Barbara Grant

  • A Pedagogy of Improvisation: Theorising the messy practices of supervision

    Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland

    Research seminar

    Theme addressed: Theories of learning and teaching

    In this seminar I will present a preliminary theorisation of the messy interchanges of teaching and learning in graduate supervision. My work is premised on Freud's provocative idea that education is impossible. By this he meant that we can only ever be sure of achieving unsatisfying results. In practice - even with the most inventive pedagogies - we find students do not predictably learn what we want them to. Sometimes they learn something unrecognisable, antithetical even, to what we were trying to teach them. Sometimes they learn more than we ever dreamed possible, going way beyond what we could have taught them. Oftentimes, luckily, they learn something that seems to well enough approximate the learning goals. The impossibility of education derives from at least two sources: for one, there is an inner crack within the project of Western education in which the authority of reason is constantly undermined by its Other (the "messy dynamics of desire, fantasy and transgression"). For another, the self who is the subject of education (teacher or student) is split - the conscious self is endlessly disrupted by its unconscious and this splitting destabilises teaching and learning. Seeing education thus challenges those who press for more certainties about teaching and learning, who would seek methodical truths about the conditions of their effectiveness. In contrast, it suggests that education requires a kind of theorising which "rests on complexity, uncertainty and doubt" (Ball, 1995, p.269). Unable to fix education's impossibility, this kind of theorising can still disrupt the received ideas of our times and address pedagogical blind-spots and dead-ends.

    The work presented here is such an attempt. I have taken several sets of data from a number of supervisor-student pairs: each set comprises the transcript of an audiotaped supervision meeting, notes written by supervisor and student immediately afterwards, and transcripts of interviews held a week to ten days later. Because of my assumption of education's impossibility, I am interested in the ways in which supervisors and students talk to and past each other, in the ways they further and thwart supervision as teaching and learning, in their talk and silences about each other. In doing this work, I want to inspire better (more inventive, more just, more engaging, more pleasurable) supervision practices. I also want to "think otherwise" about the regimes of truth that surround supervision, the dead-end narratives which tell of it as a rationally-dominated practice or a methodical science. A counter-narrative I have to offer is one of supervision as a dynamic improvisation between supervisor and student, and between individuals and the social. (424)