e-Learning: Introductory Session

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Following the first session of my elective unit in technology enhanced learning I thought I would summarise a few of the things we covered during the session.

Some unit tenets: 1. Openess – Try to assume that technology works. It’s easy to complain about glitches and tech problems in e-learning but problems also occur in real life teaching. Spaces are inappropriate, plans go wrong and so on. My thoughts on this is that while this is all true, technological problems in e-learning have a greater chance to completely derail a session. Real life teaching at it’s simplest just requires two people and a space. 2. Experimentation – Play with technology, appropriate tech to context, don’t turn pedagogy and technology to fit the technology. My thoughts are that this is again true but to some extent the specific characteristics of these technologies force teaching plans and classroom experiences into certain contortions because of what the technology allows (or disallows). Blackboard, the platform I’m most used to teaching with, provides an example. The nature of the audio stream means multi-participant conversations can’t occur as they do in real life and classes and activities have to be planned accordingly. Inversely the platform allows other things that wouldn’t be possible in a physical classroom, like a constant flow of feedback and comments via the chat box without interrupting the main lecture or conversation. 3. Documentation – Document and reflect on the unit and what is learnt through it, something I’ll primarily be doing here on this blog and also to some extent through a Workflow profile which will eventually exist here.

Workflow: We had a brief introduction to Workflow, an online portfolio platform which will form part of our assessment. One feeling coming away from the session is the slightly overwhelming proliferation of technologies demanding time, energy to learn, maintain, update. Unlike some others in the group who seem more anxious about approaching new technologies, platforms, and services, I feel generally undaunted by them, but I am very aware that it takes time and energy to learn new interfaces, populate platforms with even minimal content and then to maintain them on ongoing basis. I’ve already put my primary photography blog in stasis in order to free sufficient time to work on my teaching and learning blog, and adding workflow to the mix and it starts to feel like once again like too many platforms to pay proper attention to. This is something to keep in mind in my own teaching and comes back to the title of this blog to some extent, the feeling that whether as learners, teachers or just as citizens we are under a significant burden from the various technologies we employ. As much as feeling empowering they can also become a persistent nagging presence that demands our attention, and they can generate a sense of resentment and guilt as much as a sense of empowerment or learning.

Mapping our online footprint: We also did an exercise to start thinking about our online activities and engagement with different platforms, using the grid below. We started to think about the extent to which personal and professional lives overlap (or don’t) on different platforms, and also the extent to which we use different platforms to engage in different ways, behaving socially or simply lurking, acting variously as residents or visitors. We each mapped this for ourselves briefly:

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MOOCs: Lastly we had a brief introduction/discussion of MOOCs or Massively Open Online Courses. These are something I’ve been interested in for a while and I’ve participated in a couple as a student. We discussed some of the background to them, a few notable examples and also some of the issues arising from them. For me a particular question is the motivation of universities in providing these courses, there is a sense of public good will at the idea of these free courses (Harvard university for example recently got a large amount of positive press when they put photography course materials online) but what exactly are these institutions getting in return?

Excercises: Drawing Each Other

Like many people I dread ‘icebreakers’ which can often feel like they’re designed to maximise embarrassment rather than dispel it. We did one in our first tutorial for the PG Cert however which seemed like a nice exception so I thought I’d write it up briefly for my own edification and perhaps also future use. In pairs, participants are given a piece of paper and pen each and must then draw each other simultaneously and very quickly without taking their eyes off the other person, i.e. without looking down at the unfolding drawing. The results are messy but also very funny and sometimes weirdly close to mark. Everyone’s efforts are a bit crap, but that’s precisely what seems to make it work and the drawings themselves are something nice to take away afterwards. Here are some of me by my fellow students:

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Reading: Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Art & Design

Photograph by Paul Bland, an African-American GI who documented his experiences in Europe during the Second World War.
Photograph by Paul Bland, an African-American GI who documented his experiences in Europe during the Second World War. (National Museum of American History)

Documentary photography represents something of a paradox. As a subject which is about reflecting the world in all its complexity, the introduction of a wider range of viewpoints and ideas into the curriculum and the encouragement of a diverse student body treated equally can only be beneficial for a course, and for the field more widely. Yet the canon of ‘great photographers’ has and continues to overemphasise a small group of predominantly white, male photographers. Perhaps partly because of that the exterior view of the discipline also often seems to be that it is one with a restrictive membership. It’s ironic in the sense that while photographers of other colours, races, genders and classes might be less well represented in the histories of the field, my experience has been that they are not necessarily less present in the practice of it (the issues around photography and gender are interesting example of this, see Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton for some coverage of this).

The two pieces of set reading for this tutorial touch on many of these issues in relation to contemporary higher education, highlight arguments and approaches for ‘liberating the curriculum’ from these tendencies, encouraging a diverse student body, and equality of treatment. The two texts are Liberation, Equality, and Diversity in the Curriculum, by the National Union of Students (2011) and Retention and attainment in the disciplines: Art and Design by Finnigan and Richards (2016). The first piece defines and outlines liberation, equality and diversity in the classroom, identifying issues and strategies to make courses and curriculums better achieve these three distinct aims. The second piece specifically addresses retention and how a student’s background and the way curricula and courses are designed and carried out might make those students more or less prone to withdrawal from a course or low attainment. In particular, it provides a series of case studies of staff development programs intended to equip staff with the skills to identify and address these problems in their courses. Some of the ideas outlined in the two pieces are familiar ones, others less so, and I thought I would reflect on a few of them.

The idea of ‘liberating the curriculum’ is one I like very much. As an undergraduate studying history, the area of study I found most exciting was not that of a specific period, often dominated by a particular historical perspective, but that of historiography, in effect the history of history. In this field a multitude of competing voices came together to argue over the essential problem, succinctly summarised by E.H Carr in the title of his 1961 book What is History? In historiography north-American empiricist voices collided with African post-colonialist narratives and European micro-histories in the most fascinating debates over the discipline’s form and function. This multitude of differing voices and viewpoints is something I have sometimes tried to replicate in my own classes, albeit in more modest ways. When giving introductory lectures on the subject area to new students I try to pick examples which represent a diversity of definitions, viewpoints, experiences, as much as including examples which provide the traditional definitions or repeats the traditional canon of ‘great’ documentary photographers. Inevitably though teachers also teach to their subject knowledge, and the more I try to do this the more I realise the limits of what I know beyond the familiar canon..

From liberation to equality, another issue raised is how different forms of learning, assessment and feedback benefit or weaken the learning experience of different students. This is again something I’ve had to think about in classes, albeit in quite specific, narrow ways. I know for example that a significant number of my students (and at LCC generally) have degrees of dyslexia, and coming from a family with a history of that condition I think I am somewhat aware of teaching strategies which might help (or hinder) these students. But in respect of other conditions I know relatively little and tend to adapt on the fly to new students and new disabilities, researching and adapting as I go, not always with total success. However this approach has the downside that it relies on knowledge of the disabilities represented in the class, whether because they are visible or the student discloses them, and clearly there are many situations where neither of these will be the case. Another area discussed, alternative assessment and feedback possibilities is something I’ve thought less about, although it has come up in discussion with colleagues at work and at other institutions. When it does though it has tended to be less in relation to diversity than in terms of approaches which might be more clearly articulated to students at the start of units, and more transparent, and less onerous and stressful for students and staff at the point of assessment.

Turning to solutions, the idea of a course diversity audit, whether carried out by people internal or external to it, sounds useful. It’s easy to get swept up in the complexities of formulating and planning lessons (much less carrying them out) and to lose sight of subtleties which an external observer might be able to more easily and objectively identify and propose solutions to. That said, a lecturer’s willingness to accept solutions depends on an individual’s teaching style and willingness to adapt to these suggestions. In this regard I think the NUS report is right in making the point that staff themselves need to want to address these issues, and in the end these sorts of changes will hinge on that will, and the extent to which staff see fostering this sort of inclusiveness as part of their mission as educators, not as something foisted on them from outside. For some teachers (I think myself included) the latter is pre-existing, and it is seen, to borrow from bell hooks, as part of the political agenda that lies behind the desire to teach. For others who have a more old fashioned or mechanistic view of teaching that will maybe not be the case. Of the two solutions suggested in the NUS report, the idea that it be introduced by linking it to employee appraisal is one solution to that, although I wonder if that route is just as likely to generate resentment. Alternatively highlighting the positive effect, it can have on students and the learning environment more generally and offering the frameworks to learn more about these areas through things like staff development would seem a less forceful approach but perhaps ultimately a more productive one.

Reading: Teaching to Transgress

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bell hooks

Much like the writing of her pedagogic mentor Paolo Freire, bell hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress is concerned with how, at it’s best, education can be an empowering and inspiring processes, and how equally when conducted in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons it can be an oppressive and depressing experience for students and teachers alike. Combining Freire’s critical pedagogy with feminist and post-colonial theory, and drawing on hook’s own experiences as both student and teacher, Teaching to Transgress identifies some of the reason that classrooms and lessons inspire or don’t, and offers something of a toolkit of ideas and inspiration to counter some of these problems.

In the introduction hooks sets out her own experiences of being taught, recounting how during her early years at a segregated American school she was educated by black female teachers for whom teaching was itself a political act against the white male hegemony of the southern United States. The efforts of these teachers meant that school was for hooks a space where she was able to transgress the expectations she faced at home and in wider society, and consequently it became ‘a place of pleasure, ecstasy and danger’ [p.3]. However, following the desegregation of southern schools she increasingly encountered teachers, predominantly white, for whom education was functional rather than political, and who looked on her as a precocious black student not with encouragement, but with suspicion. She recounts how this continued at college, where she was taught by professors who seemed to have little interest in teaching and who in some cases were manifestly unequipped for the task. Entering the class room as a teacher herself, hooks responded to these experiences, and her encounters with the ideas of Freire and feminist pedagogy to deploy her own approach to teaching. She covers a huge amount of territory in the two hundred or so pages of this book, and so I will just briefly summarise a few of her ideas here that seem particularly cogent to my own experiences and aims as a teacher.

Throughout the text hooks challenges a variety of common assumptions about what makes for good or bad teaching. She challenges the denigration of the teaching profession, not least from within academia where teaching is sadly sometimes seen as subsidiary to or a distraction from the real business of academic research or artistic practice. This seems vitally important, if teachers are to teach effectively they need to enjoy and own the process in much the same way we often encourage students to enjoy learning and own the knowledge that results. Hooks also questions the invariably unspoken but prevailing wisdom that teachers who are geniuses in the classroom are those who are necessarily damaged in other areas of their life, whether emotionally damaged, hard drinking, sexually inappropriate, or something else, and argues for a shift away from this towards self-actualisation and wholeness as a pre-requisite for good teaching. She argues against the need for teachers to be dictators in the classroom, and the value of an openness with students which many lecturers might feel uneasy about (one chapter indeed analyses the erotic and sexual dynamics of teaching). hook’s mantra that ‘In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.’ [p.21] is one I have often repeated to students myself, albeit formulated in different ways.

hooks challenges in other ways, for example suggesting that practices and ideas often viewed with scepticism by teachers or students can be vital to the energy of a classroom and the value of learning. Two seemingly diametrically opposed examples which I will discuss briefly are fun and theory. For hooks, fun, excitement even, must be an important element of teaching, even if that runs counter to traditional thinking that often views fun as disruptive. For hooks excitement about ideas was not necessarily enough to generate an exciting environment, it must also come from the relationships within the group. She views it as important to get away from the relatively narrow relationship between students and teacher, and for tutors to both know students and what motivates them and for students to know each other. Institutionally the success or failure of a classroom environment is usually seen as the responsibility of the teacher, but hooks argues that everyone in the room plays a part in this process and teachers also have to be realistic about what they can achieve with a given group, recounting a class she found immensely hard to motivate as an example.

While fun might sometimes be viewed with doubt by teachers, theory is often viewed sceptically by photography practitioners including some students when they enter the classroom. While some students engage with questions of ethics, representation or interpretation vigorously, the urge to ask what the point of this all is can sometimes to be on the lips of others, a question I often feel is as important to vocalise and discuss as the topics that have given rise to it. Drawing on feminist theory hooks argues that theory isn’t inherently ‘liberatory or revolutionary’ [p.61] but can become those things when we ask it to be. It can as easily be oppressive, entrenching forms of power and privilege, and ‘often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place’ [p.62] or which may become ‘a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice that most seeks to create a gap between theory and practice’ [p.64]. As well as calling out the inappropriate use of theory, hooks also calls for an emphasis on personal experience as the basis for theory, and inversely, an integration of theory into everyday life and action, an echoing of Freire’s ideas about the importance of praxis in teaching and learning.

In short hooks covers an immense array of ground which I feel I’ve hardly begun to summarise here. The experiences and anecdotes are often highly personal and in some respects specific to a US system but regardless there is much here of relevance to my own experiences and aspirations as a teacher and a documentary practitioner. In particular hooks’s belief that teaching can conjoin with the other elements of practice, and her assertion that teaching ‘has been essential to my development as an intellectual, as a teacher /professor because the heart of this approach to learning is critical thinking’ [p.202]. hooks is candid about the reality that engaged pedagogy is not a solution to all of the problems that face teachers and students, indeed within universities these approaches can sometimes create new problems even as they help to resolve old ones. Still the overarching mood of her book is one of hopeful optimism and as she concludes, ‘the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility’ [p.207]

Reading: Discipline and Punish

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Michel Foucault

While Discipline and Punish isn’t actually on the reading list for my PG Cert, I returned to it recently as part of my research for something else and as I read it occurred that it would be a useful text to summarise and reflect on briefly in terms of teaching and the classroom. Michel Foucault’s writing on power, health and sexuality has been profoundly influential in the social sciences and arts, to the paradoxic extent that the ideas of thinker whose career was largely predicated on critiquing how modes of thought are made possible, become entrenched, and close down the possibility for other forms of thought, has become, frankly, deeply entrenched themselves. Discipline and Punish is probably one of his best-known texts, in part because it’s relative accessibility but also because of its implications for how we view the modern world, in particular many of its pastoral practices, from incarceration, to healthcare, to schooling.

In the book Foucault charts the evolution of disciplinary practices from the early modern to modern eras. He begins with the very physical and public coercion of the early modern state (opening the book with an excruciating account of the last execution to occur in France for the crime of attempted regicide) before leaping forward to more modern and comparatively humane methods of treatment and punishment following the French revolution. What is significant in this is Foucault’s assertion that what initially appears to be a progressive evolution in the way discipline is created is actually the exchange of one means of oppression for another. Where previously control was exerted through physical restraint and overt violence, he suggests in the modern era these restraints are increasingly internalised instead, with the mere threat of punishment (now carried out away from public view) being enough in many cases to enforce normative or ‘proper’ behaviour in targeted groups like criminal and the mentally ill. Alongside the direct incarceration of marginalised groups, behaviour is incalculated into mainstream populations as well through similar but even more covert means, resulting in a new discipline of biopower, the micromanagement of living things.

This tendency becomes evident in the new architecture of the modern state, in factories, hospitals and of course schools, and is most clearly exemplified for Foucault in Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. This was conceived by Bentham as a prison building which would create in its occupants the sensation that could be under scrutiny at any time, and thereby enforcing inner restraint. Bentham’s idea was never realised in his lifetime, and Foucault’s re-employment of it (as he later acknowledged) was somewhat idealistic in terms of the mechanics of how such a building would work in practice, but his articulation of panopticonism has been influential on a wide range of fields from photography theory to surveillance studies. Despite the emergence of a school of post-panoptic thinking in surveillance studies, the legacy of the Panopticon persists ironically even in an era when increasingly automated surveillance technologies make the reality of total observation as practical as the illusion of it, an example if one were needed of Foucault’s relative unassailability as a thinker even after time and change have started to erode the applicability of some of his ideas.

Still the model of the Panopticon remains relevant in many spheres, not least as one to consider in relation to the spatial arrangements of the classroom. In their layouts schools and universities typically still invariably follow an arrangement which dates back to Bentham’s era (and earlier), of a teacher speaking with or without visual prompts in front of rows of forward facing students. This model affords visibility of the teacher to the students, but also inversely creates a panoptic effect that makes it easy for the teacher to see all activity in the room (something students frequently seem unaware of until they occupy the position of the teacher). Besides the benefits of this arrangement for students to observe and teachers to survey, this structure would also seem to create an innate hierarchy or distance between on the one hand the teacher or lecturer and the medium of information (projection, whiteboard, demonstration) and on the other the students who are receiving the information. Viewed in light of Freire’s ideas about the importance of unity between students and staff, the effect of this hierarchy or distance is interesting to consider.

What Foucault’s ideas also push me to ask is what happens when the traditional spatial characteristics of the classroom are altered and experimented with. There are interesting precedents for this in other structures with similar semi-panoptic qualities, for example in a small number of churches, as in Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, pews face inward along the aisle not towards the front, with parishioners facing parishioners thereby creating a very different dynamic to other churches which face the altar and priest. A very different example, following the Second World War the court room at Nuremberg was extensively remodelled in anticipation of the war crimes trials that would take place there. As part of the process the judges seat at the front of the court was moved to make space for a large screen on which would be projected evidence of the crimes of those on trial. These examples and the different dynamics they achieved were the result of accident as much as design, but along with Foucault’s ideas about space and power they lead me to wonder what results might be achieved by altering the space of the classroom. How does it change the relationships between participants, and engagement with ideas, when teachers for example speak from the back rather than the front, or when students face each other?

Another final question for me to consider is how all of this relates to the non-space of online teaching, where students and teachers are brought together in a dematerialised virtual classroom, in my case the Blackboard platform, while simultaneously occupying disparate real world spaces, often separated by thousands of miles. This type of teaching experience clearly evaporates some of the dynamics and hierarchies of the physical class room’s layout and architecture, but to what extent does it replace old divisions and hierarchies with new ones? Do questions of international geography and network neutrality start to play greater roles than question of local space arrangement, with issues of distance and borders introducing issues of latency and potentially also sensitivities in terms of what is shown and discussed that are quite different to those that might exist when a class occupy the same physical space? Again these are questions to which I don’t yet have any answers but would like to explore further.

Reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

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Paolo Freire

It will be evident from the title of this blog Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968 and then in English two years later, has already been an influence on my thinking. The book emerged from Freire’s own experiences of a chilhood in poverty in Brazil and later from teaching adult literacy classes. As well as being shaped by his personal and professional experiences Freire’s argument is heavily informed by post-colonial and neo-marxist theory. In terms of the former, evident is the influence of the writings of Frantz Fanon, who’s Wretched of the Earth published in 1961 has interesting parallels with Freire’s writing in the way it analyses the creation of colonial power and what it envisions as the perquisites for struggle and liberation. In terms of the latter the writings of Antonio Gramsci (discussed later) have also clearly been important.

Freire attempts to do several things in his book. For starters, he makes a compelling argument against the platitude that knowledge is in itself power, suggesting instead that the means by which knowledge arrives is at least as important. As a result of this education can prove to be a force for oppression, which reinforces the relationships between those with power and those without, as much as a tool of liberation. This re-entrenching of oppression happens via a form of mutual consent, even though this relationship is clearly in the interest of the former group and not the latter. Freire sees freedom as something which can never be simply bestowed on those without it by those in power, however well-intentioned the latter might be, but as something which must be proactively taken by those who lack it. Part of the route to doing this is praxis, essentially action informed by knowledge (or inversely knowledge made into action) which Freire sees as the product of successful education. As someone who has always felt uncomfortable with the idea of theory and practice as distinct arenas, Freire’s emphasis on praxis is exciting.

In the second chapter Freire seeks to define and critique a banking model of education, a narrative approach to education where the educator’s role is to store up or deposit information in the student for example through linear, didactic classes. Freire sees this (fairly traditional) model of teaching as problematic because of its top down nature, it’s tendency to stifle creativity and prevent students from actively participating in the process of learning or the ownership of knowledge. ‘Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat’ (p.58). In my short experience this is often the model students seem most used to when we ‘inherit’ them from previous teachers and institutions, particularly secondary school, and it can be a difficult one for students to escape from when they have a strong sense that learning is an essentially passive experience. The question of how you break down this expectation where it has already taken hold is something I’m interested to explore more in the future.

A third idea Freire introduces is the idea of conscientizacao, meaning critical consciousness or consciousness building, as a core task of education. He argues that the role of a teacher is to enable students to reflect on their world critically, and by doing this to recognise those aspects of it they wish to challenge or change. This idea has some parallels with Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about power being rooted in ideology, and his suggestion that the means by which specific groups exercise power is through the transmutation of ideology, either into something which appears innate and unquestionable (and which therefore may not be challenged) or into something self-evidently artificial and therefore ripe to be torn down and replaced with something else. Freire’s conscientizacao suggests that we equip students with the critical skills to see through the world around them, identify those areas that are problematic to them and then tackle them in the way that seems appropriate to them. This again has definite resonance for the teaching of documentary photography, where a critical consciousness about events in the world and a willingness to ask questions which some might construe as so obvious as to be not worth asking can often lead to the production of the most engaging and original documentary work.

In short Friere’s context and students might be radically different from those of the English higher education system, but there are some interesting comparisons and similarities which might be pulled out of it. Teaching literacy for example bears some similarity to teaching photography, where such a large part of what we do is to teach visual literacy, something which is far harder, slower and ultimately more productive to acquire than knowledge of how a particular camera works. As mentioned at the start of this post, this is not my first encounter with Freire’s work and something I am interested to consider in the future is how his ideas relate to the radically different contexts in which I teach, including the use of online platforms. While e-learning is often touted as liberational in the way it potentially transcends many of the physical limitations of traditional face to face education, and as an almost transparent portal through which teaching continues as normal, critical theory suggests otherwise, and it would be an interesting question to think about the extent to which e-learning encourages or discourages the sort of active, critical learning that Friere is advocating.

Why Teach Photography?

Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky Lewis Hine, 1916
Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

These days about half my working week is occupied with teaching and with its accompanying activities; preparation, marking, tutorials, admin, standing in line for coffee. The amount of time I’ve spent occupied with this, and the fact I’ll be undertaking a post-graduate teaching qualification this year, has led me to think more and more about what it actually means to teach. Having been surrounded by teachers for much of my life, at home, at school, at university and then in college, it has always seemed such an everyday activity that it didn’t seem to warrant consideration. Teaching seemed entirely natural, like talking. Since I have started to teach I’ve gradually begun to think about it for the first time as a practice in the same sense that I think of photography or writing, as something which is cultivated and developed over time, which grows and evolves and solidifies, rather than being something that one just rather mechanically does.

This shift in perspective has opened up a multitude of questions for me, about what my ethos as a teacher is, about what constitutes good teaching, about how teaching can be sustainable and can not only function alongside other areas of my practice but in direct harmony with them. I have gradually started to synthesise some of the resulting thoughts into writing. I do this in the knowledge that these conclusions are likely to change over the following years as I think and learn more about teaching (and also as I do much more of it) but that’s rather part of the point. The ability to look back at my thoughts about things has always been part of the purpose of this blog, ossifying ideas so that later I can return, cutting through the strata of years of intervening contemplation, to arrive back at the bedrock, the foundations of it all. It is interesting in doing this to find that writing which seemed so essential and fresh at the time of putting pen to paper, now appears on rereading years later to be composed of nothing but ill shaped thoughts and vestigal ideas.

My approach to teaching has always been based on my own experiences as a student and of my relationships with those teachers who I remember years later, whether for better or for worse. I have always felt that one can learn as much from the bad as from the good, and like most people I have in my time had to contend with indifferent, bored, and even downright aggressive teachers and lecturers. I have been taught by people who made little effort to disguise their contempt for their students or mask the sense that teaching was a burdensome thing distracting them from their true calling in life, whether that was performing in a pub rock band or researching an obscure period of history. I’ve also been taught by people who actually seemed to rather hate their subject. These people have in a strange way become a minor guiding light of mine. They are a reminder to always strive to never become like any of them, and a reminder that whatever difficulties and frustrations are occurring elsewhere in my life I need to be mindful not to carry them into the classroom with me.

The many positive learning experiences I have had over the years as a student have been far more of an inspiration for my own teaching than the negative ones. I’ve had teachers who brought subjects to life and to light, who went to great lengths to make sure I understood, but who also did more than the bare bones of just decanting knowledge and making sure it stuck. I’ve had teachers who took time and expended effort to engage and know each student as far as they could, and in the process, they helped us know ourselves. These experiences all inform the class room environment I hope to create, one where students feel understood, that their tutors are interested both in their work on the course but also more broadly in what motivates and interests them. I hope an environment like this will in turn foster a sense that a diversity of experiences, interests, backgrounds, orientations and goals are all equally welcome, where students feel able to push and explore ideas about the wider world and about their own identities and aims. I don’t want to simply define photojournalism and documentary photography to my students, I want them to define it for themselves, in relation to their own experiences. Learning has been and continues to be a profoundly empowering process for me, a shy child who was always more interested in the constructions of his own inner world than the arbitrary reality outside of it. I want my students to have a similarly empowering experience, even while I recognise that the knowledge that matters to them and ways they might be empowered by it are likely to be very different.

At the same time as feeling empowered by education I want students to feel positively challenged in classes, intellectually and practically. This aim sometimes competes with the intentions outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly where a student group encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and personalities, some of whom might require more or different challenge than others. A famous declaration by Finley Peter Dunne comes to mind when I think of teaching, his suggestion that the purpose of a newspaper was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ would seem to have some relevance in the classroom. One aims for fairness and equality in treatment, while at the same recognising that different students need different guidance. Some students come with little confidence and need to be fortified simply in order to get them to make work, others come with an excess of confidence in their own abilities and need this to be questioned so that they can see the work they make with different eyes and in doing so make it better.

The Dunne quote I referenced above is also instructive in that it reminds me to constantly ask what the social function of teaching is, and to scrutinise where one stands as a teacher in the structures of society. Judging from my own experiences there is no fixed answer here, teachers can be activist, transgressive and speak truth to power (E.P Thompson’s searing expose Warwick University Limited comes to mind as an example from my alma mater). They can also  be conservative and defensive of ingrained inequalities and vested interests, a fact that seems particularly worth remembering in the context of the photography world, with it’s massive and largely unacknowledged inequalities, myriad gatekeepers and special interests. The idea of education as a force for social change, as articulated by Paolo Freire is one I find compelling, even if the promises of his ideas might be more modest in 21st century Britain than in the context in which he originated them. With the education sector increasingly seen as a business and students as customers, Freire’s ideas about how education can be a source of liberation or a means of entrenching inequality and his calls for solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between teacher and taught seem highly relevant today. Likewise his idea of consciousness building seems pertinent to a field like documentary photography, where such a large part of the work is a process of disentangling the complex issues and systems one hopes to explore.

And lastly, I often find myself mulling questions of sustainability in a variety of senses. In some ways I find it remarkable how little technology has so far disrupted the teaching profession in contrast to other fields. I can’t see this lasting, and the smart teachers and institutions will be the ones anticipating how technology will change the demand, nature and delivery of education. An area I’m interested in specialising in is the use of online teaching platforms, technologies which bring with them their own peculiar dynamics, challenges and possibilities which are quite different to those of the physical classroom. With much current discussion of the precarity of the teaching profession I also find myself thinking about how teaching can be made professionally sustainable over the long term, both by working within traditional institutions of learning and outside of them. I often find myself wondering how teaching can work in harmony with the other things I want to spend my time on, and to some extent articulating these ideas here is a first tentative step into this area. The prevalent view of university arts teaching almost as a sort of subsidy for a small number of creative people to make their own work, research, or sometimes simply rest on their laurels, seems deeply unviable in the face of impending technological change, not to mention undesirable in the effect it sometimes has on those teacher’s attitudes towards teaching. So, these are the reasons I teach, because like so many things the challenges, promises, and the constant questions it presents are fascinating to me. In the end I teach, quite simply, because I want to learn.

This is a repost of a piece originally published on my blog Disphotic in December 2016.