Notes on:  Cousin, G. (2006) 'Threshold concepts, troublesome knowledge and emotional capital: an exploration into learning about others'.  In Meyer, J.& Land, R. (Eds.) (2006) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding (134-47). London: Routledge.

Dave Harris

[The actual book looks a bit repetitive and mostly focuses on teaching in things like biology and accountancy.]

The focus is on the concept of Otherness in Communication, Culture and Media Studies (CCM), a strand in the ETL project.  Interviews, focus groups and observations were conducted across nine universities, some old and some new, mixed genders. CCM seems to be too broad and internally disputed to have anything like essential threshold concepts, but university teachers did agree that the concept is useful to get them to think about Otherness.

Otherness can be discussed in terms of Said and Eurocentrism.  It is a major theme in feminism.  The idea that otherness is connected to identity is a major theme in CCM.  There is no agreement about the concept, however, but the idea still has some of the characteristics of the threshold concept.  For example ontological shifts and transformations has been seen as a central theme, although students react to the possibilities differently, but in a characteristic way.  Irreversibility has arisen in some cases, although concepts can be still modified or rejected, having been understood.  Integratedness arose when discussing the concepts of Otherness as something complex and problematic, with social identities interconnected, and with a certain 'fluid understanding of social differences, representation and identity formation' (137).

Otherness almost certainly entails learner discomfort, and thus troublesome knowledge.  It is not just that the language of CCM can be difficult, but that the subject position of the learner is itself an issue - white people might not realize that 'white' is a particular signifier, or that everyone can be located in an ethnic group.  Relations between sex, sexuality and gender are 'slippery'.  Thus concepts appear more or less alien or counter intuitive according to where people are placed in the first place.  Everyone in the class can feel uncomfortable.  Troublesomeness is not just a matter of cognitive complexity, because emotions and social positions are engaged. 

We might need a notion of emotional capital to develop this further.  This is similar to Bourdieu on cultural capital, and it also overlaps with the notion of Goleman's emotional intelligence [yech].  It involves a set of assets, including the ability to disengage emotionally and pursue an instrumental technique.  It is hard to predict how student experience produces particular relations of emotional capital: some students may have greater '"experiential proximity"' (138) to the issues and identities, according to family and other social positions, and age. This can provide mature students with greater confidence and emotional capital.  However, university classes can be quite homogeneous in terms of social class and skin colour.  However, one teacher used this homogeneity as the starting point, getting students to deconstruct their own position.

Liminality was apparently in some cases, in the form of both uncertainty, and the adoption of techniques such as quasi plagiarism and mimicry.  These response can be functional enough to get through exams, but also 'naive because it does not lead to mastery' (139).  There seem to be four ideal type student positions:

Spectator or voyeur, retaining distance and gazing at the Other without following implications for self.  Sometimes, this involves exotic or erotic content, often a superficial understanding.  This can result in 'a rather formulaic understanding'(140), so that for example a good press is tolerant of homosexuality and a bad press not.  Some teachers suspected instrumental responses.  Students can certainly '"do sexism"'as they can any other topic, without interrogating their own gender positions.  They can even get good marks in their assignments, reminding us of the limits of conventional testing [there is a strange link here with the acquisition of cultural capital by learning the appropriate terminology and discourse].  These approaches also domesticate.

The defended learner, students who are resistant or hostile, or disaffected.  This can be because of a greater interest in the practical aspects, say of Media Studies, and some techy students saw the cultural studies side as displaying politically correct obsessions, harping on about oppression, tapping into the moral panic about political correctness.  Teachers taking this on need to remember that pedagogy should not marginalise such people, nor privilege the marginalised.  We must avoid 'the creation of the league table of victimhood' (141).  The aim is to reduce the number of defended learners by stressing that everyone has some kind of experience of inclusion or exclusion.  [This avoids league tables, but risks banal relativism].  Safe learning environments can also help [and there are some pretty basic recommendations in the Conclusion of the book].  At the same time, discomfort can be useful, as long as it does not provoke erection of defences.  Nor should we rely on those who possess sufficient emotional capital to disclose on behalf of everyone else - students do not have to discuss their experience and sometimes it is wise if they do not.

The victim - identified learner, where a conversion rather than critical engagement takes place, in a process of over identification, possibly attracted by what Rushdie calls 'the "clamor of oppression"' (142).  Such people can enjoy the moral high ground.  This can lead to a better understanding, however but if it gets stuck it becomes '"wound- attached"' [quoting Brown], and it can become pessimistic and angry.  There may be an over investment of emotional capital to produce 'narratives of personal injury', speaking on behalf of the oppressed.  Sometimes teachers appear to take up the position of the victim, and sometimes, if they have visible minority identities, they are assumed to do so: some students even 'second guessed what was required in assessed assignments' (143).  Teachers must be aware of provoking mimicry.  Lather is useful here, warning against pressing students too hard to change, inducing only vertigo, where students cling to what they perceive to be the safe line.  Certainly, institutional and personal power, by teachers and parents, must be taken into account.

Self reflexive learners are able to inquire into their own biographies.  Final year students might be better at doing this.  Although it might be a widespread stance in modernity, we still do not know enough about how this affects academic life.  Some students clearly do seem to exhibit the ability to undergo self examination, even to theorize about themselves, and courses have been successful in provoking this sort of self reflexivity, teachers report - these courses might be particularly suitable for such prompting.  Students can get engaged.  However, connections with experience is not predictable, and other factors including teachers and how they deal with students and their experience, how they are addressed, and the pedagogy pursued can all be relevant.

Overall, affective factors are crucial.  Students might be seen as occupying four ideal types as above, but that we should see these only as a heuristic devices.  At least it might help us be non judgmental about defensive students - some might just feel left out or 'exposed/affronted as an apparent victim'(145).  It is a complex matter to give voice to those who have been injured, discourage overidentification, and to give people the chance to personally engage with Otherness without excessive risk which might lead to mimicry.

[Lather is also cited in the conclusion on loss of self and getting stuck.  This particular reference relates to summary by another author.  In the conclusion, the references Lather, P (1998)]

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