The Modernist Review #18: Pedagogies

Over the past few weeks, academic Twitter has been ablaze with debates over the dos, don’ts and hows of pandemic teaching, ranging from the helpful (threads of tips and resources from zoom aficionados, encouragements to give up on unattainable perfection) to the very much not (debates on who has it harder, childless academics or academics with children). Frankly, it’s a mess. 

It’s a mess that we couldn’t anticipate when, about this time last year, we started thinking about a themed issue around pedagogy. We did a lot of brainstorming about what the issue would look like under the present circumstances. A global pandemic is not an opportunity to learn new skills or better oneself, and we don’t want to publish the academic equivalent of ‘how to lose weight / boost your productivity / become more mindful during quarantine’ but we invite you to come with us on an imperfect journey of figuring out how to get through this. 

In this month’s issue of TMR, following up on Lee Skallerup Bessette’s ‘Teaching online in Extraordinary Times’, we publish the first two responses in a dialogue series of reflections, tips and innovations on matters digital. The question posed by Naomi Milthorpe is on everyone’s lips: ‘how can you make the new world order that is teaching online – immediately, with no training, no resourcing, no childcare (and potentially no toilet paper) – if not wholly enjoyable, at least manageable?’ Milthorpe answers with a list of starting points, urging us to forget the fantasised equivalence between online and face-to-face class interaction. Jessamy Perriam, in turn, shares advice from her experience working at the Open University, pointing out that her intention is ‘to be helpful and pragmatic, but not prescriptive.’ Amidst the recent snow storm of online resources, she suggests that ‘simple is best. Just because you can use a new online tool, doesn’t mean you must.’ Most of all, both authors remind us to be kind, as much to others as to ourselves. Milthorpe borrows a phrase from E. M. Forster: ‘only connect. Nurture each other, even if at a distance.’ Perriam adds that ‘[w]e are, after all, human’, and in a time where many of our working days suddenly look very different, many with caring responsibilities, lockdowns and worries outside of the academy, we have to acknowledge this ‘as we give one another grace through this time’. We will be publishing further responses to this dialogue throughout the month of April; upcoming pieces include tips on taking it slow, using Twitter, sourcing images online and organising digital conferences — stay tuned!

For now, we are delighted to bring you three articles that look back at pedagogical practices of a different kind, namely, those of modernist classrooms. Taking a journey to rural Suffolk, Charlie Pullen explores ‘feverish activity’ of a different kind in the form of burgeoning ‘experimental’ schools in the early twentieth century. While educators in our contemporary moment attempt to retain a sense of structure as modules and classes are recrafted, Pullen traces the humorously dubbed ‘do-as-yer-like’ model pioneered by Summerhill in 1921, telling us what James Joyce, Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound could possibly have to do with the childhood dream of eternal playtime or self-prescribed learning. The idea of student autonomy is also central to William Bowden’s essay on Virginia Woolf, one of modernism’s quasi-autodidacts. In ‘Why?’ (1934) and Three Guineas (1938), Woolf imagines a more experimental pedagogy than that of university lecture theatres, suggesting that the depressing vanity of the patriarchal lecturer ‘should be replaced by “the arts of human intercourse”, empathic engagements in which interlocutors pose questions and form their own conclusions’. Bowden examines the relevance of Woolf’s ideas to contemporary discussions of pedagogy in general, and student-centred teaching in particular.  

We end this issue, believe it or not, in a Belgian Catholic school. Benjamin Hagen looks at Olive Moore’s Celestial Seraglio: A Tale of Convent Life (1929) and the lives of the English girls and young women at a Catholic school in Belgium, uncovering the tensions and proximities between pleasure, pain, passion and religious pedagogy. His article highlights the ability of young characters to create flexibility within their strict pedagogical structure, to ‘adapt the tools and training made available to them … to sustain and make sense of the intimate attachments they form and the obscured knowledges they long to acquire’.

We hope that you enjoy this issue, that you are doing okay, and we encourage you to get in touch with any ideas or submissions for TMR. Do get in touch as well if you are isolated and need support from the community! As always, thank you very much for reading,

Distantly yours,

Polly, Cécile, Bryony & Josh

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