bell hooks said, ‘Talking about pedagogy, thinking about it critically, is not something most folks think is hip and cool.’ (1994, 204)
Thankfully hooks was not of this mindset and her engaged pedagogy reveals the complex passing between and production of power and love in the teaching and learning exchange. Like hooks, I am compelled by the alchemy of pedagogy – the dance between teacher and student which unites theory, practice and praxis. Too often pedagogy is implicit in scholarship. What if the extraordinary beauty and complexity of pedagogic training practices became a field of research in its own right? What if at the heart of this was trying to support each other in practicing freedoms within our teaching? At a time when certain pedagogic practices have been called to account it seems vital that we join together to build a community of practice, that repositions and re-thinks what training is.
It’s time to talk about pedagogy – to dive deep into the processes of teaching and learning – What are we teaching? How are we doing it? And why?
The December 2021 edition of TDPT (12:4) reflects a movement towards working with educational research methodologies to interrogate our pedagogies – McNamara’s work with Bloom’s taxonomy (528-540), Aujla’s action research (482-499) and Mircev’s critical pedagogy (540-554). Harnessing this momentum, I propose we make space to think about our work as embodied critical pedagogy or liberatory pedagogy or post-critical pedagogy (more on this later). We know that what we offer students goes far beyond technique. That, at its best, it can open up questions about how to be, how to see, how to feel; to nurture what Anne Bogart describes as ‘civic responsibilities’ through the practice of art (2021). It is a great privilege to share in this deep discovery yet, at the same time, a great responsibility that has become increasingly complex – an entangling that can feel like treading on eggshells, can steal energy and sap joy.
I’d like to talk about pedagogy and mine the potential of embodied knowledge intersecting with educational practice. I’m sure, like me, you have many questions. Let’s work together to find some answers or to ask better questions.
On Freedom and Pedagogy:
Here’s a biggie to start with:
At this cultural moment what does freedom mean in relation to training practices?
In Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint she problematises the word ‘freedom’ whose meaning is not universal or self-evident, citing Foucault’s call for ‘practices of freedom’ as the ongoing work needed to agitate against the mechanisms of Advanced Capitalism (2021,6). The current outcry against systems of oppression and acts of abuse in actor training institutions demands a radical revisioning of what training is, who it is for and how it happens; it is time to look for different ways to navigate, different architectures and different materials. Paulo Freire noted that ‘Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.’ i.e. not by the teacher gifting the student knowledge but by the student taking control of their process of learning (2000,29). Whilst I recognise that you can’t give someone freedom, set someone free, I am driven by the idea that teaching performance practices might enact practices of freedom.
When I use the term critical pedagogy I am drawing on the work developed by Paulo Freire, first in Brazil with oppressed communities, which paved the way for teaching approaches that foreground marginalised groups, including, but not limited to, feminist, queer and race pedagogies. A liberatory pedagogy allows us to critique oppressive power structures in order to activate alternative ways of being. Recognising that any overview can be reductive, certain tenets can be seen to characterise this learning exchange:
- Students critique the mechanisms of power at work in language, behaviour and representation to understand how oppressive marginal positions are constructed and to re-imagine the status quo
- The negative view of ‘the other’ is challenged to seek empowerment where there is difference
- How you teach something is as important as what you teach
- There is the aim to flatten power structures
- There is a commitment to develop the individual’s political, personal and social awareness
- To recognise the complexities of problems as opposed to seeking conclusions
- To take notions of difference and particularity as productive sites for resistance
When we shift our focus away from ideas of technique in training and focus on the ‘hidden curriculum’, the personal and social knowledges, or dispositional qualities produced beside technique the developmental learning exchange of performer training can be re-considered as critical pedagogy.
Looking beyond methodologies, pedagogic research offers us ways to re-examine the effect of our co-constitutive praxis. Over the last decade my research has mapped an alternative female genealogy of training, looking at the work of women practitioners through the lens of feminist pedagogies. I want to address the lack of alternatives to the dominant white male lineages in the canon; the lack of visibility of women’s practices; the historical absence of focussed research into pedagogy. My book Act As A Feminist: Towards a Critical Acting Pedagogy interrogates the matter of training, with chapters on women working in voice, movement, acting and directing (2021). My focus is the politicising potential of training, working from Eve Sedgwick’s alternative ‘beside thinking’ (2003,8) to consider the personal and social knowledges of acting learnt beside technique. What, for instance, happens when we consider gender as technique?
Returning to a central idea in critical pedagogy, that how you teach is more important than what you teach, certain tenets of feminist thinking, observed through the pedagogies of women practitioners, shape some alternative architectures which enable practicing freedom in training. For example, working with feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s affirmative position to harness the potential of the ‘positivity of difference’ and ‘vital materialism’ can be seen as a practice of freedom (2011,161). Translating this into what I term the via positiva, an alternative position to learning through play and failure, based on love and support, takes Braidotti’s theory into pedagogic practice. Another possibility is to work with feminist physicist Karen Barad’s concept of ‘agential realism’ (2003,814). This offers a powerful alternative to the fetters of mimesis and representation that have troubled feminist thinking. Guiding students to recognise diffraction as a liberating alternative to reflection, where every interpretive action offers us choice in how to represent multiplicity and changeability, challenges hierarchical thinking and reveals our biases. In the studio or rehearsal room this can explode the possibilities when working with narrative, character and text. These are just a couple of alternative positions that can give momentum to practicing freedom in our pedagogies.
The work of the women practitioners I have had the privilege to observe has opened up exciting possibilities for alternative training curriculums and ways of teaching. What if we did things differently? What if, instead of teaching the same canon the students explored Kristine Landon Smith’s ‘intracultural actor’ or Niamh Dowling’s ‘nomadic actor’ or the late Ali Hodge’s ‘relational actor’ (Peck, 2021). What if movement, voice and acting were taught beside each other to synthesize the knowledges of acting, investigating what ‘readiness’ means for example in each of these domains? I’m excited to be part of a new era in training, with possibilities and opportunities to develop new ways of thinking through our pedagogies as practices of freedom.
In the Comeback section of the Blog, a group of practitioner/scholars responded to the Special Issue (TDPT 11.3) titled: Against the Canon. The editors thought through how studio practice could work with the edition as a stimulus. One statement stood out to me:
Don’t just decolonise the curriculum, decolonise the pedagogy.
We need to make space to talk about how to do this.
Let’s play 20 questions. I’d like to find ways to work through these with others:
(Big umbrella question)
What works? What doesn’t?
What research methods can we use to analyse and evaluate our pedagogies?
How does research in education intersect with training pedagogies?
How do we understand the term critical pedagogy in relation to training?
How can we capture and write about the teaching and learning exchange?
How do we foreground the politics of identity in our work?
How can assessment be decolonised?
What do we mean by a safe space and what do we do to try to create and maintain it?
How do we manage the power dynamic in teacher student relationships?
How is pedagogy about love?
What are the types of language that we use in the teaching/learning exchange?
How has the language we use changed and how might it continue to change?
How can working with time and space affect the learning exchange?
How do we work consciously with choice in the learning exchange?
How do we perform teaching? How does teaching perform us?
What is feedback?
How can peer learning be effective?
What are examples of assignments?
What are learning intentions and how can we make them useful?
Who are the teachers on whose shoulders we stand?
And that’s just for starters. I’m calling on all those who want to talk about pedagogy, who want to build a community of practice that grapples with difficult questions about teaching and learning to gather in. To start with, let me know what questions seem most urgent, intriguing or troubling; what questions I’ve missed. Come and join the TaPRA Performance Training event at the University of Sussex on May 20th, where we will be thinking through how we work with structures of choice in our training practices to enable critical embodied pedagogy. You can view details of this event on the TaPRA website:
Tickets are free to TaPRA members, but numbers are limited. Non-Members of TaPRA will have to obtain membership to attend (£18 standard rate, £10 concessions for postgraduates and non-affiliated researchers). Please book via Eventbrite at: