By Nikki Fairchild
This was the question asked of me when I visited an Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) setting. Ten such sites were part of my project ‘Unsettling Early Childhood Education and Care classrooms: Ecological relations, professionals and more-than-human subjectivities’ funded by a Sociological Review Foundation (SRF) Kickstart Grant. In this project I drew on the work of Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, who together founded the Walking Lab. They proposed walking-with as a challenge to Eurocentric humanist modes of knowledge production:
Walking-with is accountable. Walking-with is a form of solidarity, unlearning, and critical engagement with situated knowledges. Walking-with demands we forgo universal claims about how humans and nonhumans experience walking, and consider more-than-human ethics and politics of the material intra-actions of walking research(Springgay and Truman, 2018: 11).
With these words in mind I wanted to put into practice some of the affective walking strategies they offered to help me articulate the influence of place, space, and materials on ECEC teachers more-than-human subjectivities. I had been working with, and researching, the posthuman turn in ECEC and was interested in the ways in which teachers are part of relational assemblages with aspects of their non-human and other-than-human environments. Unsettling humanist modes of knowledge production had influenced my doctoral thesis which had explored teachers posthuman experiences in classroom and garden spaces and this was being been extended with the SRF Kickstart grant funding.
Walking as methodological device is not new, it has been applied across a range of disciplines included sensory ethnography (Sarah Pink), social research methodology (Charlotte Bates and Alex Rhys-Taylor), geography (James Evans and Phil Jones; Saskia Warren), ethnography and anthropology (Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst), education (Kathryn Spicksley), and adventure education (Jonathan Lynch and Greg Mannion). Much of this work notes how walking interviews can generate richer data and allow the participants and researchers to prompt meanings from the surroundings of the walk. Walking also offers a more embodied and participatory approach to research with both humans and other-than-humans which can often be missed when methods are solely focussed on the spoken word. There has been a focus on space and place within both urban and natural locations and how this impacts on human thoughts, behaviours and actions. Furthermore, critical perspectives have explored what it means to walk from gendered, ‘raced’, classed and disabled positions. These practices have been inspired by the notion of the flâneur of Walter Benjamin and the dérive of Guy Debord which have influenced scholars in this area, including psychogeographers. It is important to recognise some of the critiques of the flâneur and the dérive, for example Elkin, Heddon and Turner and Coates question whether the these positions are open to all. So what will I be doing that is different from, and builds on, the legacy of previous scholarship?
During my recent project I worked with the notion of the proposition which articulates the theorising of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi and the SenseLab. I was keen to consider the non-human and other-than-human connections to ECEC teachers so the proposition afforded me an open and active means to reconsider the notion of the research question and the fixity of methodology. My key propositions were focussed on ecological relation and more-than-human subjectivities in ECEC classrooms/gardens, pathways taken by teachers through classrooms/gardens and how ECEC teachers work with children in these spaces. In other words, this research offers the potential for the impact of classroom and garden spaces and resources on both children and teachers to be explored and analysed. The research was enacted via a walking-with session where the teachers walked with me around the classroom and garden as I recorded the discussions we had. So how was this different to previous walking methods? I was keen to attune to the material and affective nature of the classrooms and gardens as more than just a physical space, and to consider the multiplicity of place in ECEC and how this could reveal some of the seemingly mundane material practices which might help me conceptualise more-than-human teacher subjectivity. The following excerpt from one of the observations of how space and resources affects teacher professional practice and children’s engagement helps to provide an insight into how walking-with attuned me to classroom and garden intensities:
Walking-with happened at a purpose-built large ECEC setting which provided care and education for children from birth until the child left for compulsory schooling. The setting had been open for 20 years and had been refurbished recently, each room was light and bright and tailored to the age of the children with age appropriate resources at the child’s level to facilitate learning experiences. I was struck by the numbers of rooms the setting was divided into, and the number of doors (in some cases more than one) that were present in each room (see figure 1).
Mel Chen theorises how animacy, that is the state of being alive or animate, produces a ‘conceptual order of things’ (Chen, 2012: 3) which classifies and allows agency for those at the top of the hierarchy (White Western males). Walking-with-doors becomes a point of disruption, each time we moved to the next room and entered through another door, I wondered ‘what might doors do?’, ‘(how) do they ossify and fix ways of being and becoming?’ and ‘what happens if they become animated?’. These questions offer provocations of their own as I considered the materialising effects of the door as a boundary making practice. I suspect I would not have even noticed the doors had I not walked-with them.
As I draw to a close I consider how walking-with has benefitted my research. It has allowed me to work with critical posthumanist thinking of scholars such as Rosi Braidotti, to provide expansive visions of the human subject in relation with non-human materiality, rather than to flatten and disavow the human. I have reminded myself of the importance of the politics of location where ‘the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity but considers different ways to perceive human relationships with/in their environment. As one of my participants remarked – I really did just want to walk around. It was walking-with that helped me to unsettle and unlearn anthropocentric ways of knowledge making practices. Although I had a conversation with the teachers as we walked, I became aware of the sensory, affective and material dimensions of the classrooms and gardens. In this way I hope to tease out some of the knots and connections that might impact on teachers more-than-human subjectivity. Walking-with helped me to be cognisant of the foldings and unfoldings of the materiality of place/space in ECEC and how this becomes co-implicated with the production of social world, now I need to find a way to animate these practices.
Nikki is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care. Her PhD thesis, research interests and publications enact posthumanist theorising, including the work of Deleuze and Guattari and new material feminisms, to extend existing theorizations of classroom practices, professionalism, and more-than-human distributed gendered subjectivities in Early Childhood. She is also interested in interdisciplinary ways to enact methodology and method via post-qualitative research and how this can be used to provide new ways to articulate one, conference presentations and workshops, and two, Early Childhood research and professional practice. Twitter: @nikkifairchild2
This blog post is part of our ‘Thinking on the Move’ collection.