Notes on: Pitt, A and Britzman, D. (2003) 'Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: an experiment in psychoanalytic research'. Qualitative Studies in Education 16 (6): 755-76.

Dave Harris

[This is an intriguing investigation into the role of emotions in higher education and the difficulties presented by challenging knowledge.  In a pleasing self reflexive twist, the authors note of the same difficulties affects those who attempt to write about or narrate these problems, an encounter their own emotional components.  These components are understood through Freud's notions of 'deferred time'[what might be seen as the way in which past events and experiences get united with present ones in both directions], and phantasy [the process of attempting to symbolize unconscious forces, using whatever resources come to hand - infantile ones often invoke imaginary elements and classic misunderstandings of symbols, especially the phallus.Phantasy is the first and still the most basic way of making sense argued Deleuze].  There is also transference, where fantasies and more rational forms of narrative come together.

One of the first examples includes classic difficulties with learning at school acted out by becoming a punitive teacher - what is going on here is that a phantasy of proper education is being enacted, and this phantasy includes punitive teachers.  Other examples include some familiar cases where people have felt so challenged by new knowledge that their very sense of self has been challenged, so that there is a tension between rational knowledge and emotional commitments to the self.  Sometimes, academic knowledge strengthens the sense of self - this is 'lovely knowledge', but there is something about academic life that challenges and questions this nice cohesive picture and produces difficult knowledge instead.  The experienced academic reporting this particular clash was able to reconcile it by splitting what she thought into belief on the one hand and knowledge on the other, but this still cannot reconstitute a coherent self, and ends in some other phenomena described by feminist thinkers like Lather -ruin and mess.  A third example raised the issue of the relevance of research among committed political activists, and the tensions between conventionally acceptable academic knowledge and what might be seen as more immediate knowledge.  Again the whole thing led to doubts about academic knowledge, complicated in this case by the intrusion of an erotic desire to be liked and to be helpful.

The researchers indicate that the same problem affects their own research, that they also devise questionnaires with a mixture of fantasies and rational insight, and interpret them in the same way.  Interviewing academics lead to the additional problem that some respondents saw the same difficulties,  not just reporting their experiences as data, but commenting on the difficulties of representing their experiences in the forms that were acceptable.

Our project on difficult knowledge would have done well to use their questionnaires (which are actually more like a series of prompts to guide reflection).  Several of our findings would also provide examples analogous to the ones above - my particular clash with Nial leads to an angry response from him, possibly as a fantasy of proper education or of proper lecturers.  One of the other respondents clearly demonstrated some of the clashes between academic knowledge and practical knowledge, although rendered slightly differently as conventionally professional stances combined with strong personal beliefs about alternative health provision.  Erotic tensions are also apparent, for example in stories of students forming crushes, or, more generally, in the evident desire of many of the respondents to be liked, and to be seriously disappointed when they discover they weren't.]

What makes knowledge difficult, and how can we represent such knowledge?  The first question sees difficult knowledge as a kind of trauma . The second question particularly concerns the ways in which the knowledge becomes 'other'.  Our interest is in the psychological processes involved, but pedagogical and methodological issues are involved.  The context is the emergence of postmodern challenges to the authority of knowledge in the university.  Critical and affirmative pedagogies have shown some of the breakdowns in understanding that arise, when people focus on historical traumas like slavery, and the pedagogical difficulties of how to learn from them.  Post structuralist challenges in qualitative research, including those of Lather have also raised questions about concepts such as 'voice, identity, agency and experience' (756), while examining how individuals develop knowledge (including researchers).  What results is a tension between the problem of narrating experience and the impulse to do so, part of the general 'crisis of representation' where the language to represent experience is considered to have its own discursive effects, 'the logical priority of expression over experience'[a rather odd way to put it]. Philosophical, pedagogical and methodological issues are combined into 'a complex'.

Concepts from psychoanalysis, especially 'the unconscious, phantasy, affect and sexuality' all undermine the notion of transparent representations of expression.  They also challenge objective chronology.  They focus on the ways in which human beings theorize about themselves [especially when you ask them just to describe their experiences].  Such discourses are 'socially sanctioned', but this can never fully represent experience, which exceeds or even resists discourses.  Educational discourse is a perfect example, dealing with 'outside' issues of representation but also encountering 'inside' attempts to describe or relate to personal experience.  What goes on is Freudian transference, where a personal 'libidinal history of learning'relates to accepted means of knowing.  This tension, 'representational crisis', can be uncovered if we examine the problems in narrating difficult knowledge [and teaching and learning in general].

Three particular concepts are useful when examining knowledge [and/of] experience- 'deferred action, transference and symbolization' (757).  These processes leave traces in narratives, and these traces are 'difficult knowledge'[sic - a little bit odd here if traces are knowledge].  P&B understand these processes through examining psychoanalytic writing and also their own research activities about thinking about difficult knowledge.  We get to the difficulty of representing teaching and learning itself, with allied problems such as what counts as data,  [with the research process described quite fully in terms of offering a series of prompts to teachers and students to reflect on their experience - the list of prompts is found in an appendix].

Steiner has illuminated some of the questions by talking about the difficulties in reading poetry, a useful metaphor of learning.  Poems can resist simple interpretations because of their 'evocative qualities'.  This produces a 'felt tension between idea and affect'[where idea here means some rational concept?].  We can experience a poem but find it difficult to recount its meaning, and Steiner offers four strategies: 'contingent difficulties require homework to fill in the reader's gap of knowledge; modal difficulties concern the problem of constructing relevance; tactical difficulties draw attention to conflicts within the poem between innermost meaning and public statements; and, finally, ontological difficulties are met when the poem calls attention to the very possibility of understanding and communication as we know them' [reminds me of the 4 challenges to validity in the ISA in Habermas] .  However, the necessary social dimension of education is not well addressed by this metaphor, and Steiner does not consider phantasy.

Work on trauma in the humanities offers another metaphor.  Trauma arises when an event produces excessive signification which resists meaning, while delivering 'affective force' (758).  It has been called '"unclaimed experience"'- an experience which is important but which cannot yet be grasped by knowledge.  One result is 'primal helplessness, and the incapacity to respond adequately', and these qualities can also be found in early experiences in learning, as well as the later return of anxiety when facing new knowledge.  Even so, trauma is not completely useful as a description, since we're talking about educational encounters which produce conflict but not necessarily permanent connections.  It might be more important to see how people actually construct accounts on an ongoing basis through transference and by producing narratives of teaching and learning. If this was the first question about how difficult knowledge arises, a second one extended to the narratives being produced by researchers themselves, 'tracing the difficulties of representing teaching and learning in research itself'.

Research also operates with 'deferred action', when new ideas are connected with past and present experiences [through what phenomenologists llike Schutz calls  'through-and-through-interconnectedness- of- subjective-time', or what Bergson calls duration].  The significance of an event is delayed.  We can feel its effects before we understand it.  It also takes time to realize the impact of earlier events.  We find these processes in trauma, but also in more conventional phenomena, [including educational activity].  The point is that new experiences can still show traces of earlier experiences, and earlier experiences can be revised.  This is established in clinical practice, for example.

The implication is that understanding is [not just a technical, cognitive operation, but] 'a problem of symbolization'(759).  This affects theory as well which is also a narrative.  [The usual way of understanding it is that data is gathered which yields theory, but] data itself is produced by a process of symbolization.  This means it is not open to empirical tests or simple observation, but involves 'speculation and belief', and is produced by both 'conscious and unconscious dynamics'.  So is theory.  Both present both manifest and latent levels [with  latent ones produced by 'unresolved psychical conflicts' at the affective level.  What both activities show is 'the dynamic of transference', where new situations are understood through older conflicts.  [Academic especially]  representation is therefore  a compromise, revealing the management of a crisis produced by the tension between a desire for coherence, and 'an anxiety over what coherence excludes'.  When we interpret, we try to develop a narrative, but there is always 'something within narrative that resists its own interpretation'.  It is not a matter of some primary experience producing interpretation, 'no original moment in research': yet we must use interpretations in narrative form to do research.

Clinical practice shows some other mechanisms at work.  For Freudians, the idea is to reconstruct some of the processes of symbolization which associates events together.  Freud saw treatment as slow labour to produce a narrative.  In particular, 'reasoned persuasion [was] futile'.  Any interpretation had to give full weight to the emotional significance of the event.  Yet uncovering emotional significance does not happen simply once and for all, because of deferred action [which threatens to connect new events as well].  The implication for education is that similarly, events are not situated as either simply in the past or in the present: specifically, the same obstacles that affect teaching and learning also affect to researchers' activities of representing teaching and learning [it is not just a matter of asking participants to recollect events and discuss them reasonably].  Asking people to recollect itself produces difficult knowledge, for subjects and researchers.

When Freud was asked to recollect his own schooldays, he realized that somehow he was present in the past, and that the effect was to reproduce 'childhood helplessness, dependency, and desire to please' (760).  Reflecting on past learning repeated 'love, hate, and ambivalence' as necessary parts of the transference.  For some patients, it was not possible just to recollect experience, as a commentary by a more recent psychoanalyst showed.  Her patient was a young boy showing disinterest in school work.  She got to the conflicts involved by allowing the boy to reenact schooling in a game when he played the part of 'the sadistic punishing schoolmaster'.  This was not the reflection of an actual experience, however, but produced by 'phantasies of refusing to learn', where positions were reversed, where helplessness became domination.  None of this was open to reason, but followed a process of transference to the present.  The psychoanalyst herself was able to experience the emotional reality for the boy by participating in the game.  As therapy progressed, more effective kinds of symbolization arose, something more distanced and constructed, not a process 'where the symbol becomes collapsed with the object it represents'[as in the infantile phantasy].  This more constructed symbolization showed [and permitted a therapeutic grasp of] the effects of the 'archaic conflicts' represented by current behaviour.  Effective symbolization dissolved the tensions of childhood helplessness, but it is not just a matter of imposing a more rational conventional kind - that would be 'compliance' and 'coercion' (761). We see that symbolization is not just a technical matter of naming the world, but also expresses emotional significance, a combination of idea and affect.  This is how creative thought develops, but excessive affect can undo the rational.  It is like the agony of losing beloved (also feared) objects, and the ecstasy of finding new substitutes.

Learning always involves a' repetition of past investment and conflicts', projected on to new experiences.  This transference is also difficult to represent, because it is 'still imbued with phantasies', not rational representations.  Research overemphasizes the rational in pedagogy, but transference provides both 'obstacles and promise', since strong emotions both drive knowledge of new events, but also tie us to past ones.  Processes are still invisible.  Transference is also necessary 'to sustain one's continuity', but it also leads to the reemergence of  'unresolved conflicts' and the whole emotional dimension of knowledge in symbolization needs to be acknowledged.  The same goes for attempts to develop rational accounts in research.

The research consisted of a thought experiment, providing university teachers and students with some prompts to describe encounters with difficult knowledge.  The results were initially thought to be simple data, but they came to realize that they were getting remarks on both interpretation and data - 'there is no such original thing as " data"'.  It is 'utterly difficult' to represent teaching and learning (762), so the exercise itself became 'a metaphor for difficult knowledge'.

15 topics reflecting various occasions when meaning breaks down and needs to be repaired were presented, including topics such as experiencing hostility, anxiety, confusion, insufficient knowledge, desire for relevance, obstacles to learning and writing and others.  The intention was to show that conflict provokes learning, but that emotions are engaged.  Participants received the document and considered it and were then interviewed.  However, a process of doing the research also indicated that there were obstacles both to interpret and to produce interpretations: the emotions and intellect were not easy to align.  What resulted was a series of 'plot driven narratives' but also traces of what Kristeva 'calls "pre-narrative envelopes"', an emotional experience that produces [an initial orientation] an emergent mental construct, a property of thought, and which is difficult to articulate.  It is not just that affect is attached to knowledge, but that knowledge does not exist outside of emotional responses, or the emotions produce a resistance to the construction of narratives, as in the general crisis of representation.  When reading the transcripts, manifest meanings are identified first in the form of stories of identity and experience, yet there was an apparent incoherence, occasions when 'the ideal self cannot be represented' (763), a latent content when meaning loses its 'valency' and phantasies emerge both to drive and inhibit the construction of knowledge.  There are signs of 'communicative performance' in the language used, and hints of the pre-narrative envelope.  This is because when people narrate an experience, they inevitably 'express their affective investments in knowing and being known', and relive old conflicts about what was worthy or worthless.  This made the whole research experience itself [develop a metalevel].

Examples include an undergraduate student who realized that knowledge could threaten her conception of herself, by challenging defining views [the example was reading work which challenged Darwin].  Knowledge was sometimes seen as 'something to be warded off'.  She also expressed anger at people who had concealed knowledge from her, and how this interfered with her ability to learn in classrooms.  She saw that knowledge could also create 'crises in belief in others'.  Nevertheless she agreed that 'others need access' to other points of view.  It is possible to detect two phantasies: knowledge becomes a magical weapon that beast those control and power, but it also leaves her vulnerable by threatening beliefs, and beliefs are seen as central to the self.

Another undergraduate student raised problems with the idea that internal difficulties can be settled once and for all.  Knowledge derived from a feminist course on mothering challenged her previous theories of child development, particularly in suggesting that the child influences the parent.  One consequence was that she thought she might have to abandon those previous theories, although she enjoyed them and found them valuable.  Having to choose produced anxiety.  There was also a conflict experienced between the conventions of academic work, and maintaining a coherent self.  This delivered manifest content about the peculiarities of 'the daily work of academics', but the phantasy was 'over populated'.  It did offer a kernel of truth about the authoritarian nature of academic institutions, but the latent content was more to do with struggles with knowledge, threats to the self and to personal intuition. There also seemed to be ways to neutralise the threat by insisting that difficult texts are meaningless, and teachers boring, but she realised that her own thoughts could equally be dismissed if others found them challenging.  The account did produce a dislike of fancy theory in favour of practical ideas and methods [which the researchers interpreted as offering a meta comment on learning, moving to the issue of representing learning].  The episodedid remind them that it is 'threatening' to 'imagine the self as influenced by knowledge' (765), and knowledge seems to escape any attempts to divide it and manage it like those above.

A professor also had strategies for managing conflict from outside influences, and claimed that experience would resolve them: she said that you could distinguish academic analysis and belief [the context was interpreting the Bible], subsequently extended into dividing relative and absolute knowledge.  She related this to her own experience in having to relinquish 'lovely theory' which would equate knowledge and beliefs, but which did not survive academic inquiry [reminiscent of current debates in feminist methodology on maintaining political commitments to feminism with commitments to academic validity and universalism, for example in Lather].  Learning in this case led to a loss, because lovely knowledge 'requires times when what is real and what are phantasies are allowed to mingle' (766).  People still feel they have to choose between them, however, and difficult knowledge becomes something based on the 'ruins of one's lovely knowledge'.

What affective attachment remains?  A Ph.D. student talks about her breakdowns in meaning while constructing knowledge, which extended to topics, theoretical frameworks, and relations with people: the latter threatened scholarship since she was studying committed female members of an activist organization.  This is part of a more general relation between scholarship and relevance.  She came to see the relevance of what the women were saying, and the validity of their perspectives, as a challenge to outside knowledge and to lovely knowledge.  This 'may well be a constitutive feature of any research project' (767).  The example also shows a problem with voice and a tendency to manage its complexities by reducing it to 'standpoint'.  Residues which are ignored in the exchange of perspectives include 'the residue of sexuality' as a source of difference, and this 'is neither easily exchanged nor stabilized through standpoint'.  Again phantasies of identification with research subjects can be involved, and can take an erotic form, an attraction to otherness, a desire to be valued.

The overall issue is what to do with one's own subjectivity.  Should we confront our own fantasies of lovely knowledge?  Should we address the real issue of what [and who] our knowledge is good for?  We have to acknowledge again that symbolization is involved, not just presentation [including attempts at respondent validity?].

This particular student also insisted, in criticizing the list of prompts, that the most important thing about learning is the relationship to the teacher, their authority, and the tension between forming good relations at the risk of encountering knowledge that makes you feel bad about your self, or alone.  It is not just a matter of acquiring knowledge.  The importance of the pre-narrative envelope seems to emerge again.  It also raised the question for the researchers  about the origin of authority, whether it lies in the framework of the course or the teacher.  It is an issue for symbolization again [whether it needs to include the person of the teacher].  These questions in particular showed the difficulties of doing research, especially the needs to refer back to the inside processes in constructing stories about learning.  Again, mere presentation seems to have involve a necessary symbolization.

The presence of deferred action means no direct assimilation of experience, a necessary revision of events in the past, and uneven development [of action and thought].  It is a mistake to try to put things in a simple chronological order, breaking with their 'affective logic' (769), and to assume perfect understanding.  Some experience is unclaimed.  'Confrontation' might be needed to reclaim it.  It follows that research data should be seen only as a result of preliminary labour, offering 'both insight and blindness'.  This is often covered by interviewers colluding with their subjects to produce satisfying narratives.  Freud realized this possibility , and saw that resistance to treatment could be seen as the patient wanting to continue to produce 'carefully crafted' narratives about symptoms: the therapist should not collude, but should frustrate these efforts, forcing patients to address other matters.  For researchers, there is a tension between' the pull of mastery against the threat of fragmentation' which can prevent new thought.  Perhaps research should be understood as 'provoking not representing knowledge', developing a more challenging and specific symbolization.

Perhaps it is asking too much of respondents to deliver cohesive narratives [and too challenging to 'provoke' additional thoughts?].  At least we should recognize the problems both for subjects and for researchers, and the need for labour to overcome obstacles.  One consequence for this research was to revisit the notion of trauma, which returned if only as a kernel, and not as a pathology but as a useful 'metaphor for the pushes and pulls between knowing and being known, between fantasy and reality' between past events in learning and the 'haunted present of learning', between experience and narration.  Using psychoanalytic concepts has at least helped to symbolize conduct of this research 'in ways that exceed identity', and move towards thinking of a new kinds of relations in the research process, to understand 'this more ordinary yet ubiquitous trauma of having to learn'(770).

[A useful note discusses the experience a woman had in being accused of sexual harassment, and the difficulties of narrating her story, especially in the face of attempts to impose a chronological order.  Her attempts to argue that transference was going on had no response, she was advised to walk away when any such transference arose - which meant avoiding any meaningful teaching encounters.  Another note likens the processes described to cognitive dissonance, and what happens when 'the uncanny' is encountered - although there is an insistence that the familiar can also be a source of difficulty.]

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