Frogs are Nothing Fancy

Except in some ways they are. They were today, down in the Lye Valley. In among the “warm thick slobber/of frogspawn that grew like clotted water” as Seamus Heaney puts it, were maybe a hundred frogs. Alerted by a notice from social media, I took Ivy, keen and energetic to see the frogs spawning in the fenny ponds near our house.

They weren’t Heaney’s “slime kings,” “their blunt heads farting,” but a congregation of animals, a welcome sign of spring on a warm afternoon. Not coarse, and not apocalyptic, just frogs: welcome, exuberantly sexual and productive. One watched us carefully as she sat in her grey cloud of eggs, her sides heaving; others climbed, swam, grabbed, and croaked like a distant motorbike starting up.

My immediate thought is that Bashō has it right: keep to the bare thing itself (a nice explanation of Bashō’s famous frog haiku and some translations are to be found here; more, with Zen comments, here) in a few terse lines: eschew the grandiose. Today at Mass, the preacher interrupted his own flow to correct his phrasing around a (very good) point of his sermon on Christology and spirituality and say “O dear, what pretentious twaddle!” – and perhaps Bashō does better with his short invitation to join him by the pond.

Continue reading “Frogs are Nothing Fancy”

Think Human and Think Literature

In among teaching, marking, and research, Mat Tobin has convened a really exciting evening panel conference (with me as whipper-in) and really to advertise this event as part of the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes, I thought I’d post a brief reflection – and if you aren’t already aware of how to book in, or what the details are, this is the link to the details on Eventbrite.childrens literature conference (1)-1

The award-winning panel we will meet at the event – Daniel Hahn, with discussants Catherine Johnson, Beverley Naidoo and S F Said – will of course have their own things to say, and Jon Appleton will reflect on Jan Mark as well, to start us off. I may get a chance to reflect by blog on the issues they raise later. I won’t subvert the discussion by starting it now. Well, not much.

I wanted to take a step back and think – as this blog title puts it – about how Think Human seems to me just has to be something to do with story. Over Christmas Chris Lovegrove followed closely the Twitter conversation about Masefield’s Box of Delights and in his summing up on his blog suggested that there is “fictionalising of autobiographical elements” in Masefield. Do we – or if I’m not going to overgeneralise, do I – do the reverse when I read? Did I need in some sense to become Kay Harker, the orphaned hero, when I first read The Midnight Folk and its sequel with my mum and dad comfortably having a Middle Class cup of tea downstairs? Do I autobiographise (that’s a terrible word; I promise not to use it again) elements of fiction as I read?

In the MA module I participate in, I ask the students to look at a chapter (15, if you’re interested)  of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he writes

Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.

(I must admit one reason for including this chapter in their discussion is MacIntyre’s example of the young man at the bus stop and the duck – but that’s by the way).

In life, MacIntyre suggests

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.

It would seem natural that, if we live this metaphor, we would try to discover patterns in our own narrative by looking at other people’s – fictional or actual. Empathy and even compassion are part of our participation in a story. It is interesting that MacIntyre’s own example includes this identification between storyteller and audience specifically in a drama/story context:

Each of us being a main character in his own drama … In my drama, perhaps,I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince…

I think it is fundamental to the conversation of drama, novel, even the everyday “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today…”  and perhaps it always has been. The hunter returns to the fire and tells us of the kill she or he has made, and we try and empathise ourselves into their account. Or they return and tell us of the deer that leapt past them into the undergrowth and how it lives and we think what it must be like to live like that, the choices it might make (and maybe how we might catch it) – and all of a sudden I am at one with Rob Cowan’s magnificent empathetic account of the deer in Common Ground. 4000 BCE or today.  The act of storytelling may have become more complex over millennia, but has an element of identification between telling and hearing: what one of the characters in Alan Garner’ Boneland pronounces as a ‘True Story,” a story in which we understand something more of ourselves, a story that makes us “think Human.”

But this is just my take: does everybody – writers, translators, readers – see it this way?  One of the main ideas of getting such major voices together was to urge people who come to Boxes of Delight to try and see what links there might be between how writers communicate. Are there common themes on how they approach their task? What is the importance of the values they communicate? Do they write for the child they once were; do they write with a specific audience in mind? 

See you on 11th Feb.?

 

 

Gifts Reserved for Age?

A storm was gathering yesterday that has hit us good and proper today. I had been for a walk and a coffee and came out from the pub to see the lights on in St Andrews across the way. Evening Prayer time in a warm, quiet, dark church.

And when I got home I looked up the words from T S Eliot because, I wanted, I suppose, some more of that sense of contemplation that Eliot tries for:

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England…

The aesthetic pathway of spirituality may be cultural, maybe victim to changing fashions or simply growing up, but it is not to be forgotten: it creates the thin places, or sharpens the senses to see those places where prayer has been valid, where the other and the now meet. Thin places. In the church the silent near-dark was stunning, and all those poems from all those Thomases,   Thomas Merton and R S Thomas and T S Eliot (not to mention Dylan Thomas’ “close and holy darkness”) were somehow at my elbow. And maybe the incense smudge of a memory of the church when I was a child, after Compline and Benediction, or the quiet of Magdalen after Night Prayer…

But tonight it is different, and the blustery grey has been superseded by a Wild Hunt of a storm. Time then to go back in my mind to another thin place, to the little, basic cottage on the North York moors where this poem from Kathleen Raine was posted up by a previous inhabitant, and said so much about a keener, wilder, maybe more dangerous spirituality. I have cited it before.

Let in the wind,
Let in the rain,
Let in the moors tonight,
The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,
The dead that rot in the mire,
Let in the thronging ancestors,
The unfilled desire,
Let in the wraith of the dead earl,
Let in the dead tonight.

Let in the cold,
Let in the wet,
Let in the loneliness,
Let in the quick,
Let in the dead,
Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave
A covering for the void,
How can my fearful heart conceive
Gigantic solitude?
How can a house so small contain
A company so great?
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead,
Let in your love tonight.
Let in the snow that numbs the grave,
Let in the acorn-tree,
The mountain stream and mountain stone,
Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart
And frail my virgin form,
And must I then take pity on
The raging of the storm
That rose up from the great abyss
Before the earth was made,
That pours the stars in cataracts
And shakes this violent world?

Let in the fire,
Let in the power,
Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about my house
With all the violence of desire
Desiring this my peace.

Down in Yon Forest

This is a bit of a mish-mash, with all sorts of sources bunged together. I’d like to think of it as an enquiry into why Christmas a time of nostalgia but suspect it is a pile of stuff under a Christmas tree with no labels: sort through the pile and see what you can find. But why do we look back at Christmas? img_1806-1Why does the glorious The Friendly Beasts by Tomie de Paola have choristers and candles to sign/sing us to the stable? It is as if the validity of Christmas in some ways springs from this appeal to the past. Is it because Christianity has created a feast in which “history” is one of the most important guests?  I’m not sure. De Paola often has this sense of tradition, such as his retelling of Italian folk tales, the beautiful Clown of God, and representations of Bible stories – and the Night Before Christmas, which is our family’s standard version of the poem (follow this link to Jake Hayes who has some lovely photos of this version). There is some of that, certainly, right from St Luke’s dating of events and the genealogies he and St Matthew produce. Perhaps it is also because, in the partial extirpation of a pagan Yule, one of the things that remains is an echo that says “remember how it used to be…” – and could this be an attempt to return to a (mythical) Christmas of our own childhoods?  And then maybe in England that nostalgia includes a sorrowing for some good old days, a golden age around  1500 CE or maybe 1600, or 1800…  There is more than one ghost of Christmas past, I suspect, and maybe as well as our personal ones we carry ones for our society too, whether we acknowledge them or not.

It is not only Dickens that feels the weight of past Christmasses. Cole Hawlings who “does date from pagan times” in The Box of Delights sings the rescued Cathedral staff back to their Midnight Mass  where they are greeted by the monks from years past

…for on such a Christmas Eve what one of them would keep away?

and Tolly’s dream-like experience of Midnight Mass moves between his own twentieth century and the past of his family in the seventeenth. As I have just cited recently, Susan Cooper celebrates this looking back when celebrating the Solstice:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day…

What is the attraction of the past for this festival?

In the run-up to this Christmas I come back (again) to poets Thomas Merton and R S Thomas. Here are two poems that seem to me typical of their approach to Christmas. Merton first of all, surrounded by the traditions of his faith and practice like Duccio’s Maesta or Martini’s: All those hopes and fears of all the years gathered around the Virgin and Child:

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
and lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom is born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.

Merton: Carol

and Thomas, well, Thomas is aware of the biting wind of doubt and silence in the Nada Nada Nada, Y En El Monte Nada of St John of the Cross. Here he captures a Christmas purity that I think is hard to beat:

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

Thomas: Nativity

RST is like this: grounded but bleak, with a now rather than a history in his poem. This is often his way, I think (although not always): a doubting impatience in the spiritual –

Will you continue to torment us?
If you are ubiquitous, why
not be here when we say : Now?

Thomas: Could Be

I have been a student of your love

and have not graduated. Setting
my own questions, I bungled
the examination…

Thomas: Incarnation

Merton,  however, pours out his love not only for the God he seeks in monastic profession but also in places for the life itself:

The sun that plays in the amazing church
Melts all the rigor of those cowls as grey as stone – Or in the evening gloom that clouds them through those tintless panes,
The choirs fall down in tidal waves
And thunder on the darkened forms in a white surf of Glorias.

Merton: St Ailred

I’m not sure I can answer my own question, to be honest: Christmas is a time of looking back, looking forward – and inwards too. For me, the tensions between the very grounded (and dark) spirituality of R S Thomas and the almost ecstatic exuberance of Thomas Merton is resolved in a medieval lyric:

This is the text:

Lully, lullay, lully, lullay,
The fawcon hath born my mak away.

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall
That was hangid with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede;
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His woundes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston :
Corpus Christi wretyn thereon.

It is known as a Christmas carol in a slightly altered version, where the moon shines bright on a saviour… born this night, but the earliest version seems to me to be a visit to the Sacrament where the Passion is clearly discerned.  Benjamin Britten’s version is here, but the version of Britten’s setting I know best and love is Jeff Buckley’s anguished countertenor.

But let’s go back a bit. Here I am, in the mid-70s, eighteen or nineteen years old, and opening my new Breviary for the first time, exploring what it has in it. It has an appendix of poems as well as hymns and in coming for the first time to the Corpus Christi carol I remember myself (a year or so before) back to a little gothic church in the hills above Guildford.

Lully lulley; lully lulley.

The fawcon hath born my mak away.

So why the falcon? And why the lullaby refrain? The idea of being suddenly snatched now makes me think of a sparrowhawk or peregrine, but I will let my C16th predecessor (who doubtless was more at home with such things as this MS/blog from the British Library suggest) have her/his way. In a near-sleep, dreamlike state, a soul is snatched away to a hall –

He bare hym up, he bare hym down;

He bare hym into an orchard brown.

…and in the hall in a wood (or Eden after the Fall, its trees bare), sees the truth of the link between Passion and Eucharist.

The trees surrounding the Franciscan Friary church (now Chilworth Abbey) could well be leafless in winter, and at any rate the “truth” of this matters less than what the image said to me in my late teens: a religious experience that was sudden and rooted in mediaeval imagery brought me (I am unsure who “my mak” is otherwise) to an altar, to the reserved sacrament on its bed. We might well be beyond the limits of medieval orthodoxy here, in the realm of the eternally bleeding Fisher King perhaps, as we look at the knight in bed and his attending virgin. The song remains sited for me in a small monastic/friary choir, all gothic and quiet. What strikes me some forty-odd years later is how powerful the medieval imagery is.

This seems to me to be important for a number of reasons, and at the moment, prominent in these for me is that whatever we make of this kind of medievalism it remains a touchstone of Christian – or perhaps Catholic Christian – piety. It allows us back into a time (or a mythology) where there was space for a rich visual and linguistic expression of religious practice. I might contest this, sometimes – a sort of liturgical Sealed Knot where historical re-enactment is what it’s all about – but I cannot deny its power. It allows me to read The Cloud of Unknowing, or Bl Julian of Norwich with a sense of continuity that draws on aesthetics as much as reason or ipsissima verba. It opens a door, as it were, to the MSS I love to read.

I sometimes wonder whether, somewhere along the line, I learned (probably wrongly) that this allowed me to say “I belonged;” I belonged to something big and beatific. Seeing it at Chilworth was therefore a step towards the belonging I felt for a time at Magdalen and then Ampleforth and then Blackfriars. And therefore for me Christmas might be some kind of looking backwards to see what Christmas means; to some extent, looking at might-have-beens.

Puddleglum

Above Dr Slop and Mr Slope And Mrs Proudie and all the Blooms, Flashmans [sic], Golightlies and Trunchballs (and Honeys) and other characters with significant names – even Agnes Nutter – one character in fiction stands out for me as having not so much a name as a character description:

Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle in C S Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

The Narnian ancestor of Fungus the Bogeyman, Puddleglum is never one to look on the bright side of life. His fenny existence is as dull and damp and depressing as his expectations are low. When Eustace and Jill and Puddleglum reach the giants’ gastle, he very typically says “We’ve done the silliest thing in the world by coming at all: but now
that we are here, we’d best put a bold face on it.” I might have wished him voiced by one of the more lugubrious characters created by Les Dawson or some maungy character from Last of the Summer Wine.  Today, 13.12.19, maybe I could voice it myself.

And the genius of Lewis’s depicting such a gloomy character is that The Silver Chair is enlivened by the warmth with which Puddleglum is presented: a comic character ” as doleful as a funeral,” a caricature of an adult whose task seems to be to depress the enthusiasm of the child protagonists. But then comes this, his best speech, and the heart of Lewis’ contra mundum (or at least contra Senior Common Room) beliefs: fighting the lulling enchantments of the Witch who wants to entrap the heroes in her Underland, he stamps on her fire and returns to her:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
The Silver Chair (and I have to admit it is my favourite of the Narnian chronicles) deals with enslavement to enchantment as the allegory of sin with such vivid detail – the eponymous silver chair being the beautiful instrument that holds Prince Rilian in thrall to the Witch – that it makes me wonder whether Lewis is doing something autobiographical here. One of the beauties of the storytelling is that it works at all sorts of levels, religious and non-religious spirituality: sin and redemption; exile and homecoming. And what are we in thrall to? And who liberates whom?
And if we are on a quest to find a way to be free, what is the role of Puddleglum in our lives?
There is a danger in seeing a superficial mindfulness as the touchstone of happiness, “I have been mindful today” being the spiritual equivalent of “I must, I must improve my bust.” What Puddleglum does is remind us that jollity is not happiness, that it is not always necessary to look forward to a glorious dawn in order to be righteous or holy or whatever. And today I think of the cruelty of the death of St Lucy, the plight of many in a false dawn for a brand new (= same old, same old) Britain, and I wonder if, with so little cause for carolings, I can be glum for a while, and alongside Puddleglum can “take a serious view of life” – and still be prepared to stamp out, when needed, the seductive sweetness of a sorcerer‘s fire.

Merlyn

I am reading T H White’s The Book of Merlyn again after a long break.

The paper trail is not edifying so maybe it needs acknowledging – at least, the messiness needs some acknowledging. It is a mess of the biographies of two men: William Mayne and T H White. There remain all sorts of issues about how we celebrate the creativity of people whose personal lives did not measure up to the standards we would wish. That is at least some acknowledgement…  

I came back to the Sword in the Stone again having read William Mayne’s The Worm in the Well, which echoes it. I asked when I’d read it if Mayne’s flaws deafen me to his message of reconciliation and renewal; I find myself asking over and over the same with T H White – something I was alerted to in Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. But for the purposes of this blog post (which will largely be quotation from the Book of Merlyn) I am going to set aside the author and look at the text.

I know I’ve written about the magic patriarch before, when Merlin, Merriman et al have come up from my reading (here, for example, where I mention White explicitly, and then here, for the “humanist rabbit pulled from a transcendental hat,” and most recently here) but Merlyn – note the spelling – is here at the moment because of T H White’s lost-and-found masterpiece and its subject. Setting aside the moving first sections, the re-encounter of Merlyn with his former pupil (now beaten and old and depressed) the substance of the story brings us to Badger’s sett, to, in effect, an Oxbridge Senior Common Room in the grand old style, the Combination Room, where Arthur is tasked by Merlyn and the animal committee to make sense  of the human condition, in the last night before Arthur’s final battle.

White’s construction of Merlyn’s prophetic powers is that he is living his life in the opposite direction to the rest of us. Merlyn has known the insanities of C20th totalitarian regimes (White wrote the book as part of his struggle about whether he should maintain his pacifism), refers affectionately (but not without criticism) to his friend Karl Marx, and gets muddled in trying to explain to Arthur that the whole story they are in is on a book – the book I am holding. img_1629The gentle, bookish comedy aside, this allows Merlyn the painful knowldege that Arthur is to die in battle the next day, and for White/Merlyn to comment on fascism and communism, and for King Arthur, lost and tired,  to ponder his path, as (with the the magician’s assistance) he visits ants, geese and takes advice from the donnish Badger and the Plain People of England in the shape of the Hedgehog… What makes Arthur Arthur? What makes a Human Homo Ferox rather than Homo Sapiens? Facing defeat of everything he thought he stood for, yet surrounded by his animal advisers and under the magic of the querulous Merlyn (beautifully depicted by Trevor Stubley), Arthur, the aged king, is exhausted:

There was a thing which he had been wanting to think about. His face, with the hooded eyes, ceased to be like the boy’s of long ago. He looked tired, and was the king: which made the others watch him seriously, with fear and sorrow.

They were good and kind he knew. They were people whose respect he valued. But their problem was not the human one…It was true indeed that man was ferocious, as the animals had said. They could say it abstractly, even with a certain didactic glee, but for him it was the concrete: it was for him to live among yahoos in flesh and blood. He was one of them himself, cruel and silly like them, and bound to them by the strange continuum of human consciousness…

One of them himself. Politics, ethics, where to belong and whether to resist: these are not abstractions for White (in exile in Ireland in 1942 as he writes), or for Arthur – or for us. As he writes, Tolkien’s Fellowship are paused at Balin’s tomb in Moria, Lewis’ protagonist in The Great Divorce is sent back to everyday life in Oxford rather than face the terrible sunrise of the parousia: it is a decade of loss and darkness and doubt. Life should have been sorted in the War to End Wars that ended in 1919 – and hadn’t been. Arthur continues to ponder:

…he had been working all his life. He knew he was not a clever man.… Just when he had given up, just when he had been weeping and defeated, just when the old ox had dropped in the traces, they had come again to prick him to his feet. They had come to teach a further lesson, And to send him on.

But he had never had a happiness of his own, never had him self: never since he was a little boy in the Forest Sauvage.… He wanted to have some life; to lie upon the Earth, and smell it: to look up into the sky like anthropos, and to lose himself in clouds. He knew suddenly that nobody, living upon the remotest, most barren crag in the ocean, could complain of a dull landscape so long as he would lift up his eyes.

And I know how he feels: to have some life seems to me to be a core desire – certainly for Arthur, whose life has, throughout the books, been so rarely his own.

Is this last part of this post a spoilier? I find it hard to say: the book has a moving ending, the various endings to the legends providing their own kind of speculative fiction.  The sleeping king of so many folktales? Avalon? Edinburgh? and White has to make his own move about his position on war and resistance. But before he does, he finds space for his own legend of Arthur Rex quondam et futurus:

I am inclined to believe that my beloved Arthur of the future is sitting at this very moment among his learned friends, in the Combination Room of the College of Life, and that they are thinking away in there for all they are worth, about the best means   to help our curious species: and I for one hope that some day, when not only England but the World has need of them, and when it is ready to listen to reason, if it ever is, they will issue from their rath in joy and power: and then, perhaps, they will give us happiness in the world once more and chivalry, and the old medieval blessing of certain simple people – who tried, at any rate, in their own way, to still the ancient brutal dream…

But defeating the barbarities of Attila or Sauron or Mordred remains only a hope, an aspiration, and I return (as ever) to Susan Cooper’s bleak but rousing Merriman:

You may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.

A different , maybe more grounded Merlin and a different hope to the poor hope of the exiled White.

All this from a small dog?

Doodles the therapy dog whom Cherryl Drabble has introduced to her school and written about has been much in my thoughts, and was the subject of a blog post at the start of this academic year, when I asked this strings of questions:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?
  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

That’s a lot of questions to lay at the door of one writer and her dog, and maybe a lot to ask of first year undergraduates, too. What I suppose I’m getting at – and thinking about as I gear up for the marking of their essays – is the stuff at the heart of this document, Be More Critical from Oxford Brookes’ Upgrade service.

As a student in higher education, you need to weigh up the strengths and limitations, the values or merits of what you read, see and hear. You can then justify your own conclusions.

Much of your learning at university is designed to enable you to develop the skills you need for life and work. A questioning, ‘critical’ approach is fundamental to everything. You are not simply a ‘sponge’, soaking up information, and repeating it in your assignments to prove you ‘know’ it. Your course is designed to help you develop a critical approach to evidence so you can apply it in your future practice…

And so here we are, faced with a multi-headed task around choosing an essay that is

  • going to exercise and develop a student’s critical skills
  • going to be big enough to be interesting and yet feasible in about four weeks
  • going to have an accessible amount of relevant sources.

Let’s look at Doodles.

Cherryl Drabble’s book is friendly, chatty and anecdotal. It allows a school to ponder some of the pros and cons of getting, training, managing and, well, using a dog in therapy.  I think it has come as a surprise to some of the students that policy and practice can be presented and discussed in this voice -but of course this is the voice of education as it is spoken in staff rooms.  Is it, maybe, the voice of the educator as opposed to the educationalist? In some ways, perhaps: but here is  another critical question, and one that trails around education very often (this clip provides a nice metaphor): how does someone who thinks and writes about education differ from someone who works with learners on a daily basis? What should the new consumer (and replicator?) if academic style make of Drabble’s warm reportage?

When Levi, a boy with ADHD (p100) readies himself for learning by playing with Doodles, and perhaps more particularly by taking charge of the dog, a number of things are in play.

We as readers are aware of Drabble’s astonishment at this turn of events; she is showing a key (but sometimes overlooked) element in reflective practice in that she reports on her emotional responses.

We are also aware of how her report is couched in conversational language: a student-critic will notice the turns of phrase that are suited to spoken language (“No, that wasn’t his intention at all.”) and reflect on the way in which academic language, while useful when it makes meaning clear, can also distance the reader… What are the choices for the young writer?

It’s actually quite complex – and the deeper we go, the more there is to see:

Why is Levi “running off some energy?” and what is the role of a TA with a child who has needs similar to Levi? What role does conformity play in a learner’s experience? What might boundaries do – impair Levi’s learning or give him a structure? How does the student in Higher Education explore the big questions around educational “therapeutic spaces”?

And then I might ask the student reader to look again at Levi, to see how these “sensory breaks” allow him to succeed in class. Might Levi’s teacher really be looking at good practice for any learner – and how does learning at University take into account ideas of what makes an enabling learning environment? Or does it simply replicate historical precedents with a liberal (or “customer-first” neoliberal?) veneer of conversation, group tasks and chatty tutors? Should we have sensory breaks? How do we make a case – weighing up evidence, seeing arguments in context? If pace is self-chosen for Levi, if compassion and belonging underpin his learning experience, what about in Higher Ed?

From Levi and Cherryl on the playground we are on task in “developing students’ critical skills” as well as looking at the questions this post started from.

Wow. Yes, all this from a small dog.