The lines of the voice: An ethnography of the ambivalent affects of student voice

Eve Mayes

PhD thesis, conferred 2016

This study explores the ambivalent affective intensities surrounding a four-year student voice in a school reform initiative at a comprehensive coeducational public Australian high school. Student voice, an educational movement with rationales that zigzag between standpoint epistemology, dialogue, critical pedagogy, and school improvement, does not necessarily “feel empowering” in its enactment (Ellsworth, 1989, my emphasis).

Propelled by prior affective perturbations, I engaged, over a year of participatory ethnographic fieldwork, in processes of methodological and conceptual experimentation with students, teachers, parents and the philosophical resources of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Deliberately working with the problematic concept of voice, I sought to think and feel voice beyond the autonomous liberal humanist subject, to attend to what exceeds the verbal and linguistic in and beyond schools, and to map the simultaneous liberations and co-options of voice. The question What can ‘voice’ do? is concerned with the capacity of voice to affect and to be affected – as a concept, as a felt force, in methodological configurations, and in writing. I examine common sense ways of knowing students’ voices, emotions and bodies: according to age, ability, emotional expression, and imperatives to produce data demonstrating progress. Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of affect, assemblages, lines, order words, desire, and concept creation are employed to rethink the political, pragmatic and affective dimensions of the communicative act and social (re-)production in schools, and to re-tool participatory and ethnographic methods. Mapping what voice does, I explore the refrains that murmured and metamorphosed around voice in a school reform process: respect, understanding, responsibility and change, and their intersections with affects articulated in language as doubt, fear, shame and joy. I argue that what student voice can do depends on conceptions of the body of the speaker, and the opportunities available to trouble these conceptions. What student voice can do depends on the ways in which relations between bodies are felt and interpreted, the configurations and conditions of communicative events, and how student voice events are evaluated. Creating accounts and theories with students about student voice in school reform compels attunement to the dynamic movements of the concept of voice, the material force of language and affect in the formation of subjectivities, the porousness of boundaries between bodies, and the fluidity of the authorial I.

This thesis contributes a theorisation of the relationship between affect, desire and voice to the literature on student voice in school reform. Theories and processes of collaborative concept creation with students offer conceptual and methodological tools to affective methodologies. Pedagogically, this thesis contributes to broader conversations about the words, relations, educational configurations and environments that compound positive affects between bodies, augmenting the capacities of bodies to act and the mutual learning that is possible.

Supervisor: Professor Debra Hayes