Anarchy in Normality: Old Skool as New Skool

Fun fact: When I was in undergrad I was a DJ at the campus radio station, my radio name was DJ Ann-archy. True story. My show played alternative, grunge, and industrial music (it was the early 90s) anything from Skinny Puppy, to NIN, to Front242, to Nirvana, to Blind Melon, to Alice in Chains. You get the picture. Would I have considered myself a true Anarchist? No. Was the theme and message of the music of that time skewed towards critical reassessments of structures? Definitely, and that was very appealing to someone who was studying chemistry and English (don’t ask, long story) at a post-secondary institution. 

I have pretty much lived my life listening to “the rules” for the most part. The educational spaces I facilitate have “rules” but usually only two: 1. You must behave ethically and respectfully towards peers 2. Due dates for things are usually not flexible (this is part of the respect rule, for handing things in on time demonstrates respect for my time as an educator). And this is important for sometimes, ironically, doing things “as they used to be” makes you more of an anarchist in educational spaces today than ever before.  I worry that this post is going to sound more like the lyrics to Huey Lewis and News’ “Hip to be Square” than my grunge roots but I promise I have a bigger point. 

As an educator my main aim is creating/maintaining a space for individual empowerment and more importantly giving participants in the learning space the confidence to find the skills, information, and tools they need to feel empowered in society. It is not about imparting one specific nugget of information, a date, a theory, it is about supporting and nurturing that confidence so they can approach society, issues, and questions critically. I use texts and media as the starting point for this inquiry and critical engagement. This is my ideal and my reality. Sometimes that confidence switch does not get turned on all the way, but if I have managed to impart that confidence in at least 50% of the participants at the end of the 14 weeks I call that a successful term. 

As I mentioned in a previous #moocmooc blog, the class I teach and programs that I coordinate when I have my admin hat on are often seen as alternative education structures and spaces on the basis of them being housed in a continuing education faculty and not a full-time program. Sadly this is often viewed as “lesser value” education which is complete bunk, and further serves to marginalize the older mainly immigrant demographic of the students. The pedagogical philosophy that underpins the courses I teach and the courses I coordinate is here are the course learning outcomes and however you manage to get the learners there by the end of week 14 is fair game.  This seems to be somewhat novel and again “alternative” to what other educators like @nomadwarmachine mention go on in her department, where there seems to be a tendency to ask educators to teach a course in a box.

Critiquing structures and intuitions writ large is a necessary and important part of critical pedagogy and engagement. However, when you ask participants to make visible on social media specific institutionalized narratives (as one of the chat prompts for this week does, as I have done in some senses in the paragraph above) this can necessarily exclude the precariat who live a marginalized institutionalized existence in the first place and speaking to any institutional narrative may be a risky move in terms of the reality of economic stability (there’s mouths to be fed and bills to pay- for as much as it would help one’s waistline, one cannot live on air). Questioning structures is one thing, but voicing them publically is another. Anarchy as a philosophy seems to function at a base level on active public voicing of resistance. If you cannot do this (for whatever reason) then you cannot participate in this discourse. This is why I often question whether anarchy is necessarily exclusionary or more specifically how anarchy seems to actively exclude those it is would most often want to assist. This speaks much to the Twitter chat question the other day about leftist pedagogical philosophies. Shantz’s mention of anarchist salons which are described as “intentional conversational forums where people engage in passionate discourse about what they think is important” (129) seems to ignore the rather troubled class history of the development of salons and salon culture. All of this to say positions of anarchy need to be questioned from within as well.

So in some ways I choose to find my anarchy in normality (where normality functions as synonym for pedagogical practices that often engrained in educational spaces since the 19th century). Now the things I do or encourage in the classroom space would be understood as far from normal, but there are some things I choose to cling to for practical and philosophical reasons. One is using paper-based text which is an ethical and inclusionary pedagogical choice (as mentioned in a previous blog).  The anarchist lending library that “fell into complete disrepair” (129) in Shantz’s article demonstrates on some level how the tactile exchange of ideas if often seen as less important than the communicative (F2F) exchange of ideas, and I want to make sure that both have equal value in educational spaces.

Another pedagogical choice I have been pondering lately is grading practices. I still assign final major papers (it is part of the course outline and though I could change it if I spoke to the coordinator, I choose not to because I feel it is a good exercise in information literacy and communicative fluency). I somehow feel like a rebel in doing this though. I often feel I see this thought bubble over other instructors’ heads when I mention the major paper assignment: “You still assign major papers, what have you been teaching since the 1970s (rolls eyes)?”. I also, brace yourself, think that the “one and done” grading philosophy does not help students (gasp). I correct every error on all pages (even if they are repeating the same error on every page). Why? Because we live in an era of skimming and if the student opens the paper and sees a bunch of purple ink (I grade in purple cause it’s a nice Victorian colour) on the first page, a bit more on the second, and then nothing for next 6 pages, I feel that suggests that you checked out and couldn’t be bothered to read the rest instead of the “I have given you one example now it is up to you to find the rest” philosophy that underscores the one and done practice. Does this make me some sort of pedagogical anarchist, hardly, yet maybe since I think I am part of a small minority of people who still seem to engage in such thorough grading practices.

Outside the formal educational institutions and that I interact with on a regular basis, I am a big believer in the public library as an alternative educational space and I happen to be blessed to live in a city with a strong public library system with workshops, talks, and resources (even maker spaces) at the public’s disposal for free.  Like Shantz mentions in his article, these alternative spaces to mainstream education has an ethos that “runs counter to capitalist consumerism: play rather than work, gifts rather than commodities, needs rather than profits” (125).  This is very much the same spirit seen in John Ruskin’s educational philosophy where he states that “no science can be learned in play; but it is often possible, in play, to bring good fruit out of past labour” (The Ethics of the Dust). I also think free lectures at post-secondary institutions can work as countersites, because society is so used to understanding knowledge as something that one needs to pay for or something that is gated (think of the beadle episode in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, or pay-walled academic articles (shakes fist)).

Creating a space of unlearning is very fascinating to me and I have still not been able to wrap my head around how to make that truly work in theory or in practice in educational spaces. I love conversations about this because it gives me pause and allows me to question whether I am already doing this but calling it something different. This is going to be what I shall reflect on this week in #moocmooc.
Here I was thinking this week’s post would be short.


  1. Hey Ann, thanks for this post - i am not sure why u seem to feel ur posts end up longer than u intend (to be fair, i often mention things like, "this post has gotten too long") but you write so beautifully that it never FEELS like a long post. I enjoy every one of them and it flows really well. And that's just a comment on your writing. I'm still discovering what anarchy is, haven't done the reading yet (ha!) but was interested in your unpacking of your practices and critique of anarchy within itself. The problem with all kinds of narratives of resistance is when they sort of solidify into something that stops questioning itself... And there is an element of surrounding ourselves with others who use discourses of dissent such that it becomes the dominant discourse in that niche and u stop questioning your own dissent... If that makes sense. #rhizo14 and hybridped are a bit like that, for me. The hangout i couldn't join on Fri felt like that for me ... Nodding too often, feeling i would've said the same. I spend so much of my life in conversation with people like Jesse, Kris, Sarah, Dave, that it's sort of a ... I'll have to blog this :) Borg maybe :) lol

    But a quick objection to the "no science can be found in play" quote. I completely disagree - all kids learning when young is they play. Papert would argue that if only we could preserve that for older people... And i agree from firsthand experience. Wonder what his context is? I know his endpoint is that some learning/science/knowledge comes in the end, but i actually think science/knowledge are inherent in play. Not an unexpected surprise outcome

    1. Hi Maha,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I am glad that you are enjoying my posts and that they don't feel long; they have been fun and intellectually stimulating to write (which I do believe is a credit to #moocmooc and its themes and prompts).
      Yes I very much agree that narratives of resistance can risk failing to question itself after a while and you definitely hit on something about this element of surrounding ourselves with others who share that narrative. It is very much like the "filter bubble" phenomena, that even if you want to reach out to spaces/academics/people who don't join in your same narrative search filters on social media and internet aggregators tend to give you access to those who reproduce your narrative (yay algorithms?).

      To contextualize that Ruskin quotation a bit. Ruskin is best known as being an art critic and theorist but much of his work is very much tied to education and learning. He was well versed in art but also studied geology and theology. His The Ethics of the Dust reads like a Socratic dialogue and within it the schoolgirl characters are made to act out (in play) many concepts that are found in crystalline structures. They are meant to act like atoms and position themselves as structures. It is a very fascinating text and I have written/thought much about it (including here on my blog). But what this does is reinforce the experiential that Ruskin really believed in, and that is what is at the heart of that quotation. His work, his thought, and the causes he supported (like the Working Men's College), are all pedagogically premised on how "doing" or experience helps with learning and education. So though on the surface and it the quotation it seems to be him speaking against play it was more of a reframing of what "play" is (Ruskin was all about the words and word choice). I hope this helps parse that a bit more.

      Also I am bit of a Ruskin freak so I can go on for hours about him.

  2. Hi Ann - I know how it feels to be part of the precariat - I only got my permanent contract last year and many of my friends are still on hourly paid, short term gigs. I think that as well as a worry about future employment, another reason for not speaking out is the lack of time and space to do so - I've noticed at student demos that it tends to be the better off students who are able to commit the time to get involved in activism. We had a 7 month long student occupation here a few years ago, and this is one of the things that I noticed then.

    I'm not sure if your interpretation of anarchy is one that I share - for me it is not about being without rules, but without a ruler (an - arkhos in the Greek means without a ruler). So anarchy is not just rebelling against the laws of the land, it is refusing to accept that the state is legitimate. Anarchy is not chaos, it is autonomy. It assumes that humans have the ability to live in harmony with each other without needing to be coerced into behaving by the threat of punishment. Whether it is possible is something I struggle with, of course. Anyway, I think that you are talking about rebelling, not necessarily about being an anarchist, here.

    I agree with Maha - your posts might be long, but they are not too long.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    Thank you! You are always such a great supporter (and one who gets my cultural references, like the borg!)
    Yes definitely there does seem to be class and economic access at play in activism for sure. I have been a sessional/adjunct (what they call it in Scotland I'm not sure) since 2010. That not knowing is a killer but I've learned to focus any anxiety I have about it to my intellectual labours instead (like this blog). It's a lot healthier and productive. In fact I started this blog when I couldn't find teaching for 5 months and knew I needed to keep my mind busy and challenged.
    I also agree there is a distinction between anarchy and rebelling and yes maybe what I am saying here is more about rebellion and less about lack of "rulership." I will have to think about that this week.

  4. Thanks Ann. I have come across this post accidentally but I am so glad as it resonates with me in many ways. First, thanks for the Ruskin quote - I am co-facilitating a Twitter chat with educators later today and it will be very useful. It's quite subtle, isn't it? I can imagine people interpreting it in different ways.
    I take your point about the dangers of dissent and thought you might like this blog that I found via Lou Mycroft - some contributors are anonymous and they are employing playful methods of dissent. Since retiring 2 years ago, I have had more time to play and reflect and I have found that me new extra-institutional perspective has been enlightening.
    I felt in tune with your 'have rules but few' approach - I really do believe that having some constraints can free up creativity. One last thing regarding learning is the time perspective. One thing about having had a long career is that I have met up with students who have said something along the lines of "I didn't value when we did X but later I saw how it helped me with Y". So sometimes we just have to have the confidence that an educational act can have positive outcomes that we may never see, but we have asked something of students that we believe in based on our study and previous experiences. Thanks again Ann.

    1. Hi Frances,
      Thank you, yes Ruskin's subtlety is important and I feel his is a voice that is sadly forgotten in contemporary educational paradigms and pedagogical discourse/discussion.
      I can definitely appreciate how extra-institutional perspective and reflection is so very valuable. I also agree that somewhat like fine wine, some ideas need to age and gel and that the positive outcomes of educational experiences sometimes do not appear until much much later. That, I feel, is one of the true pleasures of teaching and education.
      I hope your chat goes well today!


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