A global empirical research project from my front room

I am a prisoner in the new zombie apocalypse. Yes, I am being alarmist once again. I am isolating myself because of COVID-19 or coronavirus. The clocks have gone forward. My computers and devices all managed to update themselves to one hour hence and adjust to British Summer TIme. My central heating system and cooker needed updating manually. When I got up one hour before I ought to have done – because my iPhone had automatically and precisely adjusted from Greenwich Mean Time – I set to with my vegetarian full English breakfast: mushrooms, tomatoes, vegetarian sausages and a couple of eggs. I hung the washing out. The bedding is now doing battle with the wind, no, it is coping with a brisk spring breeze. I am faced with life-changing decisions about whether to bring the washing in and hang it out inside or whether to leave it outside. Such are the dilemmas of late, liquid, or even post- modernity. It is possible to project the dilemmas of the every day to such an extent that I can claim that my thought and behaviour is symptomatic of an epochal transition. No, it isn’t. Humanity has always been trying to keep itself clean and dry. Plus ça change.

The wind is getting up, it is growling down my dead-end street of Victorian terraced houses. Cute little two-bedroom places built in the latter half of the nineteenth century, perhaps to house a growing urban working class. Before the pandemic, this house was probably worth about £420,000, maybe more. It probably needs another £20,000 to £30,000 to bring it up to a reasonable spec. What is it worth now? The housing market has been suspended. You can’t buy and sell. Notionally, it’s worth the same. It has a value but based on a past market that no longer exists. It has an abstract value in that sense, but it is really only worth: a) what someone is prepared to pay for it (and they can’t so it is worth £0) and/ or b) what it is as a home and a shelter. That’s it, a house is simply a place to shelter and to protect us from the complexity, harshness and unpredictability of the environment. It is somewhere to wash and dry my clothes and bedding. That’s what it is worth, protection, comfort and utility.

Where did the contradictions of late modernity go? I was well attuned to them only two days ago. The world was in crisis, its population in panic. For us (I mean me) a crisis of representation as I project my reading of theory and of literature on to people’s experiences. I have a salary, I have work to do. I am just detached from people. But I like that too. I like being gregarious from a distance and on my own terms. And as I go to Asda every couple of days, people are going about their daily lives as far as I can see. Asda has now enforced social distancing, with a security guard and a queue to get in, to limit the number of people in the shop itself. A cyclist nearly collided with me while I was trying to find the end of the long queue that snaked around the trolley store. It was a slow-motion stuttering action as the cyclist steadily fell off their bike in a non-injurious way. I didn’t really look at them but I said, “it is the pavement you know.” I thought that a bit harsh and added, “but do take care.” I later felt guilty about not showing greater gushing humanity in these extraordinary times, times that at the moment I am not finding really that extraordinary except that I am not allowed to go to coffee shops and pubs (the utter hardship). Although last time I was hit by a cyclist I cut my head open and ended up in an ambulance covered, dramatically, in blood. Forgive me for the lack of performative sympathy for the cyclist who fell off their bike to avoid cycling into me on the pavement. I just needed to get that off my chest, it’s not epochal, it was not a postmodern event, it was just one of those everyday things.

It was going to happen. It was going to rain. I had to get my washing in and just adding to my morning’s rather limited drama. But I can imagine myself, a lone yachtsman circumnavigating the globe, having to go up on deck to change sail configurations in response to changing weather conditions. As I pulled my Marks and Spencer’s white king size fitted sheet from the washing line, I could imagine myself trying to stay upright and secure on the bucking deck of my (fictitious) 40-foot ketch wrestling with hundreds of square yards (imperial measures) of heavy gauge polyester sail (or are they all kevlar carbon fibre these days?) There could be a point to these rich imaginings and I feel compelled to make it. The point is this, about complexity and unknowability. Human beings seem remarkably well equipped – with a little immersive practice – to sense changes in the weather much more so than the computational predictions of the weather. That is of course in their immediate environs. I have really no sense of weather and climate in different parts of Africa, India, China or South America. For that, I do need information. Likewise, I have really no sense of how others are experiencing the current global pandemic, yet as I have been writing about this week, I have been aware that I am abstracting from my own experience.

For this, I have little or no sense of how many people across the world might be suffering as a consequence of COVID-19. The entirety of my empirical work is from the inside of my house. Or apart from while out exercising or going to the shops. And there is online contact with friends and work colleagues. But I have little contact with people who are facing real hardship through poverty, lost jobs, insecure accommodation, ill health, statelessness, even violence and intimidation. No doubt there is anxiety abroad amongst my small circle. But am I or is my group facing a crisis? Well, not yet.

The pubs have shut

With a friend we broke the social distancing protocol to go to the pub before they closed as ordered by government. In the pub there were a small band of people, some of them committed drinkers, an understandably miserable landlord and staff. Who knows how long it will be shut? The temporary end of the pub as public sphere. Now the pub must go online.

Earlier last evening we had a new thing. We held a virtual social after work on Microsoft Teams. We held a virtual happy hour in a virtual pub. The physical pub closed and the virtual pub opened. The university has rolled this software out ahead of time and at express pace. All credit to the IT people centrally and in my Faculty. It is rather an ad hoc implementation, and people are anxious about using it and getting to grips with it for the purpose of teaching and research. But for me, I like the contingent and improvised nature of this. It is rather subversive to be there in the moment trying to negotiate technology and make it work for the needs of groups and individuals. I like the possibility of uncertainty, but within reason. Although I wouldn’t like to see the entire collapse of society, just for the purpose of creativity but it does place us in the moment to contend with a changing context and with technology. I also know how much anxiety these conjunctures create, for students and for many colleagues.

As I was suggesting yesterday, the context we are in is a crisis of order, a crisis of the assumed hierarchies, practices and codes that have apparently defined our daily lives. All of these, as perceived to be the things that make us feel secure are all thrown into disarray.

I refer again to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and now as we are no longer able to make sense of what is happening. Or, the Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation, Curtis presents the argument, in his indefatigable montaged style of archived images and footage, electronic music and unique voice over, that we are reduced to a permanent state of doubt and uncertainty and not knowing what is true or false. We are reduced to a state of ongoing anxiety. That anxiety is a result of, and it is often contended to be so, increased risk. But it is not the risk per se, it is not being prepared for uncertainty that creates this anxiety.

The global pandemic, and especially the poor and tardy response and lack of preparedness of, for example, the UK state which has been stripped of any spare capacity by a decade or more of privatisation and latterly by austerity, which has resulted in a wave of complexity striking the individual. More than the unknown and more than risk it is lack of capacity to deal with increased complexity that creates the underlying anxiety.

While the state and liberal institutions are unable to mitigate for unexpected events, spare capacity and redundancy in any system allow for adaptation. We have believed that we have been able to mitigate risk by calculation – the severity of the event multiplied by its likelihood. None of this can deal with uncertainty and the unexpected. Especially when we have pared down the capacity of communities, societies and states to respond and adapt to the complexity that confronts. It is not a matter of simply calculating risk but understanding events as a rapid escalation in complexity.

No event, like the coronavirus outbreak, can be seen as simply the product of severity and likelihood, it can only be considered in terms of increased complexity and uncertainty. Not that human beings are incapable of dealing with complexity, but the organisation of government and society as a liberal democracy defined by capitalism has a lean and narrow logic for managing uncertainty as suggested by Ulrich Beck.

This is what we are left with is widespread anxiety which is being precipitated in the panic buying of toilet roll. Psychoanalyze that!

When there is no sense to be made

Of late I have been reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A considerable novel of some 1200 pages, set in Vienna in 1913. The Man Without Qualities’ central theme marks the end of the Austrian empire in crisis. Not necessarily the wholesale slaughter and violence that was to follow in the First World War, but a crisis of thought that was antecedent to war. Musil presents Austria as the pinnacle of the modern state in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The historical and philosophical underpinnings of the state are the Enlightenment. It is the triumph of reason, the capacity to rationalise and calculate in order to provision and order that society. We could probably not go as far as saying ‘democracy’ though there is a semblance of such. We could claim that Austria was perhaps a precursor to contemporary liberal democracy where there is an aspiration to a logic within civil society, based on conscious reason and materiality. There is ownership and a system of algorithms that dictate the nature of that ownerships and how value might be extracted. For this reason, it is liberal and for the reason that there is a vibrant libertarianism amongst the middle class it is also liberal. There is a democracy of sorts. There are elections and a parliament. There are many who are marginalised. Musil presents Austria in a crisis of collective loss. The nature of the crisis is symbolic, the liberal proliferation and the ideas burgeoning from bureaucracy and science are not resolving or reconciling the day-to-day experiences of individuals, they are leading to contradictions. Not just contradictions between competing ideas, explanations and representations but also contradictions between day-to-day affective experience of the world and the abstract conscious reason that is supposed to create order. It is a crisis of representation and of order.

I am only 190 pages into the book, but this is the impression I am getting. And for me this book resonates with now. Not the coronavirus pandemic as cause but just as much an effect of a crisis of liberal democracy and consequently a crisis of liberal democracy. The undoing of reason, where reason almost begins to consume its own indulgences, as reason confronts its foundational paradoxical character. We can’t now – as Musil describes how they couldn’t then – really make any enduring sense of what is happening to us, of what we experience. Meaning that is derived from cold logical reason is insufficient to account for our affective experience of the world. The espoused crisis, or looming disaster, the forthcoming zombie apocalypse, the global pandemic. We are forced to simply experience, and we cannot – or increasingly we cannot – make sense of what is happening. We are removed to perpetual state of uncertainty and doubt.

Academic home alone

I have been light-heartedly referring to the dawn of the new zombie apocalypse. Really you mustn’t take this as too dark or too serious. Even though it is rather dark and serious. I am, after a few days, settling into something of a pattern of work and leisure at home. The University will expect most if not all staff to be working from home by the end of Friday. This is not to stop the spread of infection but to slow it down so that our systems and infrastructure can keep up. Cambridge has gone home. There are a lot of anxious people around. They have had the patterns and routines of their everyday lives changed. I figure that we are all trying to make sense of what is happening. I think when arrives at a certain age and clothed with a number of life experiences one becomes more accustomed to the fact that life is mysterious and contradictory, that dilemmas cannot be fixed. But mostly – forgive me for plunging in deep here – the fundamental paradoxes of our existence cannot be ignored. With this realisation it is easy to see why many of us who have relied on a belief in logical order and causation get so lost. This leads to anxiety and stress. Times like these force us to get back in the moment, we necessarily have to abandon those grand narratives and schemes. Does this mean that we abandon reason or any hope of finding moment? No, it doesn’t. But meaning and reason become contingent and in the moment. We are compelled to feel meaning as much as we were required to construct meaning mentally.

Stay safe.

Philosophical clownery of late modernity (pt2?)

It is still up for grabs. Whether we are at an ephocal change or not. Whether we can consider ourselves to be in late modernity or not.

The clown, though, is the chief agitator of modernity. The idea of the fool is evident in classical culture, and according to common knowledge and backed up by a glance at Wikipedia, the clown in modern times can be traced to comedie dell’arte. The clown as the rustic fool, with a childlike outlook or as clumsy.

The clown is a consequence of modernity, or even part of modernity. The clown performs the absurd, the contradictory, the paradoxical as a performance of instability or clumsiness, as slapstick.

Cultural contradictions emerge with the enlightenment, contradictions within everyday life, monotony, necessarily dulled affect and emotions, rational dominance and bureaucracy. The instruments of the enlightenment when enacted in society necessarily lead to ambiguity and contradiction. Because there is always a lag between experience of the Real, Enlightenment symbollism and the rationality of modern bureaucracy and culture. This state of alienation is a psychosocial experience, one that leads to contradictions between thought and feeling. And one that is based on a logical system that when concluded is paradoxical.

Modernity is a crisis of representation.

What is happening when we are entertained? Our attention is absorbed and our emotions and affects are stimulated, laughter, fear and sadness etc are stimulated by a performance. We process that relationship between the performances and caricature of our lives that are fed back to us and engage with our emotions. Clowning exploits the contradictions, the more extreme contradictory with and through innocence and naivety. The performance of the contradictions, in ways that bear resemblence to and are stylised from daily live create resonances with the audience.

While the clown (he says stepping back from the earlier) comment may not be the agitator of modernity. Clowning is an expression of and response to modernity.

Philosophical clownery of late modernity

Is there an old giving way to a new? Are we at the end and at the beginning of an epoch? What is an epoch?

I sense we are at the point of change or we are in a period of change. But change is almost guaranteed as a human experience. Well, that is my assumption, that our experience is one where we exist in an environment that is unknowable. That doesn’t mean we can’t know it. But the unknowability, unpredictability of the context in which conscious things exist is an experience of change. Beings managing, acting in response to change, changing (or being compelled to change) or resisting change.

Seven AM. Bob Dylan playing on Spotify.

Stabilized by the cycles of daily life, the routines, the sequenced scripts, the habituations; revolving experiences. Amongst the unpredictability and unknowability, I need the drumbeat of time, multiple beats, rhythms: onbeat, offbeat. And out of time, at times. Time is played out only through the collective ticks and chimes of the global clock. The hand progresses, turning linear mechanisms into rotation, or drawing on the resonances of a crystal or (sub) atomic particles. Repetitions. Listen and repeat.

We can pretend that these cycles are not there or are so long that they are linear. That they don’t fall back on themselves, that we are making progress, that we are moving forward instead of going back and around and back into ourselves and things. In a Newtonian universe circular motion is a particular case of linear mechanisms, it is just the linear ‘trapped’ in orbit, in a loop, restrained to a point at the centre. Reverse this: circular motion, repetition, cycles are the generality of linear mechanisms and simple (first order – this causes that etc) causality. Oscillation is at the core of an interpretation of being. A wave-particle duality.

Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, UK. Christmas 2019-2020

The preservation of things is the preservation of those iterations, because it is the preservation of those cycles and iterations that preserves things. A tree only falls in the forest if we are witness to it. Is this true? It is and it isn’t. Should we use a colon or semicolon (or a comma or a full stop)? Ambiguous, there are alternatives, that may not be equal, there are other possible worlds. But those worlds we must make and bring into the world by remaking them, by believing in them. They become ritualized. We perform their existence. We forget that they come into the world amongst a world of possibilities. At least this is a characteristic of the passing epoch. Yes, there is epochal change. One where we have ignored the circularity, the recursion and concerned ourselves with the properties of and causes of things rather than the repetition of things. (it is not the things themselves but the thing and its representation). We have tried to ignore the paradox.

When is a mathematics education lecturer not a mathematics education lecturer?

On the signature at the bottom of my emails it says ‘University Lecturer in Mathematics Education’. There is a link to my blog in that signature too. You can follow the link and you will find things on politics, economics, social theory, schools’ policy and very little on mathematics education.

“Fraud!” you might justifiably say, “you are not interested in mathematics education! You are not that interested in maths!”

I argue that my field of mathematics education is specifically the area of mathematics education research that is not mathematics education. I am interested in the aspects of mathematics education that are not researched in or are at the margins of mathematics education.

Mathematics and mathematics education cannot exist without the things that are not mathematics or not mathematics education. I am a contra maths educator exploring what defines the social, cultural, economic and political space for mathematics and mathematics education. For many mathematicians and mathematics educators, the boundaries are strong in order to contain the logical integrity of their field. To maintain a secure space of thought and cultures. Axioms and practices, cultures and collegialities. I feel those boundaries and am inclined to hop over them to see what is on the other side and what is being missed by those on the inside.

I am the mathematician (not doing maths) and mathematics educator outside the boundaries of mathematics education. I should start a Journal of Research into Not Mathematics Education. I like the logical symmetry and completeness, and the dialectic.

So if you see me over the boundary, waving at a distance, please meditate on Stevie Smith’s most well-known poem:

Not Waving but Drowning
BY STEVIE SMITH

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

It’s not taxpayers’ money!

 

It’s not taxpayers’ money.

The only taxpayers’ money is that which is in your arse pocket;

Or in your piggy bank;

Or in your savings and current accounts.

 

It’s not taxpayers’ money,

The taxpayers didn’t create it,

The government did,

By spending it.

 

And it’s not taxpayers’ money!

The government creates money for us to save and spend;

If they don’t spend it, we don’t spend it,

Then, we don’t save or buy.

 

The government is there to serve us,

Or it should do in a functioning democracy.

The government can spend what it needs to serve the people.

Don’t tell us anymore there is not enough money!

 

The rich have got richer,

There has been enough for them,

But the poor have got poorer

Our common services have been run down.

 

We can afford everyone to have decent work, healthcare and education,

This fact is hidden in the vaults of the Bank of England,

So that those with wealth and power can exploit us,

And an impotent government presents us with lies.

 

The way this stops is when we all say it stops,

The powerful never give anything away,

Until we all demand it of them.

“Spend what is needed!”

Upon the rejection of a research article, nightmare and hope

I have a number of research strands going on at the moment. There is my research into mathematics teachers’ professional development – this goes back to my interests as a teacher and head of department and was followed up with my PhD research at the University of Nottingham. I also have an interest in learning processes in mathematics education, particular around school students engaged in rich tasks and problem solving. This relates, also, to my experiences as a teacher and again was something I looked at obliquely in my PhD research. The professional development I evaluated was to support teachers in implementing approaches that promoted the learning of problem-solving skills.

And then of course – those of you who have been reading my blogposts will know – I have got increasingly interested in political economy and public spending. This a result of my professional development research. I recognised, as part of this research, there are significant constraints and limitations on teachers in having access to good quality professional development. I followed the money, and power, and identified the source of these limitations. You really only have to look at Marx and Keynes to begin to comprehend the basis of decisions about the funding of the public sector. It is not based on a rationality of equity.

I am not going to mention my work on geodemographics here with Tim Mullen-Furness. That’s for another day.

While my research has grown to be diverse, I look up and down my inquiry trail. For a number of reasons, I find myself looking deeply, again, into professional development research particularly in respect to mathematics teachers. In part, this is prompted by the death of my PhD supervisor, Malcolm Swan. Sadly gone too soon. But also by the unexpected rejection of a research article. I submitted a theoretical/ empirical paper to a journal early in 2016. It came back in late summer with the ‘accept subject to major revisions’ tab. I duly revised and wrote a report about my changes and resubmitted. This was last September.

The night before last (these things always seem to come late at night and I always foolishly look at them) I received an email from the editor rejecting the paper. I had expected the reviewers to judge my paper based on the original reviews. But they had looked at it afresh. And rejected the blighter.

‘They have bloody well moved the goal posts’ I thought to myself angrily, as I laid a wake with insomnia. Insomnia directly related to my decision to look at and contemplate the email from the editor. In those dark hours, one can grow irrational. I do. I always have. I enter a dark terrain, like a bad acid trip. I began to consider that this single event may have a catastrophic effect on my progression from probation to tenure. Foolish and irrational, I know, over such a relatively small setback.

But it has focussed my mind on the overall purpose of my research and the direction in which it is going. While I have been merrily skipping on, on to new ground, it has taken me back. It has made me review my core interest. That of professional learning.

I need to thank my resplendent colleague Rupert Higham for his generous mentoring yesterday morning. He has inspired and encouraged me, as has done in the past, to steer my course as I feel appropriate. I must follow my water. He helped me make sense of myself.

In spite of the journal editor and reviewers’ final response to my piece. I recognise that I have been trying to bung my theoretical act onto an empirical stage. I am not anti empirical, its just that I am a thinker and schemer. Those dark terrains, the bad acid trips are the dark side of my imagination. The positive side of my imagination, the hope and vision that my overdosed imagination has given me has always outweighed the negative. As I have got older I can manage and ride out the extreme imagined fear knowing that experiences and people (and a good night’s sleep) can restore my positive frame.

The experience of this, in the last couple of days and the shocking events in Manchester, have, oddly, resulted in me being buoyant today. There are so many challenges in the world, on an unthinkable scale. But today I see my place, the way in which I can contribute, the way in which I can use my imagination to see a better world and contribute to some solutions.