Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]|
Women's Studies, School of International, Cultural and Community Studies
Edith Cowan University
The scholarly fascination with poststructuralist thinking that has characterised much work in the social sciences and the humanities in the past few decades invites new questions about how to teach towards praxis for those of us working in tertiary classroom settings to prepare graduates for careers in the service professions. Among these questions are: how do we move from the densely theoretical discussions of fragmented subjectivities, and of poststructuralist understandings of power and knowledge construction, to an understanding of ways to apply these conceptual shifts to daily life and professional practice? How do we communicate what it's like to be constantly reflecting on practice, doing theory on the run? How do we teach students to think differently, not simply more deeply or with greater insight? Even more specifically, how do we work with undergraduate students to apply poststructuralist understandings of thinking beyond the dichotomous conceptual order in ways that release them into new conceptual territory?
In this paper I reflect on some ways that I draw on my own academic background (in literature and history) and current preoccupations (with story, and narrative as a site of the intersection of the theoretical, discursive and personal) to alert students to the implications of moving beyond thinking in hierarchical binary oppositions into the realm of what I call both-and thinking, or thinking in threes. Rather than attempting to provide a generic how-to-teach-poststructuralist-thought instruction manual, my emphasis here is on my own professional journey. In particular I focus on the ways I have incorporated my work on a particular text that has been crucial to my own development into a new unit called Sex, Bodies, Narratives and Self in order to expose students to similar kinds of thinking processes to those I have experienced. My point is that reflecting on our own learning and intellectual and experiential development is crucial to effective teaching.
Each of the units in the women's studies major blends theory and practice. Like more and more service delivery courses at the start of the new millennium, this women's studies major programme recognises the complexities of the world into which its students will graduate. It recognises in particular the need to move from using a politics of opposition (characteristic of women's movements around the world in the 1970s) to using what Chris Cuomo (2003: 55) calls a politics of complexity in order to fight the battles for enacting social change for specific populations. The programme, like other contemporary, vocationally oriented programmes in the social sciences (eg Fook, 1996, 1999) grapples with poststructuralist understandings of subjectivity, power and knowledge construction to encourage students to celebrate difference, to work with respect for the self and respect for the other, to welcome uncertainties, and to engage in reflective practice.
Clearly, this programme's vocationally oriented focus and emphasis on working with people means it has more in common with social work or even with teaching than it does with an arts based women's studies programme. Its interdisciplinary nature is firmly based in the social sciences. Nevertheless, because my own academic background is in literature and history, I find that I frequently turn to the arts, especially to literature, to explicate complex concepts.
One text in particular that has proved invaluable to me in exploring much complex poststructuralist conceptual material is Drusilla Modjeska's fictionalised biography, Poppy (1990). Poppy is the story of one woman's attempt to understand her mother's life, and in so doing, to come to understand her own. It's a story about love and life, laughter and joy, and about grief and pain, madness, betrayal and abandonment. For me it has become a text that reformulates the genre of biography writing. Conventional biographies reflect our culture's desire to create a coherent self and thereby, as Mary Evans (1999) argues, create a prison for both the biographer and the subject who strives for such coherence. In contrast to such conventions, Poppy is created as a poststructuralist text, a hybrid that straddles biography and fiction, so allowing the emergence of a fluid, complex, mobile subjectivity. It's a text that demands reflection. I found it impossible to read this text without undergoing a process of thinking and re-thinking, making conceptual leaps, unavoidably experiencing the joy of moving beyond binary oppositional thinking into that new conceptual territory I have come to call thinking in threes (Hopkins, 2004: 8).
I first encountered Poppy on my way home from a particularly disturbing women's studies conference in Melbourne in July 1990, where postmodernist tensions were in the air, and the price of feminists' postmodern stance was seen by some to be a kind of paralysis, a complete lack of collective agency. I was intrigued by Poppy's postmodern feel, especially by its elision of boundaries, its refusal of binary oppositions, and its capacity to intertwine the small marvels of everyday life with broad sweeping historical and cultural panoramas. These epistemological and methodological considerations gave me a glimmer of an insight into ways to rethink my own relation to knowledge and experience.
I was intrigued, too, that while unravelling the threads of history, memory and imagination to shape the biography of Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska foregrounds the processes of storytelling and knowledge making to have the narrator ask, 'Is the drama of Poppy's life to be found in the way she told it? Or in the way I tell it? Who speaks in whose name? Dimly I begin to understand why my struggle with her is also a struggle with myself, and my own attempt to speak.' (Modjeska 1990: 94). Above all, I was intrigued with the ways in which the book's narrative structures appeared to emulate and illustrate its thematic emphasis on the process of finding voice: of giving life to a story and story to a life. Here was a text that played out postparadigmatic understandings of subjectivity and voice in ways that seemed to hold a key to understanding their usefulness to a contemporary feminist like me. I felt instinctively that if I could grasp the significance of the movement implicit in Drusilla Modjeska's focus on the processes of narration, especially of the oscillation and fluctuation from life to story and story to life, I would be able to sidestep the paralysis that some of my feminist colleagues from the Melbourne conference were afraid of.
So intrigued was I by the shifts and changes that this text demanded of my thinking, that when I embarked on my doctoral thesis in the second half of the 1990s, it was to Poppy I turned to amplify my own intellectual journey during the decade of the 1990s. The thesis (Hopkins, 2001) which explores the process of finding a feminist activist voice in contemporary Australia, opens with a lengthy reflection on the ways my ongoing readings of Poppy have enabled me to enter the new territory of thinking beyond the dichotomous conceptual order. This in turn has allowed me to conceive of new relationships between the self and the other, so uncovering new ways to negotiate difference. These insights are especially relevant to our students, whose professional lives will take them into situations demanding complex communication and negotiation skills and capacities. Of particular relevance to this paper's discussion of how I have worked with students to undertake such thinking themselves, is my incorporation of these reflections on Poppy into a new undergraduate unit that I have created especially to provide students with the experience of thinking poststructurally. It is to this unit, Sex, Bodies, Narratives and Self (Hopkins, 2004), and the ways I have used my own experience to attempt to work with students, that I now turn.
The unit Sex, Bodies, Narratives and Self is divided up into 4 modules of uneven length. In Modules 1 and 2, the unit considers contemporary feminist knowledges about the body, sexuality, narrative and representation. It is in Module 3, Applying poststructuralist feminist knowledges to the process of reading/writing the subject, that the unit gathers up many of these knowledges and applies them to Drusilla Modjeska's fictionalised biography, Poppy. The question that's being grappled with here is: What kinds of ways of constructing ourselves as women, of expressing our femininity, our personhood, of telling ourselves the story of who we are and/or of who we might become, are made possible when we impregnate a text with these particular poststructuralist feminist ways of seeing the world? Module 3 concludes by looking at representations of femininity in a range of other texts.
Finally, in Module 4, Applying poststructuralist feminist knowledges: towards a politics of complexity, students are encouraged to apply many of the understandings they may now have from looking so thoroughly at the Poppy text to the real world of social interaction and politics. In particular, they are encouraged to think through the political and personal implications of moving beyond dichotomous thinking into the realm of thinking in threes. This is especially relevant to creating ways to work with respect for the self and respect for the other, and amplifies much of the excellent work done by such scholars and activists as Anna Yeatman in Australia (1993, 1995, 1998) and Nira Yuval-Davis (1993) in Britain.
BiographyThe publicity blurb on the cover tells us that Drusilla Modjeska has drawn on history, memory and imagination to write the biography of her mother. When we read the text we find that Lalage, the narrator, Poppy's daughter, has drawn heavily on Poppy's diaries as a source of rich insights into who she was: and yet, on returning to the frontispiece we find the author's inscription For my mother who died in 1984 and never kept a diary. Out of the dissolution of the rigid boundaries separating the dichotomous pair, biography/fiction, has come a conceptual space of hybridity where an intermingling of biography and fiction can occur. In this space, something new, something more than either/or has been created.
The reflections I encourage students to make, having read the text, are initially very simple ones at the level of story, and are frequently related to chronology. In particular, I draw attention to the frequently circuitous nature of the narrative, and consequently to the kinds of thinking we as readers might undertake in trying to order this unruly text chronologically, eg: Try to list the events in Poppy's life in chronological order; and When did Lalage marry? Was it before or after Richard left?; and When did China die? My prompts are clearly designed to draw attention to the ways the text eludes the binary opposition between linear and circuitous storytelling, requiring the reader to bring both techniques together to make sense of the text.
Next I draw students' attention to a paper called "Reading Poppy", drawn from my doctoral thesis, celebrating its implicit and explicit uses of feminist epistemologies, and asking, what can we learn from a text that's saturated with contemporary poststructuralist knowledges about the body, sexuality, narrative and representation? In this paper, crucially for our discussion here, I elaborate the ways in which my on-going readings of Poppy have engaged my imagination to enable me to experience the process of thinking beyond the hierarchical oppositions implicit in the dichotomous conceptual order. I list below a few of the activities I have created to guide students' thinking. Sometimes activities relate to thematic issues, for example:
Activity 8.1Sometimes activities relate to what I identify as the dance between linear and circular narrative processes, for example:
On page 12 of the paper I note: ...reading Poppy becomes a process of travelling with Lalage as she herself slowly learns to think beyond the oppositions of the dichotomous conceptual order into an understanding that everything is fundamentally related:I have to remind myself that what I am learning from this task, working my way back to Poppy, or forward to her, is that everything is fundamentally related. So if I can't give an account of her experience of faith, argued, explained and ruled off, differentiated from love and from everything else, then the failing is mine, not because I cannot do it, but because I persist in trying (Modjeska, 1990: 291).
- Do you agree with this reflection of Lalaage's? Does it seem to you that everything is fundamentally related? Explore this idea in relation to the text.
Activity 8.2Sometimes activities relate to the development of character and theme, and have particular feminist theoretical resonance, for example:
On pages 15 and 16 of the paper I note: In this text where simultaneity is privileged, where both-and replace either/or, I find that the two exist at once. This is particularly apparent in the closing scene, where the two sisters, Lalage and May, raise their champagne glasses in a toast to each other, as sisters-and-friends. Emerging from this scene is the understanding that Poppy's grand-daughters, Aggie and Jo, inherit a legacy of friendship between sisters. This linear narrative impulse to take the reader beyond the ending into a glimpse of a future time coexists with a circular structural impulse, leading the reader back into the text itself, as the scene in this final section, Friends, loops back to provide a link with the opening section, Family. Instead of linearity and circularity opposing each other in hierarchical tension, here they coexist in a kind of mutual recognition of sameness and difference. The text can be seen to celebrate both linear and circular; both family and friends.
- Try writing out your own interpretation of this final scene. Now try mapping it in terms of lines and circles. Where does the mapping process lead your thinking?
Activity 8.3It is in Module 4, Applying poststructuralist feminist knowledges: towards a politics of complexity, that the unit applies many of the understandings we now have from looking so thoroughly at the Poppy text to the real world of social interaction and politics. We look first at the process of re-storying the self in the light of feminist discourses such as those we have uncovered in Poppy. Next we explore the process of writing the self and writing the other. And in our final week we ask: how does all this talk about sex, bodies, narratives and self in the light of contemporary feminist thinking help me to become activist, to work towards change for women, to make space for marginalised groups to speak and be heard? Here we focus on all those delicate manoeuvres necessary to move from enacting a politics of opposition into what Chris Cuomo calls a politics of complexity (2003: 55).
In the segment called 'Fruit comes from the meeting of opposites' I try to explore the process of learning to think beyond binary oppositions. I have copied a rather large extract from the paper here (pp 17-18) to highlight my own exploration of this process. Read it again now, and respond to the dot point below:
For Lalage, part of the process of making sense of her mother's life, and in doing so, coming to know herself, involves coming to an acceptance of the interconnectedness of the messy, chaotic emotional / spiritual / material detail of daily life. Lalage's attention to such detail involves a shift in perspective for her. The product of a masculinist education, a smart girl [who had] long since taken [her] father's side (Modjeska, 1990: 111) she begins with a notion that knowledge is objective, tangible, clear cut, out there waiting for her to find it. She comes to the understanding that such knowledge is partial at best, (and perhaps, as Irigaray would have it, born out of the repression of the debt to the maternal), and that in order to know anything of our lives as women in a masculinist world, to create a bond with the maternal, to create a symbolic home for women, we must allow rational thought and memory and imagination to interweave, so that masses of words, events, dreams, conversations, letters, experiences, sounds, sights and passions provide a complex interrelated web from which it's not possible to distil a single shining fixed reality. The private and the public interweave. The personal is indeed political. Lalage moves from the mistrusting of all that is not rational, visible, provable, speakable, into a valuing of both the rational and non-rational, the public and the private, the linear and the circular.
In Elizabeth Grosz's terms, Lalage learns to speak as a woman (Grosz, 1989: 132). At the level of story, Lalage is indebted to her mother for the insights which begin her journey into this conceptual territory beyond the tensions of binary oppositions. For Lalage, though, already aware of her debt to the paternal, the journey into an additional honouring of the maternal has never involved a rejection of the paternal. The theoretical texts upon which this text rests, and which I now invoke, suggest that rather than honouring the maternal above the paternal, then, Lalage's journey takes her into a space where she can honour both, reciprocally.
And, Lalage suggests, when we know in these ways, we are profoundly changed. When we know in these ways, we move beyond the desire to correct a grave error (the ignoring of the debt to the maternal) and move into new territory where we begin to operate not in resistance but in creative joy. When we speak from a position in the middle of the binaries, affirming both poles while undoing their polarisation, as Grosz suggests we do, fruit comes from the meeting of these categories formerly considered opposite, now considered simply different.
It's this capacity to create newness out of an easy flow between family and friends, feminine and masculine, voice and silence, author and subject, process and product, memory and imagination, linear and circular, rational and non-rational, mind and body which I have found to be the most politically revolutionary aspect of this text. Such a focus on the possibility of thinking beyond binary oppositions into the field of possibilities where contradictions and similarities coexist, allows one to be released into new conceptual territory. In this new territory, unfettered by a philosophical system based in logical hierarchical binary opposition, one can shed the imperative to think either/or, and move more freely into thinking both-and.
- Does this make sense to you? Can you see how Lalage's thinking has shifted from being caught up in binary oppositions (thinking EITHER this OR that) to being freed to think BOTH this AND that?
- Think about your own life. Do you routinely think in either/or, or do you think both-and, or both? Give examples.And on one occasion I attempt to take students into my own personal conceptual mapping process in relation to binary oppositions and thinking beyond the dichotomous conceptual order, specifically to encourage them to become aware of their own thinking processes:Activity 8.4
Here now is the extract from the paper on page 19 where I include an entry from my journal about my subjective account of learning to think beyond the either/or state of mind. Read it again here, then do the dot point task that follows:
I digress for a moment to plunge into a subjective account of learning to think beyond the oppositions implicit in the dichotomous conceptual order. The image I use to express this is a spatial one. The notions to which it is pinned are the central notions in Drusilla Modjeska's text, that to find voice Poppy gave life to a story and a story to her life. This account is taken from my thesis journal of August 1997.I find that my conceptual shift is underpinned by a spatial image. Instead of becoming caught up in the binary and hierarchical privileging of life over story, or story over life which would demand imagining these concepts as sitting on rungs of a ladder in a vertical plane to value the higher over the lower perhaps, I begin by conceptualising these two notions in the horizontal plane, side by side. Neither is privileged over the other. Using Irigaray's understanding that the link uniting or reuniting masculine and feminine must be both horizontal and vertical, terrestrial and celestial (Irigaray, 1987: 174), I extend my thinking to escape the vertical/horizontal spatial binary, to imagine these concepts as sitting within a spherical shape where verticality and horizontality themselves have lost all privilege. As I turn the sphere, my concepts sit side by side, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally, sometimes at an angle. But because the horizontal and vertical axes have no value relative to an absolute point, the location of either concept carries with it no weighting, no privilege. To conceptualise sexual difference, then, or any other difference as postmodernist thinking sees it, I find that I no longer think in vertical hierarchies. Nor do I think instead, in terms of horizontal planes. I think in terms of a sphere where both are reciprocally valued. Sameness is no longer demanded; difference means not exclusion, but reciprocal attention, equal weighting to each concept in the pair. And when I want to politicise one part of the pair, I foreground it, write it in bold, accord it more privilege, saturate it with momentary status.
- Think about your own thinking processes. What images do you use to describe them? Are they anything like mine? Draw them. Discuss them. Act them out. Mull them over. Write about them if you can.
At the end of this module, to elaborate this most complex and demanding of conceptual manoeuvres, I revert, predictably, to storytelling. The most authentic way of communicating what kinds of conceptual shifts might be necessary in moving from a politics of opposition into a politics of complexity has been for me to tell a simple tale of the story of feminist activism over the past few decades:
We conclude the unit this week with a discussion of the question: how does all this talk about sex, bodies, narratives and self help you to become activist, to work towards eliminating discriminations against marginalised groups? Here we focus on all those delicate manoeuvres necessary to move from enacting a politics of opposition into what Chris Cuomo calls a politics of complexity (2003: 55).
I have already indicated in my reading of Poppy that Drusilla Modjeska's work has allowed me to experience ways to think beyond binary oppositions into an understanding of the reciprocity implicit in Irigaray's articulation of a theory of sexual difference. I have indicated, too, that if one's appreciation of difference is informed by such a notion as reciprocity, then one is released into new conceptual territory beyond the oppositions implicit in the dichotomous conceptual order.
But the question we have to ask, specifically, is how can activists work with poststructuralist understandings of subjectivity and power? Won't all this fragmenting mean they lose their collective strength? How can you align with someone else, or form a group, if you are all clearly complex, contradictory, multifaceted subjects, instead of being singular, coherent individuals with everything in common?
Once more from the beginning...
To mull over these questions, here's a story about feminism. Feminism began as a politics of opposition. From the very beginning feminists were angry. They were angry about the sexist thinking that implied that men were primary human beings and women were secondary; they were angry about unequal sharing of power in public and in private; they were angry that women are poorer than men, less likely to become company directors than men, less likely to initiate conversations than men, less likely to have their achievements recognised or valued than men; they were angry that women were curfewed by fear of men's sexual and predatory violence; they were angry that women's bodies were seen as commodities by men; they were angry that language didn't reflect women's realities; they were angry that women's reproductive bodies were seen by medical science to be abnormal sick bodies that rendered them incapable of reliably undertaking certain jobs, or of thinking intelligently; they were angry that women were either revered as madonnas, or contemptuously exploited as whores... the list goes on. Feminists were angry, with men, with patriarchy, with injustice. They were angry and they pitted themselves ferociously, courageously against their enemies. They recognised the commonality of their womanhood, created activist collectives, and enacted a politics of opposition.
Feminists are still angry about all kinds of injustices, and still work in a million ways to eradicate them. But one of the impacts of the kinds of thinking that we have been discussing throughout this unit (the thinking that allows us to conceive of ourselves as subjects that are multiple, contradictory, fluid, changing, and the thinking that allows us to read power as both structural and interpersonal, a quicksilver entity that can be mobilised in a flash and just as quickly removed) is that it's no longer necessary, or even very useful, for feminists or anyone who criticizes the marginalisation of any group of people (on the grounds of race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender, location, ability ... the list is long) to continue to enact a politics of opposition. Rather, as Chris Cuomo so elegantly argues in the paper you're about to read, our complex understandings of the interrelatedness of everything in the world, and our complex understandings of ourselves as subjects, and of power as fleeting and fluid rather than simply static and inhering in social structures, allows us to enact what she calls a politics of complexity. What's a politics of complexity?
In a nutshell, a politics of complexity which is informed by both-and thinking celebrates difference as well as sameness; a politics of opposition which is informed by either/or thinking celebrates sameness but finds difference hard to accommodate. So, for example, under a politics of opposition, women were assumed to be the same because they were all women; men were the enemy because they were different, and oppressors. Now I'm not arguing that men have all reformed and are no longer oppressors; rather, I'm arguing that the ways we engage with men and systems and discourses that are oppressive is more fluid, more mobile, more attentive to the infinitesimal plays of power than it ever could be if we stuck to being fixedly oppositional.
A politics of complexity allows one to celebrate all the wonderful things about being a woman as well as to stridently oppose all the discriminations that continue to be experienced by many women. However, it allows for different kinds of experiences among women, and allows for specificities like class, age, location, educational status, to affect those experiences. In contrast, a politics of opposition forever pits women against their oppressors, and operates within a winner/loser framework, where women are seen forever to be the losers. It's hard to celebrate anything when you are confined to seeing yourself as perpetual loser.
In summary, then, one of the pitfalls of a politics of opposition is that it is informed by either/or thinking to argue that either you're with me, or you're against me. It's very clear-cut. In fact, many contemporary feminists and other social activists would argue that it's TOO clear-cut. Such an either/or approach to interaction., negotiation, politicing renders one static, stuck, forever on the other side of the argumentative fence. There's no room to manoeuvre here.
Feminists who were engaged in a politics of opposition drew on mainstream notions of the self as a humanist self at a time when poststructuralist notions of a complex and fluid subjectivity were in their infancy. Today we have access to a different understanding of the self as subject, and of power, drawn from the poststructuralist discourses such as those we've been studying in this unit.
In these terms, creating a woman-to-woman connection to mobilise for feminist political action does not mean suppressing difference to foreground sameness or some notion of equality; nor does it mean foregrounding differences to the exclusion of finding points of sameness. Rather, it means recognition of difference between individual women and amongst groups of women, and a reciprocal recognition of fleeting points of sameness. Out of this reciprocal recognition of difference and sameness, then, strategic alliances underpinned by an ongoing allegiance to a feminist ethics can be formed.
One response I can give to this series of questions is that, in creating one particular new unit, I have exposed students to my own series of reflections on what for me was a highly significant poststructuralist text, and have devised questions and activities intended to help them to undergo a similar process of reflection. Clearly, this paper does not seek to provide a blueprint for how to teach students to think beyond the dichotomous conceptual order to engage in activist practice. Rather, as I have emphasized throughout, its focus is on the process of reflection, and on how as tertiary teachers we might learn to reflect on the intellectual and experiential resources at our disposal, and work with these resources to respond to the great questions of our time. If we can know and then share our own processes of knowledge-making, we can begin to bridge that gap between the self and the other/s. The personal is, after all, highly political.
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|Author: Dr Lekkie Hopkins|
School of International, Cultural and Community Studies
Edith Cowan University, 100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup WA 6027
Please cite as: Hopkins, L. (2005). Teaching towards praxis: reflections on working with undergraduate women's studies students to apply poststructuralist thinking to daily life and professional practice. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/hopkins.html
Copyright 2005 Lekkie Hopkins. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.