Guided Practices in Facing Danger: Experiences of Teaching Risk

Hartley, Jessica (2013) Guided Practices in Facing Danger: Experiences of Teaching Risk. Doctoral thesis, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.


The central problem of this thesis is how a teacher may engage with risk. I offer a reconsideration of the term and suggest that risk is individual, perceptual and experientially driven. I use a Heideggerian (1962) frame when I suggest that, when taking a risk, a person is potentially encountering existential death. Using my own practice as a trapeze artist, I reveal how risk is manifested for the students I teach - how it can profoundly challenge and unsettle them- and how I as a teacher am charged with ensuring that they are empowered rather than stultified or domesticated by the risk. I call this enacted skill ‘pedagogic tact’.
By combining Jacques Rancière’s notion of Universal Education (1991) with Martin Heidegger’s ontological appreciation of being-towards-death (1962), I propose that what teachers awaken within students is knowledge of the possibility of death and of not-death within certain pedagogic encounters. I cannot know, measure or prove whether this knowledge has been achieved. However, I can document and describe the students’ relationship with the teacher within these moments. This document therefore becomes a description of student-teacher encounters when the teacher attends towards the emancipation of the student. The combination of reflective research methods from David Tripp (1993), Max Van Manen (1990), Della Pollock (Pollock in Phelan and Lane, 1998) and Jonathan Smith et al (2009) provides a means for phenomenological hermeneutic analysis. I have reflected upon my work with five students over the course of five days of trapeze training, extracted what Tripp would call ‘critical incidents’ between teacher and student and considered their meaning (1993:3). This research is a documentation of engaged pedagogy. It is a performative thesis that ruminates upon how I teach aerial work.
There are many findings that seem apparent at the time of writing up. I repetitively circulate around the notion of death, failure, rupture, domestication, entrapment, sacrifice, vulnerability, sobriety and pain as significant elements that describe my work with risk. These concepts are balanced with words such as poetry, liberation, love, strength, glory, resolution and joy. There appears to be a second paradox of teaching that sits alongside and dialogues with the Kantian ‘freedom through coercion’ (1960:699); it is summed up by aerialist and teacher Matilda Leyser in her description of aerial work as ‘strength through vulnerability’ (2007). In order to enable the students’ strength to be challenged, witnessed and supported, there needs to be vulnerability from them, from their carers, from the teacher and from the institution. This vulnerability is not imposed, or bestowed, but is ‘owned’ by the student and teacher in their anxiety and in their choice to, in a Heideggerian sense, comport themselves to that which matters most (Heidegger, 1962). In these moments, anxiety reminds the student that they might die; it also reminds them that they can be strong in the face of possible death. This paradox of vulnerability and strength is synthesised or ‘held’ by the teacher’s tact. The new knowledge that I assert, therefore, is a description and mapping of pedagogic tact. Through this new knowledge, I explore the possibility of becoming a better teacher.


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