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Ellsworth Explores the Limits of Education—and Beyond—in Sachs Lectures

Elizabeth Ellsworth, a leading proponent of using media to enrich learning experiences and foster social change, is the 2002-2003 Julius and Rosa Sachs Distinguished Lecturer.

From 1984 to 2002, Ellsworth taught courses in educational media, cultural studies, and pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin. During the past two years, she has served as both Visiting Professor in TC's Philosophy and Cultural Studies Programs and Director of Educational Programs for TC Innovations, as well as Vice President of Research and Development for Rethinking, an educational media startup. She has also applied her expertise in pedagogical design as a consultant to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, and the Illinois Institute of Design. A recipient of grants and awards, Ellsworth has published numerous articles and four books, including Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (Teachers College Press, 1997).

Collectively titled, "Around and About the Limits of Education," Ellsworth's three Sachs lectures incorporate a rich array of still and video images, sounds, architectural designs and other multimedia aids. Her purpose, she says, is "to step outside the traditional boundaries of education to examine experiments, inventions and environments with the potential to enrich and expand pedagogy."

In her first lecture, "The Power of What We Can't Know," Ellsworth noted that "most of the people responsible for these innovations aren't educators per se, but architects, designers, artists, performance artists and others." Nonetheless, all have referred, at least in passing, to the role of pedagogy in their work. And all, intentionally or otherwise, have drawn upon the concept of "transitional space," which psychologist D.W. Winnicott described as "the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people-the transitional space-where intimate relationships and creativity occur."

Winnicott argued that it is impossible for a psychologist, teacher or parent to know exactly how children will create transitional space as they learn, grow and become more sophisticated in interacting with the world. "One implication is that pedagogy has its own time and space," Ellsworth said. "You can't force it to fit into impinging forms and structures. It needs to be fluid and able to shape-shift in response to the child's interests, desires, and memories-and the teacher's as well."

In her second lecture, "Time, Space and Place in Teaching and Learning," Ellsworth focused on pedagogical designs embedded in several innovative environments, events and experiences. These included a multi-dimensional event produced by Oakland, California eduator Suzanne Lacey "That can be placed at the intersection of education, art and performance art," Ellsworth said.

Designed to explore tensions between local high school students and police, the Oakland event encompassed a range of experiences over the course of four months. "Lacey staged a -'performance ball game' which involved a dialogue-and ultimately an exchange of views and experiences-between the teenagers and the police," Ellsworth said. "On another night, the participants took over a rooftop parking lot, where video monitors showed documentary films produced by the kids about their experiences with the police. The police watched from their cars, while helicopters hovered overhead." The event transformed "a menacing environment of conflict into one of communication and altered senses of selves and others," she said.

Importantly, arriving at that juncture required neither the police nor the students to forfeit their identities and emulate each other. "In the transitional space created by the participants, the students and police changed-but that change enabled a new and unanticipated way of relating to each other," Ellsworth said. Such experiences, she added, "reflect an interesting mix of humility and excitement on the part of all concerned.

In her third Sachs lecture, entitled, "Reorienting Education," she began from "the premise that there are things a teacher can never know in a pedagogical relationship, and that not knowing opens the way to a new kind of pedagogy evident in these various spaces and events," she said. "If we buy into that idea, then what are the implications for broader questions of social responsibility and the ethics of the teaching relationship?" Those questions derive from psychologist D.W. Winnicott's teachings about transitional space, she said, "and lead to the idea of an open future, which is what these experiments and inventions seem to be gesturing toward-especially when teaching about and across social differences."

Ellsworth also advanced the notion that "democracy is by definition always in the making and never achieved, and that that is both its challenge and beauty." If democracy were to be finally achieved, she said, "it would be closed to the future and soon become oppressive. The only thing that keeps a democratic process from becoming oppressive is that it is unfinished."

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