Research lab 1: what happened when we discussed an unseen text?

At last week’s HEAT Lab, I had a great opportunity to conduct a kind of ‘thought experiment’ with participants. People at the lab were asked to consider the following unattributed written piece of text and to share their responses to it:

‘The principle of organization, and the principle of development, in her work is an intense moral interest of her own in life that is in the first place a preoccupation with certain problems that life compels on her as personal ones. She is intelligent and serious enough to be able to impersonalise her moral tensions as she strives, in her art, to become more fully conscious of them, and to learn what, in the interests of life, she ought to do with them.’

Readers of this blog might like to stop at this point and repeat the experience of participants at the lab, before reading on. What are your immediate responses to the above text?

Initial responses and questions raised included the following:

  • The text is highly gendered, notably in the phrase ‘She is intelligent and serious enough …’
  • Sounds like it was written from a literary critical standpoint
  • It’s decontextualized and I prefer it when something has a context
  • The word ‘life’ is vague, is it something outside the individual?
  • The word ‘impersonalise’ sounds like it might mean something different from ‘impersonal’ in the usual sense
  • Reflexivity!

Following disclosure of the Source of the text the group was then asked to identify or discuss any connections between it and pedagogic research, specifically insider-practitioner  pedagogic research, the kind that I am particularly interested in. I think it’s fair to say that for many in the group the links were not immediately obvious, including for those used to the discourse and conventions of insider research, and the decontextualisation of the text may have made these links less obvious. That said, a number of observations were shared, including on the ways in which the notion of ‘moral tensions’ might apply to the creative process and by extension research.

The method used for the activity was based on I. A. Richard’sprotocols’ first used in his experiments with university students and staff in lecture theatres in the 1920s in Cambridge, which were a major influence on practical and ‘New’ criticism, that is, criticism focused on analysis of the text. This was also a precursor of reader-response theoretical approaches to texts that came to the fore from the 1970s on. As a student of English in the 1970s I was taught using this method and I had a mixed response to it: on the one hand it allowed for a certain amount of free play with the text, that encouraged open interpretation and creative response – ‘the Reader’s Liberation Movement’ as Eagleton (1982) has jokily referred to it; on the other, I disliked the element of elitist connoisseurship that could creep in when the method became formulaic.

Having reflected on the method and the outcomes of the activity in this instance, I went back to the text and sought to analyse it in the light of some of the themes participants and I (independently) had identified and to relate these to theoretical dimensions of pedagogic research. In other words, to read the text theoretically and pedagogically. My assumption had been that these dimensions were already signalled in the text in words such as ‘organisation … development … moral … problems … learn’. To an extent the text, as I read it in and out of context, called for if not demanded a pedagogic reading. To identify these dimensions I could, for example, have brainstormed or created a concept map or used word clouds. Instead, I chose to use Google Scholar and adopted the following search strategy

[+/- ‘text’ +/- ‘key word(s) from theme’ + ‘pedagogy’]

and then selected items, words, phrases from the results, usually within the first 20 results. Those items with (*) I added separately from my own prior reading and interests where I saw a connection with a theorist. While this is a procedure that says more about some of my own interests and ways of reading a text I also think it was a way of building on the discussion and taking it further, as well as of identifying additional potential links that we had not spotted during the lab.

Original text Themes Theoretical dimensions of pedagogic research
Principle of organization … principle of development Structure and process
  • Research paradigms, methodology
Intense moral interest Developed and highly purposive interest in one’s value systems, by inference the desire to deal with something seriously, intensely and maturely
  • Moral voices and choices
  • Moral education as pedagogy of alterity
  • Action sensitive pedagogy
Of her own Owned, arising from the individual’s grounded sense of purpose and experience, not taking over someone else’s
  • Emancipatory values
  • Social learning and cognition
In the first place Originating impulse of that sense of purpose, not post hoc
  • Models of creativity
  • Unruly, disruptive pedagogies
A preoccupation with certain problems ‘The pea in the mattress’, the specific concerns that won’t go away – although the concerns, if morally conceived, are likely to be more than merely personal if they are to amount to more than an idee fixe.
Life compels on her The moral significance of the work lies in its dealing seriously with experience considered in its historicity and facticity
  • Researching and writing the self
  • Phenomenological pedagogy
  • Nurturing ethical ideals
Intelligent and serious Cognitive skills and values are aligned, you can’t embody one without the other
  • Agency and design values
  • Enhancing performance
  • Deep learning
Intelligent and serious enough to be able She takes a serious interest and the criterion of that is that she has produced a serious work
  • Work and play
  • Ethology
  • The ludic
Impersonalise She acknowledges and remains in touch with the personal sources of her interests while transmuting these into an extra-personal work
  • Reflexivity
  • Objectivity/subjectivity
  • *Poole’s ‘deep subjectivity’
  • *Polanyi’s ‘personal knowledge’
Impersonalise her moral tensions The tensions are kept in a dynamic equilibrium, not ‘disposed of’ but used to continually creative ends
  • Emotional intelligence, standard intelligence
To become more fully conscious The growth in self-knowledge is gained through and during the ‘art’, not applied to this retrospectively or prospectively
To learn … what she ought to do with them Discover the potential purposes of the work during the actual process of its development. These purposes involve an investment of self.
Interests of life Politics of public pedagogy that aims to be intellectually, culturally and socially relevant
  • Moral sentiments and material interests

Thanks to the participants at the lab who indulged me and took part in this experiment. You were not only ‘game’ for the activity, but you also provided me with a lot of stimulus for thought both during the lab and afterwards. I’m currently working on a book about the author of this text and their relation to contemporary higher education and this has helped me clarify for myself some of these connections.

Steven Cranfield



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