The trauma of learning – a personal journey through liminality

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An  awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined.  We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day.  “Fiction”/”nonfiction” is an utterly useless distinction. David Shields Reality Hunger

As an English teacher with a degree and masters in literature, I have a terrible confession to make. I don’t actually read that much.

Perhaps I should qualify that statement a little. I don’t read that much fiction, in particular that most amorphous of things, literary fiction. I do still read other genres, whenever I get the chance that is, which with two small children and working long hours isn’t always easy. During term time I read about education and, of course, books related to what I am teaching. In the holidays I generally go for a mixture of biography, history and all manner of things in between.

Not much fiction, though.

I’ve been aware of this state of affairs for a while, noticing with an increasing sense of sadness that I am reading less and less of what I once loved so very, very much and what I also insist on telling my students is incredibly important and empowering. Does the fact that I don’t read much literary fiction make me a bit of a hypocrite, a sham of an English teacher who undermines his profession through his own private reading habits? I don’t know. Maybe.

I wonder about this disconnect between my words and my deeds each Friday, when I share a gate duty with a history colleague, and the conversation turns to what books we are reading. He finds it perverse that whilst he reads literary texts vociferously, I tend to go for things like memoir, books on psychology and even history! Our short conversations leave me unsettled and make me reflect on why it is I read so little literary fiction.

A possible answer came to me recently. Whilst putting together a CPD session on threshold concepts, it occurred to me that what I might be experiencing is the deep sense of loss that Land et al suggest accompanies a shift in ontology – the troubling aspect of troublesome knowledge. Perhaps I have a passed through a threshold in the way that I think and feel about the novel and its attendant truth claims, which means I can no longer read and appreciate books in the same way.

I think I can trace this shift in attitude to the third year of my undergraduate studies and then to the later masters in twentieth century literature I pursed in the early years of teaching. Whilst my degree introduced me to ideas about the death of the author and the instability of language, my masters took things much further, destabilising all notions of truth, objectivity and intentionality and unmooring me from previous ideas about the centrality of narrative craft.

It wasn’t until some years later, though, when I came across the American writer David Shields, that I found someone who was able articulate reasons for my gradual disquietude towards literature. It would be fair to say that Shield’s short 2011 book Reality Hunger – a kind of manifesto for a new kind of genre-blurring 21st-century prose – left a significant impression on me, one that, over time, has contributed to a significant change in my reading.

Reality Hunger stitches together aphorisms, asides and quotations, from high and low culture, alongside the writer’s own reflections. It is almost impossible to locate any kind of authentic voice, and it would have been completely so had Shields got his way and had all attributions expunged. Despite its patchwork structure, one message remains consistent – that the boundaries used to distinguish between genres don’t really exist. What we think of as non-fiction, contains as much fiction as what we consider literature, and what we think of as beautiful, or poetically true has as much chance of appearing in journalism as in poetry.

The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.                                                                                               Reality Hunger, David Shields

Reading Shields’ book, and his 2013 follow up, the ironically titled How Literature Saved My Life, made me profoundly question the authenticity of literary fiction, particularly recently-published works that I feel too often try to do what novels have done before but can no longer pull off. Many a book I start but find myself unable to buy-in to the worlds and characters it tries to create. Sadly, I no longer submit to the power of literature to cast a spell; it can be too easy to see the spell being cast and the artifice being exposed. I still read some older fiction, but only as a form of nostalgia for authenticity and the stability of character and plot – a time when things were different, or had the appearance of being so.

I could write more about all this, and about how my love and belief in literature has been slowly undermined through a combination of high theory and the thoughts of an obscure American, who has grown disillusioned by contemporary meaning making, but what I am really interested in is the experience of loss itself. What fascinates me is how learning more, in this case about books and the way they work and can be read, has meant a letting go of many of the things that I knew and once loved – things that attracted me to a degree in the first place. I am left wondering whether the trauma involved with learning certain things, is necessarily always worth the pain that might go with it.

James Atherton, in his excellent website about teaching and learning, provides a useful frame of reference for explaining the process of loss that accompanies the learning of something new. Atherton suggests loss is one of the unseen or hidden explanations for why some students do not learn challenging new material. Using a comparison with evolutionary survival, he explains how the struggle to learn new things – perhaps something as troublesome and undermining as that which I have been experiencing with my own developing thoughts about the novel – might lead the students we teach to reject new ways of seeing the world in favour of preserving the security of their existing ontology.

In Atherton’s model, species survive and grow, but only (counter-intuitively) by becoming less fit, at least in the first instance. His account works on the premise that the effort required to move on – whether physically or intellectually – requires a significant expenditure of initial effort, which in evolutionary terms equates to a loss of fitness. Rather than thinking of dominant species occupying higher plains of existence, he sees them residing in lower pools or troughs. In this model, it is thus an effort, or a loss of fitness, that is required to provide the impetus to move from one pool to another. Survival and growth is about adapting and making sacrifices – but only through letting go of current ways of thinking and knowing in order to find better ways of thinking and knowing.

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Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that the way I have come to think about literature– and what it can and can’t do – is necessarily superior, or even more truthful per se. It might be for me, but it probably isn’t for you. This post is intended as a personal account of how I have come to understand truth, and the best ways of capturing it in written form. One of the central tenants of threshold concepts, in particular the state of liminality, is that given the myriad intersections of knowledge possible, every journey or ontological change will be different. In time there may well be a dominant cultural understanding about the role of the novel; for now, I think we are far from a settled belief in its status in relation to truth claims.

As hard as it has been to let go of my previous feelings towards literary fiction, I cannot really see how things could be any other way. Whilst I enjoyed once thinking the novel one of the best ways to understand our nature, I can now see that other genres – particularly those that collapse the distinction between high and low culture, between fiction and non-fiction and between poetry and prose – may well have as much, if not more to offer. It is no coincidence the majority of books I read occupy this space in between: the part biography, popular science of Oliver Sacks; Patti Smith’s mix of poetry and life in M Train; the combination of grammar and vignette that is Mary Norris’s Confessions of a Comma Queen. Even education books, like John Tomsett’s wonderful Hope Over Fear, defies its notional educational category, framing, as it does, insights into effective leadership with touching true-life accounts.

Learning can certainly be a long and painful experience, but one that is quite clearly necessary for our individual and collective growth.

Ignorance may well be bliss, but who’d want to be a sheep?

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