Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some thoughts on Bakhtin and Education-ology

I just read a great article from 2007 (cited below) and wanted to get my thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Basically, the article is an interrogation (a Bakhtinian dialogue, really!) of whether Bakhtin has been misapplied or inappropriately applied to education theory.  Matusov's conclusion is no, with some reservations, and I generally agree, though not totally.

First, I learned some fun new terms:
1) problematics (217): the things that constitute the problems addressed in a given field
2) silence-response (silence in the second person) vs silence-address (silence in the third person) (225)
3) voice: "includes height, range, timbre, aesthetic category (lyric, dramatic, etc.). It also includes a person's worldview and fate. A person enters into dialogue as an integral voice. He participates in it not only with his thoughts, but with his fate and with his entire individuality." (227, quoting Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics)
4) internally persuasive discourse (see below)
5) "cursed perpetual questions": those big, unanswerable (maybe "essential"?) questions that are fun to hash out and that Dostoevsky has his characters discuss (and plays with through the interactions of his characters) (I need to try again to read Dostoevsky)

Second, I loved this: 
Attacks on educational scholarship by Bakhtinian philologists might reflect some interdisciplinary struggle over  who "owns" Bakhtin scholarship. But putting aside possible interdisciplinary rivalry, gatekeeping, and jealousy, putting aside the unproductive question of whether philology or education has a monopoly on the Bakhtinian scholarly legacy, I think that Shepherd and Emerson have raised some important points worth considering within the field of education. (217)
This, for me, gets at the heart of scholarship and working with ideas and dialogism. Basically, he is taking the criticism of certain scholars outside his domain (the "Bakhtinian philologists" Shepherd and Emerson) and, rather than dismissing them out of hand as outside the field and therefore incapable of offering insight, he digs in and engages with their ideas. Hell yes!

Third, he mentions "a long history of defining the educational process by its goals." (217) Some of those proposed have been "identity development, transformation of participation in a community of practice, raising critical consciousness[,]" etc. Some Bakhtinian educational theorists (Freedman and Ball) proposed instead "ideological becoming," (218) that is, the movement from an "authoritative discourse" to an "internally persuasive discourse."  An authoritative discourse is one in which meaning is upheld by an outside authority (whether through persuasive violence, trust, tradition, etc.), while an internally persuasive discourse is one in which the self imbues part of the meaning in dialogue with outside others--it is capable of change, enhancement.

There were some bits about whether some in education have misinterpreted these terms, which I was less excited about.  What was more exciting for me is that (1) I love this goal of "ideological becoming," (2) it is inextricably bound up with identity for me (though I wonder if I am, like some of the educational theorists he describes, inappropriately "psychologizing the notion of discourse" (229)), (3) there is an exciting ongoing question (one of Bakhtin's "cursed perpetual questions") of whether this is possible in education.

This last point is explored in detail in this article. Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom (contextual) discourse is too "monologized," i.e., despite the fact that lip service is paid to equality, interrogation, and critical pedagogy, the teacher's authoritarianism is paramount. This type of education
assumes that the analytical tools that the instructor wants to teach his or her students will be useful in tackling the students' problems, even though the instructor does not know what these problems are in advance. It further assumes that the fuctionality of the tools can be understood and appreciated by the students outside of the particular contexts of problems and goals for which these tools were originally invented. Finally it assumes that the teacher can unilaterally decide what the students need to learn. (222)
"Critical pedagogy," he reminds us, "is not just a curriculum for students, but it has to be practiced by instructors with the support of their institutions." (222) 

Additionally, Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom discourse is too "dialogized." In order to fully understand this section, I think I'm going to have to read more Bakhtin directly (which I want to anyway). BUT . . . the problem here seems to be a lack of real outside voices to contend with. Matsuov draws a distinction between cognitive doubling (which as far as I can tell is an internal dialogue between self-as-embodied-thing-in-the-world and the conscious-mind-taking-on-other-orientations, i.e., self and self-as-other) and "relation with actual others." (224) The latter is necessary to avoid "paralysis of action, relativism or cynicism, and even rationalization of oppression among educators." (224) 

"Excessive dialogism [can also] create[] minefields, in which any step is criticized by the educator." (224) I didn't understand this at first and was going to leave it out of this discussion, but I had an idea suddenly that seems important. Too much dialogism occurs when there is not enough authority.  Ideally, you have a balance that creates an internally persuasive classroom discourse that facilitates students taking on internally persuasive discourses. They need outside others (real others) to converse with or they end up with artificial dialogues going on in their heads. 

It's what happens when you ask a semi-open ended question that you want a specific type of answer for. You fail to take into account all of the possible directions student thought could take--you fail to sufficiently map the minefield. Brave students unsuspectingly wander in and *blammo* are told they are asking the wrong questions, that they are walking the wrong way. But they are essentially walking blind.

We as educators have contended with the Other (whatever, in our field, it may be) and have internalized the struggle. We know where to look for mines, how to identify them. An inauthentic struggle against the consciousness's unlimited potential for conflicting orientation leaves one directionless. 

For example, there were times in undergrad when I would read a challenging book and know that I was supposed to find SOMETHING in it. But I had no idea where to start looking. 

Left to my own devices, I may have pooped out looking for the authentic Other or failing to recognize him when I saw him (I'm going with him as my other since I'm a her*). Luckily, I took classes that showed me to look for things like patterns of desire in narrative or power dynamics or voice.  Luckily, I learned to search for theoretical articles.  I gained authentic authoritative Others to battle with, in person and in written form. By tackling them, I engaged in the educational struggle that led to my ability to take on an internally persuasive discourse.

So then, this balance must be reached: students must be given authoritative Others to contend with, they must be privileged to assert the authoritative discourses they've taken on (to be Others for others) AND they must be allowed real authority to question and contend with authoritative discourses. Matusov sees the teacher's role in this as one of creating a space for recursive learning and allowing for gradual release of responsibility in terms of providing authoritative-ness.  He does not think that a teacher can authentically engage as an equal (albeit more knowledgable) participant in the internally persuasive discourse of the classroom but must rather stay outside.  The reasons he gives for this are that, one, the questions in a classroom are not of the "cursed perpetual question" quality, and, two, the problem of the need to reproduce curriculum.

He gives as the example of a inappropriate question the need to teach 2 + 2 = 4 in first grade. Ok, maybe. I'd have to ask my math colleagues if there are good authentic questions to be asked in the higher grades (or even lower) (I tend to think so). And, just, shenanigans on all other disciplines. 

Authentic, good, struggly questions exist and should be taught. Maybe this is what project-based curriculum is for? Maybe that would also solve the problem of repetition? If we are allowing students to come up with authentic problems to solve and engaging with them in really solving them, it seems to me that there are countless iterations that even experts could be involved in hashing out with students, engaging as partners in the struggle and maintaining our own internally persuasive discourse through the struggle to make meaning that defines such a discourse. 

This is just the beginning of my thoughts on this. But, damn, I'm excited.

Matusov, Eugene. "Applying Bakhtin Scholarship on Discourse in Education: A Critical Review Essay." Educational Theory 57.2 (2007): 215-237. web.

*but maybe that is a false dichotomy--i'm still developing my internally persuasive discourse on this

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