As a settler on unceded Aboriginal land, I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land where I live and work, the Whadjuk Nyoongar people. I also recognise my responsibility to examine my part in ongoing settler colonialism and to work towards a future of justice and equality.
The following blogs are emerging from walks that have taken place in Noongar Country where I am walking-with and thinking-with Gabbiljee. Gabbiljee is also known as the watery place at the end of the river and is also now known as Bull Creek wetlands.
Can a deliberate attunement to the specific relational entanglements of Place prompt a shift from reflective to diffractive thinking?
This blog uses two vignettes to illustrate how a deliberate attunement to the specific relational entanglements of Place can prompt shifts from reflective thinking towards diffractive thinking and practice.
During my recent walks, I am thinking-with the concept of relationality. Thinking-with concepts as a way of ‘doing data collection’ differently, opens up the possibility of what Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman (2018) describe as a shift towards thinking about “methods as a becoming entangled in relations” (p. 204).
This means a shift from viewing data collection as something to be gathered or taken from the research site (as data is understood in traditional qualitative research designs), towards an understanding of research as emerging within the actual research event. Traditional methodologies assume that data is something that is already there, something that is waiting for the researcher to come along and take (Springgay & Truman, 2018). This inevitably leads to findings that are a mere reflection of what is already there and positions the human researcher as superior to and separate from the subject of research. Thinking-with concepts repositions the human as already in relation with an emergent and agentic Place and opens up possibilities for imagining and understanding the world (Place) differently.
To be able to walk and think-with the concept of relationality requires a deliberate deviation from the universal pedagogies and ontologies that have proliferated my education as an early childhood teacher in a white, Western education system.
One of these universal practices is reflectivity, a practice that has become synonymous with effective and critical teaching (Rodgers, 2002). Reflection is understood to occur within the mind of an educator (or researcher) with the purpose of improving one’s practice. Suggesting an alternative to reflective practice is not intended to altogether disregard a place for reflectivity but rather to highlight that there are limitations to only ever thinking reflectively. Feminist scholar Donna Haraway (2016) uses the optical phenomenon of reflection as a metaphor to describe these limitations. Reflections, as both metaphor and in practice, only reflect back what is already there and inevitably results in doing what has always been done. Furthermore, the positioning of the human as the thinking, reflective and agentic force that acts upon the material world in order to make change (for the benefit of the human) only perpetuates a nature and culture divide. If education (and research) continues along a pathway that separates human from more-than-human, human from nature and knowledge from Place, then all that will happen will remain a reflection of the present; a continuation of what we already know and do.
Vignette One: Reflective Blogging
This first vignette highlights the way in which my own well-honed reflective thinking and practice permeates an early attempt at blogging about walking-with Gabbiljee. The blog post reveals a well-trained desire to know and understand Place. This can be seen in the use of I throughout the vignette, a practice that automatically positions the researcher as separate from and superior to the more-than-human aspects of Place. The example also highlights that although there has been an attempt to attune myself to Place and to recognise Place as having agency, the specific details of the relational entanglements (see, for example the little ripples in the water) remain unseen. What results is a reflective blog grounded in human-centred ontologies and that doesn’t reveal anything new or different to what has already been done before.
Water calls me. I hear running, bubbling water. I find water and I notice movement. Water seeps, creeps into the earth along its banks. There is something, somewhere at the beginning of this waterway that is causing this movement. I feel compelled to find it.
I follow water, it leads my way. Is it the river causing the movement? Does the river’s ending signal an ending, a beginning or just an in between?
I notice the reflection of trees in the water. Water is mostly still. Water quietens here. Water gently holds a reflection that is crisp, clear, the outline of each tree, branch and leaf defined. Little ripples in water make tiny, gentle movements and blurs the reflection for a moment. And then it is back, the crisp, clear reflection. I wonder if water notices? Is my reflection clear or blurred as I peer into water?
Moving away from reflective thinking requires a shift towards what Haraway calls diffractive thinking and practice (Barad, 2007; Haraway, 2016). Returning to Haraway and her use of optical metaphor, diffractive thinking can be understood as how diffraction is explained in the context of physics. Diffraction involves a bending of waves or rays of light when they encounter a boundary or opening within a boundary. Emerging from this point of difference is something new, a diffraction of what was already there. Waves of diffraction are constantly emerging from within entanglements and it is an attunement to these movements, these details and patterns within specific entanglements, that can help prompt the shift towards diffractive thinking. Patterns of diffraction are noticed in the vignette above when water is described as being mostly still. Something new is emerging as the water bumps up against an unseen boundary. But whilst the ripples in the water are noticed, no attention is made to the specific details in the patterns of diffraction that are causing the ripples of movement. Attending to these patterns of diffraction is a way of deliberately shifting attention towards the relational entanglements of Place.
As noted above, such a significant shift in thinking and practice is challenging and requires an unlearning of what has been normalised as something that teachers must do (Lather & St. Pierre, 2013). This can only be achieved if we allow ourselves to be open to an “ethic of not knowing” (Myers, 2017) in which we recognise the role that colonialism has played in favouring humanistic ontologies. Paying attention to the specific relational entanglements of Place is one way of creating opportunities for what Vladimirova and Rautio describe as an “emergent dance” (p.9, 2018) where neither human nor more-than-human are privileged and both are transformed by what is already becoming.
So what would it look like if Place, children and researcher are repositioned as already entangled in shared and relational common worlds? This second vignette is a beginning of a tentative response to this question. Rather than viewing Place as somewhere for data or knowledge to be extracted from, this repositioning sees Place and researcher (or children) as generating knowledge together in an emerging, relational Place-researcher-children entanglement. The second vignette is a later attempt at blogging that attends specifically to the details in the relational entanglements of Place. It begins with a video and is followed by a short written piece that deliberately attends to the diffractive shifts in movement that are emerging from within the entanglement.
Vignette 2: Encounter with Leaf-Puddle Entanglement
Raindrops sit still, unmoving. Leaf is dry, yet wet, impermeable, veins spreading, unbound. Loose water pools below in leaf-puddles. Leaf-puddle has a dry in-between space, its boundary shifting ever so slightly. Light reflects in leaf-puddle. It bends, shifts, always moving. Gentle wind shifts raindrop-leaf-puddle.
Thinking-with a relational ontology demands a shift beyond focussing on the individual and a move towards understanding that knowledge emerges from the relationality between all parts (Barad, 2007). This includes thinking about the more-than-human aspects of Place as being equally agentic to the humans who encounter it. It requires a deliberate move to slow down, to pause or linger on the details of entanglements and in doing so causes a diffraction from what might otherwise occur (Nxumalo, 2015). The deliberate shift in pace and attention invites me to look beyond what I would otherwise see. In the case of Leaf-Puddle, this means attending to the details of the relationality between raindrops, leaf, veins, puddle, wind and sunlight. Place is no longer seen as something to take data from or to know or understand but rather as a companion in the emergence of thinking otherwise.
Leaf-puddle encounter brings forth questions that perhaps would not have otherwise been considered and propels thinking in new and diffractive directions.
What might leaf-puddle encounter look like if children were present?
How might an educator respond to a leaf-puddle-child encounter in a way that doesn’t fall back on needing to impart knowledge, tick off outcomes or require children to represent knowledge through mark making or verbal representation?
What might a diffractive educator do differently?
How might attending to the detail of the specific relational entanglements in leaf-puddle encounter push, bend and diffract the boundaries that exist within typical place-based pedagogies?
What otherwise pedagogies might be generated from leaf-puddle encounters?
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway. Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the chtulucene. Duke University Press.
Myers, N. (2017). Becoming sensor in sentient worlds: A more-than-natural history of a black oak savannah. Between matter and method: Encounters in anthropology and art, 73-96.
Nxumalo, K. (2015). Forest stories: Restorying encounters with “natural” places in early childhood education. In V. Pacini-Ketchabaw & A. Taylor. (Eds.), Unsettling the colonial places and spaces of early childhood education (pp. 21-42). Routledge
Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers college record, 104(4), 842-866.
Springgay, S. & Truman, S.E. (2018). On the need for methods beyond proceduralism: Speculative middles, (in)tensions, and response-ability in research. Qualitative Inquiry, 24(3), 203-214. http://doi/10.1177/1077800417704464