things in the making

2014-05-28 06.44.28

Employing the masters’ ideas not to explain them – which is a way to embalm them unchanged and unchangeable – but to make something (else) of them. (Ellsworth 2005)

I recently wrote a paper about teachers engaging in online discussion about professionalism. The paper, savaged by one journal, was substantially rewritten and sent to another. I might have sent the re-written version to the original journal but their review was so unkind that I had to check and recheck the decision to reconcile the invitation to revise and resubmit with the harshness of the comments. I appreciate that the better the version sent for review, the better the feedback. The original was sent too early. It was a draft full of errors. With a little more time and care these were ironed out.

One reason why a paper might be rejected by a journal is because it is not ready to be  sent for review. It contains errors that trip up and antagonise the reader.

But then, when I complete something I feel a surge of overwhelming enthusiasm and accomplishment. In my excitement, I want to send it out, to get someone to read and comment. Sending it to a journal for review is a celebration. The unpleasant feedback made me think again about my approach. I sent the re-written paper to a different journal for review because, on reflection, what they publish seemed more sympathetic to what and how I write. The feedback was the same: revise (substantially) and resubmit. The editor used the word ‘salvageable’ in his response. Salvageable, diplomatic indication of just how much work the much improved draft needed. But the comments were kind and constructive. It was not just that the feedback provided by the second journal included one critical reader who found my approach to locating rather than defining professionalism ‘refreshing’. Nor was it that the slightly less effusive critical reader thought my use of spatial theory to discuss professionalism was ‘fine’.   The comments made sense. I didn’t, while reading, flinch and check the apparent inconsistency between the tone of the comments and the overall decision. I could see and feel how the suggested revisions made the paper more focussed, more sharply argued and more credible.

In the review provided by the first journal, I found it hard to make sense of several points of feedback. I didn’t agree with them. One comment particularly bothered me.

I referred to a paper written in 1989 by Elizabeth Ellsworth. ‘Why doesn’t this feel empowering?’ changed my understanding of critical pedagogy. In this pivotal essay Ellsworth conceptualises a series of ‘repressive myths’.  She challenges the critical pedagogues assumption that power (as a reified thing) exists in a definable place, a specific somewhere, a certain “power loci” from which it is projected, and that “we” must fight against or suffer the looming consequences.  Her analysis disturbs and destabilises the idea of ’empowerment’, and with it – much of my sense of myself as an adult literacy teacher. Her argument was like drinking a glass of ice-cold water, or having one thrown in my face. I was compelled to re-write my Freirean inspired professional biography. But her significance is more than personal. Ellsworth continues to write, and her sensational pedagogies continue to inspire.  Her thinking contributes towards a changed direction in critical pedagogy, as noted by others (Savage 2010). The specific essay I referred to has, according to Google Scholar, been cited a few thousand times. It has been republished on more than one occasion in different anthologies. It is an important essay.

How then do I respond to a reviewer who asks why I have referenced her work –  implying her insight as unworthy of citation? How in my revision do I justify her inclusion? And why should I need to? It may be that I have included her because she supports my argument; it may also be that my argument has been developed in part because of my reading – and weighing up the significance of – her work.

Another point of critique also caught my imagination. The comment was valid but I had no immediate answer. I argue that in online spaces teachers may reveal aspects of how they construct their professional selves indirectly while talking about something else. I argue that there is ‘real work’ underlying these seemingly trivial social interactions. But what do I mean by ‘real work’? It took some time to clarify. Arendt (1958) has framed it nicely for me. She distinguishes three modalities of active life: labour, work and action. Work has to do with: the ways in which human beings actively transform their environment and through this create a world that is characterised by durability. This is the work that these teachers do when discussing aspects of professionalism in online spaces. They dramatise the contradictions between professional aspiration and policy embodiment. This is more than understanding.  They use virtual spaces to create an embodied sensation of making-sense. These are lived-in, experiential spaces for their learning selves (Ellsworth 2005:1). This self does not determine, but emerges from their ongoing attempts to reconcile contradictory demands and possibilities.

Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Biesta, Gert (2014 Making Pedagogy Public: for the public, of the public, or in the interest of publicness?  Ch 2 in Burdick, J, Sandin, J. and O’Malley, M. Problematising Public Pedagogy

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297–324.

Ellsworth, E. (2005). Places of learning: Media, architecture, pedagogy. Oxon: Routledge.

Savage, G. C. (2010). Problematizing “public pedagogy” in educational research. Ch 11 in Sandlin, J,. Schults, B and Burdick, J. Handbook of public pedagogy, 103-115.


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