Starting in the Middle (part 1)

I am in the process of launching a podcast, The Learning Gene, as part of a bigger project that brings audio together with philosophy, science studies and pedagogy.

I’m sharing a pre-episode to the podcast in the spirit of starting in the middle.    The podcast will launch with actual episodes shortly.  As Isabelle Stengers writes, “What is unknowable is unknown” (2011, 261).  Put otherwise, we don’t know what we don’t know.  We start in the middle as a way to encounter the unknown.  (Of course, “the unknown” could be a matter of concepts and relationships…. but it could also be a matter of craft, design and genre.  I’ve left in some truly terrible audio quality in this pre-episode, for example– in part because I’m still not sure why the tape is so garbled in this rendered mp3!  There’s a moment in my interview with Erin Manning in which I say, “Hi, Erin, it’s Ada!”  but in the rendered version, you can barely hear a thing.  I’m still mystified at what went wrong in the sound design process here).

I’m sharing this pre-episode for three main reasons.  I want to be upfront in this project that I am starting from the very beginning, pragmatically speaking:  I am brand new to sound design, to audio, to sound studies.  Just like my students (whose courageous and thoughtful work you can listen to here) are finding ways to bring critical thinking together with audio, I’m beginning without knowing yet what I don’t yet know.  (What’s the right genre for a podcast that is itself an inquiry into the nature of pedagogy?  What kind of design choices will best open up the pressing questions of this project, questions about the importance of feedback, and the significance of embodied relations in classrooms?)

Second, in my next post, I’ll share some of the feedback that I received on this pre-episode.  If Stengers is correct that what is unknowable is unknown, then it is an excellent idea for us — when we feel safe, grounded and sufficiently supported by others — to open up our work for edits by others.  We don’t know where such collaborative input will take us!  (The “unknowable” is unknown).  But this is how leading audio experts describe how they create listenable radio:  they solicit, learn from and act upon the critical suggestions of others.  (Read much more about this point in Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire).   But this kind of collaborative editing is very, very hard to carry out in classrooms.  It requires tremendous buy-in on the part of students, for example, to throw themselves into the taxing and generous labour of critiquing others’ work.  It also requires real passion by students to dig into the transformative work of editing their own work.  It’s existential, ultimately, this kind of passion. It needs to emerge from something other than the extrinsic motivations of high GPAs  (and, in fact, we can think about how classrooms and the ever-present spectre of the GPA are at odds with the passions necessary for creative work).

And third, this project’s tagline– “Listening for things we don’t know how to listen for“– is something that Erin says in our interview in the pre-episode.  It is a more positive way, perhaps, to draw our attention to the unknowability of the unknown, to the necessity of starting in the middle.

I first encountered the phrase, “starting in in the middle,” in an article by Erin Manning (“10 Propositions for a Radical Pedagogy, or How To Rethink Value“) that inspired much of this project.  It’s a phrase that captures a certain open-ended quality to teaching and learning (if we don’t know what we don’t know, then we need to simply dive in and start exploring).  But it also captures a key insight about creative work itself.  Consider this description by Haruki Murakami about his own approach to writing:

“I myself, as I’m writing, don’t know who did it. The readers and I are on the same ground. When I start to write a story, I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out. If I know who the killer is, there’s no purpose to writing the story” (interview in The Paris Review).

I can’t think of a better way to affirm the value of unknown.  Murakami writes books because he wants to find out what the story is!  Similarly, we write essays (as Michel Foucault puts it in The History of Sexuality vol 2, page 9) because an essay is an assay: it’s a kind of test that changes us.  (In this same passage, Foucault suggests that philosophy can be described in these very same terms, as the process of exploring what might be changed).

And so, along these lines, we teach lessons because we don’t know where the unknown lies.  It’s a collaborative journey, teaching and learning, a journey that is an open-ended assay.  Could we say the same about a podcast about pedagogy?  Could we affirm the fact that while, there is no such thing as a “learning gene,” our genes are always learning, interacting with the cues of environment and experience?   These are the guiding questions of this project.


This project has received generous start-up funding from Mount Royal University’s Academic Development Centre, the Faculty of Arts Endeavour Fund, the Department of Humanities Innovation Fund and the Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Additional thanks for invaluable mentoring and start-up instruction from Alexander B. Kim at Cited, the documentary radio show about ideas that change the world, sometimes in troubling ways.   Thanks to Lindy Kae Patterson for website development and design.