Mystery-Mastery

Daphne Loads

Last month I had the privilege of participating in the biennial conference of the International Confederation for Educational Development in the beautiful city of Stockholm. ICED 2014 http://www.iced2014.se/ brought together 627 delegates representing 23 national organisations of educational developers from all over the world. Our hosts were SWEDNET, the Swedish network and we met in the Karolinska Institute.

In her opening keynote, Professor Sari Lindblom-Ylanne Helsinki University presented current research into academic emotions. I was pleasantly surprised to see emotions topping the bill at an academic conference on Higher Education; however as time went on I felt more and more uncomfortable. Lindblom-Ylanne and her colleagues are carrying out what sounds like a careful and worthwhile investigation into the positive and negative emotions associated with university learning and teaching. They are beginning to make some connections between reports of positive emotions and deep learning among students and between positive emotions and student-centredness among teachers. Lindblom-Ylanne’s account was by no means simplistic: she made the interesting point that positive emotions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes; she also pointed out that she is at an early stage and that her findings are not cut-and-dried. Nevertheless, I found myself getting increasingly hot under the collar. How could something so complex and mysterious as human emotion possibly be categorised as either “positive” or “negative”? Just in the past 10 minutes I had experienced a whole range of mixed and contradictory emotions including excitement, pleasure, disappointment, curiosity, superiority and anxiety. And how could a concept as complex, contested and slippery as “student-centredness” be nailed down to a particular emotional response? I said earlier that I was feeling uncomfortable. In fact this is a rather comfortable and familiar place for me to be in: smiling indulgently or frowning crossly at those colleagues who attempt to make sense of the world through classification, prediction and control. People can’t be easily categorized; learning is full of mystery.

A roundtable discussion chaired by Kathleen Quinlan from the Oxford Learning Institute took a very different approach to a similar topic. Her title was “How Higher Education Feels: Developing Teaching that Acknowledges Emotional Dimensions of Learning.” I liked the way that Quinlan raised questions about how university teachers can and should respond to students’ emotions; however, at the end of 90 minutes I found it impossible to put into words what I had learned from this session. I felt I had nothing to offer my colleagues back in Edinburgh that would help them to develop their mastery of the art, science or craft of teaching.

My reflections on these two sessions, and on a range of other work presented at the conference brought me back to a paper written fifty years ago, in which Bakan(1965) first described what he called the mystery-mastery complex. A complex is a recurrent pattern of feelings and ideas that cause psychological distress. In this case the distress arises from trying simultaneously to pursue two incompatible objectives: to honour the mystery of the human psyche and to achieve mastery of human behaviour. In the psychology of his time, he argued, progress was stymied because the discipline was caught between these two contradictory desires. So my misgivings about the mastery suggested in LindBlom-Ylane’s research and my fretting over how to communicate the mystery associated with Quinlan’s are part of the same entanglement : the mystery-mastery complex. As Bakan puts it:

“The dynamic associated with the two objectives of mystery and mastery is such that they tend to reinforce each other in spite of the contradiction between them (p189).”

So is there any escape? Bakan points out that psychologists are generally sensible people, well able to extricate themselves from the mastery-mystery bind. Moreover he seems to offer a glimmer of hope at the end of his paper, suggesting that researchers in psychology can redeem themselves through reflexive practice, becoming more aware of the psychological and cultural factors impacting on their own research. Most interesting of all for me, is his prediction that,

“the significant place in society of the psychologists will be more that of teacher than expert or technician…it is important that he work to uncover the mystery of the psyche and teach people to understand themselves and each other. In this way they can be helped to live with each other, and manage their affairs effectively.” (his italics)p191

As a teacher myself (and not a psychologist) I find this idea very heartening.
It was at the end of a full and lively conference that I had an insight into the role of storytelling in unravelling the mystery-mastery muddle. In his closing keynote, Professor Graham Gibbs, now at Winchester University, skilfully laid out for us a string of stories: funny, wise, clever and each with an important message about university learning and teaching. Unabashed in the face of critics who have questioned the authenticity of his anecdotes, that seem to change over time and to fit whatever point he may be making, he cheerfully described his practice as “creative non-fiction.” Yes, the stories do change, he explained, because times change and we need to say and to hear new things. Masterful!

Bakan, D (1965) The mystery-mastery complex in contemporary psychology.
American Psychologist 20(3)186-191

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