciting, humbling and gratifying all at the same time.

Pedagogical core elements

Coming back to critical-creative pedagogy and its four core elements:

  • The first one is ‘whole-person learning,’ a term I borrow from Alison James and Stephen Brookfield who have written a lot on creative education. For me, whole-person learning has experiential, embodied and emotive aspects, all of which invite students to bring not only their intellects but also their bodies, feelings and senses into the classroom. In addition, students’ own past and present experiences – in the class, on campus and outside university – are important sources of knowledge that can inform their own and their peers’ learning. Encouraging whole-person learning needs educators’ care, support and courage.
  • A second element is the incorporation of creative methods from the arts and design. Creative pieces such as novels and poems and visual ones such as paintings and drawings, which students can study but better yet create themselves, ‘give play to our imagination,’ as Maxine Greene has so beautifully shown. Design thinking and practices can help students identify wicked problems and develop their capacity for open-ended inquiry and iterative experimentation. Students learn to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty as well as the absence of (easy) solutions or even answers to complex questions. Design also draws attention to the materiality of learning and the importance of learning spaces.
  • The third strand is found in praxis, understood in the Freirean sense of action informed by theory, reflection and dialogue. Praxis means that a critical-creative pedagogy engages with global challenges not in a contemplative mode but in a forward-looking one that considers possible responses, especially heterodox ones, and how students could work towards creating them individually and collectively. Praxis therefore incorporates elements of problem-based, practical and applied learning, but always embedded within critical thinking and analysis. That’s what distinguishes it from market-drive agendas such as employability or work skills.
  • Last but certainly not least the fourth strand is critical hope. A critical-creative pedagogy encourages students to assume a hopeful stance, in an informed and reflexive way where hope is aware of its own conditions of possibility. This does not mean hope as unrealistic optimism or naïve solutionism but as an educated engagement with contemporary challenges.

And what does it look like?

Expanding and contracting toy spheres create a surprisingly dramatic effect  for this art installation
Like this?
(Photo credit https://www.contemporist.com/expanding-and-contracting-toy-spheres-art-installation/

How are these four elements coming together into a critical-creative pedagogy? Trying to walk my own talk, I have experimented with different images and metaphors to materialize it, to give it shape and feel and concreteness. At first I thought of it as a platfrom with four legs, almost like a table. From an earlier critical take on the noun platform as a supposedly neutral container used by technology organizations (following writers such as Gillespie), I have become more appreciative of the verb platforming as a way to enable different people and groups to come together and have a shared basis for diverse projects. But then that image felt too square, too mechanical for what I had in mind, so I started thinking of spheres as more organic shapes.

And then I remembered a toy my boys used to love when they were smaller, which is best described as an expandaball, a ball that contracts and expands thanks to hinged joints. The original toy, known as the Hoberman sphere, was developed by architect Chuck Hoberman in the 1980s, who called it ‘pure play.’ For Hoberman the toy design was a mix between an art project and a geometry exploration – a perfect combination for the multiplicity at the heart of a critical-creative pedagogy. There are now many different (knock-off) versions, unfortunately all still plastic as far as I can tell, but colorful, inviting and intuitive to use.

Coming back to critical-creative pedagogy imagined as an expandaball, the four elements are strands crossing over each other and supporting each other and thereby forming the sphere, which can be as small or as big as one would like it to be.

It’s ok to dream in steps rather than leaps (following Sarah Amsler)

This means that a critical-creative pedagogy can be used for small-scale, one-of experiments in the classroom to see how it works, how much effort it takes, how comfortable it feels. Or it can be large, being applied to the redesign of whole courses, containing many different ideas, participants and activities. Or it can move between the two, depending on context, need and inclinations. This indeed is the philosphy behind this pedagogy and my book.

I envision them as starting points for reflections and conversations and as an invitation to explore some of their ideas in practice. Creative Universities aims to be provocative rather than prescriptive, experimental rather than exhaustive. In the book I share my own insights and activities, as well as the work of my colleagues at Sussex and students’ reactions to our teaching, to encourage readers to imagine possible applications and adaptations in their own classrooms. In this sense, the book is an example of an ‘anti-methods pedagogy’ (to borrow a term from Donaldo Macedo) that does not offer precise methodological recipes or ready-made pedagogical solutions. Instead, it provides a map to enable readers to retrace my journey and in the process forge their own paths, with courage and perseverance. As Paolo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those who Dare to Teach: ‘it is impossible to teach without the courage to try a thousand times before giving up.’

I am now trying to draw or design my own expandaball version of a critical-creative pedagogy, for inclusion in the book. Would love to know how that image works for you.

Update May 2021

With the creative help of Paul Braund, I have finalized the visualization of my critical-creative pedagogy.

Education, technology, futures

Is this the future we want?

Universities are preparing for the (virtual) return of hundreds of thousands of students, getting ready to teach them using a blended learning approach that will combine mainly remote teaching with some face-to-face small group interactions. This is thus a good time to take a moment and reflect on the changing assumptions about teaching and technology brought on by the COVID pandemic, which are closely connected to different visions of educational futures. This is a sligthly more academic and less colorful post, but I hope you find it a useful and enjoyable read nevertheless.

I wrote part of my book in the spring of this year and during April and May was getting quite anxious about my entire project. I love face-to-face (f2f) teaching, encountering students in the classroom, feeling their energy, moving them around the room and given them materials to work with – what I like about teaching are many things difficult to replicate in an online environment. All the learning activities described in my book are therefore meant to be f2f activities, although on reflection I realized that some of them could be undertaken remotely/virtually. Still, was I writing a book that was becoming obsolote as I was putting the words unto paper (well, the computer screen)? That initial panic has passed, although I have realized that a short paragraph in the book’s introduction about digital classroom technologies won’t quite suffice anymore. But I don’t think anymore that f2f teaching will disappear, although I realize that for many educators and students, resuming f2f teaching and learning in the autumn is not an option for health and other reasons and that remote teaching will enable their pedagogical practices.

As universities were forced to move to remote teaching because of lockdowns, in the process in a fell swoop (and often very conveniently) overcoming different actors’ individual and institutional resistances to online teaching, it probably seemed a bit of a dream come true to the technology evangelists. But now, with these restrictions easing, we can and should take the time to have a closer look at some of the assumptions of virtual teaching. Here the work of Keri Facer can be a great guide, and indeed this post in inspired by her article on ‘governing education through the future‘ I recently read.

Facer argues that introduction of digital technologies in schools, and I would argue the same holds true for universities, has too often merely resulted in ‘digital accounting systems that have come to both responsiblise and punish learners, enabling surveillance and an ever more narrow definition of education as ‘techno-cratic preparation for employment.‘ No matter how visionary the narratives of the empowering and enabling potential of technologies in the classroom are, because they are embedded in social, political and economic contexts, if these are ‘competitive, individualised, exploitative – the technologies will be harnessed to those agendas. In and of themselves technologies will neither liberate nor transform education.’ Like in the international development area where I work, technologies are not panaceas.

Facer also argues that ideas about educational technologies are intimately wrapped up with ideas about educational futures. She distinguishes three main ideas:

  • Firstly, ‘the future as a landscape for rational choice making’ with education contributing to making the future known, identifying preferable actions and assessing the impact of decisions. If COVID has taught us anything, it is the fallacy of such instrumentalist assumptions.
  • Secondly, a colonial orientation aims to persuade students of particular visions of the future, be they progressive or conservative, and to shape their attitudes and behaviour towards these. While this is an enticing proposition for many educators, myself included, it needs to acknowledge its own ethical agendas, potential conflicts of interest and possible temptation for adults to abdicate their responsibilities towards present challenges.
  • Thirdly, education can be seen to serve as a bulwark against an unknown and potentially dystopian future and becomes the silver bullet that will solve all problems. Here, Facer cites HG Wells‘ ‘civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’.

These ideas not only overestimate the power of education and neglect the importance of other factors, but they also disconnect education from its wider moorings and ‘fetishize educational success as a means of achieving personal and social goods.’ By contrast, when futures are seen as sites of possibility to be explored by students rather than being predetermined by adults and educators, educational spaces can become places of experimentation for potential alternative futures, which is also the main argument of my book.

Facer proposes five orientations towards such alternative educational futures:

  • Modelling can encourage students to create models of potential futures, be they artistic, mathematical or scientific.
  • Stewardship fosters practices of care and restoration of diversity through the humanities and ecological sciences.
  • Reflexivity, as taught by the social sciences but also statistics, enables students to critically interrogate narratives of the future.
  • Disciplinarity teaches students the different ways in which disciplines make sense of new information, also with an eye to encouraging transdisciplinarity.
  • Experimentation allows students to imagine and create different futures, using art and design, engineering or computing and the social sciences.

All of these orientations are relevant for the critical-creative pedagogy I am proposing. The futures they help create are unknown and stand in complex and non-linear relationships with the past and present. The five orientations have the potential to become powerful tools for pedagogical practices that use imagination and creativity to help students better understand and work towards alternative futures. To realize this potential, universities must become accountable to the publics whose futures are being shaped by academic work  and must think more clearly about what kind of students they want to educate.

This also involves shifting the current neoliberal HE paradigm. Having recently written about complexity and systems thinking to help students better understand and address ecological challenges, I learned about leverage points where small changes can lead to systems-level transformations. Could more informed thinking about and implementation of technologies in the classroom, connected to engaged and emancipatory educational futures, be such a leverage point?

Bauhaus Teil II

Haus am Horn in Weimar

This post chronicles further ideas and inspirations from my current visit to the new Bauhaus museums in Germany. I am here to find out what the Bauhaus, as a radical educational experiment aiming to realize a vision of a better future at times of great economic, political and social turmoil, might offer creative teaching for today’s global challenges. In my first post I wrote about the context in which the Bauhaus was formed and its general teaching methods, and in this post I reflect how its attitude towards technology and the role of women at the Bauhaus might be relevant.

In 1923, as one of the conditions for continued funding from the regional government, the Bauhaus organized a major exhibition that brought its achievements to international attention. Its motto – Art and Technology: A New Unity – reflected the relationship that the Bauhaus wanted to establish between new technologies, the arts and crafts and industrial production. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, had fought at the Somme during WWI and seen first-hand the devastation that technological innovation can bring. He returned with a belief in radical social reform in which creative people played a direct role. Rather than rejecting technology altogether, he and teachers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, aimed to bring the art, crafts and industry, machines and humans, together in new ways. At the beginning of the 20th century, increasing industrialization, mass production and standardization raised important questions about the role of the individual, crafts people and artistic elements and about the connections between society and technology more general. I see the same questions being asked today in relation to new digital and bio-technologies and artificial intelligence and their remaking of human life, social relations and capitalist models. (For an insightful but frightening picture, Shoshana Zuboff’s recent take on surveillance capitalism is a good but hefty read). 

One of the main attractions of the Bauhaus exhibit was Das Haus am Horn, a model house that was built on the outskirts of Weimar. Designed by the Bauhaus Masters and furnished entirely by students, including textiles, high fittings and wall paintings, the house gave material form to many of the modern ideas of the school. It showed that the Bauhaus was not only about educating students but about reeducating the public to live more economically and functionally. The use of new materials, open space and room divisions, such as a separate bedrooms for spouses, revealed radical ideas and changing social norms. According to the exhibit, the house stood out like a sore thumb among the villas that adorned the road and critics called it a ‘house for martians.’

The modern kitchen as shown in a catalogue of the time

The house’s modern character was especially evident in the kitchen and its new domestic technologies. Showcasing Germany’s first fitted kitchen, furniture was arranged ergonomically in the taylorism-inspired sequence of cooking tasks to get rid of unnecessary movement, time and energy expenditure. The kitchen containers were in specific logical order and easy to access and clean. The oven and roaster ran on gas, cooking vegetables that were grown behind the house. (The gardens are where the Bauhaus students themselves grew vegetables for the communal canteen). An advertisement video in the main Bauhaus museum had compared more traditional kitchens and their laborious and unhygienic ways to the new kitchen, in which a woman dressed in a 1920s flapper outfit was happily working away. It was the woman though doing the housework, just as open doors to the children and living room enabled her to supervise the children more easily.

This speaks to an interesting tension about the role of women at the Bauhaus, about which many good books have been written. While Gropius welcomed female students, who initially outnumbered men, the master teachers were predominantly male with the exception of women teaching rhythmic dance and weaving. Similarly, female students were initially only allowed to apprentice in the weaving workshop (which incidentally was the only one making commercially viable products that provided a much needed source of income for the school), as it was thought that work in wood, metal or theatre workshops might be too physically demanding for them. Women like Gunda Stoelzl, Annie Albers and Marianna Brandt, who was the first woman allowed in the metal workshop and later became its master, went on to make names for themselves as successful designers but are still much less known than famous male Bauhaus masters and alumni.

In 1924, the Weimar Bauhaus lost political and financial support when a new right-wing nationalist government came to power in Thuringia. It moved to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin, where, branded as Bolshevik and degenerate, it was closed in 1933, in one of the first acts after the Nazis came to power. While some of its students were imprisoned, others collaborated with the Nazis in the design of concentration camps, including Buchenwald. Tomorrow I will travel to Dessau to learn more about the continuation of the experiment that was the Bauhaus.

Bauhaus Teil I

A photo in the entrance hall of the Weimar Bauhaus museum captures some of the school’s spirit

I am writing this post from Germany, where I am currently conducting research at the new Bauhaus museums that opened last year in Weimar, where the Bauhaus was established in 1919 by Walter Gropius, and in Dessau, where it moved in 1925. Both museums were opened last year to celebrate the Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary. (While I am here I am also spending some time with my parents; as I wrote in one of my first posts, I grew up in a small town close to Weimar in former East Germany. Since my parents still live there I have had many occasions to visit and see the changes that have happened since 1989, some good, some not so good – most recently Thueringen, the state where Weimar is located, made worldwide headlines when a premier was elected with the help of the far-right AFD party, in the process breaching one of Germany’s political taboos. Comparisons to pictures of Hitler and Bismarck show the worrying historical parallels).

Having been interested in the Bauhaus and in the role of design for development for a while, I always felt that there might be some kind of a connection, also to creative teaching, and this visit is definitely confirming this. The Bauhaus was a fascinating educational experiment with many parallels to today and I am trying to figure out what we might learn from it about creativity, education and the search for alternatives. The information below come from museum displays and a number of informative books about the Bauhaus (Whitford 1984, Forgasc 1991, Dorste 2019); there are also fascinating novels and films in English and German).

The outside of the museum, in modernist style and adjacent to one of Weimar’s more classical buildings

The new museum in Weimar is pretty stunning. It is housed in new building by the German architect Heike Hanada, occupying a square with significant historical interconnections. Throughout its history, Weimar has been home to a great number of progressive artists and thinkers (such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johan Sebastian Bach, Rudolf Steiner and Friedrich Nietzche). However, one can also see the Glockenturm of the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald from one of the museum’s windows. The Bauhaus itself was founded during a time of great social, political and economic upheaval. After WWI, decommissioned German soldiers and sailors returned, many of them deeply scared but also harbouring visions of a different, alternative future. The November 1918 revolution that overthrew the monarchy led to radical left groups, inspired by the Russian revolution, battled with reactionary vigilante groups in the streets of Berlin and other mayor cities. That is one of the reasons why Weimar, a quieter and at the time progressive town, was chosen as the birthplace of Germany’s first democracy, leading to the Weimar Republic. Ongoing conflicts led to hyperinflation, worsened by the 1929 Great Depression and ultimately the rise of Hitler. The increasing polarisation between left and right and the violence that comes with it, the rise of populist rhetoric and leaders and the corresponding rejection of foreign ideas and people have strong resonances to today.

The Bauhaus opened in 1919 through the merging of two already existing schools of Fine Arts and the Art and Crafts. Gropius named it Bauhaus in a modern take on the medieval guilds of craftspeople called Bauhuetten, and the school was marked by a the clash of old and new, tradition and radicalism, from the beginning. At its heart was a utopian vision of the role of education in creating a new society, in which art, design and technology would play central roles. To get things going, Gropius wrote the Bauhaus Manifesto, in which, according to the museum, he developed a vision of ‘a promising future . . . one that invited young people to become part of a community that was unafraid to address the urgent challenges of the time.’ The Manifesto was sent around the world to attract students, who came in the hundreds to join this radical experiment. They were taught by the most avantgarde artists of the time: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, George Muche and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The latter’s motto, that ‘every person is gifted,’ echoes the ideas of everyday creativity I wrote about in previous post. In addition, they had to pass a rigorous Vorkurs initially taught by Johannes Itten, who incorporated bodily and sensorial exercises to awaken the students’ holistic experiences of colours, shapes and materials. This course is the predecessor of today’s foundation courses that often reshape how art and design students perceive the world.

Amongst much material hardship, Bauhaus students also experimented with new form of communal living, including growing their own food and a community canteen, living together in communal quarters and celebrating student life (the Bauhaus parties were famous and ultimately pushed Weimar’s deeply conservative burghers, who saw the Bauhaus as alien, un-German and Bolshevik, over the edge). Early on, they formed a cooperative and started plans to build their own Bauhaus settlement. Even though the settlement did not materialise for financial reasons, the questions the students asked – how should we dwell and how should we live together in new ways – are as if not more relevant today. The Bauhaus was therefore a living academic and social experiment, aiming to awaken students’ free creativity and collective efforts to build a better future. Most students embraced the Bauhaus ideals, enthusiastically participating in creating a utopian community after the ravages of war that many of them had experienced.

One of the inner halls of the museum, with the famous Bauhaus cradle in the front

Here are some student quotes I have found in a good book by Boris Friedwald that attest to students’ awareness of being part of a history-making educational experiment:

  • we do not want to become artists, but human beings, and intensify our looking, experiencing and sensing’ (Gunta Stoelzl)
  • for me the value is not in what is taught but in how it is taught, that one first trains and educates people who think and act for themselves before one conveys the necessary knowledge to them’ (Vera Meyer-Waldeck)
  • most people come with the genuinely serious intention of entering a community which differs fundamentally from the contradictory world around them, where they can develop new points of view for the systematic creation of a new society’ (Albert Mentzel)

Although the Bauhaus was an art and design school, with artistic creativity at its heart, I do believe that in it social aims and the ways in which it was trying to realize these aims in times of great challenges it can provide ideas and inspiration for creative teaching today. There is still a Bauhaus University in Weimar, in the building where the original teaching took place and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was going to visit its Open Day, but that was unfortunately postponed because of the corona virus. So now I am off to visit the model house that was built for the 1923 exhibit.

Everyday radical creativity

This representation of the analytical (left) and creative (right) brain is common but things are much less clearcut.

With the title of my book being Creative Universities, what do I actually mean by creativity? A voluminous academic and popular literature exists that seeks to define this complex and context-specific phenomenon, with its intellectual, emotional, practical and ethical aspects. In spite of this multidimensionality, there are a few commonly-cited characteristics of creativity: originality, curiosity, playfulness, divergent thinking, risk-taking, open-ness to new experiences and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and accept uncertainty.

In education, many people agree that teaching and learning are inherently creative processes, even though they might not be recognized or acknowledged as such. There are instead increasing demands from policy makers to bring more creativity into education in general and into HE in particular. These demands are usually connected to education’s contribution to national growth and economic competitiveness, often in the context of the creative industries. Another aim of creativity in education is to fully develop students’ personal potentials and to prepare them for a rapidly changing workplace. For example, Jackson Norman, founder of the Creative Academic Network, argues that ‘an education system that does not commit to the development and recognition of learners as whole, imaginative and creative beings is not enabling them to prepare themselves for a future that none of us can imagine.’ In my book, I am not looking at these economic and individual aspects of creativity but at how a socially-oriented creativity in especially the social sciences can contribute to addressing global challenges. For this, I distinguish everyday and radical creativity from its elite and instrumentalist counterparts.

Elite definitions attribute creativity to either exceptionally gifted individuals or base it on exceptional outputs, achieved through a combination of hard work and the right context, that are recognized by experts. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is sometimes cited as a proponent of this circumscribed definition of creativity. By contrast, I work with a definition of everyday creativity that is latent in everyone, meaning that everybody has creative capacities that can be developed. Ruth Richards, for example, has shown that originality is found across diverse activities of everyday life, where individuals constantly have to adapt, innovate, be flexible and try out new ideas. What matters is both process and product. According to Ken Robinson, creativity can operate on several levels: from individual creativity expressed in practices that are new for an individual, to social creativity that results in novelty for a particular group of people, to historical creativity that takes humankind and history as its point of reference. It is the later version of creativity that most closely corresponds to elite conceptions, often found in artistic or scientific breakthroughs. Alongside these, everyday creativity celebrates the creative achievements of individuals in the context of their own lives. Correspondingly, Robinson defines creativity as ‘imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.’

In education, everyday creativity is often connected to pioneers in alternative and child-centered education such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner and Johan Pestalozzi, who argued that education should draw out the inborn abilities of each child. In the context of adult education, Paolo Freire, whose critical pedagogy is significant for my own critical-creative pedagogy, showed the importance of education engaging people’s natural artistic and creative expressions and harnessing these for personal and social change. More recently, the Creative Academic initiative has identified being imaginative (moving beyond the immediate, obvious, conventional), original (adding to what already exists), exploratory (being open, experimental and flexible), analytical (thinking critically about new ideas) and communicative (often through story telling or visual means) as key aspects of pedagogical creativity. David Staley, in his proposal for ‘feasibly utopian universities,’ argues that creativity entails looking at things from multiple perspectives. This includes mashing up disparate ideas coming from different domains, making unusual and surprising connections across different areas or putting unrelated things together. Similarly, for Ken Robinson, it is about the transfer of knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar domains and the ‘ability to leap out of familiar habits into new idea spaces.’ Such domain bridging can be nurtured in students, all of whom have everyday creative capabilities, even though mainstream education often works against their development. It is important to make creative education inclusive and accessible to different learners, so as to enable all students to participate in creative activities.

Another common definition of creativity I am writing against is the instrumentalist version that connects it to economic competition and corporate growth. Rob Pope, in his far-reaching book on creativity, argues that this narrow conception of creativity emerged in a particular time and place – the mid 20th century West – as a modern response to problems associated with rapid social and technological change. Here creativity aims to bring about scientific discoveries and technological inventions in the service of capital; indeed Pope calls this instrumentalist creativity ‘one of the most prized commodities of capitalism.’ It has led to a human-resources view of creativity in universities, connected to employability, managerial and corporate agendas. Pope presents the 1999 publication The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills for the New Economy by Kimberley Seltzer and Tom Bentley as a prime example of this approach. The report’s authors argue that ‘to realise the creative potential of all citizens and to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, we must make radical changes to the education system.’ Instrumentalist creativity in universities is therefore employment-oriented, economy-driven and governed by market logics, which connects it to current critiques of the neoliberalization of universities.

Against this instrumentalist notions of creativity I follow Sarah Amsler in arguing for radical creativity that works outside of mainstream growth agendas. It can be harnessed to imagine and work towards a number of alternatives I am exploring in the different chapters of my book, which are presenting more radical, heterodox proposals to address current social, economic and environmental challenges. I believe that nurturing students’ creativity and imagination is vital if they are to participate in realizing these proposals. As mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote almost 100 years ago:

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful. . . . A university which fails to impart information imaginatively has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.

‘The Aims of Education’

A different kind of theory

What do we see in winter trees – negative or positive spaces?

I have been working on the theoretical framework for my critical-creative pedagogy. Once again, I find myself drawing on Gibson-Graham’s writings in their book Postcapitalist Politics, where they interrogate contemporary (leftist) theorizing about capitalism and neoliberalism to argue for a different kind of theory that can better support the emergence of alternatives. Following their lead, I develop a theory that at the moment goes by a number of possible names: capacious/expansive/generous/generative/reparative.

I fully agree with Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and explore the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with scepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments’ (618, all quotes are taken from this GG article). More specifically, and drawing on Eve Sedgewick, Walter Benjamin and Saul Newman, Gibson-Graham find the sources of such negative theorizing in academic paranoia that is all-knowing to protect itself against surprises, in melancholia that looks back towards certainties, and in moralism that aims for the purity of powerlessness. Taken together, these practices ‘render the world effectively uncontestable,’ which also forecloses the possibility to develop any kind of credible alternatives.

To develop their own alternative theorizing, Gibson-Graham draw on Sedgewick’s writing on weak theory that supports rather than discredits the emergence of alternatives. In contrast to strong theory that dismisses experimental or alternative practices as always already co-opted, tainted or inadequate, which in turn reinforces dominant political-economic structures, weak theory adopts a beginner’s mind that refuses to know too much. It has a reduced reach, localized purview, attenuated explanations to create spaciousness into which possibilities can grow, rather than foreclose them from the outset with overwhelming or destructive critique. Such weak theory is undertaken with a ‘reparative motive that . . . cares for the new’ (619).

Because I don’t really like the connotations of weak, I am exploring different terms for my theoretical approach. I like reparative in reference to a theory that seeks to repair rather than discard, that is about diagnosing problems, failings, punctures etc and then taking a partial, humble but proactive approach to addressing them. It is not about grand, absolute or technical solutionism but about finding work arounds, accommodations, fixes, however incomplete and imperfect they may be. I also like generous or expansive because this theory has an experimental and open stance, an attention to multiplicity and ambiguity. It seeks connections and collaborations. It is willing to consider rather than judge, interested in building rather than tearing down. It embraces the unexpected and celebrates surprise. And I like generative because it is about creating something, imaging and working towards new possibilities.

Whether to practice reparative/generous/generative theory is not only a pedagogical decision but also ‘a political/ethical decision that influences what kinds of worlds we can imagine and create, ones in which we enact and construct’ (619). It is a commitment to being willing to become a condition of possibility rather than impossibility, to use academic practices to nurture the experimental, to support the new and to care for the emerging. It does not mean suspending critique, but to put it second-place. But it also does not mean to deny or ignore the existence of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures that work against the realization of possibilities. Rather, an alternative theory ‘simply encourages us to deny these forces as fundamental, structural, or universal reality and to instead identify them as contingent outcomes of ethical decisions, political projects, and sedimented localized practices,’ as Gibson-Graham put it in their own explorations of Postcapitalist Politics.

If, after reading this, you have any suggestions of which of my three or four terms works best, please let me know. Thank you!

Update May 2021: I finally settled on generative theory as this term best seemed to encapsulate my ideas of a way of theorizing that can open up possibilities and help bring new things into the world.

New academic subjects

This tapestry in my office keeps reminding me of the richness of academic work

I have been working on a draft of the book’s first chapter, which explores different strands of critical and decolonial pedagogy and how they relate to the critical-creative pedagogy I am developing. As I am writing, I keep coming back to what kind of educators or indeed academics would be interested in teaching in a critically hopeful way, which I want to explore in this post.

This book journey really started when I first read Gibson-Graham’s article on ‘performative practices for other worlds,’ when I was still working in Auckland. I was immediately struck by the article’s hopefulness coming from their advocacy for a ‘reparative, non-judgemental affective stance that might enable us to inhabit a diverse . . . landscape of possibility.’ This deeply resonated with the kind of academic I wanted to be, although finding that identity was not easy. I had been disciplined in the highly competitive and critical intellectual climate of the Anthropology department at UC Berkeley, by supervisors steeped in post-structuralist theory. I therefore could relate to Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘at present we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and expose the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with skepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments.’ To move away from this scepticism asks that we occupy not only a different stance vis-a-vis theory but also a different academic identity, one that is not uncritical, but less critical and more affirmative. It is about not knowing beforehand whether experiments will fail but holding spaces of possibility open long enough for them to have a change to germinate and maybe grow.

Working in a small Development Studies postgraduate program at the University of Auckland, I increasingly found myself wanting to critique less and create more. My journey was slow, but as Sarah Amsler, whose work on the pedagogies of possibility has been another source of inspiration, reminds us in this paper: ‘it is legitimate to dreams in steps rather than leaps.’ To me this means that we can undergo personal and professional transformations at our own pace, as long as we don’t stand still or go backwards. Amsler elaborates that ‘rethinking the meaning of the higher educator may require the unlearning of traditional approaches to theoretisation which privilege performativity over humble co-operation, abstraction over praxis, individual knowing over collective learning, and monological solution-given over dialogical inquiry.’ It demands a substantial change in how we think about what we do as academics: how we teach, with whom we conduct research and how we relate to colleagues, professional staff, students and the world beyond the academy. For me these changes have mostly happened in the classroom, as I have moved away from standard lectures and seminar discussions to introduce the creative, interactive and experiential activities that are at the heart of my book.

Such changes take courage, as we open ourselves up to discomfort, critique and the possibility of rejection or failure. Indeed, courage is one of the words used by all educators writing about transformational teaching, including Paolo Freire, the Brazilian humanist educator. He reflected on the fear that gives rise to such courage and what both might be signs of: ‘ the more you recognize your fear as a consequence of your attempt to practice your dream, the more you learn how to put into practice your dream!’ In his Letters to Those who Dare to Teach, Freire also emphasized the importance of teachers’ humility grounded in respect for self and others, self-confidence, a renunciation of fatalism, and above all persistence to always ‘begin anew, to make, to reconstruct, and not to spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind.’ Making and reconstruction, rather than just critical deconstruction, are important ingredients of a critical-creative pedagogy.

Of course, none of these practices are happening in a vacuum, and in the UK we work in a highly neoliberalized and managerialized university system. I have also written previously about my particular location at the University of Sussex, with its performative radicalism. So where are the possible spaces for actions within these institutions, or as Boaventura de Sousa Santos put it, how do we teach revolutionary ideas in reactionary institutions? At Sussex, academics still have much freedom in designing our own courses (or modules as they are called here), with only a short form to fill out to show Learning Outcomes and assessment information and approval given by sympathetic managers at the school level. This translates into openings into which we can insert creative and subversive practices, and while I was heading up the International Development department, I very much encouraged the teaching of critical hope among colleagues. As I will show in my book, this has led to many experiments in our collective teaching with the aim to unsettle, provoke and disrupt, with enthusiastic reactions from (most) students. Enacting these hopeful academic subjectivities, however cautious they might be, will always be fraught with contradictions and ambiguities, as is any working from within the belly of the beast. But we can also think of these as forms of prefigurative politics within the academy, where we enact in the here and now the visions we have for the future.

If you are interested in reading how all of this might look in practice before my book comes out, here is a bravely reflexive account by Wendy Harcourt at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, chronicling her redesign – very much in the spirit of a critical-creative pedagogy – of a flagship MA course around postdevelopment and the reactions of staff and students to it. I took much heart from one of the student comments she received: ‘you can’t imagine how students treasure the professors willing to take the kind of risks you take.’ Enjoy the read!