Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Goefry Sirc’s “pedagogy of the box” contains a few gems of pedagogical practice. “The idea of arranging materials that speak to the students own voice and concerns” (113) seems to echo Paulo Freire ideals of a liberatory pedagogy, the idea that the students themselves must be involved in the process of creating their own existential understanding of the world by applying and creating meaning in partnership with the educator. Freire used problem-posing methods to do this, but Sirc seems to argue for an intermediate method. He refers to the “ending the long reign of the strictly analytic (pedagogy)...(Students) are not subjects of inquiry, but immensely learned and allusive carriers of meaning” (124).

It is unclear to me how his “box pedagogy” accomplishes what it means too. Further I am troubled by focusing on what I would interpret as one half of the focus of problem posing methods of education. Put simply, I would like to problematize Sircs assertions without dismissing it’s more encouraging elements.

Sirc proposes that box pedagogy emphasizes the artful expression (expressivist?) of composition that reflects a collection of contextually situated elements. I am a big fan of this ideology as a way of thinking and creating because arrangement is an “important compositional skill” (123) and it is a break from the hard-nosed essay approach which proposes a “unified resolution (that) is prized over the richer, more difficult, de facto text the world presents itself as” (123). There must, however, be a caveat against pure expression.

My concern comes in with the “...obscure, perhaps, yet promising illumination” (113), and it comes from my study in Psychology at OSU. Our cognitive ability to perceive relationships and patterns, correlations and causations, is absolutely a part of how we understand the world. This process has evolutionary utility, our ability to understand contextual relationships is what facilitates scientific thought, but without complex language to structure specific relationships, we may venture to far into the abstract to truly be able to convey meaning; vague expression and combination of elements can lead to error.

Apophenia in cognitive psychology is an error in judgment where we perceive order in completely random stimuli. In short, we tend to see patterns that are not there. Imagine now the lazy disengaged student forced to take our class for a grade. What prevents the meandering student from pulling a fast one by just throwing random elements together and calling it expression? Or what prevents me, as an instructor, to misinterpret the meaning being conveyed by a diligent student because I do not have the angle of vision to see their intentions? What criteria are we looking for in grading such a work?


We would have to have an interpretive framework to approach the work, or else we are just looking at collages of information with an error-prone mind. Aesthetic, yes, but is it creating meaning in a way that others can understand? I had previously used Jenny Holtzer as an example of multi-modality that works. She actively employs that same kind of expression that is situated within context as a way of creating and conveying meaning. There is certainly something to Sirc’s acknowledgment of this, I love Holtzer’s expressions and her “meaning making”, but it can have limitations. Holtzer printed “Men don’t protect you anymore” on a condom to raise awareness of aids, but what would, say, the a home-schooled devoutly catholic student make of this image? She has not been educated on sex and sexuality in a comprehensive way, and thus she has not been afforded the language to interpret Holtzer’s message. She is brought to think of “he” is possibly god, and god is always her protector. She might say “What is this blasphemy printed on a bubblegum wrapper?” Without complex prose and a focus on inquiry, how could she interpret the meaning of Holtzer’s work?

If our home-schooled catholic student were allowed to ask what it meant (ala Freire) and share her own views and experiences, then we have the opportunity to share the perspective while engaging the student in how meaning is created and employed. Inquiry seems a likely resolution, but what would Sirc say?

Sirc does couple his box pedagogy with research and networking in order to help his students draw from the world to shape their meaning (122). Maybe, as Sirc suggests, this method is just a stepping stone to learn the creative aspects of writing as a means of expression as a way to articulate deeply felt truth (128). But for those of us concerned with persuasion, this is an intermediary step. And by persuasion I do not mean strictly argumentation. Sirc and I would agree that composition should be about “paradigms not arguments”(120), but persuasion encourages compromise by including the audience with the goal of consensus to affect change. A focus only on pure expression can reduce the immensely complex to the purely relative.

Does anyone think that this is an important step?


  1. You raise some excellent questions: how do we not lose intent, context, and comprehension in Sirc's pedagogy? I certainly don't have the answers. (Maybe we can get Jenny Holtzer to print them on "bubblegum wrappers," heehee...)

  2. I agree that Sirc's approach perhaps mitigates the role of audience. Your quotation from him regarding the "richer, more difficult, de facto text the world presents itself as" also makes me wonder how an avante garde box project more successfully deals with this text than other types of media? If the purpose is primarily aesthetic and the target audience is still the instructor, then I'm not convinced that such projects more effectively address this real world text, despite their use of objects from it.

  3. Thoughtful post, Bryan. I'm with John on this one. Much of Sirc's praxis is expressionist and as such, doesn't fully integrate the other goals/possibilities of rhetoric: policy, activism, purpose, etc.