orality, drawing and literacy #rhizo14

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”  Walt Whitman

Jasper Johns, Grey Alphabets, 1956
Jasper Johns, Grey Alphabets, 1956

Dave Cormier, this week in part 4 of Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum, asks this question:

Our connective technologies are, as many have said, a return to orality. It gives us the opportunity to connect our thoughts with others without them being finished, stale and objective. The medium of print, while practically useful for many reasons (particularly historically) encourages the opposite. Is books making us stupid?

This took me by surprise and I’ve been mulling over it all this too-busy week, wondering if I’d even be able to put anything together.  I am a bit distracted and trying to synthesize some ideas but unsure where I am going quite yet.    Walter J. Ong used to be one of my heroes but it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about him.   In some of my early academic work, as I found myself running from the practice of teaching in schools into ed. theory and social issues, I spent time looking at the concurrent rise of literacy in North America and how in avant garde art the idea of alphabets and writing became increasingly mysterious and purposefully mystifying – what was the connection?  That as people whose parents in the previous generation had had one level of literacy became educated into another level of higher literacy a world of art left them (us) stranded?  You might understand that, nouveau intellectual, but never this (Jasper John’s paintings)?  A professor who liked what I was thinking about got me into a graduate level seminar and I did a presentation on my work.  Most of the people there were teachers who wanted to step forward on a pay scale, or vice principals who wanted to become principals, and having a masters degree allowed them to do so.  At the end there was this dead silence and finally one said, “Why is he talking about avant garde art?”  My decision to not be a teacher was yet again validated 🙂

Dave links to Fowler: 

(3) Orality is “close to the human lifeworld” (Ong, 1982:42-43)

Persons in oral cultures live in close, intimate connection with their environment and with each other. They tend not to think in distanced or abstract ways about their world and their lives. All thinking is concrete and operational. Learning is ‘hands-on,’ by apprenticeship or discipleship.

On the other hand, the practice of writing presupposes distance in time and space between author and reader. Hence, writing, and especially print, encourages the development of the mental habits of distanciation and objectification. Whereas sound envelopes and bonds speaker and hearer, writing marks the separation of author and reader. The printing press is paradigmatic of technology that allows us to keep the world, and each other, at arm’s length. Whereas in an oral culture, elders are respected and appreciated for their indispensable memories, in a print culture one need not heed one’s elders in order to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of one’s culture. Once printed books become readily available, one can hold the wisdom of the ages–the minds of persons long dead–in one’s hands.

These days I talk less than I ever have, and yet I think the people who are my “students” are learning more than they ever did.

Graphically recording the shared experience of a group of workers to get a sense of whether they’d had a similar experience – what was the consensus?

In the last couple of years I’ve grown the part of my work that is graphic facilitation into about 1/3 of my job – I spend about 20 hours a week drawing, listening, re-drawing, sending out graphic charts, writing about drawing, learning more about how to draw what people are talking about.  It’s an interesting state for someone who was so often told as a child there was no future in my favourite pastime.  Concurrently I have been immersed in the evenings and weekends in a part-time graduate degree in disability studies, all on-line.

In my work as a graphic facilitator I listen and synchronously record what people are talking about.   There are arguments in graphic facilitation about whether it is “recording” or “facilitation.”  At one end of the scale it is more recording – people talk, the graphic recorder draws pictures of their conversation as a kind of note taking.   Still, I think there is a facilitative element in this – people in the conversation watch the drawing take shape, they get to build on their ideas as they are represented there, and clarify in terms of how images represent their ideas: “That is not at all what I mean; that is exactly what I meant; actually, it’s a little more like X.”   There is almost always another facilitator holding the space and the work of the graphic recorder becomes to capture it all, or the most salient points, and to group things that are thematic and find ways to emphasize what becomes most important.   At the other end of the scale the graphic facilitator holds the space, often using templates, often incorporating elements that the people in the group draw, and at the end of the day there is a document which the graphic facilitator has helped the group create.   I do this sometimes, developing curricula with visual elements, putting it all together with the group, all aimed at some learning objectives.

At different points I play.  I was hired a while ago as a facilitator and they were careful to say “not a graphic facilitator” by which I understood I was not to use graphics, so I didn’t, until the end of the day when people were reporting back on our work, and then I was tired and a bit dizzy with information and I started drawing and afterwards people said “Wow, it made so much more sense when you drew that fire, or that shape, or used that color there.”

Community Mapping Inclusive Research Project
I can help people who have never done research or participated in a learning project organize really complicated ideas and involve dozens of other learners and plan to report back to those who can support them better.

Part of it is simply because I can keep up – I have worked on listening well for years and am an increasingly experienced listener and I draw really fast.  I once did the graphic recording for a speaker who talked so fast it made even my head spin and when she was done and I turned around the whole audience was looking not at her but at my drawing.   She said “Does anyone have any questions?” and they started choosing things to ask from the drawing.

Because of my background in organizational development and teaching I can discern what needs to get paired and grouped with what as themes, and what can be left out.   I can synthesise what happened so that when people look back at the drawing of the event they remember it more clearly.  I ensure that everyone feels heard, even the people who never felt heard before.  I can cross language barriers by using a common language of icons and drawings and color.  In one of my favourite gigs there were people who spoke 28 different languages gathered together to share their experience of coming to Canada, and they got to sense (from their feedback) that they were not alone, perhaps for the first time since arriving here.

Star Raft Talks #1
Star Raft Talks #1

In my thesis I recently examined how people with intellectual disabilities were able to better hold and build on complex ideas around contemporary leadership, so that they could identify how new leadership models operated in their own lives and actions.   I just spent two years working with one of the elders in our field, using graphic facilitation to clarify the theories he’s spent a lifetime thinking through.

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)I liked this essay, shared by #rhizo14 fellow learner Simon Ensor, America The Illiterate, by Chris Hedges, a lot and I wonder what it means to graphic facilitation?  Am I part of this decline of… um… empire?   Is what I am increasingly doing in my work making this possible:

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.

I don’t think so.   The people with disabilities who are supported by the organizations which are my avocation are, they often tell me (and it’s a theme that runs through their oral histories and written work), people who did not have opportunities to read when they were in grade school.   The ways that they learned were not addressed, and the teachers focused on other things that were often not useful to them either.   As someone once said of Special Education – it isn’t special and it isn’t education.  And I am reminded of some of the work of Paolo Freire and his teams who created ways to vote that were based on people putting their voting tokens into bags that had the portrait of the person running for office printed on them.   This kind of meeting people where they are as learners still happens in People First I think.  And I am not creating a spectacle for them, but creating something with them, that encapsulates their dialogue.

In one of our projects we worked with groups of fifty people with intellectual disabilities in three communities and turned their ideas about belonging and empowerment into graphics that they then invited their local politicians in to see with them and toured them through: here is what we have and like; here is what we want more of.   These are people who do vote, who see political processes as something precious, only recently granted to them.   Hedges continues:

The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information. American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda now masquerades as ideology. Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills.

CommunityConversationAboutEmploymentEditLevelsJan Walmsley and Colin Barnes have pointed out that the Enlightenment’s priorisation of “reason” meant, for people with intellectual disabilities, that they were deemed not to have the decision making qualities of an ordinary citizen.   This is arguable given Hedges’ viewpoint of a contemporary world in which “typical” citizens are not rational or functionally literate:

One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality- based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture.

However, it is also pretty quickly disproved by anyone in relationship with someone with a disability, who gets to witness them making choices and thinking things through in various ways.   Graphic facilitation can be considered an accommodation to such processes for them.  Even this, though, gets into a kind of languaging as disenfranchisement.  The same graphic recording and decision making processes that work with teams of executives are not called “accommodations.”

I came across this lovely paper, in Disability Studies: Past Present and Future, “The Politics of Special Educational Needs,” by professor Len Barton, one of my favourite writers and thinkers in disability studies:

My reasons for working in this area are threefold. First, because as a result of my own school experience I know what it is to be a constant failure. I left school without a single academic qualification. My memories are quite vivid of some of those numerous occasions within school, when I experienced public degradation ceremonies in which I was explicitly told that I was `thick’, `stupid’, or `a hopeless problem child’. The realities of a secondary modern school, with large classes, poor buildings, few resources and a high staff turnover, also combined to establish a sense of inferiority or second-class citizenship. I therefore feel a very strong affinity towards those pupils who are now described as `children with special educational needs’ which in the vast majority of cases, is a euphemism for failure. Secondly, from my own experience of working with young people, many of whom were categorised as `severely’ mentally handicapped, I became aware of the significance of social factors in the construction of handicap. Despite good intentions and a great deal of effort, the contradictory nature of the work context, the assessment procedures used, combined to restrict the nature of our knowledge to a rather surface and mechanical level of appreciation. We did not know them as people, in a deeply profound sense, but rather, saw their disabilities as the all enveloping factor. Because we did not really understand them, we often underestimated there.

This resonates with my own experience of a public school educational system watchful for roving targets to degrade and denigrate, and then the realization much later on that the people who had been sidelined because of how they looked or communicated, often had profound things to share which one think differently of the world.   I could mostly “pass” – no one knew I was gay, I quite quickly learned to hide my agrarian roots and my plumber father.   Some could not pass and were discarded.   I recently heard Peyton Goddard, judged as severely autistic and profoundly disabled until she found a way to speak through using a keyboard, speak at a conference, and her message was powerful:

“I’m less. I’m freak. I’m throwaway trash. Daily, for decades, I try but cannot be the person you want me to be.”

“Your answer was to fix me, to change me to be what you feared not. To cure me of being ME. I reply that YOU were less than I needed.”

“Segregation is the beast whose bite cheats us all. The isolation of people different renders you and me strangers. Reality is that you are me and I am you.”

Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community
Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community

Later that evening, I worked with a group of people who had come together to read a book called Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community – they had organized a late night reading because I had told them that I wanted to witness one.  There have been thousands of readings of this book around the world, leading to conversations about belonging and inclusion and community.   Peyton and her family came the reading, which was amazing to me as I’ve respected her work for so long, and at the end she thanked me for drawing an alternative to exclusion.

Most of the historical decisions on who to include and who to cast out were based on books within a medicalised tradition that priorised that kind of intelligence.   I don’t think that means we need to throw out the books, or that they “make us stupid” as Dave suggests, but I do think that we need to think more about oral and dialogic traditions and the incorporation of other kinds of media and learning modalities into all our learning plans.

The difficulty, perhaps, is that currently that intention, if turned into action, would be handed off to systems that I’m not sure I’d trust to hold on to those ideas and values.   Last year my son came home with Animal Farm and a take home test that asked how many verbs were in the first paragraph, and then gave lines from the book to dissect into grammatical parts.   “Why did she say this book would be so much fun?” he asked.   “Why do you keep saying it is a powerful book?” he asked.  “Why does it say this book is transformational on the cover?  What’s an adverb and  how do I count them?” he asked.  Hedges quote Hannah Arendt, “There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect,” Arendt wrote, “but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.”   Similarly, I am unsure that dialogic processes and the influences of art wouldn’t be turned into something testable and, thus, open to denigration.

We see this already, I think, in social media.  I became alarmed when people started referring to “an online community” and I realized that, after so many hard fought battles to ensure inclusion, people with disabilities had been almost entirely excluded for various reasons.

6 thoughts on “orality, drawing and literacy #rhizo14

  1. Hmm. I have spent my life drawing to think. I think pictures. What you are describing may let me understand myself a bit more and why academic writing for me feels like a curious strait-jacket.
    Hmm graphic facilitator…will look into that. Thank u

  2. I could write a hundred responses to this rich post but I will confine myself to a few points.
    First when I read the part about you hiding your gay identity and your roots, I thought immediately about the Panti Bliss/Rory O’Neill video I saw this week. S/he delivered this speech in response to an incident related to the discussion of gay marriage on Irish tv. However, I think that the basic ideas are as applicable to the oppression of any people who are labelled, like the people with intellectual disabilities that you describe in your post. Here’s the link in case you haven’t seen it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/03/panti-noble-oppression_n_4717909.html
    The second remark I’d like to make is how much your writing resonated with my experience this evening. On Monday nights, I attend a furniture restoration/ french polishing class and it’s lovely to learn to ‘do’ furniture restoring. The couple who run are very interesting – he is 81, about twenty years older than his partner and everyone in the class soon realises that he has dementia. She treats him with love and respect and we all treat them both as the ‘teachers’ in the class. She organises the class,while he goes from table to table, helping us out, and recounting tales of his apprenticeship. I have learned so much from both of them, and will always him demonstrating the importance of touch in knowing when the piece is ready for the next stage: he IS teaching.
    Lastly, I realise that I could be labelled as a ‘text’ person – loving, reading and writing (even academic writing) as I do (see how long my comment is). Actually, I also love other outlets for my creativity, mainly centred around textile crafts. The arrival of Web 2.0 tools meant that I could use images, video (clunkily) and lots of multimedia in my teaching and in student learning activities even though I can’t draw very well at all.
    Anyway that’s more than enough – thanks for a lovely post.

    1. thanks so much for the link, Frances – what an amazing orator. my son is adopted, from Irish birth parents, and a year or so ago we went to Ireland so he could see a place he’s got this affinity for. in the airport lineup he started wondering, quite loudly, about how people in Ireland would react to him having two gay dads? i was trying to shush him, and he was oblivious, and so finally i took him out of the lineup and to a quiet corner and said i didn’t know how they would feel, but we were about to go to a different country we’d never been before and we should be circumspect until we got there. he was horrified. “Oh my god, we’re back in the closet?” yikes. the next day what he wanted was not to go see sights but to get his hair cut, and we found this lovely barber-lady in a little old street shop and we left him for an hour and when we got back she said to go away as they were having a lovely visit and come back later, if we wanted, but as far as she was concerned he was great company and could stay as long as he wanted. he was asking her about ireland and who his birth parents might be and where from and she was sure he was a “real” irish boy not from the north (we were in the south) and they got on to the subject of gay parents of course, and when we came back to get him she said that if we had any trouble at all, her eyes flashing, we should come to her and she’d take care of it because no irish boy was going to feel unwelcome or odd when he came home, no matter what, and we were as welcome anywhere as her lesbian sister, who had every right to everything anyone had. she was amazing 🙂

      so i loved the video. and thanks for the story about the furniture restoration. how terrific, his discerning sense of touch…

      1. I also heard a 35 min radio interview with Rory here http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-with-miriam/programmes/2014/0209/503209-sunday-with-miriam-sunday-9-february-2014/?clipid=1413722 Interestingly, the show was on RTE. One of the really touching outcomes of the video was that other parents of gay people had been in touch offering solidarity at what must have been a difficult time for him and his family who love him.
        I have Irish roots, and in 1997 whilst on holiday in Co Cork, we went for one day to the story-telling festival on Cape Clear island. It was magical, and I am glad your story reminded me – time to go back http://www.capeclearstorytelling.com/pages/home.html If you get the chance, take your son – he could participate and get a good perspective on Irish culture – ancient and modern.

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