One of the issues that I struggled with was this question of how to responsibly frame and shape a practice that claims to be about this process of deeply curious investigation. My desire was to position the material presentation of the Critical Theory Reading Group somewhere between being overly rigid and influential, and being too broad and diffuse. If overly influential, there is the risk of potentially restricting some really generative and surprising thought-work, on the other hand, however, I was conscious of the possibility that this fear of coming across as too directive in our approach would lead to some wishy-washy programming.
When the time finally came for me and Dan to sit down and generate some course content, I think we let a critical awareness of these poles, and the potential pitfalls they each presented, inform our construction process. Working now, somewhere along this continuum, we arrived at three unique structures for presenting weekly reading group materials that attempted to reconcile some of the advantages and disadvantages we identified in various classroom models.
Borrowing a little form a technique widely used at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College, I proposed uniting seemingly disparate textual elements beneath umbrella titles that would serves as the lens through which to view the week's materials. In this approach, the readers will be provided with more context regarding the texts, including information about the author, time-period, and audience. An example of this from one of our forthcoming meetings is connecting some political, poetic, and philosophical work under the title Corpus thereby inviting the participants to take a closer look at the way the body or bodies are at play in each of the respective pieces. In addition to this kind of synthesizing model, we wanted to provide an opportunity for the weekly participants to be in the driver seat of generating the connections. This model allows the process of linking materials and generating the connections to really become the focal point. This tactic feels more investigative, or even archaeological, like a group of people collectively unpacking a time-capsule and attempting to decode and piece together the individual elements found within free from any preconceived notions about the society, culture, or time period from whence it came. Lastly, we both wanted to incorporate a more traditional, close-reading oriented discussion option for those individuals who are interested in diving deep into dense chunks of textual analysis. While this style of textual engagement might seem more immediately reminiscent of a traditional academic institution, these close-readings will not be anchored in a lecture or aimed at producing right or wrong claims about what the author and/or text is doing. For me, the hope is that this model will commence in a way that bridges the gap between seriousness and play, and will be ideal for participants who appreciate the kind of freedom that is produced through constrained exegesis. Not wanting to forsake the essential nature of any of these unique constructs by consolidating them into a “one-size- fits-all” classroom model, we elected to keep them each as distinct forms the critical theory reading group could take on.
In addition to discussing the more formal construction of this reading group, I also want to talk about the mapping structure of laying out the curriculum. I think that this structure evolves logically out of working on a critical theory reading group because, for me, mapping is the symbolic output of the process of making connections. In order to create our map, we started from a point. It could be said that the point was random insofar as there were no particular prompts or constraints before us dictating what we had to begin with, but it could also be said that, just as in the case of orienteering, you can only begin from where you are [-> you are here <-]. So where you are, which is a place that is influenced and determined in part by where you have been and where you are coming from, will always be your unavoidable point of entry. What was perhaps even more compelling for me was that, because I was engaging in this process with another, I could use my orientation to them as a guide for where to begin. Rather than attempting to locate myself on this vast terrain of theory, I could think of my thought in relationship to Dan’s thought and ask, where are we with respect to one another? How do we move toward each other? And ultimately, where do we begin together? Through our past academic experience, and a shared interest in pedagogy, theory, and translation work we honed in on our mutual starting place — Roland Barthes. An ideal starting place for our curriculum map, Barthes’ work bridges multiple disciplines and his presentation of theory creates a playful and challenging dialectic. Out of this center our process began, but rather than an unfolding (which, for me, implies an already completed and finite things, like a bed sheet) or spiraling out (which again implies too much mathematical or natural order, like nautilus shells) our process looked more like drawing connections. We would trace one off shoot and see where it lead. Working in this way, we quickly developed a small system of intersections, off-shoots, and parallels that very much resembled a concept map. For me, mapping really does seem like an ethical and responsible model for curriculum development precisely because it exists in between the two poles we outlined earlier. It is not “spinning a web” of complex intersections and connections that disorients and incapacitates participants— a kind of manipulation model of education.. nor is it a “blank canvas” upon which anything can be created as in more free-form educational models. Rather, this model or mapping acknowledges that there are indeed things and are indeed places, and perhaps even acknowledges that there are beginnings and end points, but it is not a model that is necessarily going to dictate how you get from point A to point B. As we have seen in a few of our initial group discussion, sometimes the person leading class had intended for the group to begin at A and end up at B, but instead the group bypasses B entirely, spends a little time discussing C and D before making a big leap over to K and hanging out there for the remainder of the class. We found that we really liked this kind of classroom dynamic so we attempted to encourage it through adopting a similar tactic in terms of our content generation and curriculum development.