What’s The Correct Answer? Learning More-Than-Human.

I hate maths! But I love animals, plants, elements, ecology and understanding how systems work, and what they mean to us as humans. I’m a nature person, maybe even a science person, but definitely NOT a maths person! Basic mathematics has always been a problem – my autistic mind works in sensations, affective (not geometric) patterns, observation, imagination and written words. Ask me to do a sum – even a simple one – and I will either laugh or cry.

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One of the most difficult disciplinary concepts that I work with in geography is ‘more-than-human’. Much of this concept is either ‘felt’ (embodied) or challenges dominant, entrenched discourses around how we think about the non-human world, making it difficult to express adequately without sounding utterly fanciful. However, in these days of snow-balling ecological crises and the persistent denial of our seemingly obvious inclusion with and dependence upon the environment for our very survival, it is a critically important worldview that requires a lot more spotlight time and serious consideration than what it quietly demands. The words of Joan Countryman, quoted in Zinsser (1989) resonated profoundly with me more than once in this regard. In speaking about the ways in which we are complexly, and often beautifully, a part of mathematical worlds, she lamented that

“unfortunately, most people don’t see the world that way because they’ve been alienated from mathematics and told that it’s something apart from what they’re able to do.”

More-than-human is a lot like mathematics in this regard. Despite being very much apart of everyone’s daily lives, it seems like only those in the loop are privileged to the ‘special’ knowledge of what it’s really about. And yet, as a globally embodied reality, we all have the ability to (really!) know the more-than-human as much as mathematics. Both are all around us, all of the time – often without us even noticing. Indeed, more-than-human is all about challenging alienation and separation by recognising that human lives are intimately part of a far broader arrangement of species, forces, and existences than our own – a more-than-human world.

Amazing photographic artworks by Christoffer Relander that blend human and non-human images. Beautifully suggestive of humans as part of a more-than-human world, and carrying that awareness in our lives and being.

When considering how to communicate ‘more-than-human’ to those outside of my discipline, I found the urgency in Joan Countryman’s commitment to re-establishing the connections between students’ lives and mathematics poignant. She suggests that by doing things a little differently

“…you begin to make connections. Unless you make those connections, children will always think of mathematics as somehow ‘other than me – not part of my world’”.

Such ‘othering’ and separation is precisely what more-than-human seeks to challenge through building connections with our broader ecological contexts. But how can we convey such disciplinary concepts to the uninitiated? And should we?

I can’t help but think of my ecological humanities tutorial group – a diverse mix of disciplines, many who have never ventured into the ecological or social sciences, coming together to engage with human relationships with a more-than-human world. The major assessment task is to keep a journal that reflects on how you ‘get to know’ a particular non-human ‘other’. What I love about this task is that it is so simple, and yet so baffling at the same time! Students are approaching the task with caution, uncertainty, and sheer distrust of their tutor! I understand – the freedom to write reflectively, subjectively and even wildly hypothetically is not the usual way things are done at university – and often with good reason. Countryman comments on a similar phenomenon within mathematics, noting that

“there’s a heavy emphasis on…numbers as the sole language and the right answer as the sole objective.”

When I read this statement, I recall the approval-seeking that was rife as students shared their early thoughts about their journaling task. I also noted the lack of variety in ways that students were planning on ‘getting to know’ their non-human associate – almost all had planned rudimentary objective investigations in order to find out a specific answer to a specific question. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I felt that it missed the point of the task in a lot of ways, because there is no specific question, and certainly no specific answer. The task is about relating and reflecting as a way of ‘getting to know’, of learning ‘with’ rather than ‘about’.

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The students were baffled – and possibly alarmed. What were the precise instructions about how to do it?” What are we going to be graded on here? What exactly are we supposed to write about?” I wonder if such responses have anything to do with the dualisms of approval – right/wrong, pass/fail, yes/no – so entrenched in education? Countryman spoke of this in relation to mathematics as a question/answer based binary, one that I see reflected often in the ways that university students are trained to think.

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But then I consider that we are trained to think that way for a reason. In some disciplines, like science, it is critically important to implementing one’s craft. While disciplinary jargon may not be engaging to the uninitiated, isn’t that the point of the word ‘discipline’? Despite my commitment to make academia a service to those we do research for and with, I can’t help but wonder if there is a danger of losing commitment, skill and discipline in one’s field of speciality by opening it up to too much of the ambivalent? For me personally, I shudder all too often at the misuse of ecological knowledge by over-zealous conservation activists – a stark reminder that ‘discipline’ means the investment of years of time and effort to learn your field deeply. Or is the ‘ambivalent’ exactly the kind of messiness that some disciplines – like geography – need in order to unsettle entrenched ways of thinking? Certainly some food for thought there.

Interestingly, as the ecological humanities class began to realise that no, I wasn’t tricking them, and yes, I was serious, a beautiful eruption of ideas began to flower. Some students drew strength and inspiration from their science-based hypotheses and experiments, and that was great! Some planned to casually blog their observations as daily reflections, while others considered writing narrative stories about their experiences, drawing pictures, or taking photos. They had begun to realise that they were free to engage on their terms – and perhaps also on the terms of their non-human associate. Throughout Zinnser’s (1989) chapter, there is a real sense of the interdisciplinary – realising that we are not islands floating alone in space, but inescapably linked and bumping into each other, whether it be to assist, support or challenge.

This is dynamic, and useful. It is needed.

References:

Zinsser, W.K., 1989. “Writing Mathematicsin Writing to learn. New York: Harper & Row.

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