Critical Embodied Pedagogy

Action shot: person centred has a black back on their head, they are circled by others in movement positions.
Image: ‘Caretaking’ with permission from the archive of Ali Hodge.

By Lisa Peck, Senior Lecturer in Theatre Practice.

Lisa Peck wearing large sunglasses looks diagonally up into a slightly cloudy sky.

The exercise ‘Caretaking’, developed by the late Ali Hodge, involves a group working together to support one central player. In an empty studio this person wears a veil over their head to mask the dominant facial communication. They move freely around the space, changing direction, tempo and rhythm and launching themselves forwards, backwards, sideways, giving up their weight and balance to be ‘caught’ or supported by the others who are their caretakers. The group have to be fully present to each other moment to moment, working with deep listening, with eyes and ears, responding and adapting together to the needs of the individual through touch and weight transference. It is an exercise that tests and develops many techniques – spontaneity, impulse, agility, rhythm, balance, weight and release. At the same time it taps into another layer of learning – personal/social knowledges, attitudinal qualities or transferable skills that improve our ability to be together in the world; how to be in a constant state of becoming; how to live with uncertainty together. To my mind, offering students this learning is more important than technique. Caretaking is an example of embodied learning.

In many ways, teaching embodied critical pedagogy in the academy operates as a type of activism. It resists and dismantles the Cartesian dualism that maintains that certain types of knowing have greater currency. My position is that knowledge is a felt sense. We feel something to be right or wrong through our body.  Knowing something comes to matter when it changes your choices, your actions, your movement. That’s when teaching has the potential to, as Michel Foucault says, ‘practice freedom’ (1997). In my pedagogy I work from the phenomenological position of the body-mind, (Merleau Ponty, 2002) recognising that our bodies think, and we need to learn to listen more deeply and see more clearly. Alva Noë explains

We spend all our lives embodied, environmentally situated with others …dynamically coupled with the world

(2009, 181)

In performance teaching we attune our students to this reciprocal encounter, our relationality to time, space, place, each other, human and non-human objects. Importantly, this taps into left brain and right brain thinking, remembering that we are embodied and em-brained. From a neurological perspective, the left hemisphere sees things as abstracted, broken in parts, its main concern is for utility; the right hemisphere perceives things as whole, in their context, with an affinity for openness and connection (Iain McGilchrist, 2010). This side of the brain enables empathy and emotional understanding.

Returning to our exercise, in Caretaking, students are working with both sides of the brain simultaneously to facilitate instinctive responses. Between the two contesting responses space is made for something else to come into being. I see this ‘something’ as powerfully productive and deeply political, what Hannah Arendt might call ‘plurality’, where each individual is unique in their difference and yet simultaneously in collaboration (2000). I think this is what Roland Barthes is pointing to in How to Live Together when he identifies ‘idiorhythmy’ as an essential material for human progress (2013,6).

Drawing on Eve Sedgewick’s thinking beside as an alternative to paradigms of thinking beyond (2003,8), I teach techniques such as: being grounded, being ready, polyphonic attention, and working with impulse, tempo, repetition, proximity, duration, kinesthetic awareness, and reflection. These techniques are taught beside qualities and attitudes such as: how to listen, to see, to empathise, to collaborate, to be with uncertainty, to disagree, to work with spontaneity, instinct, impulse, resonance and resilience, to be confident in not knowing, and to be reflexive and reflective.  As I list these knowledges it strikes me that, whilst I associate these with practice, these qualities are equally necessary for effective critical thinking, research and writing. My frustration is that assessment criteria all too often fails to acknowledge and reward this learning which, I concede, is tricky to do; how do you assess empathy? Nevertheless, these feel like conversations we should be having.

It’s taken me time to be clear about what I’m teaching and why I’m teaching it. How I teach is an ongoing investigation. Certain ways of learning dominate performance – I facilitate students to learn through play and through failure – which needs to be held carefully as individuals experience these ways of coming to learn differently. My feminist pedagogy works from an affirmative politics, which I have termed via positiva (Peck, 2021);this requires you to enable the possibility of the student becoming an autodidact whilst (vitally) supporting them generously, finding the pleasure whenever possible in the learning exchange and working from what Rosi Braidotti terms

‘the positivity of difference’

(1994. 161).

It’s in those spaces between – whether face to face or virtual that the most exciting and transformative learning can emerge.

I’m committed to an ongoing study of how these spaces between are structured in our teaching, through our language (verbal and non-verbal), and the empathy/emotional resonance that this produces. My current research is concerned with the ways we attempt to practice freedoms in our teaching – not so much what we teach, but how – the strategies and structures we work with and the dispositional qualities that are produced.

Somewhere in all of this I know, in my felt sense, that love is a necessary material.

Using the UK Professional Standards Framework (PSF) to ensure good practice and excellent student experience. This teaching practice outlined in this blog post is informed by the highlighted areas:

Areas of activity

  • A1 Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study
  • A2 Teach and/or support learning
  • A3 Assess and give feedback to learners
  • A4 Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
  • A5 Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices

Core knowledge

  • K1 The subject material 
  • K2 Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme
  • K3 How students learn, both generally and within their subject/ disciplinary area(s)
  • K4 The use and value of appropriate learning technologies
  • K5 Methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching
  • K6 The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching

Professional values

  • V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  • V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
  • V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice
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