This second workshop, delivered in Spring Term 2010-11, covered new ground: it attempted to engage a more diverse range of students from beyond the Phil-Lit cohort, including single honours Philosophy, Philosophy and Maths, and Philosophy Politics and Economics; and it embedded itself within a 1st year Philosophy module, 'Ideas of Freedom'.
The workshop was conceived by OSL’s Jonathan Heron in partnership with Dr Eileen John and Dr Naomi Eilan from Philosophy as a focussed academic intervention. It was positioned strategically between two of Eileen’s lectures on ‘Creativity and Art’ in order that its more experimental form could embody the ongoing themes of the module.
Before the workshop, the project's lead learners asked the student participants to articulate their expectations for the session and to consider the possibilities of studying philosophy using the OSL methodology.
The workshop used a video performance of Samuel Beckett's play 'Not I' to anchor themes of freedom and constraint. The text was explored through voice and embodiment and then explicitly related to philosophical dialogues.
(Student responses to a video performance of Beckett's play scribbled on the boards in the rehearsal space, followed by their reflections on thematic links to philosophical texts by Plato and Collingwood)
It is significant that as well as working intensively with Samuel Beckett’s short play ‘Not I’ the session managed to incorporate an embodied interpretation of Plato’s Ion, a text discussed by Eileen John in the preceding lecture on the module. This meant that the focus upon the freedoms and constraints of self-consciousness brought to the fore by the Beckett play was reapplied to a canonical philosophical text. In particular the embodied pair work highlighted the significance of performance and social relation to the mode of philosophical dialogue. This is reflected in the student testimonials.
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Students and facilitators reflect on the session
Post workshop interview
Deeper insight into both Beckett and the Socrates/Ion discussion. Valued the other students comments/work which I wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to see.”
“I feel I understood Not I much more and how it relates to the philosophy of Plato. It has helped me to understand some of the problems of this kind of philosophy.”
That what we learn in lectures applies in all areas of life. I particularly enjoyed looking at how an auditor affects our freedom even when talking to ourselves, and how restricted Plato’s dialogue seemed after Beckett’s mouth.”
the relationship between the performer/audience./ Manner of our dialogue changes our freedom of speech / personal relationship between intimacy and intensity”
Overall there was little discernable difference between the response of Phil-Lit students and the responses of students from other strands of Philosophy. 91% of all philosophy respondents said they would recommend the session to other students. 60% were keen or very keen to experience more interactive workshops themselves.
There were some students who maintained a sceptical relation to the work however.
“While I might consider participating again, there were moments where I was sceptical and found it ridiculous. Perhaps we see meaning in the text and the exercises where there isn’t any –in short, I can’t take it completely seriously.”
“the monotony of interesting questions and issues without rigour is all that is untenable in philosophy.”
Whilst these comments are not representative of the group’s feeling about OSL -they are only 2 critical comments out of almost 50 responses- they do express a recognisable student anxiety about embodied learning. Both students are reluctant to assign intrinsic meaning to embodied activities, and they imply that the workshop’s experiential ethos somehow prevents intellectual rigour. However, the form of the workshop itself did not lack for discipline. The students were asked to make quick decisions on text selection, to express themselves succinctly and to produce physical interpretations within strict timeframes. As the facilitator Jonathan Heron put it:
“What I use across all spaces is the idea, which is more to do with performance, of deadline. This has to be done. Ironically I’m introducing into an open process a deadline, a discipline, a structure or focus which they then can negotiate however they want. Your body has to be here at this time and do this thing. Now that is quite rare because a lot of university higher education systems of learning are based on deferral. If you read this... when you write this... The written exam is the closest they ever get to the moment of live performance.”
Jonathan argues that the act of live performance, contrary to some of the students’ perceptions, is entirely rigorous. Eileen John, a philosophy lecturer who participated in the sessions and held a plenary with the students at the end, expresses a similar point:
“[OSL] makes students take a stand on certain questions – they have to worry about ideas and put them into practice with other people... There are certain choices you have to make in this open space work, the kind of choice-making [students] wouldn’t have to do if they were asking does this text make sense. This commitment takes some kind of philosophical thinking. ... The students may not realise this.”
This raises an important research question: how do we ensure that students do realise, and are able to articulate, what they have learned in an OSL workshop? Part of the need here would seem to be for a robust critical language which challenges the still often accepted distinction between intellectual rigour and physical performance or creativity.