Tropics of Teaching: Productivity, Warfare and Priesthood – TOCHON (CSS)

TOCHON, Françoi. Tropics of Teaching: Productivity, Warfare and Priesthood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 163p. Resenha de: GRIFFITH, Bryant. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.

The Tropics of Teaching is not an easy book to read. In fact, it is a difficult text, full of intricate philosophical language and argument. It is not a book that I would recommend for recreational reading neither for teachers nor for students. However, is it important to the social studies education community? The answer is absolutely yes, and this is why. Tochon argues that educators have constructed a culture of niceness around the act of teaching that negates the ethical nature of what happens in good classrooms with experienced and caring teachers. This culture of niceness prevents teachers and students from understanding the problems associated with teaching and learning as they try to make meaning of the world of education.

In order to understand why Tochon believes this I’m going to take you on a brief, and I hope clear, description of what I understand to be his philosophical position. Tochon employs a semiotic analysis to teaching. Semiotics is, I think, another one of the inexact ‘sciences’. It is inexact because there are many interpretations of what semiotics is; yet it is a science because it does have a definite set of precepts, or sets of precepts. The shortest definition of semiotics is that it is the study of signs and its most notable practitioner is Umberto Eco, who is probably most widely remembered for writing The Name of the Rose. Eco describes semiotics as being concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign (Eco, 1976, p. 7). I take this to mean that semiotics not only studies signs of everyday life, like language, but also anything which stands for something else, namely words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.

Another major figure in the field of semiotics is the anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss. I think it may be easier to understand how semiotics relates to teaching and learning if one thinks about how an anthropologist tries to make meaning of the world he or she happens upon. In each case understanding is constructed by making sense of signs presented to them in various textual forms.
Let me illustrate, Lvi- Strauss creates a dialogue with his materials and how best to use them. He asks how the process of discovery leads to making meaning, and then he tracks that process. What he does not do is lay down the path of what that meaning will be beforehand. So semiotics calls for teachers, anthropologists and students to construct personal meaning from actions. This is a reversal of the traditional curriculum process, and of traditional teaching and learning practices. In semiotics learning becomes a creative act shaped by the intentions of the learner and also by language and social and psychological factors. In Tropics of Teaching, Tochon describes semiotics as the ethical element of teaching. It is what good, experienced teachers do when they care for their students. They become flexible in their pedagogical practice. This ethical quality is highly prized by our society but for the most part it has not been addressed in faculties of education or in school classrooms. The reason for the split between theory and practice, Tochon says, is that we have forgotten that teaching is the mirror to the soul and not based upon the rational reflection of how to make things fit (p. 132).

Tochon says that we have further confused the meaning of such key concepts as word and actions, ideology and change, economics and education, and that we have lost touch with what is most important: contact. Contact occurs during a conversation between teacher and student when it is based upon a bottom-up discovery of the learning process. It is not a prescribed path to defined ends. Tochon is telling us is that teaching is the art of translating signs from art to poetry and beyond. This world is not just found in books, computers or audio-video material.

In the same way meaning is not simply transmitted to us. We actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes, of which we are unaware. I think this point is vital. University education, in particular, is often accused of not preparing students for the real world. Given my description above I think we could say that too often teaching does not touch base in order for us to understand signs. In many cases if signs are learned they are not made explicit and therefore no real meaning is made. Too often students pick up meanings implicitly and the pedagogical moment has been lost.

Tochon calls the process I have outlined Humanist reflection. So that we can understand how this differs from much of what we traditionally do in our schools, he has organized the book around three metaphors: ‘productivity’ or output and standardization, ‘warfare’ or strategy and expertise, and finally ‘priesthood’ or the enlightened subject. He argues that we can by-pass these three concepts by employing a semiotic methodology he calls his counter- methodology. This counter-methodology would be learning activities based upon lived experiences as opposed to top-down, plan oriented activities.

Tochon gives us an example of such an activity in action poetry. Tochon believed that the city of Geneva had lost touch with its soul and this was exhibited by the lack of public interest in poetry. He took advantage of a local grant and had students write original poems about matters of personal interest to them. Each of the twenty-seven original poems was then inscribed by hand in acrylic by a professional painter and then mounted on billboards all over the city. The reaction was just what Tochon had hoped for: a public conversation in all the media about the poems. This initiated new and giant poems on billboards; many are still visible in Geneva. Thus action poetry became a process whereby the people of Geneva made meaning from the poetry in acrylic on the public billboards. It began a shared public discussion of the value of poetry, art, civic pride and much more. This is how Franois Tochon conceives of the school curriculum and of the nature of teaching and learning.
Let me leave the last words to him: In action poetry, performance produces a metaphoric message, which may take a narrative dimension. Action, which before all else is abstract, erects a set of values into a set of metaphoric symbols. These values cannot be separated from the context and the field of action, and yet they present the poetic sign as a means of reaching beyond the symbolic connections usually promoted by the city. Through poetry, the city appears to be
refigured and rejuvenated (p. 113).

It would be nice to think that educators could present such an argument about the nature of teaching and learning when asked for it by those who pay our way. Take some time and read this book. It is well worth the effort.

References Eco, E. (1976). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lvi-Strauss, C. (1972). Structural anthropology. Hammondsworth: Penguin.

Dr. Bryant Griffith – Texas A University. Corpus Christi, Texas, USA.

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