Beyond alterity: creating my post-critical living theory of transformational identity

A paper to be presented at the British Educational Research Association annual meeting, University of Warwick, September 8th 2006

Jean McNiff, St Mary’s College


[Word version available]

[View the (Word Format) Accepted proposal for a symposium at the British Educational Research Association 2006 Annual Conference at the University of Warwick in September 2006.]

This paper can be read at two levels. There is first a surface level that deals with theoretical issues, and second, a deeper level that communicates the meaning of those issues in my life. So it becomes an allegory. Like Jan Morris, who writes allegories (Morris 2006; see also Morrison 2006), I also enjoy writing stories that stand for something else. In the case of this paper, the story becomes a representational device to show how abstract ontological values can transform into a living communicable text, which is written from a logic of inclusionality and which shows the transformation of those same values into living standards of judgement. The paper becomes autobiography as philosophy (Mathien 2005). There is also a third, un-explicated level, about what the story may hold for you, my reader. Jan Morris wrote about Hav (Morris 2006), an imaginary country, in a way that you would almost think the place was real. My story is about South Africa, a real place, though my stories of its telling are frequently allegorical, where I am learning about things that previously did not feature in my life, yet are now profoundly important.

At a surface reading, the paper is about needing to move beyond thinking and acting in terms of fixed mental and social systems of categorisation. At a deeper reading, it is a story about what has led me to do that. Moving out of a particular form of thinking, however, and out of the social practices that this way of thinking encourages, has meant first overcoming the fear that has kept me, as I would imagine it also keeps other people, rooted in the familiarity of safe social and mental practices. This is a story of how deep personal change can lead to far-reaching social change, through the exercise of educational influence. And because I believe that change begins at home, I begin with myself.

So, the paper is about moving beyond fixed categories, especially those that are used to establish identity. I have learned that categories come in different forms. They can be substantive, as, for example, when people ask you, ‘What do you do?’ You are expected to define yourself in terms of your job or role, as on a CV, a professional activities log. Elizabeth Spelman (1988, cited in Young 2000) spoke about a ‘pop-bead necklace’ mentality: identity is understood as an activities log of different roles, like a string of beads: ‘I am a this, and a this, and a this, and a that.’

Categories also feature in how we think. In Eurocentric intellectual traditions, we are encouraged to think by means of fixed categories. We are born into a habitus (Bourdieu 1990) of this or that, either-or; a form of propositional thinking, grounded in binary divides, that leads people to see the world in terms of binary divides. How we think by and large influences how we act. And, because the situation is so taken for granted, questioning the form of thinking itself almost never comes into question. Questioning would mean moving beyond the form of thinking to question the form of thinking, involving a kind of mental acrobatics of distancing yourself from yourself, adopting a meta-meta-cognitive position of standing outside yourself in order to reflect critically on the self that is observed, and this can be emotionally and intellectually demanding.

A categorising form of propositional thinking can also lead to a kind of supremacist mentality, in which ‘I’ am the centre, and everything else is defined in terms of ‘not-I’ (see Agger 1993 for a critique of a logic of otherness). Other people become ‘the Other’, alien to ‘I’, and ‘I’ become the norm against which the Other is measured. Sophisticated categorisation systems are put in place to measure the extent to which the Other deviates from the norm – norm-referenced tests and other forms of analysis that categorise people. To qualify as a worthwhile person, you have to achieve a certain number of marks, and occupy the right place in a Bell curve. These practices, and their underpinning divisive epistemologies, are frequently maintained deliberately by those whose purposes they serve, usually those in power, because a well-established social system of hierarchically organised categories ensures the maintenance both of the divisive social order and of its underpinning divisive epistemologies.

A good deal of theoretical work is now available to challenge such practices and epistemologies. The literatures of post-colonialism have gone some way to challenging the hegemonising nature of social practices (see for example Said 1994; Todorov 1982). The literatures of post-feminism have challenged the forms of thinking that maintain social privilege (Spivak 1987). The literatures of cultural studies have shown that social analysis should be undertaken within a context that recognises that little can be said without recognition of the normative background of language against which it is said (Derrida 1976). The literatures of post-modernism have emphasised the importance of communicating the meanings of the rules one is generating, as I do here, to make sense of one’s life in the process of their emergence in practice:

A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he [sic] writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have to be done.

(Lyotard 1986: 81)

These literatures, however, tend not to move beyond a form of critique that is rooted in binary forms of thinking (Derrida is a notable exception), nor move beyond critique in relation to real-world practices. Themselves often categorised as belonging to a critical methodological tradition (see Agger’s 2006 Critical Social Theories), the form of communication used by the texts tends towards a genre of critical analysis. Yet here is a sticking point: staying within bounded forms of critique, rooted as they are within ontologies of epistemological and social categorisation, will not move anyone into a new post-critical non-propositional form of enquiry that frees people up from wanting to stay entrenched within those very forms of restrictive categorisation. It is tempting to stay within a prison made out of the building blocks of categories: ‘Here’s a building block labelled gender. Here’s another labelled race.’ These prisons can offer considerable ontological security, because it is not necessary to move beyond the categories. ‘I am defined by my gender. I am defined by my race.’ For many, this can be a comfortable place to be. Byron spoke about how prisoners come to love their chains. This is a key point. It is possibly just as difficult to break out of a mental jail as to break out of a physical one. Besides, being in a physical jail does not necessarily close down opportunities for mental freedom, while being in a mental jail does. The Irish Republican prisoners in British jails often used their incarceration as a means for self-education (see Adams 1997; Coogan 1996), and Ted Hughes’s ‘Jaguar’ saw long vistas of freedom through the bars of his cage. Freedom comes in many forms. For me, freedom of mind is a necessary condition for personal and social growth, far more important initially than physical or even socio-political freedom, because freedom of mind has to be the grounds for transforming the experience of socio-political unfreedom into the realisation of life-affirming ontological values. Experiencing the delights of wandering through Hav requires the freedom of mind that enables you to have the freedom of movement to enjoy the place. Experiencing the delights of moving beyond propositional forms enables a full engagement with the experience of freedom itself. Freedom is both means and end in the full engagement of life experience.

But freedom also involves trust, not only of an instrumental kind, as Fukuyama describes (1995), but more of a personal kind, a willingness to trust in the experience of being itself (Tillich 1986). And so this paper becomes about finding freedom by learning to trust, finding the courage to break out of the jail of fixed categories, and grasp the freedom to engage with the imaginary experience of Hav and other real places in the real world.

But now I have to acknowledge that, in the writing of this paper, I am experiencing myself as a living contradiction (Whitehead 1989). This real me, this material Jean, am writing in a way that conforms to the kind of thinking that I am saying needs transforming. I am using that same form of binary analytical thinking to critique the substantive issue of binary analytical thinking. Also, the form of expression I have used so far renders me, the speaker, commensurable with the traditional forms of critical analytical thinking that I am critiquing, but incommensurable with my ontological values, which are about being with other people, about my concerns of not seeing them or myself as the Other; so I experience myself as a living contradiction, in terms of the form of expression I use to communicate my scholarship. While the literary genre I am using may be appropriate for communicating my argument, it is inappropriate for communicating the dynamic transformational nature of my life experiences, and I need to show how my capacity for critical analysis forms the grounds for the realisation of my capacity to transform critical analysis into a full experience of post-critical experience. I am experiencing myself as a living contradiction, because I continue to use the master’s tools to rebuild the master’s house (Bar-On 2002), and I need to do something about it, which is difficult for me. I learned from childhood, from my culture, to think in terms of categories of analysis; so it is difficult to break out, because this would mean changing my form of logic; and this kind of fundamental mental change can be frightening, because once you change the way you think, the change is irreversible. You see through new eyes (Polanyi 1958). You come to see your previous form of thinking in the light of your new form of thinking, and therefore you have no means of return to the original form. Yet this is what I have done in recent times, and I now see my previous thinking for what it was, and incorporate it into my new form of thinking as and when necessary; I incorporate critical analysis into a dynamically inclusive and transformational way of thinking. Like Polanyi (1958), I see myself contributing to a post-critical understanding in developing this inclusive and transformational way of thinking. The contribution includes my explication of a logic of inclusionality in the sense that logic is the mode of thought appropriate for comprehending the real as rational (Marcuse 1964: 105).

This means however that I now have to find a form of expression that communicates the processes of thinking that move beyond critical analysis into a post-critical transformational form that nevertheless incorporates critical analysis. I need to hold onto critical analysis, to help me understand why things are as they are in terms of their social, economic, political, and cultural legacies, prior to taking action, so that the situation can be influenced as necessary. Yet critical analysis, because of its very form of analytical expression, is not capable of transforming itself through a critique of its own cultural and logical traditions, and so it remains stuck, failing to take the transformational action it says is necessary to change the current situation. To acknowledge one’s practice of critical analysis, one has to acknowledge oneself first as a real person.

I am a living example of what I am talking about. Look at what I am doing here, in my writing. By staying with an analytical form, I remain stuck. I am talking about the need for transformation, at an abstract conceptual level, yet I am not showing any signs of transforming either my logics or my subject matters or my form of theory. I said I would, and I still have not done so. So I need to change my thinking, and my form of representation, in order to communicate my new, transformational thinking. As I do this, I will be clarifying the meanings of the values I use to give meaning and purpose to my productive life. In the process of clarifying their meanings through narrative, I show how these embodied values come to form the living standards of judgement I use to account to myself and others for the life I am living. In other words, in producing a narrative of my life, I am showing the logic of my educational enquiry and generating the epistemological standards that characterise the knowledge claims in a dynamically inclusive and transformational way of relating, thinking and acting.

So, let me shift. Let me tell you a story, a research story. It is a story that shows the processes of identifying a research question, gathering data, generating evidence from the data through the articulation of living critical standards of judgement (Whitehead and McNiff 2006), and showing how the evidence acts as grounds for the validation of a knowledge claim, whose validity then has to be tested against the social criteria of communicative critique (Habermas 1987). I do not move entirely away from critical analysis because I aim to give to my story what is currently considered academic legitimacy by drawing on the literatures of conceptual analyses, and showing how my original contribution to knowledge is also grounded in my capacity for making my original contribution and demonstrating critical engagement. My story takes a transformational form, as Todorov (1990) said a story could, by communicating how critical analysis can transform into a way of making sense of a life, and can be communicated through a narrative form (see also Eisner 1996). The transformational form of my story tells of transformational experience, where fear transformed into trust.

My story takes place in South Africa, which is historically a place of multiple Othernesses. Perhaps this is why discourses of transformation feature strongly in government policy documents (see CHE 2002), as a way of finding a common ground to create the coherent identity that is necessary for the social stability and cultural renaissance of the country. The culture of apartheid, popularly seen as a binary divide between whiteness and non-whiteness, is in fact much more complex than that, and is located in systems of thought. John Hume, former leader of the SDLP in Ireland, was right to say that the decommissioning of arms begins in the mind. Transforming cultures of apartheid also begins in the mind. It begins, in my view, somewhere around the personal and political will to develop a capacity to transform one’s own potentially divisive epistemologies, with a view to enabling others to do the same.

I came face to face with the multiple Othernesses of South Africa when I first began teaching a masters degree programme to a group of black African teachers. In those early days, I found the experience intimidating. The people I was working with were physically so very different from myself. They were black and I was white. This was my first and lasting impression. This was ironic, because I live and work in multicultural settings, where I have not until recently even noticed that people I work with are of a different colour to me. For me, they are people. I see the person, not the colour. Now it was different. I saw their colour, not the people. More to the point, I saw not so much their colour, as my own. I felt acutely, distinctively, non-black. It was amazing how isolated, how conspicuous I felt, because of my colour. In those early days, the entire experience left me with an acute totalising experience of being an Outsider, the Other, utterly and irremediably on my own and alienated.

I was delivering the programme in a Further Education College in Khayelitsha, which, loosely translated from the Xhosa, means ‘a beautiful place’, or ‘a beautiful homecoming’, but which in reality is a massive sprawling unlovely mix of some utility pre-fab concrete houses and thousands upon thousands of shacks, made of tin, cardboard, plastic, whatever comes to hand or falls off buildings elsewhere. Doors stand open to the street, and washing on short lines cross-crosses old bicycles, bits of cars, furniture, animals, and all the daily business of human living. Children wee against the sides of houses, and women do the washing in bowls and baths at the side of the road, getting water from standpipes, or move along the road carrying impossible loads on their heads. When I first contacted the principal of the College for directions, she asked whether I would like an escort, because I might feel afraid, but I said no. But I did feel anxious, as I drove along the broad dusty main street, very aware of how conspicuous I looked in my pale skin and pale hair and shiny new hire car, though not afraid. But no one paid any attention to me, and I was greeted with smiles from children, though lack of acknowledgement from adults.

I met with about thirty people, potential course participants, in a large hollow-sounding classroom, containing ranked single wooden tables, and a view over the yard; and beyond, a bleak vista, the only signs of interest being the security guards. The guards had actually been most welcoming, giving me their wonderful wide smiles, and I felt welcomed if not exactly welcome.

The experience of the weekend was a curious mix. At times, when I gave out information, participants sat silent and attentive, and when I asked them to discuss issues, they were spontaneous and exuberant. When I said something with which everyone seemed to agree, some would say heavy words emphatically that I did not understand, and someone would shout ‘Ha!’ every now and again. Sometimes I asked different people to lead the group, and they did, to their obvious enjoyment, and the others immediately went into ‘student’ mode and answered on cue. There was a joyful and almost obsessive engagement with learning. They were unrestrained and passionate. I felt I was getting through, and encouraging their enthusiasm for action research. Most seemed to appreciate that I was communicating my understanding that they had the freedom, and responsibility, to investigate their practice and imagine better ways of teaching.

Yet I was also deeply distressed. I never felt at ease. I was kept at a distance, usually politely, but sometimes in a quite hostile way. There was little acknowledgement of me as a person. They took what I was offering and ran. I was positioned squarely as the Other, not only an alien, but also as a non-person. I felt like a functionary, who was delivering something that was due, like a papergirl who brings the morning paper to the homeowner who then proceeds to read the paper without even seeing the messenger. I was utterly dismayed, and on the plane home my thoughts were all of the kind, ‘If this is how they are going to treat me, I won’t go back.’ I didn’t need to go back, either. This programme had initially been my idea, and was being developed collaboratively with committed colleagues at St Mary’s College, my higher education institution, but there was no compulsion on anyone to do it. I later realised however that there was, as I explain shortly.

I tried to make sense of my reactions over the coming weeks at home. A colleague in Ireland, who knows about these things (see Sullivan 2006), told me that this kind of behaviour was often to be expected from previously oppressed peoples, a form of victimage, where those who have been oppressed come to expect dues from the previous oppressor, and begin to oppress the oppressor as Other, as they have been positioned in the past (Blain 2005). My pale skin and pale hair definitely communicated that I stood for everything that the oppressor stands for in South Africa. I was deeply uncomfortable, because this is partly how I saw myself. I felt no guilt, because I have learned from Polanyi (1958) and Chomsky (1986) that we enter a world for whose making we are not responsible, though we do have a responsibility for what we make of it in the future. I did however feel intense lack of ease. I reasoned also, from my teaching experience, that any new group of course participants usually feel unsure of themselves, and a group takes time to bond, with one another, let alone the teacher. So I could not work out what was going on in me, that I was so disappointed, not only from the experience, but also with myself. I was aware at the time that I was possibly blaming the victim (Ryan 1971), which would be a new form of discrimination; and this realisation that I was potentially delivering a double whammy simply added to my existing dilemmas. But I was also blaming myself, and I did not know why.

It was this idea that I didn’t need to go back that finally got to me. What if I didn’t go back? I would then become one of those white do-gooders, like the many NGOs in South Africa, who provide material goods for those whom they perceive as having been unfairly treated, and then walk away. Malan (1990) speaks about well-meaning organisations who offer support in their own material terms, imposing new systems and structures, which carry little meaning for the existing culture, and then leave, so the new systems and structures fall into disrepair because they are seen as alien impositions and not necessarily the solutions to problems that people would choose for themselves. It is no use imposing the artefacts of one culture on another whose artefacts are of a different form. My experience of South Africa so far was that the cultural artefacts of African traditions are embodied within the relationships of people, more than in the production of material goods. The cultural artefacts I had experienced were manifested in the deep dignity of the people I was working with, their reserve and grace towards me, albeit a graceful form of exclusion, and I began to wonder what they made of me, and whether they also might be wondering whether I would go back, or whether I was simply another fly-by-night, offering yet another quick solution to their struggle to make sense of their post-apartheid culture. Perhaps they were keeping me at arms’ length because they didn’t trust me, me with my pale hair and pale skin. Paleface. Now, there’s a thought. So I went back.

They were delighted to see me, and we continued our studies, an experience which was, as before, stimulating and exciting. We covered an enormous amount of study material, almost a complete module, and it was clear that everyone was well on the inside of the ideas about different ways of doing research, and could relate the ideas directly to their own experiences as teachers. I was delighted with progress, and at the fact that I had returned. Furthermore, I felt that I was now beginning to be acknowledged as a person. People asked me, rather deferentially, if I would have a cup of tea at break times, and asked me about where I lived, and about my family. I felt we were beginning to see one another as people, changing our eyes, as Polanyi said, and I was thrilled to bits. We enjoyed the entire study weekend, without mishap, and I asked the group if they would begin to write their module assignments, and send me draft writing. Everyone agreed. When I checked that everyone was comfortable with the assignment, and knew what to do, I was assured that they did. And so we all departed, they back to their homes, I to mine.

After the study weekend, however, when we had gone home, it all began to fall apart. A big silence settled in. In fact, this turned into what I came to recognise as a period of intense resistance and struggle. I wrote to them, encouraging them to send in their draft assignments, but, with the exception of one or two, they did not respond. They resisted my encouragement, and I resisted their silence. Although we had agreed deadlines, the draft assignments simply didn’t appear. Nor did the people reply to me, and I felt positioned again as the functional Other. I would write notes, which were ignored. I remembered Iris Marion Young’s (2000) ideas about how acknowledgement is core to democratic practice. While I was trying to acknowledge participants as intellectually able, and as people of worth, and trying to develop democratic practices, they were excluding me by refusing to acknowledge me, so we had an impasse of Othering practices, me of them because of our differences in response to academic study, and they of me because of – who knows? Our racial differences and everything I stood for? Our epistemological differences, in that I was assumed to know, and they were assumed not to? Our institutional differences, in that I was a professor and therefore superior? Whatever. I was hopelessly discouraged, fumbling around in the dark, and again wondered whether it was all worth the pain. Again I questioned whether I would go back.

Yet I also began to think more reflectively, helped along by study, and colleagues elsewhere, who explained that during the apartheid era, the government had made sure that black people received a form of education that was deliberately inferior to the form of education offered to other ethnic groups, and definitely inferior to the form of education offered to whites (see Wieder 2003). Yet here was I, automatically assuming that our group knew what they had to do in terms of submitting academic assignments. They had after all told me so, as has any new group I have worked with in England or Ireland. I had learned at those times however to be sceptical about whether people new to academic study actually know what to do, even though they say they do, and so I have always taken pains to put in place rigorous practices of providing basic information and study strategies that will ensure a problem-free experience of getting to grips with the rigours of academic writing. So why had I not done the same in relation to the group in South Africa? I had simply assumed that they would know how to do academic referencing, how to write in an analytical way, how to construct sentences coherently, when these were not always the norms of their own epistemological traditions (see Reagan 2005). And they are proud people, so perhaps acknowledging that such things were new territory, and saying publicly that they didn’t know, may have constituted a loss of face, as I had learned also from my work in China. And why had I not checked? I was in fact introducing a new form of discrimination against them, this time a form of epistemological and institutional discrimination, to go alongside the still raw experiences of racial discrimination. I was using a new form of epistemological discrimination, where I knew the linguistic conventions of the form of expression used in a genre that would qualify as academically legitimate, and perhaps they didn’t. Graff (2003) speaks about how the form of language used in higher education frequently acts as a means for the alienation and subjugation of those who are struggling to get accepted into the world of academia. But why had I not taken appropriate care, as a teacher? Had I been so aware of our differences, so aware that I needed to tread with artificial gentleness so as not to appear disrespectful, so willing to communicate that I perceived us all as academically capable, that I was not dealing with basic study issues? My desire to act in an educationally democratic way could have been in fact potentially disabling, by not providing the basic means by which people can achieve their own intellectual independence. I was still not giving them what I had, and what they needed, which was the basic means of accessing higher degree study. And I also began to think. If I had been afraid of the ways in which they were different from me, and what that represented for me, would they not also be afraid of how I was different from them, and what that represented for them? Malan (1990) says that fear is at the heart of apartheid, the fear of the unknown other. Was I letting my fear of the unknown other distort my own capacity for a pedagogy whose effectiveness I judge in relation to whether or not the least able in a group is able to produce a high quality assignment? These were just dim understandings at the time, and, encouraged by the one or two draft assignments that did arrive, and by my own reflections, and by my refusal to give in to the sweet blandishments of my personal devils that told me how easy it would be to justify not returning, I went back.

Again they were delighted to see me, and I explained carefully how concerned I was about our lack of communication, and, very respectfully, I said that we needed to go back to basics. This was now five months into the induction phase of the programme, when I had thought we would already have finished Module 1, but I now intentionally decided to go back to the beginning.

I adopted a matter-of-fact approach, dealing with basic forms of expression, the conventions of everyday writing as well as academic writing, and revisited basic concepts of research methods. Repetition of material is part of my usual teaching practice, but now it took on deeper meaning. I learned how important it is to develop a pedagogical style that both revisits concepts, and also finds ways of introducing the concepts by appealing to the life experiences of the learner, and gradually abstracting the concepts into linguistic articulations. I learned so much about my own forms of pedagogy, through my experience of finding any way possible to encourage my colleagues’ learning by appealing to their traditional ways of learning. It was a tremendously enjoyable if demanding experience, for them as well as for me, and video taped evidence shows the excitement of working in this way.

(I show a video of our classroom)

And then an event took place that was to be a cathartic turning point. Without going into detail, I will say that it took the form of a threat to my safety and wellbeing, from an external source, and which left me feeling deeply vulnerable and insecure. This was one of those big decisions in life: do I or don’t I carry on? I talked and talked with friends when I went back home, knowing all the time in my heart that I would return, and I did, but I had to put changes in place for the delivery of the programme, including a change of venue, and I worried that people would not turn up, because this was an additional imposition on what I saw as their already fragile commitment to our fragile relationship. I had arranged for us to meet in a hotel boardroom, not large enough to house everyone, so I had to split the large group into two smaller groups. Twenty minutes before the appointed hour, I was waiting at the door, to see would anyone arrive. And they did. The first to arrive were two wonderful women, and I threw my arms around them in gratitude and delight, just happy that they had not given up on me, in the same way that I had not given up on them. And they returned the embrace, equally delighted, and saying, ‘Hello, Jean, hello, Jean,’ acknowledging me as Jean, as a person with a name. Fifteen people turned up for those meetings, and we greeted each other fully, as Young (1990) says is the basis for democratic communication, committed, joyful, eager to continue the conversations.

This was in July. It is now late August. The interim has seen as flurry of intense activity, as participants have sent in their draft assignments, and I have responded, many times, and, through the e-mail conversations, we have developed a deeper understanding of who we are and what we are about; and we are now talking with each other. I am receiving notes, that no one has to write, but are written out a sense of ‘I recognise you. I acknowledge you.’ And I respond, not because I have to, but because I want to.

It is 30th August 2006, and fifteen people are enrolled on a St Mary’s masters programme. I am anticipating the delight of returning to see people whom I have learned to care for, and to receive the warm welcome I know will be waiting for me. I know this, and I trust it.

I imagine many people have gone through experiences where their fear has given way to trust. For me, the distinctive nature of the fear has been especially significant. It was a fear born of a commitment to difference, which in itself is a feature of an epistemological tradition that I grew up with, and that was imposed on my black South African colleagues, and that I imposed on myself. Divisive epistemologies are not a normative tradition in black African culture, nor in my personal culture, where contradiction is embraced; and story telling, rooted in myth and magic, is a normative genre. Nor is black African culture the only aspect of cultural and ethnic identity in South Africa, which has a population of multiple groupings – black, coloured, Indian, and white, and many others who do not easily fit into those categories. Perhaps my colleagues had already become familiar with the ways of the likes of me, and anticipated that I would bring my binary systems to my experiences with them, and they were right, and were right to be mistrustful of me, until they had tested me, as I had also to test myself against the potential defeat of my own values (McNiff 2006).

When I try to make sense of my experience of creating my cultural and epistemological identity in South Africa, and relate it to my existing contradictory experience of who I am in my various identities: born of Scottish parents, living in England, and working for fifteen years in Ireland; an academic who considers herself a teacher; a woman who does not accept popular gendering differences that assume the rightness of ‘women’s ways of knowing’ (Belenky et al. 1986); a person who challenges the whole idea of difference as it is used to maintain normative personal, social, political, cultural and epistemological divisions (McNiff 2006) – then I just give up trying to make sense by using a traditional form of theorising, rooted in an epistemology of binary divides, and simply go into a space where I engage in the experience, without intellectualising it or rationalising it, just enjoying the experience of being, in company with other people who also are engrossed in the busyness of being. While we do of course go into rationalising spaces, when bureaucracy demands, or when we have to produce work that will be judged in terms of normative academic criteria, we do so. But this is done within a wider context of experiencing ourselves in relation to one another. Through my experience of working with fine people in South Africa, I am learning to be a better teacher, and, I hope, a better person.

There is an African tradition called ubuntu. In Rian Malan’s (1990) words, it means ‘largeness of spirit’. It communicates the idea that people are in deep relation with one another (see also Bhengu 1996). The idea can be intellectualised (see for example LeGrange 2005), and it is even built into the South African Constitution, as an explanatory principle for how people should live together. I understand that such concepts can be taken out of their experiential context, in the same way that values can be communicated as abstract linguistic principles. Raz (2001) says rightly that a value remains an abstraction until it is put into practice. I have learned that intellectualising an experience can often get in the way of engaging with the experience itself, as I have in South Africa. Yet intellectualisation is where the intellectual and methodological traditions of critique stop. Critique is bounded by its intellectualising practices and intellectualised form. In my view, for critique to have any influence in social transformation, it has to be absorbed into the real life practice of critiquing as part of a process of transformational change, and the change has to begin in the individual mind, and has to be not only about the social context in which the individual mind is located, but also in relation to how the individual mind comes to be so located in the first place, and what kind of transformative action now needs to be taken.

So let me try to draw it all together. These ideas work in multiple layers, layers of intellectual critique enfolded within layers of experience, and communicated in different layers of forms of expression. At bottom, I am saying that theory needs to be reconceptualised from its current propositional form into a new living form (Whitehead 1989), to communicate the life experiences of people as they theorise their practices. Propositional forms of critique need to transform into living forms of experience; and new forms of expression such as storytelling through the written and spoken word need to be found to communicate the life experiences of real people. New forms of transformational and inclusional logics need to be celebrated and legitimated, because these are the kinds of logics that set the steer for transformational and inclusional practices.

What of my Hav, my imaginary place of imagined stereotypes and binary divides? How do I negotiate my way out of an imaginary country that has been more real for me than the one I live in? How I do this is to go back, and back, and back, relentlessly refusing to let go, of others or myself, as we try to find our real selves in spite of the selves that others have created for us in the past. September is nearly here. I am going back, again.


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September Books



Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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