Why go Beyond Text?

by Paul Maharg on 10/01/2009

Beyond Text is an AHRC-funded project which sets itself the ambitious goal of enabling lawyers, law educators and law students to use their ethical imagination.  The project seeks to do so by creating 

a space where the ethical imagination can be inculcated and the movement beyond can be experienced in non-textual ways. We want to create a space where there will be opportunities for learning ’through the body’, and thereby to investigate the unique kind of knowledge (known in the literature as “embodied knowledge”) that may emerge from this improvisatory practice. 

Is this important?  Should legal educators bother with this stuff?

I attended the project’s workshop in Edinburgh University’s Old College (in the Talbot Rice art Gallery).  I could only attend the second day due to other commitments.  Our small group took part in activities that took us beyond text, into different forms of visual art and body movement.  For instance we were sent out to photograph objects in the town around us that were linked in some way or other to images we were given.  Each person had a different set of images, given to each of us in an envelope.  I opened my envelope to discover a photo of a cat lounging at ease in a chair, a square of yellow, and a leaf.  What was I to make of this?  That, obviously, was the point of the activity…

Looking at the cat, it seemed so naturally, unselfconsciously stretched out.  And it was that quality of natural ease that made me leap to the image of Adam Ferguson, sitting so easily, unselfconsciously in his chair, in Raeburn’s wonderful portrait of him.  So breaking all copyright rules he was photographed for the Maharg collection…

From the point of view of artistic achievement, I have to confess that this was the high point of the day for me.  The rest was one attempt after another in well-organised and prepared visual art and dance activities (kudos to Maks, Alicja, Keren, Zoe & the others for organising them so well) to grapple experientially with my inability to get beyond text.  In part it was my lack of experience – a complete lack of repertoire to draw upon.  There was also the minor matter of talent, or rather me coming f2f with its absence.  At the end of the day amongst the rueful mix of emotions were frustration, bafflement, inarticulacy. 

What did I learn?  Zenon made the point at the workshop debrief about lawyers not being good at letting objects come to them.  Instead they seize, order, select the facts of material reality.  It’s a good point, and one that has particular resonance for legal educators, who don’t sufficiently analyze and engage with the epistemological implications of legal practice for legal education.  Other disciplines have investigated this much more.  Medical education is one – and I’m thinking not just of the substantial body of research into topics such as forward & backward thinking in diagnosis, but the wider example of the whole Medical Humanities movement. 

And this point is part of a wider, powerful but still not sufficiently acknowledged body of thought around experiential learning.  I didn’t learn much from the Beyond Text workshop so much as was reminded (in the Platonic sense of learning being a remembering) of important experiences in embodied knowledge.  Visual art is one way to embody knowledge: music is another – as I point out in my book Transforming Legal Education the Kodály method is a form of immersive activity designed to go beyond the technics of instrumental performance and literacy.  As I say there, the principles behind the Kodály method are sometimes used by professional educational designers – PBL designers, for instance – and much of it can be seen in the texts of Montessori, Pestalozzi, even Rousseau – the founding documents of the child-centred movement in education.  Balkin and Levinson have pointed out in a number of articles (some refs below) how, among the ‘humane arts’, as they term them, the performative arts are quite close to law’s practice and function.  Scores and scripts are similar to constitutions and statutes; the ‘triangle of creators, interpreters and audiences’ shapes the success of performances; and in both law and music, performance is sustained by complex networks within conservatories and law schools.

The whole topic is profound, much deeper than the workshop debrief or this posting can reference, drawing not just on the cognitive literatures of schemas, repertoires and narratives, but also categories of professional thinking, ethics and much else.  I learned the experiential way into these debates, not least the experience of grappling with inarticulacy, sometimes the wrong sort of articulacy, which our Diploma students grapple with in transactional learning.  In the workshop I was returned to the position of a learner in a hard school, and it was good to be reminded of this.

And what precisely was remembered?  It was my experience as an adult educator, back in the early 1980s.  One of my classes involved teaching functional literacy to adults in deprived areas of Glasgow (APTs – Areas of Priority Treatment, as they were known).  The problems learners faced in these classes – neurological, cognitive, social, cultural – were extraordinarily complex, and I found the experience of teaching the learners profoundly moving.  To try to put myself in their situation, I decided to study something where my knowledge and skill was low.  I could have taken up learning a script other than the Roman alphabet – Kanji, eg – but that would have entailed learning an entirely new language (and having studied Greek at school I could remember what that was like).  Instead, I studied for a Scottish Higher qualification in Music.  My abilities in reading music had been pretty low – Grade 1, touching 2 on a good day with an easy piece.  In less than a year, I needed to bring myself up to Grade 5 standard in reading and writing music.  I went to classes as a student, both theory and performance, joining a music class at a local school that was linked to one of the adult education centres where I worked (St Rochs, Springburn/Ruchill, in Glasgow).

What was fascinating was that I found my music theory teacher (and my guitar teacher – my instruments were guitar & lute) both saying many of the things to me that I would say in one-on-one reading practice with the adults in my literacy class.  When reading, for instance, it was things like Don’t read the syllables [or musical notes], read the phrase.  Don’t just read the phrase, try to remember what you’ve just read and trust your sense of expectation in what the rest of the sentence [or musical line] is going to say.  Be confident, you can do this.  Practise reading at least 15 mins a day (that was hard).  If you’ve read this kind of stuff before, try to remember the sort of text [or musical piece] you’re reading because that gives you a clue about the shape of the sentences [or musical line].  Try reading without saying it out loud [or performing on the guitar] – what difference does that make to you when you read. And so on. 

There were deeper cultural issues raised by my comparative experience as music student and literacy teacher.  I knew lots about the historical background of most of the musical texts that helped me contextualise my music reading skills (eg knowing the context of sixteenth century Dowland lute pieces, and comparing them with later, Scottish eighteenth century lute pieces, eg Balcarres Lute Book; and reading the music of one helped with the other).  Barely functional readers don’t have access to our society’s most fundamental channels of information to enable them to do that – crucial in a society as saturated in bureaucracy and the hegemony of the written word as ours is.  Did it mean that in this activity they were deprived?  It all depends on how you define that.  What the literacy classes taught me was that, in the midst of poverty was richness.  My students relied even more on what the New Literacy Studies movement has called ‘multiliteracies’, where reading and writing are embedded in diverse cultural contexts, and in multimodal forms (Street 1984, Scribner & Cole 1981; also Brandt & Clinton 2002 – refs below).  In other words their strategies for negotiating reading and writing in what might appear a context of deprivation and social shame were complex, intelligent, highly purposeful – examples of ‘transcontextual transfer’ (Brandt & Clinton), where identity, reading/writing, purpose and social context were inextricable (for reading and writing are examples of embodied knowledge in many ways).  And of course the multiliteracies argument applied to me in my growing musical literacy.  I was achieving competence of sorts to grade 5/6 in reading Renaissance & Baroque lute music; but put me in front of a score by a contemporary composer such as Takemitsu, and I’d be hard put to understand it at all let alone think of reading it intelligently. 

As a teacher, the experience of my music education was a revelation to me.  I would learn so much in the morning from being a student in my music lessons that I barely had time to process before being a tutor in my literacy lessons.  I don’t think I’ve ever progressed as fast as a teacher as I did in that year; and amongst other things it was the experience of going beyond text: learning music theory and performing it.  And not just because I was using music to get behind my own expertise as a text reader.  It also helped me to come closer, in my performance as teacher, to the experience of the adults in my class, to appreciate some of what they were grappling with (though of course there was so much in terms of social & cultural exclusion and marginality that they experienced as part of their daily lives the effects of which I could never really experience). Which is why the Beyond Text project, with its emphasis on ethical imagination and embodied knowledge, is so necessary, and why it’s really just a start.  Legal educators need much more of it – we need to go way beyond Beyond Text…


Balkin, J. and Levinson, S. (1999) Interpreting law and music: performance notes on ‘The Banjo Serenader’ and ‘The Lying Crowd of Jews’, Cardozo Law Review, 20, pp. 1531–72.

Balkin, J.M. and Levinson, S. (2006) Law and the humanities: an uneasy relationship, Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, 18, pp. 155–87

Brandt, D., & Clinton, K. (2002). Limits of the local: expanding perspectives on literacy as social practice. Journal of Literacy Research 34, 3, 337-356

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981) The Psychology of Literacy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Street, B. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, New York: Cambridge University Press


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

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