On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

“The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.”

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself to

“promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. To promote the “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

Teaching to Resist

Sea Lion

Where did everybody go?

Is it just me, or has it been a minute?

Did we turn a corner? Or have we ascended some ultimate peak to only be careening out of control these last how many months?

Did things online not seem to move so fast, previously? Or were they just less likely to see us preoccupied and frantic with the escapades of the new American world order?

…or is it not just online that this has been happening?

If it’s only been me who’s been feeling this way: I’m sorry to have deserted you, friends. We probably used to talk about other things. We used to share music, books. Used to browse each others’ photos over stories of where the “real world” had taken us. Lately it’s as though the noise of the world has been taking up more and more space, and those opportunities to ruminate in thinking about things frivolous or fleeting are losing out to the latest press release, analysis or interpretation, this or that comedic riff, or the public stands taken by individuals and groups that provide momentary bulwarks against bottomless negativity.

Perhaps it’s coming to grips with life as an act of resistance, and the need to keep one’s eye on the advancing shadows of authoritarianism, hatred, and white supremacy that the last eight years might have calmed us into thinking were in their deathly rattles. Perhaps it’s the shock that precedes the types of upheaval the likes of Steve Bannon and the newly orange-coloured president seem intent upon wreaking.

Whatever its cause or wherever its origins, I’m writing here to acknowledge that something has changed, rather than to pin down anything of substance that might explain it.

How to teach and learn now?

Last year our school began a pilot process of professional development based on a collaborative inquiry model. We begin the year with individual questions that lead us into small groups that meet over the course of the year to investigate the unique conundrums and inquiries we are each facing in our classrooms and teaching lives beyond (I’ve written about this here, if you’d like to hear more about the origins of this project).

This year we met for our second instalment and meeting in our small groups, and revised and re-entered the questions and inquiries that we had begun in September. A few of us had missed that initial day for trips or illness, and a few others besides had seen their questions change or become irrelevant in the meantime. A few more student-teachers and new staff had been added to our school as well, and so among the splinter cells of inquiry a smaller group was struck that I found myself in despite it not having a banner or direction under which to organize ourselves.

The conversation quickly turned to whatever latest outrage had been announced south of the border, and how the general mean-spiritedness of so many of the new administration’s initial policy announcements were affecting anxieties in both our students, and ourselves.

“How do I model coping with a world like this for my students when I am at an utter loss myself?” one of my colleagues asked.

“What can we do or say, especially in subject areas that aren’t directly related to current events, oppressive structures, or political goings on?” wondered another.

There is a line, we agreed, between acknowledging the panic that comes with witnessing preposterous cruelty on such a grand scale as the new government has sought to impose on the most vulnerable members of its society – from LGBTQ+ kids’ rights to safe schools, to green card holders and visiting scholars turned away at borders, to hate crimes erupting in the light of day echoing the new administration’s language, ideology, and intent – and modelling hope and perseverance for our young charges.

But as to where we might garner and gather that hope and perseverance is a query we have not yet seemed to solve, either around that little table, or in the larger culture of which we feel a part.

Don’t go away.

What seems clear is that we must stay present, and available to one another. That we stay trained on the creeping tide of hatred and fear that threatens the values of inclusion and progress that our societies and schools are based on. And that we fight alongside and for those who are most threatened.

We must admit that we each are struggling to find our feet as agents of resistance against an emerging institution that seems bent on keeping us off balance, and create balance and stability for one another in the minute ways we might be able.

#Eminent2016: Why Bob? Why Now?

My goal is to try and stick to some sort of chronological ordering of the aging of Dylan in the images used in the creation of this project. Hence, this young shot of Dylan in his Greenwich Village folk days here at the outset of the project, moving toward his more current iterations as the study progresses.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

After almost ten years at the helm of the TALONS annual Eminent Person Study, I decided to conduct my own study alongside this year’s classes. These posts will be collected here. 

Why Bob?

They say everything can be replaced

That every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man that brought me here. 1

For a brief moment when I first thought that I would take on the Eminent Person Study, I initially declared my intentions to study Bruce Springsteen. In recent years my musical tastes and affection has leaned heavily toward the Boss, and I would relish the opportunity to delve deeper into his life and rock catalogue. But with Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win I’ve been hearing a lot more Bob, reading various responses to his inclusion as the first musician to be awarded with the literary honour, and been coming reacquainted with my first true love (and one of Bruce’s, to boot).

Before Bruce, and Josh, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was always only Bob.

Why Now?

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. 2

Back when I was a student in an older version of our district’s gifted program – the forerunner to TALONS that operated at Dr. Charles Best Junior High back as far as the late-nineteen seventies – our teachers would occasionally participate in the major projects with us: studying eminent people, or engaging in-depth studies to sing or sew, and creating their own inquiries, findings and meaning alongside us. This always seemed an exceptional example to me of what life might be as an adult: that we might go on, continuing to strive, and learn, and change markedly into our middle and advanced ages. But Q and I, as well as the other TALONS teachers, haven’t much made or had the time to engage in these sorts of pursuits as TALONS teachers in recent years.

It’s true, two of us have completed advanced degrees, a PhD and an MEd between us, and we regularly share our personal and professional struggles and triumphs in blog posts and classroom conversations about the nature of lifelong learning and aspiration. But engage in a project directly alongside our students, we have not.

Additionally, TALONS seems to stand somewhat perched at a crossroads in its continued evolution. Having doubled a few years into our run as a two-teacher, twenty eight student cohort, there are now four teachers and nearly sixty students these days, two of those teachers new to the program this fall; we’ve added courses in the senior grades, and are breaking new trails in Adventure Trips, and other aspects of our learning and organization all the time.

As well, I find myself nearly ten years into my career, with just shy of that time spent facilitating the TALONS learning across a variety of subjects. And with so much change arriving in the TALONS world, I feel compelled this year to strike out a little beyond my own comfort zone as an act of solidarity not only with my grade nine and ten students, but my new teaching partners. Our program is a place where adults as well as adolescents are challenged to grow and develop beyond what they may have previously thought  possible, and to be joining such a juggernaut of an ecosystem as ours must be an intimidating prospect.

Hopefully some of this process extends an invitation to them to join the ranks of public learning that makes our program unique, both for what it teaches the young people among us as well as those of us beyond the school.

But… why Bob?

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. 3 

Around the time I was graduating from university, I had begun to play guitar with the idea that I might be able to expand the scope of my expressive capabilities into music. I would be earning my degree in Creative Writing (with a minor in French and an additional honours thesis on civil society and ideology around a Boy Scout summer camp that I had spent two summers interning for), and had written a roughshod novel during school, along with hundreds of other essays, newspaper columns, letters, and stories. But like Kurt Vonnegut wrote once, “virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” I had always been drawn to music, to the images and melodies that lit fires in undiscovered places in myself. And so I set about exploring my existing taste and experience in music through a borrowed acoustic guitar; when I moved home to Vancouver I bought my own and started unpacking the history of popular music from Elvis on forward.

I listened to the Beatles incessantly, and in chronological order. I watched the Anthology documentaries and began to untangle the thread of blues and rock that ran through Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. I began to see the tightly woven threads of the culture that connected Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg to Jim Morrison, and back to Robert Johnson. I’d had some experience with each of these threads in isolation: I’d studied the Beats ravenously as an undergraduate; that hasty youthful novel written in my third year bore an inscription from one of Jim Morrison’s poems; and I could talk for hours about the complimentary and divergent aspects of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ early aesthetics.

Untitled

Then my dad bought the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and everything became obsolete. Here was the Rosetta Stone to synthesize and decode the American spirit that unified the story I’d been untangling for years. Here was an artist who defied category or classification, who by the time you had decided what to call him had morphed into something else entirely, who seemed to know his own voice and gifts so well for never claiming to understand them so much as the fact that he would never cease to explore their potential. With Dylan there were no lines, no titles, no boundaries, and I wanted that for myself.

I wanted, as I still do, to find what my vision and voice can see and say: to expand beyond what I’ve previously thought possible, and to create new ways of being for others to follow, which is Why Bob, Why Now.

  1.  “I Shall Be Released”
  2. No Direction Home
  3. Songwriters on Songwriting

Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part II): Reconnaissance

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DSIt is the second day of spring, earlier the same year, and a colleague and I are shivering in soaking clothes in a damp ring of protective salal and cedar above Chin Beach. We are conducting reconnaissance on the Juan de Fuca Trail, assessing its relative difficulty, subjective and objective risks and hazards, and gauging the potential for the route to serve as a challenging option for the annual TALONS Adventure Trip.

Despite arriving on Vancouver Island in full sunshine yesterday, and beginning our hike under clear skies, the rain moved in on us last night and has yet to let up through the day’s first ten kilometres. We left Bear Beach at just before ten this morning and arrived at the emergency shelter above Chin Beach on the afternoon high tide, cutting us off from where the trail resumes at the western end. With an hour of slack tide to wait out we’ve hung our wet shirts on the lines in the front of the shelter to drip dry in the spring humidity and make warm lunches of hummus, bagels, and multiple cups of tea. We laugh at the accumulated years of graffiti adorning the walls.

Eventually we shudder back into our shirts and make our way down to the beach, where we’re waiting now for the tide to recede enough that we might gain the rocky bluff back up into the woods where the trail continues. Mist hangs in the air between the trees and gusts up the beach as the waves crash and rinse between the rocks. A group of five or six sea lions slithers toward the horizon beyond the breakers, and we wait, jogging on the spot, stepping up and down from a log by a sodden fire circle, and wandering through the prospective campsite.

When the tide falls we head back into the woods, tackling the second 10K section of steep, muddy, and root-laden walking between Chin and Sombrio Beach. The trail climbs, then descends, crosses swollen creeks that soak our boots and gaiters, then climbs again. All throughout the afternoon the rain continues to fall, but we don’t wear our rain gear because with our exertion the insides would be as wet as the outside; besides, we will surely need them come the evening.

The lightheartedness of our adventure yesterday has evapourated, or perhaps more appropriately been washed away, and we hike in relative silence: grunting, breathing heavily, laughing incredulously at the ferocity of the weather and the roughness of the trail. We are out here two months before the hiking season has properly begun, and many of the winter’s deadfall sitka spruces, calamitous landslides, and broken boardwalks have yet to be cleared or repaired. Later in the day we are ankle deep in muddy bogs on the ridgeline above Sombrio Point and the forest canopy blocks out the five o’clock light, making it horror-movie dark as the rain increases above our heads. In the next moment it is hailing angrily down through the cedar boughs and we are resigned to digging through our packs for jackets as the pellets sting our shoulders and frigid forearms.

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DS

On Sombrio we fight back the first effects of hypothermia while we attempt to set the tarp and pitch our tent. My sleeping bag is soggy and our fingers ache working with the lightweight tarpline. We are on pace to complete the trail in three days – two days faster than our prospective trip with the teens later in the spring – and we are each unbelievably spent.

Tomorrow we will shuffle off the western terminus of the trail in Port Renfrew and ravenously inhale chicken wings and two beers before hitchhiking back to our car at China Beach before dark. I am almost thirty five and no stranger to challenging adventures in the woods, nor is Dave: even with our aching feet and blistering toe-nail beds, soaked gear and thousand-yard stares as we sit over ferry burgers on our way home, we are giddy and proud of our adventure.

But tonight, shivering in my sleeping bag while the rain blasts at the salal and sitka shelter beyond our tent, and throughout our encounters with knee-deep bogs, hundred metre cliffs above the Pacific, and the perilously slick log bridges and creek beds (one of which claims my sunglasses on the second morning of our adventure), I am struck with the magnitude of the trip seen through the eyes of my grade nine students. The thought that the trip may be beyond the capabilities of our group – or for one reason or another one or more of our student group will not complete the trail – becomes a focal point of the preparations to come.

“Let’s think about it,” Dave says sometime the next day while we take water and a break deep in the woods west of Sombrio Beach. “What are the snags, injuries or anxieties – reasons you’d need to stop or evacuate someone – and where are they going to happen out here?”

“If and when they walk off the end of this trail,” he adds. “They are going to be hardened warriors.”

We climb through the soaking rainforest, sweating in our rotten, muddy clothes, brainstorming various emergencies and evacuation procedures, as well as how to minimize our risks.

“Exactly,” I tell him, and set about making plans for the coming months and making that potential a reality.

Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

Arch

Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offers only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signal the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

Singing Taylor Swift Songs

Introductions, Gender, and Amplification

Every year in #introguitar (an open online guitar class I teach at my school, and which you should totally enrol in as a non-credit participant) I ask my students and our open learners to introduce themselves and their intentions to the group in a brief video. And rather than rehash a template video of my own from ages ago, I appreciate the opportunity as a student of music to focus my learning about guitar from semester to semester in new video introductions.

In past years I’ve worked to learn skills and techniques around lead playing, band-leading, and performing, documenting my growth in subsequent videos and reflections throughout the year.

This year, I’m taking my work in guitar in a direction slightly away from the guitar itself, and toward the conversation about gender, inequality, and diversity in the wider culture of popular music; I’ve resolved to only play songs written by women.

A while back I read about journalist Anil Dash’s experiment to only ReTweet women for a year, an experience that made him more mindful of the voices he amplified on social media:

Based on my experiences, my recommendation to others is simple: Give it a try. If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others. For me, it was giving a platform to women where I wasn’t able to mansplain the things they were already saying, but instead just sharing out their own thoughts in their own words. It may be by issue, or by identity, or by community, or some other consideration.

Troubadours and Teen Idols

Caption courtesy of RadioTexasLive.com

Along with inspiring the mournful western aesthetic of my university days, Ryan Adams wrote some of the first songs I learned on guitar (he also inspired the bad versions of Wonderwall I still play around campfires), and has been an artist that I’ve grown alongside for more than ten years as we’ve each experimented with bands, folk music, and life beyond our devil-may-care early twenties. His work of late has been especially sharp, I think, too; “Gimme Something Good,” and the rest of his self-titled album last year contain layers of guitar excellence and timeless hooks that are among his best.

Last year, word began to spread that Adams had set to recording a cover of Taylor Swift’s recent blockbuster, 1989; my worlds were colliding.

As a guitar teacher in a high school the last six years, I’ve been no stranger to the evolving songwriting career of Ms. Swift. Seldom in my tenure in #introguitar have I walked past an interesting turn of phrase, guitar riff, or chord progression to not be told upon inquiring, “That’s Taylor Swift.” Around campfires and in the park behind my parents house during the summer, the choruses of “Love Story,” and “You Belong with Me” have become generational anthems that are tattooed on suburban boys and girls alike.

There is doubtless something there.

Exhibit A in why I want to start calling #introguitar “Campfire Practice”

A video posted by Bryan Jackson (@bryanjack) on

Pronouns and Performing Gender

As long as I’ve enjoyed Taylor Swift’s tunes – and I have quite earnestly enjoyed them, making them a staple of class guitar playing and pieces to deconstruct as exemplars of composition – I’ve never truly played or performed any on my own. There have always been reasons for this, but I can’t say as though very many are very good.

Sometimes the key is too high, or the melody too…something. Sometimes the dance beat is too difficult to recreate on a single guitar. Sometimes they’re written too explicitly from a female or feminine perspective. None of which in itself is a big deal, but contributes to enough awkwardness that I don’t wind up learning the songs to a degree where I play them for other people.

Historically this has been true nearly across the board, with a few pop songs by female artists making ironic appearances alongside Notorious BIG covers once it’s late enough into the night or the jam. The list of songs written by women that are part of my repertoire is pretty weak, if not non-existant.

On a certain level, this is a matter of taste, sure. Why shouldn’t I play what I like to play? What’s easy to play? That feels like me? However, on another, I share the songs I play with a lot of people; I teach young people about the culture of musicianship, songwriting, and developing one’s own voice, both as an interpreter of other people’s songs, and a writer of originals. To present only my own perspective, or one which makes me comfortable, seems unfair to the myriad ways my students perceive and approach the world, and their music.

This is why I’ve decided to spend my time playing music for school this semester playing and performing songs written by women. I’m not play it ironically, insulating myself from whatever vulnerabilities arise in the performances with humour or distance.

And I’m going to leave the pronouns the same, because if it makes me uncomfortable to sing about Taylor’s “Stephen,” or about “his hands [being] in my hair,” I do enjoy the ability (one might say privilege) of challenging that discomfort so that it’s more acceptable for young men who know all the words to Taylor Swift, or Beyonce, or Lady Gaga’s songs to take the stage and belt it out.

Because these songs weren’t written as larks, or trivial, or silly: they were and are manifestations of tone,  character, and theme. They are expressions of an aesthetic in the tradition of songsmiths, where male voices have been disproportionately taken seriously as a matter of course by virtue of arising from male mouths.

Even Taylor Swift’s own songs became more highly regarded by critics once Mr. Adams had sung them. Ian Crouch at the New Yorker (which reviewed Adams’ record, but not Swift’s) wrote:

If anything, Adams’s version of “1989” is more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original.

There are a bunch of men’s songs I’ve shared and performed and taught the class in the past, and no doubt there will be in future semesters. But not because they’re any more sincere, authentic, or otherwise superior to any woman’s music.

And if that’s the case, I’d like to work to balance my catalogue of songs accordingly.

A Unit Plan of One’s Own: References

MEd Final Presentation

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

Ball, S. J., Thrupp, M., & Forsey, M. (2010). Hidden markets: the new education privatization. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ben‐Porath, S. (2012). Citizenship as shared fate: Education for memebership in a diverse democracy Educational theory, 62(4), 381-395. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2012.00452.x

Berry, D. (2011). The computational turn: Thinking about the digital humanities. Culture Machine(Spec. Issue).

Biesta, G., Lawy, R., & Kelly, N. (2009). Understanding young people’s citizenship learning in everyday life the role of contexts, relationships and dispositions. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 4(1), 5-24.

Calhoun, C. (2013). Occupy wall street in perspective. The British journal of sociology, 64(1), 26-38.

Campbell, G. (2009). A personal cyberinfrastructure. EducausE review, 44(5), 58-59.

Canadian Multiculturalism Act, c 24 (4th Supp). (1985). Retrieved from http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-18.7/page-1.html.

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A Unit Plan of One’s Own: Recommendations

November

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

This project has allowed me to make the following recommendations to others who might consider conducting a similar course of study or practice. In each, the common thread is an emphasis on striving to better realize our collective democratic potential in our own learning as teachers, and looking to provide the same experiences for our students.

Structure with Space

In striving to create emergent possibilities, it is important to cultivate space wherein the unexpected can occur. Democracy itself is a framework to produce outcomes much more than it is an outcome itself; and once it becomes concerned with replication and the preservation of stasis, the ends it is intended to produce slip out of grasp. In the pursuit of emergence, both in democracy and in our classrooms, it is important to create the opportunity – and in doing so the habits of mind in young people – for grassroots expression and experience in collective meaning-making. In considering the adoption of the unit framework provided here, or work conceived in a similar spirit, look to present students with the opportunity to populate the educational space with their own expressions and explorations.

Everything is a Prototype

To engage in authentic learning of this kind, teachers and students must work toward viewing potential setbacks and failures as opportunities to reflect and move forward in their work as individuals and in groups. Central to the notion of learning as an ongoing process is that nothing is a final iteration, and that “everything is a prototype,” 1

 and as such is an opportunity to learn from and integrate into future growth and success. While educators may be quick to encourage our students toward this realization, we can be less forgiving of our own struggles toward an integration of our theory and practice in pedagogy, and it is important for us to model this willingness to adapt, act, and reflect if we wish for these attributes to be acquired by the young people in our classrooms.

In all things, Be open

Wherever teaching and learning takes you, one recommendation above all else is to compel those who are interested in this and other similar learning to work diligently and vigilantly to share it all. Make your process and learning transparent, both in your own emergent view of pedagogy and curriculum, as well as your life as a citizen and educator. Seek out practices which make the act of opening, and allowing others to view, engage, and participate with your investigations a part of your daily work. Delivering upon the promise of the digital age relies on this ability to share and construct our shared spaces, physically as well as online, and educators are central in this struggle to reclaim innovation, as well as the public sphere.

References

  1. Zack Dowell used this expression in an interview with some of my students in 2011.

Discussion: Personal, Professional, and Practical Implications

MEd Final Presentation

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

Summary

This project presents a unit framework for critical citizenship for the digital age. It addresses youth apathy in democracy, cultivates student voice and engagement in collective affairs, prepares critical thinking to produce emergent knowledge, and uses digital tools to leverage individual publishing and global communication. Building on sociological research and educational philosophy concerned with democracy and postmodern conceptions of citizenship and critical pedagogy, the unit framework presented here contains a series of assignments that can be employed in the development of critical skills such as self-expression and community building.

The assignment sequence can be used within a variety of units and lessons, with any age of student(s); while the metacognitive challenge of many of the assignments may need to be adapted to the younger grades, establishing a cycle of inquiry, action, and reflection at an early age may create lasting habits of mind that will be useful in later years of development. Beginning with an ‘establishing snapshot’ of the learner’s existing knowledge and thoughts about a topic at hand, emerging questions and goals for study in the coming unit, the plan presented here includes optional elements leading toward a variety of summative opportunities to represent learning. Following this summative effort, a self-assessing and reflective assignment provides the turn to extend an individual unit’s learning toward future work and the continuation of a critical praxis.

The unit plan is arranged to provide individual students opportunities in documenting and reflecting upon their individual growth, as well as nurturing collective insights and meaning- making among a community of peers. This process of developing individual voice and in shaping that of one’s community is central to the democratic ideals of critical ontology and the Enlightenment values described in chapter one.

Personal Beliefs and Educational Philosophy

As a result of conducting this project, I have seen my professional beliefs and educational philosophy evolve and develop more nuance in their aims and objectives. I still feel that our institutions have lagged behind the progression of society’s social, political, epistemological and technological orders, and that individual teachers’ work to transgress institutional limitations and boundaries can be of great value in creating worthy schools for the 21st century. However, I have also come to realize that our institutions are able to address these challenges if communities of willing teachers, administrators, students, and parents take ownership over and engage meaningfully in their own communities of practice. My own role in this institutional response has also become more clearly organized, cogent, and grounded in theory as a result of conducting this project.

Within any system, the progressive inclination can often become compelled toward anarchy as the paradoxical value of freedom comes into conflict with the necessity of uniformity in implementation. Just as this presents a challenge in our modern democracies, so too does it challenge our schools. The progressive citizen or educator confronts a system (of government or schooling) which itself is resistant to change as a matter of necessity, but which is still founded upon principles of renovation and revolution. As more and more participants in the system are drawn to apathy as a result of the complexity of these machinations, it is easy to feel that nothing short of a baby-with-the-bathwater sea change in course will create the conditions for sustainable growth and progress. In the years prior to my engagement with these graduate studies and this project, I often felt the urge of this anarchic sentiment as an undercurrent in my educational philosophy. This tension, I have come to realize through an analysis of pedagogy, transformative learning, and critical ontology, is symptomatic of what Gregory Bateson (1972) referred to as the “double bind,” or the “contraries” which drive an organism toward transformation. Paulo Freire (1970) referred to these moments as “limit acts,” by which we are compelled to achieve “the permanent transformation of reality in favour of the liberation of the people” (p. 102). This ultimate transformation, I have come to understand, is not a singular goal toward which we might strive so that our work is complete, but rather the ongoing goal of our own work as educators, both in the development pedagogy, as well as the habits of mind in the young people with whom we work. The traditions of democracy, born in European revolutions of politics, economics, and technology at the dawn of the Enlightenment period, were not established such that these paradigms could shift just once; rather, they were established such that the shift, once begun, might never stop.

To this end, I have come to see myself more capable of achieving change from within than I had previously. My reading into the history and potential of our democratic systems, from the public school level on through to our Canadian constitutional law, has made me more confident that the seeds for systemic change need not arise through a complete overhaul of the system itself. From the time of Immanuel Kant, to Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and still today, an ongoing process of renewal is foundational to the system we have inherited, and this has been no small thing to realize. For such ongoing transformation to be realized, I feel that my objective has been more clearly trained on cultivating my own ability, along with my local communities’ capacities, to engage in discussions which bring about a more inclusive representation of assembled interests.

Professional Implications

This project has had several impacts on my own life and study that will have further implications on my future practice, as well as those with whom I work. By forcing me to delve deeper into these ideas, and execute a prolonged defense and examination of the foundations of my recent years’ of practice, this graduate study has given me numerous ideas and inspiration for future academic study, informal inquiries, and professional collaboration. I have taken steps to improve the clarity and argumentative strength in my writing, and am further able by way of this theoretical familiarity with work in my field to articulate the why of my practice to others, traversing diverse content areas within the vastness of teaching and learning.

At numerous points in this course of study, I have contemplated taking these efforts further: working toward an M.A. thesis, Ph.D. dissertation, or other forms of publication – books, presentations, or keynotes. In many ways, this learning experience has been an exercise in narrowing my focus toward the tangible such that it can be expressed across these various public platforms. This work – developing research methods, exploring research ethics in working with human subjects, and synthesizing the results of more than a year’s study – has provided me the ability and opportunity to share my perspective with a wider audience of practitioners and academics, educational leaders and policy-makers in my community as well as online. The experience has impacted my general practice of writing and reflection and will doubtless leave me approaching many aspects of my professional growth into the future with a critical eye shaped throughout this process.

In the years prior to embarking on my graduate studies, I curated and contextualized my work with young people on my professional blog and with a range of colleagues in my building and online. These informal inquiries have shaped my own and my colleagues’ practice, and have been informed by the willing collaboration of countless students in the process. In addition to being free to engage in more of these spontaneous or extra-curricular endeavours as they arise, I am looking forward to the chance beyond these graduate studies to apply the framework and knowledge I have developed in recent years to nurturing my various communities of practice and inquiry. Whether these experiences become the fodder for future academic study or not, they will most certainly have been shaped by the challenge to articulate a vision for learning about citizenship in the 21st century and a burgeoning digital age.

These new endeavours will naturally include collaboration with my colleagues and peers at my own school, as well as in my learning networks beyond – in my district, the province, and around the world through online spaces and social media. Through much of my academic reading and consideration of my own citizenship, I have come to a new awareness of the ability of my voice to influence not only my local community, but the world beyond, as well. Having gained this experience and ability to make my own perspective heard and to shape discourse and dialogue around areas of school policy, professional development, and as our local union representative, I have acquired an outsized opportunity to help shape the reality and identity of my local learning communities. But I also have come to realize that to follow Freire is not merely to present students with the opportunities to rehearse personal and collective transformation. Indeed, to follow Freire, educators are called upon to enact an ongoing critical praxes of our own, in our own communities alongside those of our students.

Taken together, the skills and experiences attained through my graduate studies have provided me with the impetus to continue on in an engagement with the generative theme of public schooling in British Columbia in the hope that it may be transcended. In doing so, my hope is to allow that more full and active participation in the ongoing creation of our various local, national, and global communities, as well as the eventual elimination of the barriers others may meet in realizing their own participation. The process of Enlightenment demands that I do.

References

Assessment Methods, Feedback, and Grades

MEd Final Presentation

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

Assessment Methods

As students and participants in this type of unit plan are being asked to formulate personal and collective goals for study, it is important that assignment criteria and feedback are similarly placed in their hands. In attempting to instil a classroom community with an authentic critical praxis of inquiry and expression, educators must bear in mind Osberg and Biesta’s (2008) advice that “if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre- determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence” (p. 314). By enlisting students in the creation of rubrics to guide various assignments, classroom expectations and aims are owned by the students to whose academic work they will be applied, and, as the tool shapes the task, oriented toward creating more autonomy and consensus-building ability within the group.

There is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between this approach and the reality of government prescribed outcomes, as pure constructivist emergence encounters the societally- endorsed skills and topics embedded in government curricula. The resolution of this tension requires a move toward the creation of personal connections between students and the government-prescribed outcomes, with teachers transparent in their role as conduits and guides in revealing a unique encounter between each student (and cohort) and their schooling. By giving government curricula over to the students, and having individuals and classes generate criteria based on both existing and emergent outcomes, expectations can be determined around the best use of each assignment in a unit. A daily ‘pop quiz,’ developed by Gardner Campbell, stresses the daily engagement that cannot help but generate content and reflection in the unit assignments (see Figure 2: Philosophy Pop Quiz). While the quiz’s subjective self-assessment makes it unsuitable for generating marks, it remains a reflective and motivational means of directing student attention and energy toward authentic inquiries into the curriculum. By regularly beginning class meetings with the quiz, students engage with prescribed outcomes and readings, as well as their own emergent inquiries and understanding of these topics. Their respective score on the quiz highlights the value of habitual engagement with course materials, and personal learning.

To develop a useful and flexible rubric for the types of assignments outlined here, teachers can facilitate discussion to generate criteria divided into three areas:

  • Unit Content: What are the prescribed outcomes to be learned, represented, demonstrated?
  • Personal Inquiry: How is the learning of personal value or interest? Are there connections to prior learning or ongoing inquiries?
  • Aesthetic Presentation: How ought the learning object at hand be created? Is there a potential form that might best suit the assignment’s content?

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.07.24 PM Feedback

The process surrounding feedback is generated by having students share and engage in dialogue around various documents of learning, whether introductory posts, plans for summative pieces or presentations, or those summative experiences themselves. At each stage, students are asked to highlight areas of success and possibilities for future growth, and as a habitual process of commenting on, questioning, and discussing peers’ work emerges, so too does an organic feedback loop arise between classmates, propelling inquiries further.

During summative efforts, these comments and feedback can become points of reflection and self-assessment; however, for introductory or in-progress documents of learning, such comments and questions can optimally contribute to the improvement of student work in real time. Having come to agreement about assignment criteria and expectations for a particular document of learning, classmates can be assigned a small group of peers with whom they can share commentary and feedback. The focus of these comments and questions is to raise – through dialogue – opportunities for the original author to improve their level of achievement relative to the agreed-upon assignment criteria.

For example, an introductory assignment in a biographical study of a historic figure may ask that students briefly introduce the person’s life and historical period, as well as any initial questions they hope the study may resolve. In this model, a rubric can be developed with student input to target content areas, personal inquiry, and aesthetic expectations. By grouping students into ‘comment groups,’ the class can move forward with feedback by recognizing areas where peers have failed to meet, met, or exceeded various assignment expectations, and engage in dialogue – asking questions, drawing connections, and furthering discussion – via face-to-face or blogged commentary such that the post’s author might (through that dialogue with their peers) progress toward better meeting the assignment criteria.

Through this process of regular, community-generated feedback, students work toward a proficiency to engage in constructive dialogue oriented toward heightened and critical self- discovery and expression. Working together to build their own – as well as their peers’ – understanding, collective narratives of learning are generated.

Grades

This unit framework places high importance on a process-oriented, personalized learning that presents a challenge when looking to assess student learning relative to government-mandated curriculum, and grading standards. However, such institutional ‘reports’ can be framed as regular opportunities to assess progress in developing an individual critical praxis corresponding to a given curriculum, rather than the demonstration or retention of a given set of skills or facts. As such, the unit framework resists the tradition that compels us to assign each piece of academic work a numerical grade, and emphasizes more holistic achievement indicators, according to student-generated rubric criteria: not yet meeting, meeting, fully meeting, or exceeding expectations.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.09.08 PM

As daily engagement and participation create documents of learning, and lead to summative assessments that can become points of reflection and further goal setting, teacher and student are gathering data which can be used in the furthering of educational ends – those which are handed down from institutional documents and government curricula, as well as that which is generated within the learning community itself.

References