No Body, Never Mind

Interest, Affect and Classroom Practice

How to Cite

Watkins, M. (2005). No Body, Never Mind: Interest, Affect and Classroom Practice. M/C Journal, 8(6).
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

In a recent book, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio used the phrase “No body, never mind” to sum up the ways in which Spinoza prefigured much recent neurobiology in his conception of a psychophysical parallelism. As Damasio (213) explains, Spinoza “is stating that the idea of an object in a given mind cannot occur without the existence of the body; or without the occurrence of certain modifications on that body as caused by the object, No body, never mind”.

Given that education is generally understood as a cognitive process with a focus on the mind at the expense of the body, Spinoza’s insights are particularly interesting. We tend to forget the bodily dimension of learning; how, as children beginning to write, we had to labour over forming letters, using the appropriate pen grip and sitting correctly. While the physicality of literate practice may have long since been obscured by the habituation of these skills, at times we are still reminded of the visceral nature of learning, such as, when we have to apply ourselves to a task but lack the motivation to do so. I know that I develop an unsettled feeling, a certain restlessness, that seems to pervade my body leading me to engage in a range of diversionary tactics such as ringing a friend, making a coffee or rechecking my email. I don’t seem to be able to muster the physical effort to apply myself; I simply lack the necessary interest to start work.

To the psychologist, Silvan Tomkins, interest is crucial. Coupled with excitement, it is one of the nine affects he identifies as innate to humans. He explains, “without interest the development of thinking and the conceptual apparatus would be seriously impaired” (Tomkins 343). As an affect, interest has a physiological basis and it is with this that I want to engage. Drawing briefly on an empirical study related to these issues in primary school classrooms, I want to examine how interest is generated by the particular practices that teachers employ. While my focus is the early years of school, this study has relevance to all levels of education. With innovation in this area conceived in terms of on-line delivery (Brabazon) and student-directed learning, contemporary pedagogy is witnessing a marginalisation of the teacher (McWilliam). What I want to do here is to reassert the importance of their role by demonstrating how teachers can engender interest and to consider the ways this affects student learning.

In his discussion of interest, Tomkins begins by making reference to Darwin’s work on emotions, a term Tomkins avoids in favour of affect (1). He points out that while Darwin managed to catalogue surprise and meditation, he neglected to include interest within his typology. Tomkins feels this omission was a result of Darwin misinterpreting the affect, viewing the interest and excitement he invested in his work as simply a function of thinking. Darwin’s mistake was to fuse the corporeal with the cognitive or, rather, to collapse the former into the latter, ignoring how thought arises, as Spinoza points out, from some impact or modification of the body. This should not be understood in terms of simple causality or an account of the interaction between body and mind. As Spinoza (2) explains, “the body cannot determine the mind to thinking and the mind cannot determine the body to motion, to rest, or to anything else”. As far as Spinoza was concerned, the mind and the body are one and the same thing (7S). They exist in an isomorphic relation which allows for an analytic distinction to be made between the two.

Spinoza’s ontology meshes nicely with Tomkins’ notion of affect. As Gibbs (340) writes in her account of Tomkins, he “makes clear that there can be no ‘pure cognition’ no cognition uncontaminated by the richness of the sensate experience, including affective experience”. Thought, therefore, can be understood as a product of affect; a function of our bodily reactions to everyday experience. While there is considerable complementarity between Spinoza and Tomkins in terms of affect and conceptions of the mind/body relation, what I find particularly useful about Spinoza is that in his discussion of affect he makes a distinction between what he calls affectus and affectio. The former refers to the force or the impact of an affecting body; the latter denotes the actual state of the affected body: affect as process and product (Deleuze 49). This seems a useful distinction in theorising pedagogy as it provides a mechanism for understanding how what teachers do in classrooms impacts upon students’ bodies and minds. The notion of affectio also seems to imply that affects are not fleeting – having only transitory effect – although they may be. Rather, it suggests affects can accumulate to become dispositions providing, at one and the same time, the content of mind and the impetus for action.

Although never providing any detailed elaboration of these ideas, the early 20th century Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, displayed a similar interest in affect. A leading figure in the field of child language development, Vygotsky (Collected Works 50) was interested in the relationship between intellect and affect. He remarked that, “Among the most basic defects of traditional approaches to the study of psychology has been the isolation of the intellectual from the volitional and affective aspects of consciousness”. Vygotsky was critical of psychology’s neglect of the body and found Spinoza’s psychophysical parallelism and his notion of affect useful in explaining how consciousness functions as an embodied phenomenon (Vygotsky, Emotions). Within education, however, Vygotsky is best known for his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which refers to the gap between children’s actual development determined by independent problem solving and their potential development achieved when assisted (Vygotsky, Thought 187). The form of assistance Vygotsky intended was not simply that which results from peer collaboration. Although he felt the support of more knowledgeable peers could be beneficial, he placed strong emphasis on the role of the teacher and the power of instruction (Vygotsky, Thought 157). This relationship between affect and the ZPD is particularly interesting yet, due to his untimely death, this was something Vygotsky was never able to pursue. It seems possible, however, that the enhanced performance a child achieves when assisted could be related to the interest that a teacher induces given, as Tomkins explains, that interest has “a physiological function as an aid to sustained effort” (Tomkins 33).

It was these ideas that came to mind as I was interviewing one of fifteen teachers as part of a study into teaching desire. As less and less emphasis seems to be placed on whole-class instruction, with a preference for independent and group-based learning, I was keen to investigate which pedagogic modes teachers considered the most effective and which gave them the greatest sense of satisfaction. I began by asking teachers about their practice and having them identify their pedagogy as being either more teacher or student-directed. As with most of the teachers in the study, Nerida, a Year 2 teacher, saw her approach to teaching as more student-directed or progressivist in design. She displayed a reluctance to foreground her role in the classroom and her involvement in her students’ learning. As the interview progressed, however, and she began to discuss specific examples of her practice, it became clear that her desire to teach was more obviously realised through whole-class instruction; the actual performance of teaching and engaging with students.

She took great delight in describing a lesson on syllable poems that had taken place on the day of the interview. She explained,

today it was just one of those lessons where it was like, ‘Wow’, I wish everyday was like that. And, we made one up together and they were coming up with all these fantastic descriptive words and this whole year I’ve been drumming it into them.

She then provided more detail about her role in the lesson:

Well, we made it quite fun. Like I was hopping in and out of them and walking in amongst them and I‘m going, ‘Okay, what’s another descriptive word about this?’, and then they would all cheer and I’d write it on the board. And do you know what I mean? I suppose it is your personality that comes through.

In explaining the effect of the lesson on both herself and the class, she pointed out that

you have the same feeling I think as the kids because they are excited about a particular activity, or a particular experience and you think ‘Oh’! You are excited for them because what you wanted them to learn is what they’re actually learning … Yeah. And so they did it and it was just like you could see the kids’ faces. I mean I know it’s like the cliché thing but you could just tell that they were so into it.

In her account of this lesson Nerida effectively captures the way in which her pedagogy impacts upon her students. In teaching the class she was not only assisting them to arrive at a bank of words they could use in their own poems, with this input acting as an aid to cognition, the highly performative nature of her delivery imbued her students with the interest to engage in the task, with the arousal of this affect providing additional stimulus for academic endeavour. To Nerida, this interest was displayed on her students’ faces, the site on which Tomkins explains, affect is most clearly evident. While Nerida is probably referring to the students’ wide-eyed smiles, an expression of their joy at her performance, Tomkins points out how a faraway look may also be diagnostic of interest signalling an individual is tracking a memory or idea and is engaged in exploring her/his own thoughts (Tomkins 339). This point is significant in relation to criticisms of teacher-directed learning as passive pedagogy. It suggests that even without the kind of enthusiastic delivery that Nerida provides, instruction can be interesting with passivity indicating cognitive activity rather than a lack of engagement in learning.

The interest that Nerida encourages in her students also seems a function of contagion. Tomkins (297) and more recently Brennan explore this aspect of affect and it seems of particular relevance within a classroom context. The intercorporeal dynamic of teacher and students is heightened with a mass of bodies participating in a common activity. Interest is intensified by the corporate nature of learning which, given Nerida’s comments, seemed to provide the necessary stimulus for students to then complete their work on an individual basis. It is important to note, however, that it is not only this single performance by Nerida that enables her students to successfully complete their work. Their interest needs to be sustained and this is dependent on students already possessing the ability to complete the task. Interest and ability operate in tandem and it is the accumulation of interest that supplies the necessary effort to acquire ability. In addition to igniting her students’ interest, Nerida supplied the foundation whereby this affect would prove effective. As she explains, “this whole year I’ve been drumming it into them”. Students could write expressive poems as they had embodied the knowledge to do so and the pedagogy their teacher employed ensured they had the interest required to apply what they had learned. The affects that Nerida generated have a corporeal basis and it is this affective transaction between teacher and student that provided the impetus for learning. In theorising pedagogy it is useful to consider the bodily nature of learning and to engage with what Damasio points out, namely, “No body, never mind”.

Author Biography

Megan Watkins