An interview with Tim Ingold: educational-freedom, the craft of writing, and the university

Tim Ingold explores the entangled relations between human beings and the environments they inhabit. Over the last 30 years, he has written and taught widely on how embodied processes of enskillment (learning to hunt-fish-forage, weave or sing, making and expressing art and craft alike) fundamentally determine and shape the diverse ways in which we perceive, understand, and 'dwell' in the world [read Ingold's seminal The Perception of the Environment].

An anthropologist by training, Ingold has explored such diverse things as the use, expression, and centrality of 'Lines' in human culture, the inter-connections between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture (the '4 As'), and, in this most recent book 'Anthropology and/as Education', the fundamental equivalence between education and anthropology. Here he argues that 'there is more to education than teaching and learning, and more to anthropology than making studies of other people’s lives' for both are more primarily processes of 'leading life' and 'studying' with others in a shared world. [see this recent interview with Ingold about these ideas in 'MOMENT journal']

In this interview, Cary Campbell asks Ingold about his own personal entanglements with the processes and ideas he explores in his research, and what led him to his recent consideration of educational dynamics.

 Tim Ingold, photo from  CCA

Tim Ingold, photo from CCA

CAMPBELL: In this new book "Anthropology and/as Education", you talk much about the distinctive type of freedom that education (as a process of leading life with others) necessitates. You've said that "Education... is about what it means not just to live life but to lead it. The word comes from the Latin compound ex (out) plus ducere (to lead). Thus to educate is literally to ‘lead out’." Obviously, this is quite different from the dominant (strong) sense of education, which emphasizes the instilling and transmitting of socially approved knowledge into the mind of the novice (as in the latin educare). Without going too far into it here, the type of educational freedom you describe is a freedom from "within the event", from "dwelling in habit", not a "hollow freedom" from outside, as an act of volition imposed on events retrospectively. It is the freedom to embrace the essential indeterminacy and openness (the 'weakness', as Biesta says) of educational encounters. 

As an improvising musician and a teacher of improv I am interested in the process by which improvisers realize potential and variations in music-making, not from predetermined inputs outside of the activity, but through entering into relation with an unfolding musical event/ritual. I've also seen how many educational endeavours can fall short because of a general inability to conceptualize this essential doing-undergoing, where, as you point out, 'real' freedom resides. You demonstrate that this is also what happens in anthropology, when ethnography (making studies of people) becomes its central preoccupation, in place of dynamic forms of participant observation (communing and corresponding with others).

I have a few interrelated questions that follow from these observations.

Could you talk about the role this "freedom from within" - this improvisational movement - has in your own scholarly craft and practice?

INGOLD: Most of my scholarship these days takes the form of writing. As in any creative activity, I commence a project of writing with only the haziest notion of what it is to be about and of how I shall proceed. And I always feel hopelessly unprepared. All I have to go on are my earlier writings, texts I may have read that are still preying on my mind, conversations which might have sparked off a train of thought, and observations of things or happenings that may have caught my attention. I am thrashing around inside of all of this. The concordant processes by which thinking crystallises into thought, and by which disorderly words settle into syntactically regular patterns, are among the great mysteries of the writer’s craft. Long after a piece of work is finished (if it is ever finished) I can look back on it in astonishment and wonder, ‘was that me?’, ‘did I really write all that?’ Writing is something I definitely do – it is not being done to me – and yet in the doing I surrender myself to it: I am inside the writing process, not directing it from outside or above. I don’t so much decide what to write as write what falls or comes to me. Where exactly it comes from, I don’t know. And the biggest problem, always, is how to convert a line of thought and words that is coming to a close, and that looks like it will go no further, into a new opening. Indeed, writing is not about progressing from beginning to end. Quite to the contrary: it is a constant struggle to turn endings into beginnings. It is precisely in this perpetual beginning that its freedom lies.          

CAMPBELL: As someone who as devoted great attention to the ways in which processes of enskillment (like writing and research) are central to the way humans act and perceive their environments, could you speak about your own personal relationship to skill and craftsmanship, scholarly, artistic, or otherwise?

INGOLD: Do I practice what I preach? Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud, since in many of the fields of craft that I have written about, or used as examples, I have no skill at all. In woodwork, pottery, weaving and calligraphy, I am a complete novice. I am a useless cook. I can walk, but so can just about everyone else! Outside my own scholarship and writing, there’s really only one thing I can do that is not common to almost everyone, and that is play the cello. I have played the cello since I was twelve years old, and it has hugely influenced the way I think and write about things. Actually, there was a gap of about twenty years, while our children were growing up, when I scarcely touched the cello. I played the piano instead. But now it is the piano that sits forlorn and neglected. It is virtually impossible to keep both instruments going simultaneously, not only because there is never enough time to practise even one, but because the cello (as a gestural instrument) and the piano (as a digital instrument) entail entirely different ways of being. To keep both going is like trying to be two completely different people at the same time. But writing, too, is a skilled craft, and it is about the only other skill I have. I used to write everything by hand, and must have been among the very last to transition to the horribly named ‘word processor’. I found – and still find – the idea of writing as processing words utterly abhorrent. But nowadays I find that I am writing at the keyboard more and more. I feel rather ashamed of this. Because I know I am doing it for one reason alone: that I am pushed for time. It is a short-cut. And that is not a good reason. There should be no short cuts. Writing should be allowed to take its time.       

CAMPBELL: Do you have any observations or insights into how we might practice this "improvisational creativity", this freedom from within that is revealed by the "perceptual acuity of practitioners" (p. x) in a academy and educational climate that increasingly strives to "pin things down"; to operationalize learning, teaching, and knowledge production. That is, to reference ch 3., how might we resist these pulls of the Major over the Minor in our lives, practices, and jobs?

INGOLD: It is becoming more and more difficult to do this. The educational environments in which we work are increasingly dogmatic and oppressive, and worse still, dogma and oppression are being delivered in the name of freedom and creativity! This is a travesty of both. Our universities are now at crisis point – perhaps they have even passed that point. Those who pretend to ‘lead’ them have much to answer for. But I have learned two things. The first is that we cannot wait for others to turn the system around on our behalf. We have to do it ourselves: in what we do, how we teach, what we write. The amount that any one of us can achieve might seem small, or merely local in its effects. But together, we can change the world. The other thing is that the current system is manifestly unsustainable. If it is not already collapsing around us, it very soon will. That’s why we have to start thinking now about the kind of educational future we want. It is no good simply waiting for the collapse to happen. By that time it will be too late. Only recently, and none too soon, has this sense of urgency really begun to take hold, not just in my generation but in younger generations as well. They are our future.  

CAMPBELL: What sparked your more explicit turn to educational philosophy for this book? I know from my own circles that your work has been read by educationalists for some time, and clearly there is much relevance in your research into the questions we ask in education. But here in this book, you finally address these questions head on, and turn explicitly to educational philosophers like Masschelein, Biesta, and obviously, Dewey. Could I ask you how this "educational" turn came about in your work, and how you came to see education as being central to the aims of anthropology?

INGOLD: This is something that had been growing on me for a while. It came particularly from my experience of teaching the ‘4 As’ course (Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture). This was a deliberate attempt to introduce principles of studio-based learning, common in art schools, into anthropology. I taught the course, on and off, from 2004 to 2011, and then it morphed finally into a book, Making. It was the first time I had tried to put into practice my idea of anthropology as an art of inquiry, which is both speculative and experimental, and in that sense opposed to descriptive ethnography. The penny really dropped, for me, when I was challenged to explain what anthropology, so conceived, would deliver in terms of concrete results. Ethnography yields monographs, studies of this or that people that others can read. ‘What does your kind of anthropology produce?’ I was asked. And my answer was that such anthropology would be worthless if the anthropologist, transformed by his or her field experience, did not also teach, thus transforming others in their turn. Teaching is not an add-on to anthropological practice, I argued, but an integral part of it. What anthropology produces, then, is a new generation. It must therefore be a practice of education, not of ethnography; one in which research and teaching are absolutely inseparable. It was then that, quite by accident, I bumped into the work of Jan Masschelein, and realised that his rethinking of what education could be held the key to what I was after. I think it was Jan, in an email, who put it to me that what I really wanted to prove was that anthropology’s fundamental imperative was educational. And it was he who gave me the sense of education – as a leading out into the world calling for attention and exposure – that I needed to prove its purpose for anthropology. The new book started from there. It led me to Biesta – whose work I also came across by accident when we both found ourselves at the same conference in Norway – and thence, through Biesta’s writings, to Dewey. Of course I had known of Dewey’s work, but I had not before read it properly. It was a revelation.      

CAMPBELL: You also try to rethink conventional conceptions of the university and the academic discipline in this book: reimagining disciplines and their corresponding paths of inquiry, not as diced up and divided "fields of study", but rather as "a tangled mesh of ongoing pathways or lines of interest" (p. 74). Do you see space emerging in the modern academy for this sort of "anti disciplinary interdisciplinary" you speak of? And correspondingly, do you see avenues for encouraging the broad and open-ended notion of "study" you articulate in this text, in both the academy and formal education more broadly?

INGOLD: So far, I see very little space for this kind of thing within the universities. People who are doing it are forced to the margins, or outside altogether. Of course everyone is banging on about ‘interdisciplinarity’. There’s money and space for that. But all interdisciplinarity does is to reinforce the notion of the discipline as a bounded territory of knowledge. The important thing, as you say, is to think again about the real meaning of study. The issue of interdisciplinarity arises precisely because conventional ways of thinking about study are defective. They suppose that study is about the acquisition of knowledge content rather than about the cultivation of skills for attending to the world and to what is going on there. However, even in the increasingly micro-managed university of today, it is possible – under the radar, so to speak – to do things differently. It is worth taking the risk. If enough of us do, we have a chance to turn things around.