Mary Ann O’Connor
(Full article available in Transformative Learning and New Paradigm Scholarship)
“All research has this enormously creative dimension, although most research still is presented in the most narrow and thought-constricting ways.”
— Mary Ann O’Connor
A paradigm shift in physics in the last century has had repercussions throughout science. Mary Ann O’Connor argues that this “new physics” is a continuation of pre-Socratic philosophy and older wisdom traditions, where “the boundaries between subject and object are ambiguous, fluid, and mutually constituted”. However, the new research paradigm is still embedded in the “ontological and epistemological legitimacy of hard science” and “its pre-eminence in terms of defining what knowledge is”. O’Connor recognizes the complexities of defining, interpreting, and understanding knowledge in its many contexts.
When I say what knowledge is, I mean not only what contents count as knowledge, or how those contents are framed, but also how we can even agree about what it is to know. Indeed, we are now living in a time when knowing of any kind is contested, when the meaning of “to know” must be negotiated within particular contexts.
The new physics is not the only source of this new paradigm. O’Connor asserts that certain intellectual movements and trends have contributed to it in different ways.
Postmodernism, at least in some of its varied forms, has effectively challenged the hold of science by embracing the complexity of our fundamental uncertainty. Foucault and many others have alerted us to the deeply political nature of all knowledge claims, demonstrating how particular constructions serve or neglect interests. Deconstruction has become a major method and tool of research, essential for revealing underlying structures of power, including structures of power within language, and for forcing people to question both personal and cultural assumptions. One result has been an impressive new intellectual tolerance for multiplicity of voice and perspective, an appreciation for diversity in principle if not yet in institutional practices.
Yet these movements also “favor disruption and/or deconstruction without any attempt at new integration,” which she defines in terms of creating “research gestalts, a temporarily framed combination of both verbal and nonverbal texts that encourages a dialogue among the texts and among the researchers”.
Following this preamble on the current state of intellectual history, O’Connor details her doctoral work by discussing poems from her dissertation along with explanatory narrative. Her dissertation consists of two parts, the main one “a novel in verse,” and the other “a more conventional analytical piece”. She explains this twofold approach as a decision to confront traditional academic culture and its limitations.
One of the things I want to know is how and why our academic culture so steadfastly avoids acknowledging our somatic and emotive ways of knowing and our place in the natural world and the connections that we have to each other as living beings. These connections do not in any way diminish the significance of relations of power. To acknowledge both sets of relations is a level of greater complexity, a requirement that we hold a larger tension.
Some poems from O’Connor’s novel in verse figure alongside her reflections on the specific historical circumstances she aimed to explore in her dissertation. Embracing social location, she considers the categories of race, class, gender, and beyond, as appropriate parameters to explore the interests and preoccupations that animate her dissertation.
Race, class, gender, and other categories of exclusion/inclusion define very much about our lives, our bodies, our ways of being, our possibilities and perceptions. I would argue, however, that location must also include our material presence on Earth and our interdependence and interaction with all of the other presences of Earth. It is so interesting that critical theorists insist on the importance of material conditions but ignore our bodies and that postmodern theorists reify the Body but demonstrate little awareness of our bodies being material presences on Earth.
Finally, O’Connor highlights “the importance of place, of the land, as carrier of history”. This impacts her thinking through (and along with) the natural world through poetry and a culture of respect for the land. Other poems shed light on how this primacy of the land occurs in her work, through the characters that emerge throughout the novel in verse. As she does so, she homes in on “the emphasis on a uniquely individual construction within a network of relationships” as the key element of new paradigm research, which also makes use of multimodality, which she defines in the following terms.
By multimodality I mean the use of multiple means of inquiry, reflection, and reporting on research. These would include verbal communication that does and does not fit conventional research formats, such as life histories, poems, readers’ theater, plays, songs, and fiction. These also would include nonverbal forms of communication, such as drawing, painting, collage, and other visual art, some performance art, photography, dance, quilting, and music making.
Through this definition of multimodality, O’Connor sees the possibility of transformation in “the way each one of us combines our investigations into life, our intellectual constructions, our past experiences, our imaginative worlds, and our formal research”.