‘Rebooting’: An Eco-Pedagogy

Posted on Oct 30, 2014 in News and Events | Comments Off on ‘Rebooting’: An Eco-Pedagogy

Stephen Muecke, Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales

As an experiment in eco-pedagogy and environmental humanities, students were asked to ‘reinstitute’ their disciplines with a different kind of temporality. The modernist progression of their discipline was abandoned as they faced a more uncertain, possibly catastrophic future. So a time machine was built and ‘Diplomats’ were brought back from 2035 to assess their attempts to reboot their disciplines.

Fig: 1. The Pedagogical Environment. After the “Welcome to Country’ performed by Torres Straight Islander dancers, another student prepares his PowerPoint “Towards Aboriginal Economics”.

Fig: 1. The Pedagogical Environment. After the “Welcome to Country’ performed by Torres Straight Islander dancers, another student prepares his PowerPoint “Towards Aboriginal Economics”.

In a recent course I experimented with a post-critical pedagogy in the Environmental Humanities (EH).(1) ‘Post-critical’ in this manifestation, meant a way of teaching that doesn’t orient students towards using their disciplines critically, in the sense of attacking bad stuff out there in the world, or even to attack other disciplines.

I saw the students as inheritors of a particular discipline and as its embodied future, as those who would be responsible for carrying it forward in a reconstituted form. In other words, far from accepting their discipline as a fait accompli, fully equipped with the tools ready to solve those real-world problems, the discipline would intra-act(2) with matters of concern, and both would change thanks to their ‘testing’ encounter.

I got the idea for this pedagogy from Bruno Latour’s culminating workshop for his AIME Project, which I attended in Paris in July 2014 (3). The day I got back I started teaching “ARTS 2247 Indigenous People and the Environment” and I noticed that the students, even though they were taking this course in the interdisciplinary field of EH, could fall into groups according to their majors or minors in Economics, Law, Development Studies, Social Sciences and Biological Sciences.

Accordingly, they were asked to research and write essays (first as disciplinary group and then as individuals) about what they valued in what they were inheriting from those disciplines; then ‘testing them in public’ with case studies; then finally ‘reinstituting’ them in the light of Indigenous and environmental matters of concern.

So these small discipline-based groups got busy working to reboot, recompose(4), or reinstitute their disciplines experimentally in a three-part movement where they had been instructed thus:

  1. Specify what aspects of the field you want to retain, or must be retained, for it to continue to exist (e.g.: the Law cannot ‘make a case’ unless there are ‘legal grounds’. To proceed it might have to ‘establish precedents’).
  2. Do some research on a specific environmentally-related issue. (e.g.: in relation to James Price Point near Broome, W.A. (Walmadany)), on what ‘grounds’ will the Goolarabooloo be able to protect their country from Woodside’s proposal to build a gas plant?
  3. Analyse how adequate the field is to the matter at hand. Specify the adjustments that will have to be made for it to be adequate to future conditions that are likely to arise.

These writings were then bundled into a brief to be assessed by three experts, “Diplomats from the Future” who came to the class towards the end of the semester.

The “Diplomats” read the 7, 500w document with 5 sections sent to them as a diplomatic brief. Their ‘mission’ was to assess this brief in terms of its adequacy for … what exactly? The future? The planet? Possible new conditions, including indigenous peoples’ matters of concern and environmental crises? It was in relation to this speculative Other that their diplomatic imagination— their general knowledge, their sympathy, their civility, their negotiation skills—was sought.

It was with some excitement that the students and I anticipated the day of the “Diplomatic Encounter”.

The class started with a “Welcome to Country’ (Fig. 1) performed by Torres Straight Islander dancers, curated by one of our students. This kind of ceremonial was seen as appropriate for the formality of the occasion of greeting, in a civil and polite fashion, our diplomats who had come all the way back from 2035 (actually from two other Sydney Universities). This civility underscored and somewhat dramatized what was at stake: our students really cared about what they were inheriting from their disciplines; they cared about the future for which they would be custodians and how their disciplines might be rebooted on the basis of those future needs.

A representative from each of the 5 groups came forward to speak briefly about the text that the Diplomats had already received, then we heard each of the Diplomats in turn, who responded in different ways to the propositions contained in the brief. We concluded with a lively discussion. The students were now primed to elaborate their final written assignments for the course.

Fig. 2. The Diplomats from the Future respond.

Fig. 2. The Diplomats from the Future respond.

(1) See also my “The Writing Laboratory: Political Ecology, Labour, Experiment,” Angelaki, 14: 2, pp. 15-20.
(2) Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 28, no. 3.
(3) http://www.modesofexistence.org/
(4) A relevant discussion is Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History, 2010, 41: 471–490.