An interview with..., Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Michael Malay – Hope in the Dark

As February storms raged across an already embattled Britain (weather-wise and politically), Michael and I took refuge in the Multifaith Chaplaincy to contemplate why hope might still be possible for us. After our cups of tea brewed, I congratulated Michael on his BOB award and we promptly entered what would prove to be a fruitful and therapeutic discussion around the relationship between his personal experiences and his teaching. 

Michael, from what I have heard from fellow Liberal Artists and your award, your environmental humanities lectures for the “Ideas and Society” module are going down a treat. Do you recall what attracted you to thinking about the connection between the state of the Anthropocene and radical hope? 

A person holding a frisbee

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Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.

I can actually trace it back to a particular moment. It was during a walk in the Peak District with a friend, right after the 2017 General Election. We were talking about frustrated hopes and the experience of political defeat when he mentioned a book he had been reading, one that was helping him to make sense of what was going on. The book was called “Hope in the Dark”, by Rebecca Solnit, and although it’s a slender book, it’s full of expansive ideas and propositions. I recommend it to students all the time. 

One of Solnit’s arguments is that our understanding of activism, and our model of case and effect, is often too simplistic. We like to operate under the assumption that action A will lead to action B, according to Solnit, and that there should be a discernible pattern between what we do and the effect of those actions. But her argument is that we can never fully comprehend the scale of our interventions in the world, since they will take on shapes and forms that we won’t necessarily be able to recognise. ‘It’s always too soon to go home’, she writes. ‘And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.’ 

Solnit illustrates this with an interesting story. In the 1960s, there was an anti-nuclear lobby group called Women Strike for Peace. The group was particularly alarmed by radioactive particles that began turning up in mother’s milk and had organised a series of protests outside the White House. There was a curious anecdote from one of the women involved in WSP. Apparently, this person said she sometimes felt a little foolish during the group’s protests – standing in the rain with her cardboard sign, chanting slogans she felt nobody was listening to. But Solnit points out that somebody was noticing. A few years after these protests, a paediatrician called Benjamin Spock, who made crucial contributions to the anti-nuclear movement, was asked: ‘what inspired you to speak out on this issue?’ When he responded, he started talking about a group of women he saw one day outside the White House… 

I guess that what Solnit means when she says ‘it’s always too soon to calculate effect’. Sometimes an intervention can assume a shape in the world that you could never have imagined.  

I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to you personally? 

I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and didn’t really have much access to the natural world. But when I was ten my family moved to Australia and we were lucky enough to live in a house by a canal. We had a small ‘tinny’, a three metre aluminium boat with a 6 horsepower outboard engine, and that was my ticket into a different world: an intricate network of canals, and, further out, a huge mangrove system and a shallow estuary we called the ‘Broadwater’. I remember taking the boat out one morning and seeing a school of dolphins swim past – no more than five meters away. That was pretty special, to be so near the Broadwater, and to be able to strike out on your own.  

As for a conscious appreciation of nature, though, I don’t think I ever had that as a boy. If you’re lucky enough to be near some form wildness – and that can simply be a suburban park, of course – and if you’re allowed to roam there on your own, you just become immersed in a place. And before you have a critical apprehension of a place you have an intuitive relationship with it. It may become harder to recover that intuitive relationship as you get older, I don’t know. But I also think there’s also a sweet spot when the two harmonise, when you have a feral appreciation of a place as well as a self-reflexive engagement with it. 

I recall you integrating trips out to the sea into your teaching? How was that experience for you and the students? 

Oh yes. That trip to Severn Beach was part of a “teach out” during the industrial action last year. We paid £1.50 for a return train trip and had a great day out. Reflecting on it now, I think one reason the trip was so enjoyable was because it had nothing to do with our syllabus. We had no aim or agenda, and were just going to see what the light was doing and what the birds were doing.  

As much as I can, I’ve been trying to bring more of these experiences into my teaching. It can be liberating for the students, I think, and for the teacher too. By inviting other ways of learning into the seminar, I’ve seen students become much more curious about the material we’re engaging with. Anxieties about self-presentation drop away, there’s a greater sense of ownership over the direction of our learning, and discussions become that much livelier as a result. Some of the best discussions I’ve experienced are the ones where I’ve abandoned my teaching plans. Or during that walk along Severn Beach, which was hardly a ‘seminar’ at all, but which went straight to the heart of the module, which was about the history of relationships between humans and the nonhuman world. We came away from that trip with an appreciation for small marvels: the driftwood that had washed up on the beach, the oystercatchers wheeling over the estuary, and the rich wonderful mud of Severn Beach. And yet we didn’t organise the trip with that purpose in mind. It’s just what happened when we turned up and started paying attention.  

This seems like a mindful experience, something of immense value in the context of low levels of wellbeing among students. In line with thinking about students as subjects, how might learning about hope affect students who are experiencing a volatile era of climate uncertainty and political unsettlement? 

I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the topic of hope, but also increasingly critical about how it’s discussed. Engaging with hope can be incredibly empowering for students (how could it not be?), but there are different kinds of hope out there, and some forms of hope can be politically suspect and actively disempowering. So I think the first task is to distinguish between these different forms of hope, and to develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about this topic. At the moment, we seem to be in a situation where there’s an abundance of false hope but an undersupply of genuine hope, and I think it’s crucial to know the difference between the two, so that you don’t contribute to the oversupply of one and the paucity of the other.   

For me, hope has less to do with a faith that the future will look better than the present and more to do with a critical understanding of what is possible when we begin to think and act in more communal and expansive ways. I see it very much as a political concept – a concept that can do political work – rather than as a theological concept, in which the possibility of hope is placed in a transcendent (rather than human) realm.  

I realise this might sound a little strange. We don’t usually understand the work of hope to involve the daily (and sometimes quite mundane) realities of civic engagement. But the more I think about this topic, the more I see that politics and critical thinking are central to the practice of hope. This is for a number of reasons. One is that an unreflective kind of hope can be deeply counterproductive, because it can undermine the very thing you are trying to achieve. This is the kind of hope that takes the form, ‘things are going to get betterwe just have to be patient’, which of course is a depoliticised form of hope, because it takes away your own obligations to act, in whatever form that might take – resisting, making, intervening, speaking, listening, co-creating. Critical hope takes on a completely different form, in that it’s a form of hope that increases rather than diminishes your obligations. It’s a kind of hope that makes particular demands on you to act in the world, even as you relinquish the desire to know what the consequences of your actions will look like.  

What has been giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope? 

My students and I had a fascinating discussion in a seminar last week. We were talking about T.S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, a poem that was published nearly a hundred years ago now, and I was intrigued to see the students making powerful connections between the cultural crisis Eliot was describing and ecological crisis of our own time. According to one student, there was an eerie resonance between certain sectons in the poem and the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia, while another student read the poem in light of recent declarations of a climate emergency, in Britain and around the world. Another student said: “I feel like our generation has a different relationship to the future than our parent’s generation. Whereas our parents saw the future as open-ended, to us the future seems increasingly closed.’ So, very early on in our seminar, the poem led to some difficult but important conversations around emergency, disillusion and powerlessness. There was a shared sense that the only predictable thing in the current climate was unpredictability. 

But after discussing these issues, we looked at the poem again. We wanted to see if, amid the various ‘wastelands’ described by the poem, there were also examples or models for how one might respond to crisis. Of course, we didn’t find anything. ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most powerful poems I know, but it’s also one of the most bewildering, and I still don’t really understand what it’s about. In any case, we started talking about the final section of the poem, which is when – after a long period of drought (ecologically and spiritually) – the skies fill with the sound of thunder. It’s an ominous moment, of course – a sign of troubled weather – and the poem also tells us that this is ‘dry sterile thunder’, without the promise of rain. A few stanzas later, however, we do get a trickle of rain. A ‘flash of lighting’ appears over an abandoned chapel, which is soon followed by a ‘damp gust / bringing rain.’  

We didn’t quite know what to make of this as a class. The image of a storm gathering over an abandoned chapel isn’t exactly consoling or comforting. And yet, after the dryness of the earlier stanzas, the appearance of rain offered a sense of physical relief. There is so much disturbance in the poem – images of communities and processes out of joint.  But here was a glimmer of something that may have been good. It was only a glimmer, and it had to be seen within the context of background ruin and devastation. Nonetheless, it was an image we felt we could work with – and perhaps even work towards – despite the fact (or precisely because) it was so ambiguous. 

I guess there’s another parallel here with the work of Rebeca Solnit. In Hope in the Dark, she writes that contained in the word ‘emergency’ is the word ‘emerge’, and I think that what critical hope does is extend your capacity to see glimmers of possibility during moments of crisis, while remaining alert to its darker dimensions (as Naomi Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine, crises can offer special opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ to extend and solidify their power).  

Of course, there’s always a danger that ‘critical hope’ can relax into cliché. And there’s always the possibility that, by focusing so determinedly on hope, you only come to see examples of ‘emergence’, and pay less attention to the facts of the ‘emergency’. But taken with the right amount of tension, I think the notion of ‘critical hope’ can be a very powerful and motivating for students, a way of responding skilfully and courageously to moments of crisis. 

Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this volatility. 

It’s easy to see why. ‘History is what hurts’, as Frederic Jameson says, and if history is any guide to the future, it’s clear there will be much more volatility to come (without even mentioning, of course, the scale of the current climate breakdown, which is completely new to human history). And, as any activist will tell you, it’s incredibly easy to lose hope and feel burned out in the midst of a long political struggle. You begin to realise just how entrenched the current economic systems are, and how unresponsive political and cultural institutions have become. Then there’s the difficulty of living with the contradiction between the insights you might have about what is socially possible and the lived reality of life under capitalism. Living with that contradiction can quickly lead to hopelessness, or, just as often, lead you to relinquish idealism in favour of ‘realism’. But again – and as long as it doesn’t relax into sentimentalism – a notion of critical hope might come in useful here. Even as it commits you to acting in the world, and even as it forces you to be critical of uncritical hope, it also transforms your understanding what change might look like, which itself offers grounds for hope.  

I enjoyed hearing that you are learning from students as much as the students are learning from you. What new teaching methods do you hope to bring to students in the future? 

A couple years ago, I enrolled on a herbalism course in Stroud, and was inspired by the teaching methods of the instructor Nathan Hughes. His approach to the subject was both rigorous and joyful, and I’ve found myself wanting to transfer some of the things I’ve learned from him to my own practice as a teacher. For example, when it comes to learning about a new plant, we are asked to ‘meet’ the plant in its natural environment. This can involve a variety of forms: sitting next to the plant, observing it closely, drawing it with pencil, watching how it responds to the light and wind, seeing what insects are drawn to the plant, studying the environment in which it likes to grow, noting the other plants that you might find in its vicinity, and so on. So, long before you know the plant’s common or Latin name, and long before you’ve begun learning about its medicinal uses, you’ve already developed an embodied relationship with the plant. You’ve paid attention to it; and you’ve looked at it for yourself.  

Although there’s only so much you can do within the confines of a seminar room, I’ve tried to introduce strands of this approach into my own teaching. I’ve been teaching a module this year called ‘What is Nature?’, and during one of our seminars we went to Royal Fort Gardens, with no other purpose in mind than to look at the trees. We looked at an ash tree, a mulberry tree, as well as an impressive hornbeam tree, and spent a bit of time listening to the different sounds they made in the wind, looking at how they changed in the light, as the clouds came and went, and drawing them as carefully as we could. Towards the end of the session, we also came up with some words for the trees, based on the principle of Anglo-Saxon kennings, in which an object is described with a compound phrase rather than a noun. Some of the kennings were amazingly inventive, such as ‘cloud anchor’, ‘weathered companion’, ‘light catcher’, and ‘arthritic witches’ hands’, a phrase which nicely captured the twisting branches of the mulberry. 

It does seem odd, especially because most of academia rejects mind-body dualism and turns towards thinking about perception from the standpoint of embodied existence. Like why are we still employing the same teaching methods such as large lecture halls, and chalk boards which have been within the University since its inception? I believe the teaching methods ought to evolve with the advances in knowledge about the human condition. 

Yes, that’s right. We know that we flourish as learners when the whole mind and body are involved in the effort of understanding and making sense of a thing. But sometimes we find ourselves teaching in ways that obstruct those kinds of approaches and engagements. We end up promoting a particular kind of approach to knowledge (one that is disembodied and instrumental) at the expense of other forms of apprehension, in which being able to stay with ambiguity and complexity are just as important as finding a clear ‘answer’. 

There’s a wonderful passage in Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain that I often think about. It’s a moment when she advises her reader to ‘Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down’. As you look, the landscape alters before your eyes, so that, from the the ‘close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land’, each detail will stand ‘erect in its own validity’. And as you look in this way, something else might happen too. Rather than being ‘the focal point’ of the scene, the focal point will be distributed across the landscape, because you will have dislocated your usual ways of looking.  

I love that. It’s like advice given by a child in the middle of a game, but here it is offered by a writer who, when she wrote those words, was in her early 50s and was living through the final years of the Second World War. For Shepherd, knowledge is a kind of garden – a place you can walk into, get lost in, and explore with your mind and body. And though she encourages you to be precise in your looking, she also demonstrates that you can still be child-like in your wonder, and that’s the wonderful thing about her – that synthesis of empiricism and Pre-Socratic awe. She also demonstrates something else that continues to inspire me –  the fact that you can bring together sensibilities that are sometimes divided from each other, and in such a way that those sensibilities sharpen rather than diminish each other. Her writing is devoted without being pious, practical without being utilitarian, whole-bodied without being anti-intellectual, and intellectual without being abstract. For best results, look at the world through your legs, but be sure to do this upside down… 

So yes, to get back to your question, there are lots of improvements and changes we can make to how we teach. For one, I’d like to see a more concerted attempt to connect phenomenological approaches with intellectual ones, but perhaps that requires a large-scale transformation to our picture of what knowledge is or can be. One of the implicit educational models we seem to be working with is that we’re ‘brains in a vat’, trying to soak up the best of what’s been thought and said, while also learning to be critical in our relationship to that knowledge. But what if, instead of beginning and ending with that picture, we started from a different premise – that of human embodiment? What would things look like if we proceeded from there? Of course, there’s much that’s good in our current model, but it’s also limited for some of the reasons we’ve been discussing. Perhaps a synthesis along the lines modelled by Nan Shepherd is what we need. 

Who influenced you most whilst at University? 

My most influential teacher was a lecturer at the University of Queensland. I was studying economics at the time, but decided to take an optional module in the English department. It was an incredible course – we read books by Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Emil Cioran and others – and afterwards I found that I just couldn’t go back to economics. The lecturer’s name was Peter Holbrook and although his course was intellectually rigorous, it was also good fun – serious fun. He had a way of getting you actively involved in the various questions posed by a book – philosophical, political, aesthetic, historical, cultural – while also making sure you didn’t forget about the simple joy of reading, the delight of literature. I still feel very grateful to Peter for making those books come alive for us, and for steering me away from a degree in economics, which would probably have been disastrous for me. 

Owen Barlow BILT Student Fellow 19/20 – working on the project ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’.

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