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Memorywork 2
10-07-2013, 01:33 PM (This post was last modified: 10-07-2013 01:37 PM by brenton doecke.)
Post: #1
Memorywork 2
Memorywork:
Writing our way into history

‘Instead of asking: what is the position of a work vis-à-vis the productive relations of its time, does it underwrite these relations, is it reactionary, or does it aspire to overthrow them, is it revolutionary? – instead of this question, or at any rate before this question, I should like to propose a different one. Before I ask: what is a work’s position vis-à-vis the production relations of its time, I should like to ask: what is its position within them?’
Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, p.87

ABSTRACT: In this essay we begin by revisiting policy documents from the 1980s that were current at the time that we were teaching English in state schools in Melbourne. The document that arguably had the biggest impact on our work as state schoolteachers was Ministerial Paper Number 6, one of a number of key policy statements issued by the-then Labor Government that highlighted the role that schools and teachers might play in promoting social justice and the value of a multicultural society. We revisit the language of this document, and ask whether it might be possible to revive a discourse that acknowledges the need for us all to work together to find ways ‘to eliminate social and economic injustice and various forms of discrimination’ (p.12). Such language might be dismissed as being out of date, as reflecting a period in history that has passed us by, and yet this very disjunction between then and now should also prompt us to interrogate accepted policy discourse (people have not, after all, always spoken the way that they speak today, and there is no reason to suppose that they will continue to speak this way in the future). We then explore this issue further by presenting two narratives (or two examples of memorywork) in which we construct accounts of what documents like Ministerial Paper No. 6 meant to us at a personal and professional level, when we were teaching in the 1980s.

1. Introduction

You often encounter arguments about the need to put things in an historical perspective. Our own efforts to revisit policy statements of the 1980s might be described in those terms: we are looking back to a previous time, and asking questions about the changes that have occurred between then and now. Yet this sense of history does not actually capture all that we are trying to do by writing this essay. Caught up in the dreadful historical events of his own time, Walter Benjamin drew a distinction between taking a stance vis-à-vis those events and taking a standpoint within them. The former tends to treat those events as external, positioning you as an observer without any capacity to influence what is going on. It is a version of history as comprising a series of momentous events that somehow take place while you otherwise try to get on with your life. The latter standpoint is that of someone who recognises how we make own history. More than that: we make ourselves through our history (to borrow a resonant phrase from V. Gordon Child), through a continual process by which we renew our lives each day.

You can probably sense that this latter position prompts both a sense of the possibility of change and a responsibility for bringing it about. Taking a standpoint within the world robs you of an alibi with regard to the course of events in which you and your contemporaries may be swept up. You have to bear the burden of responsibility for whatever evil is being committed, although that can leave you with a feeling of helplessness, in much the same way that Benjamin struggled with despair in his efforts to continue with his work despite the Nazi seizure of power. Just what can I do to make a difference to the world? How can one person possibly have any effect on events that exceed his or her capacity to fully understand them? Yet the very thought of making a difference is itself a spark of critical awareness, a recognition of our capacity to think (and act) differently. And taking action does not presuppose that we fully understand the social conditions around us. Understanding, rather, becomes available to us through trying to grasp the significance of what we are doing in the very act of doing it.

History is not simply something that occurs while we look on. Our starting point for the inquiry that we are enacting by writing this essay is a recognition of how we live within history, which crucially involves a recognition of how we make ourselves. Yet this is not something that is pre-given, a ‘truth’ on which everything depends, something external to us. We are using the word ‘essay’ in the way that Montaigne understood the term, namely as ‘a trial or attempt to tease out the significance of an experience or idea – a significance that can only be realised by writing about it’ (cf. van de Ven and Doecke, 2011, p.16)

History is the history of ourselves. It does not exist external to ourselves, but is crucially bound up with who we think we are, with our sense of identity at a deeply personal level. In this sense there is no hard and fast division between inside and outside, between subjectivity and objectivity. Nor is historical inquiry primarily a matter of what really occurred – Ranke’s famous phrase ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen sei’ (or how things ‘really’ were), which is again to slip into a mode of thinking that constructs history as something external to ourselves, as though it consists simply of objective ‘facts’. Our entry into history is, after all, mediated by our childhood experiences, our dawning sense of the world into which we have been born, and the impulse to make meaning of our experiences. Our sense of history emerges out of the stories that surround us: the stories that adults tell us, as we page through photograph albums, recognising how we have changed: the photograph of ‘me’ as a child, my ‘self’ on my first day of school or on the day of my confirmation, as well as images of people and places that have pre-existed ‘me’. With this in mind, any attempt to reconstruct moments from your past should not be judged simply for its accuracy (as to whether it is ‘true’ or not), but as a moment in the making of you, as a moment in your identity as you now live it.

I thought I'd use the reply function to attach an explanatory note to the text I have just posted.

Here it is.

During the first workshop I began by writing about my experiences as a teacher at a state school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. This narrative is meant to be a companion piece to a story that Prue Gill is telling about her own teaching experiences at around about the same time. I still haven’t finished my narrative, as I began to feel that I needed to generate an introductory discussion that might help me to understand better what Prue and I are trying to do – though a full understanding will only become available to us when we actually do the writing we have committed ourselves to doing.

Anyway, here is what I have done in an effort to provide a context for the ‘memory work’ that we are doing. I confess to being a bit disappointed that I’ve resorted in my post to an academic style (an epigraph, followed by an abstract, which in turn is followed by an introduction, etc.). I feel in a way that this is a diversionary tactic, something that allows me to avoid the difficulty of writing the story that I began at our last workshop. I confess to wanting to challenge the conventions of academic prose and its pretensions to ’knowledge’, and yet when I begin to write I end up writing prose of exactly that kind.

Why, in my post, am I writing about the nature of history? Well, our efforts to revisit policy documents that played a significant role in our professional lives (see the abstract) might be construed as trying to put the present in an historical perspective. Yet as I indicate in my post, this rather lame phrase does not fully capture what we are trying to do, which is to capture history as lived experience. To write stories about your experiences is to try to capture history as you have lived it and continue to live it. When government policy documents (e.g. the dreadful Seven Principles of Professional Learning produced by DEECD) dismiss teachers’ ‘anecdotes’ and privilege professional learning that ‘is evidence based and data driven’, they are denying teachers the capacity to think about their work historically, and to recognise that there might be alternatives to the ‘common sense’ of neoliberalism. Such policies leave us stuck in the present with nowhere to go. Storytelling is a vital way in which we can free ourselves from this prison house.

What I am saying connects with our discussion of Garth Boomer’s legacy, especially the language of ‘negotiating the curriculum’, which had a big impact on my teaching when I was working with Douglas McClenaghan at Watsonia High School in the early 80s. The original STELLA project had ‘negotiation’ as one of its key words, along with ‘sensitivity’, ‘inclusiveness’ and indeed ‘ideology’. One way of resisting standards-based reforms is to revisit vocabulary like this and to consider whether it might still have currency as part of our professional lexicon.

I am not expressing this very well. Perhaps by our third workshop I may be in a position to say it better!
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11-26-2013, 02:00 PM
Post: #2
RE: Memorywork 2
(10-07-2013 01:33 PM)brenton doecke Wrote:  Memorywork:
Writing our way into history

‘Instead of asking: what is the position of a work vis-à-vis the productive relations of its time, does it underwrite these relations, is it reactionary, or does it aspire to overthrow them, is it revolutionary? – instead of this question, or at any rate before this question, I should like to propose a different one. Before I ask: what is a work’s position vis-à-vis the production relations of its time, I should like to ask: what is its position within them?’
Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, p.87

ABSTRACT: In this essay we begin by revisiting policy documents from the 1980s that were current at the time that we were teaching English in state schools in Melbourne. The document that arguably had the biggest impact on our work as state schoolteachers was Ministerial Paper Number 6, one of a number of key policy statements issued by the-then Labor Government that highlighted the role that schools and teachers might play in promoting social justice and the value of a multicultural society. We revisit the language of this document, and ask whether it might be possible to revive a discourse that acknowledges the need for us all to work together to find ways ‘to eliminate social and economic injustice and various forms of discrimination’ (p.12). Such language might be dismissed as being out of date, as reflecting a period in history that has passed us by, and yet this very disjunction between then and now should also prompt us to interrogate accepted policy discourse (people have not, after all, always spoken the way that they speak today, and there is no reason to suppose that they will continue to speak this way in the future). We then explore this issue further by presenting two narratives (or two examples of memorywork) in which we construct accounts of what documents like Ministerial Paper No. 6 meant to us at a personal and professional level, when we were teaching in the 1980s.

1. Introduction

You often encounter arguments about the need to put things in an historical perspective. Our own efforts to revisit policy statements of the 1980s might be described in those terms: we are looking back to a previous time, and asking questions about the changes that have occurred between then and now. Yet this sense of history does not actually capture all that we are trying to do by writing this essay. Caught up in the dreadful historical events of his own time, Walter Benjamin drew a distinction between taking a stance vis-à-vis those events and taking a standpoint within them. The former tends to treat those events as external, positioning you as an observer without any capacity to influence what is going on. It is a version of history as comprising a series of momentous events that somehow take place while you otherwise try to get on with your life. The latter standpoint is that of someone who recognises how we make own history. More than that: we make ourselves through our history (to borrow a resonant phrase from V. Gordon Child), through a continual process by which we renew our lives each day.

You can probably sense that this latter position prompts both a sense of the possibility of change and a responsibility for bringing it about. Taking a standpoint within the world robs you of an alibi with regard to the course of events in which you and your contemporaries may be swept up. You have to bear the burden of responsibility for whatever evil is being committed, although that can leave you with a feeling of helplessness, in much the same way that Benjamin struggled with despair in his efforts to continue with his work despite the Nazi seizure of power. Just what can I do to make a difference to the world? How can one person possibly have any effect on events that exceed his or her capacity to fully understand them? Yet the very thought of making a difference is itself a spark of critical awareness, a recognition of our capacity to think (and act) differently. And taking action does not presuppose that we fully understand the social conditions around us. Understanding, rather, becomes available to us through trying to grasp the significance of what we are doing in the very act of doing it.

History is not simply something that occurs while we look on. Our starting point for the inquiry that we are enacting by writing this essay is a recognition of how we live within history, which crucially involves a recognition of how we make ourselves. Yet this is not something that is pre-given, a ‘truth’ on which everything depends, something external to us. We are using the word ‘essay’ in the way that Montaigne understood the term, namely as ‘a trial or attempt to tease out the significance of an experience or idea – a significance that can only be realised by writing about it’ (cf. van de Ven and Doecke, 2011, p.16)

History is the history of ourselves. It does not exist external to ourselves, but is crucially bound up with who we think we are, with our sense of identity at a deeply personal level. In this sense there is no hard and fast division between inside and outside, between subjectivity and objectivity. Nor is historical inquiry primarily a matter of what really occurred – Ranke’s famous phrase ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen sei’ (or how things ‘really’ were), which is again to slip into a mode of thinking that constructs history as something external to ourselves, as though it consists simply of objective ‘facts’. Our entry into history is, after all, mediated by our childhood experiences, our dawning sense of the world into which we have been born, and the impulse to make meaning of our experiences. Our sense of history emerges out of the stories that surround us: the stories that adults tell us, as we page through photograph albums, recognising how we have changed: the photograph of ‘me’ as a child, my ‘self’ on my first day of school or on the day of my confirmation, as well as images of people and places that have pre-existed ‘me’. With this in mind, any attempt to reconstruct moments from your past should not be judged simply for its accuracy (as to whether it is ‘true’ or not), but as a moment in the making of you, as a moment in your identity as you now live it.

I thought I'd use the reply function to attach an explanatory note to the text I have just posted.

Here it is.

During the first workshop I began by writing about my experiences as a teacher at a state school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. This narrative is meant to be a companion piece to a story that Prue Gill is telling about her own teaching experiences at around about the same time. I still haven’t finished my narrative, as I began to feel that I needed to generate an introductory discussion that might help me to understand better what Prue and I are trying to do – though a full understanding will only become available to us when we actually do the writing we have committed ourselves to doing.

Anyway, here is what I have done in an effort to provide a context for the ‘memory work’ that we are doing. I confess to being a bit disappointed that I’ve resorted in my post to an academic style (an epigraph, followed by an abstract, which in turn is followed by an introduction, etc.). I feel in a way that this is a diversionary tactic, something that allows me to avoid the difficulty of writing the story that I began at our last workshop. I confess to wanting to challenge the conventions of academic prose and its pretensions to ’knowledge’, and yet when I begin to write I end up writing prose of exactly that kind.

Why, in my post, am I writing about the nature of history? Well, our efforts to revisit policy documents that played a significant role in our professional lives (see the abstract) might be construed as trying to put the present in an historical perspective. Yet as I indicate in my post, this rather lame phrase does not fully capture what we are trying to do, which is to capture history as lived experience. To write stories about your experiences is to try to capture history as you have lived it and continue to live it. When government policy documents (e.g. the dreadful Seven Principles of Professional Learning produced by DEECD) dismiss teachers’ ‘anecdotes’ and privilege professional learning that ‘is evidence based and data driven’, they are denying teachers the capacity to think about their work historically, and to recognise that there might be alternatives to the ‘common sense’ of neoliberalism. Such policies leave us stuck in the present with nowhere to go. Storytelling is a vital way in which we can free ourselves from this prison house.

What I am saying connects with our discussion of Garth Boomer’s legacy, especially the language of ‘negotiating the curriculum’, which had a big impact on my teaching when I was working with Douglas McClenaghan at Watsonia High School in the early 80s. The original STELLA project had ‘negotiation’ as one of its key words, along with ‘sensitivity’, ‘inclusiveness’ and indeed ‘ideology’. One way of resisting standards-based reforms is to revisit vocabulary like this and to consider whether it might still have currency as part of our professional lexicon.

I am not expressing this very well. Perhaps by our third workshop I may be in a position to say it better!

What would a curriculum that had "negotiation", "sensitivity", "inclusiveness" and "ideology" as its key words look like? This reminds me of how I've been struggling with the notions of "Australia's links to Asia" and "Aboriginal history and culture" in the National Curriculum, and over time, have gradually come to see these concepts as actually carving ever deeper divides. Australian is not part of Asia in this view- it is "linked" to it- any link actually is a kind of separation- just anecdotally, a third of the kids in my child's eastern suburbs class either are Chinese Australian or have Chinese parents. Hello? When will we be Asian? Does essentialising particular texts as "Asian" reify irrelevant boundaries? I am reminded here of working with a group of Commonwealth government staff who determined that only texts actually, physically created inside the geographic boundaries of a country could be said to belong to it- a Korean text must be written in Korea, by a Korean. They have loosened up on this stance a bit in the current documents, but it highlights curriculum as an ideological and ever changing construct.

Aboriginal history is not our history, it is something external to us, which we can study as a separate text. How handy! All those nasty murders happened in Aboriginal history, not "ours". I don't mean to be disrespectful to Indigenous Australians here, or subsume other perspectives in a Eurocentric narrative, but naming Aboriginal history as a separate object is problematic. You can see deeply conservative schisms underlying the apparently politically correct language of inclusivity.

Certainly if "ideology" was a key word this might lead us in to the stance of Boomer's epic teacher, who is always alert to, and makes his or her students alert to, the ideology in any curriculum. As Boomer says, this teacher's role is to confront and gently undermine him/herself. Imagine if we had epic national curriculum designers, who wrote into the documents ways to continually go behind the set of this particular performance of mastery, to see the scaffolding and assess the effects this is meant to have (paraphrasing Boomer here). I would like to see those documents!
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