On Inaugurating and Sustaining the Work of a Post Secondary Institution Pedagogist: Collectivity, In-Betweens, and Having a ‘Why’ – an interview with Bo Sun Kim

In Issue 2 of the PNO Magazine, we – Cristina Delgado Vintimilla and Nicole Land – interviewed two Ontario post secondary pedagogists, Paolina Camuti-Cull and Olga Rossovska. As we spoke about during our conversation, a pedagogist situated in a post-secondary institution works to reimagine practicum as a space for reconfiguring how the education of future educators unfolds. Post-secondary institution (PSI) pedagogists are in ongoing discussions with early childhood educators, students, and faculty members. In their conversations, PSI pedagogists are concerned with how, together, this gathering of people, histories, and intentions might create innovative practices relevant to both children and students’ relations and responses in a situated education space. The role of the PSI pedagogist is a complex and often difficult one as it requires the ability to think pedagogically within an in-between space: in-between the context and situations of those who are being educated to become early childhood educators (future) and the context of those who are already established early childhood educators who, alongside children and families, inhabit the everyday practices, modes of thinking, and rhythms of early childhood spaces (inheritance and present). In this in-between, a PSI pedagogist works to creates an ongoing and emergent dialogue between inheritances, presents, and futurities, and – through that dialogue – PSI pedagogists are called to activate collaborative processes that can create situations and experiences that engage students and educators with the proposition (and inherited reality) that early childhood education is a pedagogical and creative space, rather than simply a service or space for compliance. This in-between asks post-secondary pedagogists to constantly navigate how early childhood education becomes a pedagogical space, where students’ lives and responses are inseparable from children’s lives and responses. This nourishes a special kind of collectivity and a commitment to understanding and enlivening pedagogy as a layered, complex, and extremely consequential shared undertaking. 

In this interview, Cristina Delgado Vintimilla and Nicole Land speak with post-secondary institution pedagogist, Dr. Bo Sun Kim. Bo Sun is the first post secondary pedagogist in Canada, as she started her role seven years ago. In this conversation we engage with Bo Sun’s thoughts around the question of beginning this kind of work, and what pedagogical and curricular considerations and situations she had to work with as she began her practice. 

CRISTINA AND NICOLE: Bo Sun, can you please share with us your views on how the role of the post-secondary institution pedagogist is concerned with creating otherwise possibilities for practicum? We are thinking in particular about how you began this work many years ago and how you continually negotiate many beginnings as your work shifts and changes, where you are both figuring out the contours of your work and getting to know the relations and practices that currently surround how practicum happens in a particular space. What did you attend to when you started this work? Why? What inheritances were you working with or interrupting? Why?

BO SUN: I began my work as a post-secondary pedagogist in 2015 at a university institution located on the unceded territories of the LíỈwat, xʷməθkʷəỷəm (Musqueam), shíshálh (Sechelt), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and SəỈílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations of what is currently known as British Columbia, Canada. This university has a closely connected child care centre where many education students participated in practicums under the mentorship of experienced early childhood educators.

At the beginning of my pedagogist work, I turned to the question, ‘what constitutes normal?’ and, ‘what legitimates a truth in our practice?’ With these questions, I began to discern how the educators that I was working with perceived pedagogical practice as it should be, rather than taking time to ponder why. Amid these understandings of ‘good’ practice, I noticed that how a teacher, children, lunchtime, curriculum, and pedagogical narrations should be are all examples of so-called, status-quo rigorous practice. These instances create a particular way of living and relating to each other.  

When I joined this space, there were already ongoing curriculum projects where each teacher was working on their specific curriculum project. At the time, a curriculum project meant working on the curriculum topics in which children should be interested. The central role of the educators was to follow the children’s interests and make visible children’s understandings on curriculum topics. Pedagogical documentation merely represented children’s ideas and how much they knew about the topics. There was an assumption that everything had to come from children, and ideas that come from the children were good and important. In this romanticized way of seeing children, the curriculum was understood simply following children’s lead and their interests. Making comments on each other’s work and ideas among the children was not encouraged unless complimented. The collaboration among educators was not asked for or sought. I wondered what may have inspired everyone to work in such an individual and isolated approach. The educators’ withdrawal was rationalized in the name of independence, autonomy, freedom, and respect for one another’s work. Nonetheless, this was problematic to me as it prompted an unhealthy separation and isolation among educators and increased pressures for individual achievement.

I soon recognized how much this understanding of both ‘rigorous pedagogy’ and individualized ‘curriculum inquiry’ had influenced the way educators perceive the practicum students and their relationship to the student teachers. Student teachers were required to do their own inquiry project independently of the project already taking place in order to demonstrate their competency of being independent and autonomous.

Therefore, mentoring practicum students was frequently perceived as an additional and burdensome task to carry on top of educators’ regular obligations and responsibilities.This emphasis on thinking pedagogically as a singular, dispersed, egocentric project created disconnections among the educators and the student teachers, and discontinuity in how curriculum inquiry unfolded in the space.

I invited the educators to reflect on their pedagogical approach to curriculum because pedagogy activates curriculum, and their relationship with practicum students, and then ponder on the aspirations of this sort of practice. I emphasized that the intentions of our educational practice revolve around how everyday decisions and orientations intimately correlate with the particular dominant discourses around the teacher’s image, and culture, of early childhood education that we inherited at this institution. 

My intention, in pulling our attention toward ongoing insular practices and status-quo dominant discourses was to disrupt the image of a teacher as an expert who ought to demonstrate that they can work independently to be qualified as an exemplary educator. Instead, I wanted to offer the idea that we might challenge outdated normative assumptions and implications about curriculum approach (child-centred and individualistic) and practicum – and the relations between curriculum and practicum.

I asked: “What does it mean to work with curriculum inquiry?”, “What does it mean to collaborate with others?”, ” How can we work differently with practicum students?”, and “How can we cultivate continuity in curriculum rather than breaking up an inquiry topic into developmentally appropriate bits to leave the topic intact?”

CRISTINA AND NICOLE: Bo Sun, it seems that you were working hard in attending to two situations. On one hand, you were trying to disrupt notions of individualism and autonomy as ‘best practice’ and on the other hand you were provoking an understanding of a kind of epistemological hierarchy between educators and practicum students. It seems to us that both situations were intimately related to the questions of recognition and legitimation you spoke about at the outset of our conversation. We wonder, how, as a post-secondary institution pedagogist, did you understand and initiate initial, intentional steps to rethinking how collectivity matters and happens with educators and students? What has to be put at risk, and why, so that we might be able to think in the company of others within a practicum context? As we read your response to the first question, it seems that you were inviting educators to think outside logics of recognition and compliance and to consider pedagogical work as collective acts of re-invention. Along these lines, we wonder: When we hold collectivity as a pedagogical intention, what must we re-invent and refuse in the academy (both in terms of placement classes and non-placement classes, and within a child care centre closely connected to a university)? 

BO SUN: To my educators, I proposed the significance of rethinking how we engage the work of curriculum inquiry by asking “how do we understand curriculum inquiry?” To think carefully about how we do curriculum inquiry requires different pedagogical approaches from curriculum-as-plan conceptions, and refusing these mechanistic, routine, lifeless understandings opened up an initial conversation regarding how educators and the centre (and institution) understands curriculum inquiry and educators’ pedagogical relationships, including those with practicum students.

Through the conversations I had with educators and a program director, many things became of urgency to us. One was our recognition of the long history early childhood education has of representational logic, the tradition of representation and reproduction, and the practice of transmission in curriculum (Olsson, 2009); the second is how this representational logic is deeply embodied in our practice. To abide by representational logic is to uphold the separation between the subject as the knower and the world as the known. The world becomes the object of perception and discovery as if knowledge of the world pre-exists apart from us. Approaching curriculum based on the search for pre-existing and self-evident information implies that the role of the teacher is to transmit this knowledge and to dictate who and how children and educators can be amid a world that values the certainty, predictability, and universalizations of representational logic. Educators are to stress scientific ‘knowledge’ to children – this  the reproductive function of status-quo education in Canada. 

As Liselott Olsson (2009) argues, the logic of representation has remained very prominent in Euro-Western early childhood curriculum. It depicts a way of thinking that perceives the world as an independent cosmos. The (stable, instrumental) curriculum encompasses all ‘worthwhile’ knowledge reflecting the world. From this perspective, curriculum topics become substances for children’s learning which children come to understand when seeking to grasp the actual world. 

Akin to many other poststructuralist scholars, my pedagogical ethos (the pedagogical approach that I commit to) concerning this idea of representationalism is firmly against it. To concede having a valid and objective representation of reality can be the primary cause of many restrictions. The educators and I discussed how this logic (intentionally) limits a myriad of ways of knowing the worlds and our existential possibilities. 

The idea of a child in terms of development theories formulated within the discipline of developmental psychology sets forth universal age-related stages that continue normal child development and suggest that every child learns in a predictable, linear progression regardless of context. It represents a certain kind of subject who has the inherent potential to pursue one’s separate development, and education is reduced to the pursuit of individual development. The curriculum is carried out in such a fragmented way based on the areas of development, so learning becomes a separate and isolated activity. To break away from this logic of representation which names a separation between the world and ourselves, educators and I pondered how we could displace the solitude and docility that currently governed curriculum inquiry in the space by centering solidarity and multiplicity at the heart of our work. I proposed that educators might acknowledge curriculum as not something previously determined but, instead, as an invention. Curriculum as being composed with the material and social worlds of which we are already a part—seeing the life of the curriculum topic continually in flux.

resting thought by Sarah Hennessy Ⓒ 2021

To speculate how collectivity matters and happens in our curriculum, I brought my educators to think with David Jardine. Jardine underlines the vitality of curriculum as choosing a rich and generous topic to encompass all those who venture in, despite differences. His scholarly work on curriculum values what every participant brings into this venture of doing situated curriculum. With Jardine, curriculum’s potentialities of becoming value the multiple, various questions and experiences that individual participants express as enrichment and articulations to this work of curriculum. Educators, student teachers, a pedagogist, and families are also part of this venture as each person’s work is taken up as appending to the richness of the topic. In this regard, Jardine considers a curriculum inquiry topic as a place where we all find ourselves living in.

Jardine’s (2006) profound insights into the curriculum aroused further dialogue on abundant curriculum possibilities. He reminded us that approaching curriculum in abundance is a “way we carry ourselves in the world, the way we come through experience to live in a world full of life, full of relations and obligations and address,” (p.100) evoking us to seek and cultivate the kinships that connect us. Rethinking our pedagogical relationship through kinships opened up a different way of living and engaging with each other. I began to notice educators’ growing desire and curiosity about the pedagogical opportunities possible when working and thinking together as a team, as they realized that each person could bring a different way of seeing the world. The challenge was learning how to work together with differences without seeking an ultimate consensus; we resisted ultimate consensus because we have learned that complete harmony often conceals and silences tensions, disagreements, and divergences that nourish what it is to think pedagogically together (Delgado Vintimilla, 2014). 

Although most educators seemed to be motivated and excited about working collectively on curriculum inquiry, in the beginning, some educators shared difficulties expressing or offering different ideas or perspectives, feeling troubled that it might offend or upset colleagues, students, management, children, or families. It seemed that there was already a pre-established ideal relationship they wanted to pursue. I often heard from the educators stating, “we need to build our relationship first and then we can do this together”, “it is hard to work with her because I don’t have a relationship with her yet.” Or, “we cannot start creating a curriculum before we build a relationship with children,” as if everything could be or should be done only once the relationship is built. 

Rather than assuming that creating a relationship is not a prerequisite for what must happen before, I wanted educators to see relations as generative encounters with others or shared events with reciprocally transformative influence. It is through these connections with others that we become and continue to become who we are. To think differently about our relations with others we turned to Donna Haraway who writes of refiguring relationships through the idea of relationality; relations as a process of “becoming with.”

Some educators and students also shared that they struggled to think through engaging with each other’s thoughts, as they did not have much experience working collectively and responsively in a dialogue where they encountered their differences, which sometimes creates tensions, discomforts and disagreements. Here, we heard reverberations of the individualist, monotonous, application-oriented approaches that representational logic declares in education. We also noticed the influence of “rigorous” teaching meaning the implementation of pre-set curriculum and consensus meaning the at-all-costs absence of difference. Taking inspiration from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (poststructual philosophers), and Taylor and Miriam Giugni (common worlds scholars), I addressed collectivity as an opportunity to assemble or bring together, highlighting the reconstructive desire of our thinking and gesturing toward the productive potential of what we collectively composed in our messy work of thinking curriculum and pedagogy. Being responsive to each other’s ideas and thoughts was the process of taking risks. It took courage because, occasionally, it put educators in vulnerable situations. After all, being together/bringing together requires responsibility and responsiveness. This means that we might disagree with each other from time to time and need to work with disagreements and conflicts. However, slowly, educators started appreciating each other’s company and the opportunities of thinking and working – and sometimes agonizing – together as they began to experience that relationships are constituted and reconstituted in an exchange of ideas, perspectives, and stories. Haraway mentions how negotiating differences is difficult and risky emotional work, and we wanted to hold her assertion that thinking collectively is also a place of productive tension based on differences, where working in the muck of these differences might generate innovative thoughts and potentialities. 

Working collectively with each other and having a space for pedagogical conversation and engagement also changed the way educators related to practicum students. Practicum students often joined in curriculum meetings with educators and were invited to participate in each space’s curriculum inquiry. The educators seemed delighted by their contribution to the inquiry project. The educators often shared how much they appreciated different ideas and perspectives the practicum students brought to the curriculum inquiry and how children and educators missed them when they finished their practicum. Practicum students are no longer seen as people who just come and go just for the practicum to be done. Instead, they become co-participants who live and work together  with us on living, ongoing, unfinished conversations to which we are venturing together for better and richer understanding of the topic. Educators and the practicum students often asked if the student could go back to the same centre for the next practicum, which results in creating a back-to-back practicum to embrace continuity in curriculum and relationalities among the practicum students, educators, and the children.  

CRISTINA AND NICOLE: Thank you Bo Sun. There is so much that you are offering here and that we would like to relate to and think further. As a pedagogist you are inviting educators to unsettle taken-for-granted ideas regarding the ways we come to know and the ways we relate to each other. Through this unsettling, you have invited educators to consider and engage with ways of knowing and relating that might be less based in egocentric practices, sovereignty, and control (we think these are themes intimately related with what you shared in the above questions). We noticed that you are carefully working with thinking  and activating pedagogical processes that take up relationality from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, as you have shared with us, you have been thinking with multiple companions in curriculum theory and beyond. We appreciate such diversity and at the same time we find ourselves wondering about it. We wonder because we find ourselves having an ambivalent response: on one hand, we appreciate such rich conversation, on the other hand we wonder if one needs to be careful with how we relate to our conversations with educational and interdisciplinary interlocutors. How do we enter in interdisciplinary dialogue so that such concepts can actually be read pedagogically? Or, so that those concepts can activate questions and processes and not risk falling into a kind of rhetoric or empty intellectualization? With this in mind, we are wondering what it is about these scholars’ thinking that draws you to them in this work of building collectives with students and educators? As a post-secondary institution pedagogist, how do you relate to these bodies of work when creating an interdisciplinary conversation that is first and foremost a pedagogical conversation that will involve educators and students? 

BO SUN: As a post-secondary institution pedagogist, I believe that education needs to engage with real-life, moving beyond acquiring skills and developing competencies. In that sense, education needs to be concerned with the pedagogical transformation of the self (Todd, 2015). With this in mind, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work are inevitable if we seek to work with real-life matters and concerns, as our languages of education activate what we value and enact in education. To think with interdisciplinarity calls for us to critically reflect on the languages that are present and privileged in both the overarching and situated early childhood context, and think about whom we want to bring into the conversations to produce other possibilities in the early childhood curriculum.

For example, while inheriting dominant configurations of curriculum as children’s  acquisition of more and more skills and knowledge from a developmental psychology perspective, to think curriculum as responding to and being responsible for the worlds is about manifesting who you are as an educator and where you stand to enter a social-material fabric that is entirely relational (Biesta, 2006). Thus, early childhood curriculum must be understood as bearing and creating educational and pedagogical values and engage with philosophical questions such as what we want for our children, ourselves, and the worlds of which we are part. I often ask my educators and students to engage in a question, “what is the purpose of education?”, “what is the purpose of early childhood education?” Taking an invitation from Biesta (2006), without engaging with values and the task of education corresponding to our current time and place, it is impossible to come up with pedagogical visions and values that would orient ourselves for the educational task that we collectively want to pursue. A pedagogist needs to draw attention to how our relations and dialogues might perceive and respond to ongoing ethics and politics of education. In line with this, I refuse to draw on conventional ethical norms and instrumental relations with a predetermined notion of correct or appropriate relationships. Instead, I pay attention to creating conditions and situations where educators explore the curriculum with children to respond to the world in singular, situated ways. This means that educators need to work with various theories and philosophies that might make not taken-for-granted conversations and curriculum approaches possible. This means that we need to acknowledge the ethical consequences of presencing different theories because reality is invoked and materialized depending on what ontological and epistemological position we take (Jones & Jenkins, 2008). As pedagogists, we need to take seriously how different ways of understanding pedagogical practices offer further planning and other unfoldings with very different ethical implications.

For this reason, as you mentioned in your question, we need to be careful about how we enter an interdisciplinary dialogue, considering the purposes and intentions of those involved in contributing to any interdisciplinary piece. And the pedagogical process is “intimately related to pedagogist’s subjective dispositions towards the worlds” (Delgado Vintimilla,n.d). For me, the conversation starts with asking why a particular theoretical concept matters in this context and what it means to work with the specific theory in this particular situation. We also see ourselves, a pedagogist and educators, as one of the organisms intra-acting (Barad, 2003) with other organisms in a pedagogical event, paying attention to what we compose and generate together. In other words, interdisciplinary dialogue is necessary for new possibilities and relationalities. This makes interdisciplinarity a companion on thinking pedagogically because first, it puts in question our taken-for-granted way of practice and what is familiar, a linear path of following a principle of dichotomy that plays a repressive role in education. Second, it provides the opportunity to create otherwise, inventing and experimenting with what emerges from the interdisciplinary conversations.

For example, a few years ago, I worked on an inquiry project, Hello,Oopsie!, with educators and 3 to 5 year-old-children. Our Hello, Oopsie project presents what might be possible, what emerges, and what can become when we shift our pedagogical and ethical approach through interdisciplinary dialogue. The project was first initiated as educators shared their concerns about a fish who came to the center as a gift from a parent. The children were excited about the presence of the fish and showed a great deal of attention, and even gave him a name, Oopsie. The children gathered around Oopsie, watched him swim around the volcano in his little aquarium, observed his movements, and fed him. However, as time went by, their initial excitement and interest started to fade. Oopsie would still swim around in his little aquarium, as he has always done since he first came. Eventually, Oopsie’s aquarium had become more of a background or a decoration of the classroom. Oopsie was not recognized or remembered most of the time, and it seemed that no one was responsible for Oopsie being excluded. Only the educators paid attention to Oopsie from time to time for feeding and maintaining the freshwater. While the rest of the educators felt it was not a big deal since it happened pretty often, one of the educators expressed discomfort at how quickly Oopsie became invisible. This conflicting feeling towards Oopsie sparked a heated conversation among the educators concerning our relationship with Oopsie to human relationships with fish. 

We recognized that fish had been part of humans’ life for a long time, being bound together with the lives of other beings. We encounter fish in a dentist’s office, department store, restaurants, pet stores, streams, rivers, or oceans. It is impossible to disentangle and separate human and fish entangled lives here on the west coast. As Meyer (2010) writes, “we routinely consume and use as part of our daily experience. Everything that we come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of our existence” (p. 85). We recognized that these entangled relations with a fish called for more responsible and responsive pedagogy in our context. I often heard educators and practicum students saying, “we don’t want to continue on this because the children are not interested in the topic anymore” or “we are following children’s interests,” as if everything has to be based on what children want and their interests, rather than considering how our ethical responsibilities entangle with life and pedagogy, and name what is pedagogically and ethically valuable for pursuing. As a pedagogist, I thought it was essential to engage with the children-fish relationship to disrupt this child-centred pedagogy deeply embodied in early childhood education – and, I wanted to search otherwise for other ways of responding with Oopsie and his newfound neglect.

In that sense, the inquiry project with Oopsie was “to present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought” (Stengers, 2004, p. 994) in order to consider our (educator, student, child, community) ethical possibilities and responsibilities within this early childhood pedagogical context. This is what marks our project as a curriculum inquiry project and not a different kind of project: we paid attention to what emerged from encounters, connections, intra-actions, and situations that create otherness in curriculum, rather than relying on our prior knowledge or discovering an eternal truth about worlds. The inquiry with Oopsie was concerned with us in the process of mutual engagement and transformation as we affected and were being affected by everything else. More than anything, the presence of Oopsie provoked us to recognize and contest exclusions inherent in our relationships between human life and the lives of more than human agencies, reimagining inclusion, and thinking “beyond a celebration of individual children’s differences and individual children’s experience of awe and wonder” (Taylor, 2013, p. 78). Introducing the work of Affrica Taylor and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw helped us to work hard to avoid to falling into doing something according to “prescribed moral codes” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2019, p. 6) but to pay attention to ongoing relational practices with the fish and our children. In this inquiry project, we wondered what might happen if we think about Oopsie through the concepts of responsibility and responsiveness. We asked: what story(ies) we might be able to offer through our relations with the fish, challenging essentialist ethical norms and generating new forms of ethical responsibility beyond humans?

Todd (2015) argues that encounters with others (human and non-human alike) bring transformation in us. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of our lives to others, human and non-human like, we started our inquiry project with a question proposed by Todd (2015), “could we not start to rethink what it means to live well together without a blueprint of what counts as the common good’ produced prior to our actual encounters with others with whom we share the world?” (p. 54). 

In drawing attention to the trouble that existed with Oopsie as part of a curriculum inquiry, we encountered uncertainty and unknowability of where this would lead us related to our thinking of pedagogy and curriculum. We knew that, with Oopsie, our inheritances of representationalism, individualism, universalism, continuity, and consensus failed. We focused on how we might live differently with Oopsie in ways that offer new ethical possibilities in our pedagogical context. We turned to scholars both in and beyond curriculum theory, choosing who to think with by following how the provocations they offer might contribute to or complexify our pedagogical or curricular commitments. The quotes and questions from interdisciplinary scholars, such as Affrica Taylor, Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, Gert Biesta, and Sharon Todd, called us to contemplate the specifics of how we would approach and respond to humans and more-than-humans relations, and to nourish pedagogies situated within everyday life interactions which broaden the possibilities of existing with others – a question that reciprocally grounds our curriculum inquiry work with educators, students, children,and families. 

Working as a PSI pedagogist means bringing transformation to our pedagogical life, committing to the creation of a space of plurality and difference where being different is not seen as inferior to what is dominant (constituted as normal) and of a space where the encounters with otherness and difference is a real possibility. However, working with plurality does not mean that all pluralities are good or worth pursuing; it is not about making collage or bricolage by just adding different pieces, which might make us fall into relativism that creates more isolation among ourselves. Instead, working with plurality means, as a pedagogist, placing a dialogue at the center of pedagogy. It is a process of sharing experience and being connected with other beings who cannot work without taking the liveliness of others into account. Concerning this, a pedagogist should pay attention to creating those situations in which one shares or participates in creating a shared pedagogical commitment. However, a shared understanding should not be seen as a condition for making collective commitments. It is not that we first need to come to a shared understanding, and only then can we begin to coordinate our actions for dedication. On the contrary, it is the dialogue and collaboration in motion that produces collective commitment.

BOSUN-PD-REFERENCE

Sweet Sweaty Play

I always go back to the Girl on the Monkey Bars. I sketch scenes from the slow-motion film that runs before my eyes: torso swaying, hands desperately holding on, body weight shifting, muscles flexing, failing, succeeding. Her palms are sweaty. Irritated skin turns pink and then tomato-red. The Girl is in a state of perpetual discomfort of swinging legs and twisted elbows. The doctors (12) warned her: monkey bars are the playground structure heavily associated with injury. Nonetheless, she persists. 

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

1. Setting off.

This piece is written in solidarity with the Monkey Bars and the Girl holding one another. Each paragraph, each thought is a moment of simultaneously gripping on and slipping off. Each movement in the narrative is a disjointed and clumsy attempt to propel a piece somewhere (perhaps not towards an end, but towards an opening?), in a way that has a critical intention in mind, yet is saturated with multiple pulls, in the way limbs and muscles jerk in search of momentum. The essay is an experiments-in-the-making (for which I beg your forgiveness and invite responses of all kinds, but no hate mail please!) where I mix sketches with short vignettes and sprinkle on theoretical promiscuity.  

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

“Sweaty concepts”, writes Sara Ahmed (2017), come slowly, come out of bodies in discomfort, of pushing against the world in a desire to transform it. This piece of writing is also a partial view into my sweating with the concept of play in early childhood education.  How might we chip away at the universal image of a child at play? How might we warp the notion of “play” from a naturalized shape of public marvel (at playing children) to a distorted struggle that resonates against the public institutions of “good” teaching and parenting? What might become possible in early childhood education if we take up play not as yet another dress rehearsal of already existing social norms, but as propositions of constructing worlds (good, bad, ugly, and different), powers, knowledges? 

I now wish to make space on these pages for Sara Ahmed’s writing in a page-long excerpt from Living a Feminist Life because, firstly, the sustained space this quote takes in this essay echoes her very propositions of continued, strenuous working at something that matters. It is also a question of uncovering the circumstances and others (bodies and minds) that shatter or replenish my/your own experience and thinking. Lastly, I hope that you trace Ahmed’s writing as she does it: along your own skin, bearing all the weight of your situatedness. 

I write this piece as I work, alongside educators and children, in a playground space in a city in Canada’s ‘chemical valley’. It’s a stifling 340C by 9 am. The soft strap of the plastic face shield that I, like the educators, am wearing over the face mask captures the drops of sweat that want to get into my eyes. We collect rocks and sticks. We take off shoes, squeezing clay soil and the fuzz of the picnic blanket between our toes. Dust glues to damp skin. On Monday afternoon, the unescapable heat mixes also with the air horn alarms. It’s the refineries’ weekly emergency system testing in case of a chemical leak. If you saw our bodies strained, sweating, sticking, slowing, would you name us playing?

By trying to describe something that is difficult, that resists being fully comprehended in the present, we generate what I call “sweaty concepts.” I first used this expression when I was trying to describe to students the kind of intellectual labor evident in Audre Lorde’s work. <…> Her words gave me the courage to make my own experience into a resource, my experiences as a brown woman, lesbian, daughter; as a writer, to build theory from description of where I was in the world, to build theory from description of not being accommodated by a world. A lifeline: it can be a fragile rope, worn and tattered from the harshness of weather, but it is enough, just enough, to bear your weight, to pull you out, to help you survive a shattering experience.

A sweaty concept: another way of being pulled out from a shattering experience. By using sweaty concepts for descriptive work, I am trying to say at least two things. First, I was suggesting that too often conceptual work is understood as distinct from describing a situation: and I am thinking here of a situation as something that comes to demand a response. A situation can refer to a combination of circumstances of a given moment but also to a critical, problematic, or striking set of circumstances. <…> Concepts tend to be identified as what scholars somehow come up with, often through contemplation and withdrawal, rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority. <…> Concepts are at work in how we work, whatever it is that we do. We need to work out, sometimes, what these concepts are (what we are thinking when we are doing, or what doing is thinking) because concepts can be murky as background assumptions. But that working out is precisely not bringing a concept in from the outside (or from above): concepts are in the worlds we are in. By using the idea of sweaty concepts, I am also trying to show how descriptive work is conceptual work. A concept is worldly, but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically, a sweaty concept is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it. Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous and muscular activity. A sweaty concept might come out of a bodily experience that is trying. The task is to stay with the difficulty, to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty. We might need not to eliminate the effort or labor from the writing.

Not eliminating the effort or labor becomes an academic aim because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere. Sweaty concepts are also generated by the practical experience of coming up against a world, or the practical experience of trying to transform a world. 
<…> We should be asking ourselves the same sorts of questions when we write our texts, when we put things together, as we do in living our lives. How to dismantle the world that is built to accommodate only some bodies? (Ahmed, 2017, pp. 12-14)

1__2. Everyone is naked

In just a few paragraphs, Ursula K. Le Guin (1985) sets the stage for a feminist uprising:

They used to be called 
yaks, rats, poodles, sea otters, 
and other names which are now lost. 
She is a woman formerly known as Eve. 
Like them, she takes on namelessness 
in a refusal of certainty of knowing and being known. 
She and they crawl and swim 
and lay closely to one another. 
They and she touch, 
eat and become eaten, 
they taste blood and affect, in which fear and love 
are no longer distinguishable from one another. 

Play, we are often told, is difficult to define but is easy to recognize. This magic trick fools you only if you buy into the homogeneous images of shiny happy children playing. As if they were speaking about play, fellow admirers of Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them” (which inspired the above passage), Gough and Adsit-Morris write (2020, p. 218): “Naming is not just a matter of labeling existing distinctions. Assigning a name constructs the illusion that what is named is genuinely distinguishable from all else”. 

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

2. (Un)naming

What does (un)naming ask of us? Not to fall silent, refusing words that make up our sometimes-shared vocabulary. Not to reprise the move of a vengeful god who takes away the common language to stop mere humans from reaching heaven. Not to look up alternatives in a thesaurus (although tracing word origins, definitions and synonyms is infinitely fascinating). In thinking of language and power as inexplicably linked, we ought to consider naming + un-naming + not-naming as a feminist practice of thinking critically how, and at whom, violence is directed through words (Ahmed, 2017); to fiercely question constructions that purport to explain away but themselves ought to be explained (Pignarre & Stengers, 2011, p.13):

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

What might need (un)naming in early childhood education? What is “free play” free of? What are “loose parts” loose from?[1] What does “risky play” actually risk? Who is excluded from the mantra of “the right to play” (Article 31, UN Convention on the Rights of a Child) that adorns nearly every article and document concerned with play in the Global North? How might we move beyond sweeping generalizations that couple play and children’s so-called nature (as in “natural response”[2], or “natural curiosity and exuberance”[3])? How do we un-mechanize the X-marks-the-spot on the playground where an educator takes her supervisory stand?  

2_3. They are here. 

The opening vignette of Valerie Walkerdine’s Schoolgirl Fictions (1990) acts out for the reader moments of play in a nursery school that tightly weave gender and power discourses with Lego bricks. This play is volatile, spilling from the boundaries of classroom appropriateness into sexualized violence:

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

What I wish to gesture towards with the introduction of this very small piece of Walkerdine’s writing is the need for more complex thinking (and, consequently, more complex language, conversations, practices, documentations, ideas, etc, etc) about play in ECE settings.  Neither the binary categories of safe/risky, free/guided, nature/playground, outdoor/indoor, toys/loose parts, etc nor the non-critical adjectives like fun, voluntary, adventurous, constructive, etc are capable of grasping the complexity (and the darkness) of play, thus impoverishing its pedagogical and world-making possibilities. 

Moreover, failing to critically consider the taken-for-granted language of play may leave our educational practice impotent. Consider, for instance, the closed circuit of the “romanticized amnesia” (Malone, 2015, p. 6) of risky and nature play movement (see the works of Mariana Brussoni and Richard Louv). Here, we are told, the playing child’s development and well-being are under threat by lack of access to nature, parental fears (aha, the mothers are to blame!) or societal emphasis on safety standards that “smother” adventure (Vollmar & Lindner, 2018). While safety standards may dictate certain conditions for work and play, they are neither pedagogically instructive nor indestructible.  The work done by, for example, members of the Common Worlds Research Collective shows what play(ing) is possible when we refuse to be swallowed by bloated regulatory jurisdictions (whether safety or developmental), and instead work to agitate bonds that wish to capture the playing human.

Not only do I suggest that safety standards cannot constraint the pedagogical potentials of the work of educators and children in outdoor and playground settings, but that the destitute landscapes surrounding many childcare sites across Canada can be, must be, sites to think education politically. Plastic play structures, tarmac steaming in the summer heat, dirt and wood chips, chain-link fences, weeping mulberries and cedar hedges, shade sails, trike loops, and sand boxes are the very conditions that make us ask how did we come to think of a trike as a staple of early-year centers’ playgrounds? What do we enact when we insist that sand must stay in the sandbox? How might we care for the dandelions that spoil our lawns? What stories might we tell when we see the chain-link fence as keeping in, andkeeping out, and letting through, and springing back, and framing, and breaking, and, and, and…

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

3. Play and learn 

I favor the boldness of Erica Burman (2017) declaring: “there is nothing natural about play” (p. 254). By attending to how play is constructed in ways that reflect class privileges, neoliberal values, culture, Western rights-based world views, and regulation (of mothers and teachers, in particular), we, too can follow Burman in tracing how neither play itself, nor our management of it are benign or free. 

If we take pedagogical processes as subject-forming, then play-based learning[4] is, too, an ethical practice open to “ontological violence” (Todd, 2001, p. 435). This means that not only educators organizing “free play” (when distinguished from “guided play”, as in Danniels & Pyle, 2018, referenced in the CECE document above) is an oxymoron, but any suggestion that this play is indeed “child-directed, voluntary, internally motivated, and pleasurable” (p. 1) ignores entirely the political instruments that wish it into existence and the ethical questions such practice ought to raise. Thus, play-based learning techniques both delineate and produce the very activity they claim innate to children. They also are offered as a solution to a problem (learning improved through play) before asking a critical question: what and whom is it for? 

3_4. In business 

Within developmental discourses, play is paradoxically narrated as both children’s natural inclination and as their work. Declarations like “unstructured play is the business of childhood” (Canadian Public Health Association) echo the Progressive reformers’ ambition to “fix” juvenile delinquents by teaching them how to play (the right way) on newly-organized playgrounds (Hines, 2017; McArhur, 1975) and trope of the era commemorated in Maria Montessori’s utterance: “play is the work of the child” (in Mobily, 2018, p. 152).

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

4. Letting go

Reflecting critically on the offering of ‘risky play’ (normally defined as thrilling outdoor play with a possible occurrence of physical injury; see Sandseter & Kennair, 2011) easily reveals the end-product: resilience building, itself the nation state’s favourite trait in a neoliberal citizen committed to self-care. Within a broader context, the regime of resilience obscures suffering and marketizes endurance of Black and Indigenous people, women and children, and marginalized others (see Casco-Solís, 2019; Clay, 2019; Burman, 2017; Lindroth & Sinevaara-Niskanen, 2017). Within the discourses of play, we might ask to what (un)known dangers or crisis does risky play plan to govern children towards? How might play (particularly in outdoor settings, where much of the ‘risky play’ conversations are situated) be considered as more than means of developing harder (resilient), better, faster, stronger children? 

Sweaty play as a pedagogical project asks us to undo play as the last defense line in the project of an innocent child and that of a developing child. Accepted narrations of play as “free” or materials as simply constituting loose bits and bobs that are used “dependent on the children’s interests and imagination” (Dietze & Kashin, 2019, p. 83) blossom from the same child-centeredness that houses developmentalism and anthropocentrism (Land, et al., 2020). They ask us to either marvel at the beautiful play, or to subvert it, narrowly defined, in supporting determinacy of existing regimes and neoliberal futures. In defiance, we might think of play as experiences which conjure up something “that makes us new, that makes us into something that is neither one nor two, that brings us into the open where purpose and functions are given a rest” (Haraway, p. 2008, p. 237). So conceived, play requires a recognition of interdependence beyond a child, of releasing the tight grip and letting the body feel the pull of the next bar, putting the Girl’s world on the line. 

© Tatiana Zakharova, 2021

Footnotes

[1] In asking this question, I repeat Cristina Delgado Vintimilla who blew up my world by uttering it in February 2020 at Responding to Ecological Challenges with/in Contemporary Childhoods: An Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Climate Pedagogies
[2]  Council of Ministers of Education of Canada, 2012. Online: https://www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/282/play-based-learning_statement_EN.pdf
[3]  How Does Leaning Happen?, 2014. Online: https://files.ontario.ca/edu-how-does-learning-happen-en-2021-03-23.pdf
[4] As, for example, College of Early Childhood Educators (2018) encourages RECEs to do. Online: https://www.college-ece.ca/en/Documents/Practice_Note_Play-Based_Learning.pdf

References-SSP-TZ

Editors’ Note

We – a group of researchers with very different histories, concerns, and practices who are situated and positioned differently within this educational project – share this issue of the PNO Magazine and its pieces during a time when the ongoing violences of settler colonialism and white supremacy have motivated immense, well-publicized traumas that unfold alongside the often silenced or disregarded everyday violences Eurocentric colonially inflicts in this stolen land currently known as the nation state of Canada.

We are intensely concerned with figuring out what it means to educate pedagogists, to be relentlessly committed to doing pedagogical work that is intimately intertwined with our inheritances and with crafting futurities that celebrate Indigenous, Black, Brown, Asian, and other racialized lives and worlds. We take seriously that we, collectively, must find ways – pathways that we do not yet know and practices will not be created in isolation – of doing pedagogical work that actually grapples with justice, difference, knowledge, commons and uncommons, and life in tangible ways.

Within the PNO, we do not want to pretend we have the answers for knowing what education will become as we face its complicity in hatred, control, and devaluing particular lives, knowledges, and worlds. Nor do we want to be so arrogant as to assume that our one project will “solve” the intentional issues of an education system that regulates who and how children should be. We also do not name our partiality or uncertainty as an excuse; not knowing exactly what comes next does not mean minimizing our complicity in the form of a performative apology or as a self-soothing proclamation of our sadness.

We offer these as commitments that we will enact: we will show up, be and hold each other accountable, listen and co-labour, work in the background to reconfigure pebble by pebble the foundations of racist structures, and recognize our work as one small and humble thread in the ongoing dismantling and recreating of the project of education on these lands.  

Sweating the Fact(s) of my Body (+Mermaids) as a Pedagogist

In this essay, I talk about depression, self harm, suicide, and medical procedures. Please continue to read only if thinking with these experiences feels safe for you right now.


I learn a lot from the brilliant, bold, and generous activists and artists who bring Instagram to life. As I navigate through my feed (curated by Instagram algorithms) as a pedagogist, it matters to me to move slowly; to read the full caption of a post so that my thinking echos the energy an author has poured into their words, to try to notice all the complexities an artist weaves into their illustration, and to follow the histories, tensions, and moments that bring posts into (often difficult, sometimes adversarial) conversation with one another. From Aubrey Gordon (@yrfatfriend), a writer who, through profoundly sharp critiques rooted in fat people’s lived experience, envisions just ethical and political possibilities for relating with fat beyond status-quo medicalized and pathologizing paradigms, I have learned a short assertion that constantly treads around in my brain: “the fact of my body” (Gordon, 2021, para. 6).

Gordon wields this phrase in the context of believing, affirming, and holding space for fat people when they describe how they inhabit their flesh and how their fat bodies travel through their worlds while inventing, nourishing, and defying particular relations toward fat liberation. ‘The fact of my body’, as I understand it, is a proposition grounded in a political commitment to get to know bodies differently, beyond the neoliberal criteria we inherit (like body mass index, body image, food consumption, physical fitness, or blood sugar levels – and, in early childhood education in particular: child development). This is also an unapologetic assertion that bodies matter: they make and take space, they function and malfunction, they interject and can go unnoticed. To declare a body – and its unceasingly (re)living muscles, membranes, neurotransmitters, and skin – as a promise and a project is a pedagogical commitment that I hold close as a pedagogist and as a researcher. I care about how we relate and live fats, muscles, and movement with children. For me, what is especially compelling in thinking ‘the fact of my body’ is that Gordon is intentional in never jumbling her words to declare a body as a fact, where to be a fact is to be composed of certitude and stability. Rather, in upholding a body as a bundle of facts – materialities, experiences, politics, ethics, relations – fused together, Gordon brings bodies to life in the intervals between actuality and gospel, certainty and infallibility. 

Gordon’s proposal of ‘the fact of my body’ is deeply tangled, right now, with how I might engage in my work as a pedagogist confronted with the fact(s) of my body. I also need to emphasize that the context within which Gordon builds ‘the fact of my body’ is resolutely anchored in fat activism and fat liberation. I am a straightsize human and to think with Gordon’s proposal, I need to continually cite and answer to its ethical and political edges; ‘the fact of my body’ is not a benign concept to think with, but rather one that asserts the difficult existence of bodies within worlds intent on marking particular fleshed lives as unlivable. As I carry ‘the fact(s) of my body’ with me and begin to imagine what I might put into motion with this provocation while thinking pedagogically, I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s (2014) work on ‘sweaty concepts’. “We need ‘sweaty concepts’” Ahmed explains, “because we need more descriptions of the patterns that are obscured when bodies are received by spaces that have assumed their shape. We might have to insist on giving these descriptions” (para. 8). This means that ‘the fact(s) of my body’ is a practice of sweaty, demanding endurance in continual conversation with pedagogy, a dialogue of repeatedly pushing the details that make my body into the public, taking seriously the questions my body can ask of education, and refusing to allow the situated facts that manifest my body to be subsumed into a more easily palatable category or colloquialism. For Ahmed, “a ‘sweaty concept’ might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is ‘trying,’ and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing” (2014, para. 4). To sweat the fact(s) of my body requires that I resist resolving the messes of my body: the scars, the weight, the acne-prone skin I refuse to cover with makeup. It means knowing that to type these words on a screen asks something of my finger muscles, which need calories to maintain their motion and carbon to embody their existence. It means understanding the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogical question and patiently tracing how sweating the fact(s) of my body shapes how I might ask questions of curriculum-making as a pedagogist. As I turn toward sweating the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogical process, I want to share one final quote from Ahmed, which she offers in ellipses: “(I suspect not eliminating the effort or labour becomes an academic aim because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere)” (2014, para. 3). The struggle, the hard work, of sweating the fact(s) of my body is never meant to be a ‘final’ project nor a straightforward one. What I share here is my attempt to sweat my body here, now. I hope that Gordon will not mind me tugging her words into conversation with Ahmed, and toward questions that I want to ask as a pedagogist with a body in early childhood education in what is currently known as Canada. 

My first instinct in sweating the fact(s) of my body into conversation with pedagogy is to ask questions of living well: how might we live well with fats in early childhood education? What is it to live well together with muscles and memories? What are the facts of my body that already shape how I can ask and respond with questions? This inclination toward ‘well’ as a tangible ethic for relations with human and more-than-human others is, to the best that I can trace of my own citational life, an orientation that I learned from the Common Worlds Research Collective. In particular, I have come to know ‘well’ within Donna Haraway’s work on my way to thinking with feminist science studies and pedagogy. For Haraway (2016), “each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra” (p. 116). From Haraway I learn that ‘well’ is an ethic nourished by complexity; to simplify or instrumentalize a ‘well’ relation is to strip it of its wellness. ‘Well’ is also a relation of precarity and risk, where ‘well’ does not ensure equity nor nirvana but instead functions as a verb that we must continually take the risk to participate in. I have also come to know ‘well’ through curriculum theory and collective projects (including the Pedagogist Network of Ontario) to support the role of the pedagogist in Canada. Living well is an absolutely critical question for a pedagogist to get to know over and over again. 

In 2020, Cristina Delgado Vintimilla, Kathleen Kummen, Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, Randa Khattar, and I presenced questions of ‘well’ by offering that “pedagogy, we want to propose, asks questions that work in the name of living well together: how do we create more liveable worlds for all?” (para. 6). Here ‘well’ grapples with creating more liveable worlds. This ‘more’ feels important to me because it underscores the situatedness and ongoing work of ‘well’. More does not function as a triumph, happening instead as a marathon. That ‘well’ and ‘liveability’ overlap in asking these particular pedagogical questions is a concern I want to spend time with as I sweat the fact(s) of my body. If liveability stumbles do well fact(s) of a body become unimaginable? If a fact of a body is unwell-ness, what possibilities for liveability survive? To action ‘unwell’ as a diagnosis, constraint, or obstacle to be tackled is a gesture that I refuse. Cristina Delgado Vinitmilla (2020) details how “pedagogy, for me, is interested in the creation of a life—not as a model or an ideal, but as an everyday practice that puts thought into action, that is interested not in prescribing a life but in working at a life, becoming studious of it, being interested in its different forms and formations in what it does and what it invites and in how we become of it. A life that is life-making” (para. 12). ‘Working at a life,’ as Delgado Vinitmilla proposes, sounds to me like a sister pedagogical project of sweating the fact(s) of my body. I want to carry the untidy struggle (following Ahmed) of sweating of the fact(s) of my body in their collisions with energetic pedagogical questions of living well together. 

How might I sweat the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogist? And even more pressing for my current worldings: how might I sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist? I turn now to picking up this second question. I want to emphasize that where this essay travels next is not purely autobiographical. This is not a narrative recounting an illness nor a story that wraps up with a recovery milestone. It is grounded in the fact(s) of my body that have become fact(s) in the last two years. Some facts of my body are that I have major depression, I hallucinate, I have an unpredictable circulatory system, I needed help with nutrition, and I had an abdominal ligament surgically severed. I have cat scratches up my arms and my legs remember what they could do when I played hockey. I can eat all the kale I want but my body hates broccoli. I am a cisgender white settler. There are many facts of my body, but only some collide with pedagogical questions of living well together. These bodied pedagogical questions differ from autobiographical inquiries intended to diagnose an illness or understand a survival story. Instead, in thinking how the fact(s) of my body ask me to sit with particular pedagogical tangles, I am interested in asking questions about how my body orients me toward specific concerns, tensions, or politics. I want to deliberately attend to the fact(s) of my body that make questions of ‘well’ in ‘living well’ feel impossibly foreign and irrelevant. Put differently, I want to ask questions, as a pedagogist, with my body when living itself – remaining alive as a human bundle of cells – runs counter to my body’s numbness, actions, and ideations.
In her essay on life and ‘new ways of dying,’ Rosi Braidotti (2010) proposes that we need to reconfigure how we get to know moments near to dying. Asking why death or pain encounters some of us but not others, Braidotti offers “for no reason at all. Reason has nothing to do with it. That’s precisely the point. We need to delink pain from the quest for meaning and move beyond, to the next stage. That is the transformation of negative into positive passions” (p. 214). Getting to know my unwell body beyond logics of ‘reason’ (beyond self-growth or character building or nihilism), I understand Braidotti’s call toward ethics, to understanding processes of pain and unwell-nes as questions oriented toward affirming and inventing, as an initial mode of responding to questions of how I might sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist. As I try learn how to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body, there is a poem I re-read over and over, titled “so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…” by Sabrina Benaim (2017).

so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…

& I’m like, GIRL. I saw The Little Mermaid. even she did not want to be a mermaid. so, I guess my question is: is it just easier to look at yourself in the mirror if you are not human? does that make it easier to pretend you don’t have depression; because depression is exclusively human. if so…shoot…maybe i am a mermaid too. if being a mermaid means you’ve cried enough tears to drown your grasp of reality. if being a mermaid means you truly believe the grass is greener than the blue you are surrounded by. If being a mermaid means you never walk away from a person you love, because you can’t, because you have a fin. then yes, I think I am definitely a mermaid & every song I’ve ever sung has filled my lungs with sea, but I am not drowning – not like I thought I was, when I was human. (p. 45)

This poem changes the rhythm of my heart beating in my chest. In a good way – in a way that helps me to shake off the heaviness of the pinnacle of ‘wellness’ or ‘normality’ that I often feel is asserted as a goal for my body. Benaim teaches me that I do not have to become the idealized subject who traverses a ‘health journey’ toward becoming fully functional, productive, and inspiring in a capitalist world. There is nothing aspirational about being a mermaid; it is a sharp survival strategy. A way of living together with the sea without yet knowing the shape of living ‘well’ with the sea. A practice of re-inventing relations with my own body, muscles, legs, and lungs, where there’s a glimmer of a future made through the work of getting to know my body differently. To think like a mermaid is to ask questions of bodies and pedagogies that work like an errant semicolon in a sentence: requiring an unfamiliar pause as we trip over the strange cadence of the sentence in order to read the sentence for what its uncommon grammar creates. Reading Benaim’s poem alongside Braidotti’s writing on life and death, I learn that to sweat the fact(s) of my body requires disrupting the ‘quest for meaning’ that so often populates our stories of illness and instead intentionally resisting the neoliberal tropes we inherit around wellness, sickness, and healing. It requires refusing status-quo humanist narratives that profess personal resilience and courage, and working hard not to see my body as a failure or my life as a commodity. Braidotti (2010) suggests that “life is experienced as inhuman because it is all too human, obscene because it lives on mindlessly… Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our ‘body,’ of this aching meat called our ‘self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life?” (p. 208). What Braidotti names as the ‘divine potency of life’, I hear as Benaim’s drowning; the chasms between situated muscling bodies and the status-quo structures of subjectivity that prescribe our relations with biological flesh. Here I find a rift that sustains collisions of bodied vulnerability with being ‘well’. A mermaid, Benaim shares, cannot drown in the humanist scope of dictating how a body can be “well”. This is a very particular mermaid that Benaim casts and that I get to know in conversation with Braidotti, one who is intimately familiar with struggling to breathe within the ruins of the waters that surround her, and who finds practices of breathing that become possible when she resists knowing what it is to breathe. I want, now, to think with mermaids alongside my questions of sweating the fact(s) of my body. How pedagogists and mermaids become friends in getting to know bodies? How are mermaids and pedagogists already companions in conceiving bodies?

Returning to Ahmed’s (2014) sweaty concepts, “I want to write from the examples up, without following the concepts where they go” (para. 7). I want to sweat the fact(s) of my body as a mermaid pedagogist might. I want to think from the fact(s) of my (unwell) body up, pulling the pieces of my skeleton apart and balancing pieces upon one another to build a different backbone, a different heartbeat. I want to sketch and follow the very particular questions I might ask of “well” in education. Braidotti (2010) reminds me that “an ethical question has to be adequate in relation to how much a body can take. How much can an embodied entity take in the mode of interrelations and connections, that is, how much freedom of action can we endure?” (p. 215). This is incredibly important. This means that the questions I offer are grounded in a commitment to ask only what a (my) body can take. The stories, scars, and speculations that I think with are deeply bodied in that they write with the fact(s) of my own unwell body. In figuring out my practice of sweating the fact(s) of a body, I want to stress, with pedagogists, a proposal that our bodies matter as we think pedagogically. We cannot think pedagogically without the fact(s) of our bodies and how we sweat the fact(s) of our bodies steers us toward bodied pedagogical concerns and processes. Universalizing or decontextualizing the questions I offer will not succeed, and I invite readers to feel how these questions take up a life in conversation with the fact(s) of your own body. What I share now is a series of short questions that try to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a mermaid pedagogist – or at least, as a pedagogist with a mermaid best friend. 

My body has seven horizontal scars on my left thigh. There are two blob-shaped scars as well. I created these scars by cutting and burning my skin, an act that psychiatry has taught me to name as self harming. Scars are amazing. Scars mark processes of collagen production and maturation, as my body repairs its skin from the marks my hands have made on it. Scars enact repair, and in their materialization scars inhabit my skin, getting to know both internal and outward layers of my body. Sweating my scars as a pedagogist makes me pay attention to the bodied terrain made within the work of repair – if to repair is to populate a bumpy keloid scar boundary, does that enact repair as a process on-the-brink; repair as a practice of edge-making and taking up residence in relations that traverse a seemingly human contradiction or border? If I ask how repair happens in a classroom, what modes of repairing might be perceptible? What if repair is not always a curative dance of tying insides and outsides together? What happens when we get to know repair as the work of building a mark, a mark that is made possible through an act that disrupts how an inside is demarcated from an outside? What are early childhood education’s scars, its acts of repair? How do we notice, ignore, or brush over these scars, and how they are sustained as scars? What scars matter in curriculum-making – and how?

A PICC line is a catheter that runs from a person’s upper arm through to their heart. I had a PICC line for many months, as we used it to carry nutrients to my body when I was unable to sustain my body through my digestive system. Each day, I received TPN (total parenteral nutrition) for hours and the proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals that TPN ferried into my body kept me alive. This means that I was fed directly through my arm’s veins, a process I still think is incredibly provocative. All around us, in the medicalized and individualized ontology of bodies that dominates neoliberal worlds, is a discourse of nutrition as an act closely partnered with eating by chewing, swallowing, and digesting. My PICC and TPN require logics of contamination (a term I have learned from Alexis Shotwell, 2016) and travel that are imperceptible to dominant ways of nourishing a human body. This raises, for me, questions of entrance: the PICC entered my body in an unfamiliar way and then TPN relied on the pathways cohered by my PICC to enter into my body with nutrients. Entrance here is a collaboration, a coalescing, that functions only because it both holds together and is held together by the body it functions within. Entering is an act of sustenance. This differs from thinking entering as a performance of a singular entity arriving to, or announcing their presence within, an existing (even if it is changing) space. As a pedagogist sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body, this makes me care about the work of making an entrance. What modes of entry dot the borders of early childhood education? How do we pay attention to entrances? Where have we infiltrated early childhood education’s borders with a catheter that spans these same margins (whether this be an ethical catheter or an instrumentalized one)? What do we do with the scars that catheters leave? What knowledges, relations, and politics might enter into a classroom – and how? If entering is made in the collusion of materials and pathways, how can we answer to the ways we do and do not enact and support entering as a pedagogical proposition? And if entering is an offering of sustenance, what does it mean for a pedagogist to enter into the ongoing flows of life in a classroom?

Lithium, as a medication that I take each evening, has been in my life for 12 months now. Through at least five changes in antidepressants and antipsychotics, three involuntary admissions to a mental health hospital, and hallucinations that insist on lingering, lithium matters to my body as a dependable element that is in conversation with my neurotransmitters. My dose has not changed, nor has my ritual of ensuring that I give my oral lithium capsule a nice bed of carbohydrates for when it meets my stomach. Lithium augments my antidepressant, reminding me that the molecular complexities of my body are in constant and complicated relations. Sometimes lithium makes me sick. My doctors remind me often that psychiatric medications are finicky and it is not unusual to take a calculated gamble with many different combinations before the ‘right’ medications are found. As a pedagogist, sweating lithium as a fact of my body makes me tune into questions of promise. Lithium does a frustrating dance over the pledge of a promise, oscillating between promises of uncertainty, precarity, and patience made by psychiatric medicines, and the hope that, in an uneasy alliance with medications, I might one day gather together a different relation to life. Lithium makes a promise that declares no guarantees and that disrupts any teleological assurance of ‘wellness’ – and that refuses to understand the craters between an unwell or well body as black holes but rather understands this as the space of negotiating and bodying lithium’s promise into my life. With lithium I want to ask what the promises that zig zag through early childhood education are: what promises do we inherit, trust, and make? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make these promises? Put differently, how do promises work in education and how are we implicated in the promises we proffer? How do our pedagogies promise? How does our curriculum-making converse with promises? Are promises an apt practice for envisioning a future in education? What modes of coming together in the name of pedagogy might the relational commitments of promise-making ignore? How does a pedagogist promise – or not? 

 Sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist (who will not give up on living as a mermaid) is a project that I can build many more questions with. Whenever I hear a metaphor of stitching as a curriculum-making practice in education, I think of emergency room visits where doctors sewed my skin together from the cuts I had made. I am distrustful of the poetic beauty in stitching practices when my leg is always numbed before stitching to chase away stitching’s pain. As a pedagogist, this makes me think about anesthetizing – what flows of life do we make numb or dull in early childhood education? How? Why? I think many times each day about dying, seriously and curiously speculating what it might be like to no longer be breathing in this world. I have learned that publicly wondering about dying as a near, comforting possibility compels a conversation drowning in discomfort. Many of the familiar conventions we rely on for anchoring our conversations are imperceptible or fall apart when we refuse to skim over death as something abstract, destructive, or pathologized. I understand that in this Euro-Western, humanist neoliberal society, (human) death is a taboo topic, but when I sweat the fact(s) of my body dying as a pedagogist, what is most interesting to me is to notice how thinking with dying is profoundly disorienting: what questions might we ask when neither the living or well in ‘living well’ is trustworthy? What if we resist the desire to know pedagogy only through questions of living and instead follow the troubles dying interjects in the work of thinking pedagogically? How are living and dying in endless relation – and what do these relations lend to thinking life and death with pedagogy? (I want to acknowledge that this question is not new and owes to the work of researchers in the Common Worlds Research Collective and Climate Action Network who attend to and respond with precarity, pollution, extinction, climate change, destruction, and decomposing with human and more-than-human others in education). A final fact of my body that I want to sweat is that my brain has undergone ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and rTMS (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation). Both treatments for depression mobilize pulses of energy to disrupt activity patterns and chemicals in my brain. They also made me forget five months of my life. This foregrounds questions, for me, of remembering – how do we remember in early childhood education? What do our modes of remembering make possible and unimaginable? 
I hold so much gratitude for Benaim’s (2017) poem, “so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…”, and I want to conclude by re-collecting my experiment in sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist alongside her words that punctuate the poem. Benaim writes, “then yes, I think i am definitely a mermaid & every song I’ve ever sung has filled my lungs with sea, but i am not drowning – not like i thought i was, when i was human” (p. 45). Perhaps as I do this messy, lived work of trying to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist, getting to know my body for the ways that it shapes how I need to ask questions of education might become a practice in not drowning. Maybe, in revisiting Braidotti’s (2010) caution that “an ethical question has to be adequate in relation to how much a body can take” (p. 215), I might wonder how mermaids ask pedagogical questions. What happens if a mermaid questions what pedagogies ask of us when the ‘well’ of our bodies is murky or the criteria with which we have been taught to understand the wellness of a body becomes unlivable? I want to continue to work to begin to create a speculative practice where sweating the fact(s) of my body orients toward fleshing the pedagogical questions that I, and my unwell body, propose toward finding ways to live together in education. In picking up this practice of sweating the fact(s) of a body, I am extending to pedagogists a proposal that our anatomies bleed into our pedagogical concerns and the pedagogical processes we participate in become possible only with our muscles.


References

Ahmed, S. [feministkilljoys]. (2014). Sweaty concepts. Retrieved from https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/22/sweaty-concepts/

Benaim, S. (2017). Depression and other magic tricks. Button Poetry. 

Braidotti, R. (2010). The politics of “life itself” and new ways of dying. In D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics (pp. 201-220). Duke University Press. 

Delgado Vintimilla, C. (2020). What is pedagogy? Pedagogist Network of Ontario Magazine, (1). Retrieved from https://pedagogistnetworkontario.com/what-is-pedagogy/

Delgado Vintimilla, C., Land, N., Kummen, K., Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., & Khattar, R. (2020). What would be possible if education subtracts itself from developmentalism. Pedagogist Network of Ontario Magazine, (1). Retrieved from https://pedagogistnetworkontario.com/what-would-be-possible-if-education-subtracts-itself-from-developmentalism/

Gordon, A. [Your Fat Friend]. (2021). It’s time to retire ‘your’re not fat, you’re beautiful!’. Self. Retrieved from https://www.self.com/story/not-fat-beautiful

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Shotwell, A. (2016). Against purity: Living ethically in compromised time. U of Minnesota Press.

Decolonizing Place in Early Childhood Education

In this conversation, Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw interviews Fikile Nxumalo on her work on the possibilities for responding to anti-Blackness and settler colonialism in early childhood education. Fikile shares examples from her research and practice and discusses some of the ways in which she draws inspiration from Black and Indigenous feminism.