Crossing the Threshold – Heterotopia, Caroline Baillie, Jens Kabo & John Reader

Jan 15th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

A Journey into New Ways of Thinking

This book is about transformations. Particularly the sort of trans- formations that many would like to see happen in our profession, school, community and country. Transformations that lead to shifts in ways of thinking and being, about who we are, what we do and why we do it. Many of us are disillusioned with contemporary society and how the economic drivers and dominant discourse lead us all to selfish, point-gaining behaviours. As we write this text, increasing numbers of riots, revolutions and peaceful protests are appearing on the global scene.

solidarity‘Occupy Wall Street’ has led to a number of other peaceful demonstrations against financial centres of major cities, which show that many members of our societies are discontented with the greed that they see in contemporary neoliberalism and are prepared to risk arrest and disruption to their lives to say so. The competitive behaviours they protest about act against community and a sense of social justice and leave us empty, bereft of direction, running in different directions at the behest of someone, but we have almost forgotten who and definitely, why. We attempt, in this short manuscript, to explore possible transformations to alternative ways of being, using a multitude of disciplinary traditions and experiences from different walks of life. We hope that it will be useful in provoking the development of a consciousness about transformation, which transcends disciplinary and professional boundaries and in starting a conversation, which will allow us to converse with each other about the changes we would like to see and how to help these happen.

What we aim to do with this text is to help find ways of deconstructing current issues and contexts and in reconstructing alternatives, which move in more just ways. We do so, by drawing on many different disciplinary traditions as well as by using very different examples of 1) a profession, using the particular case of engineering, a practice done by highly trained workers entrusted with building services, products and systems for different parts of society, and; 2) a local community touched by, but with no power over, these professional worlds.

In our exploration of transformations to new alternatives, we began by drawing on one particular education theory, known as the ericmeyer‘threshold concepts framework,’ which is concerned with the transition from one relatively stable state of knowing or being to another. Erik Meyer and Ray Land who originated the idea, use the terms ‘liminality’ or ‘liminal space’ to describe this transition. The term comes from the Latin ‘limen’ meaning passage or threshold. Liminality is a space of uncertainty and flux which different learners will navigate in different ways and with different success, some might for example get stuck, unable to move forward, while others will oscillate back and forth between different states of knowing and being. However, the kinds of transitions we are considering are not linear, not the learning of simple isolated concepts, they are messy, abstract transformations. The space, which describes the learning journey we speak of, as well as its destination, is more like a ‘heterotopia.’ Heterotopias are places and spaces, described by Michel Foucault in the text ‘Of Other spaces’ as ‘non-hegemonic.’ The place where Occupy Wall Street has been happening is an example of a heterotopia: a place where alternatives are considered, ‘common sense’ is questioned and business as usual stops for a moment.

‘Hegemony,’ the term coined by Gramsci, will be explored in more detail in the text but for newcomers, suffice to say that it refers to the dominant ways of thinking, propagated, reinforced and made ‘common sense’ by those in power in society. In this book, we invite people into this very liminal, heterotopian space so that they might rest a while and make decisions about what to do next, without being bombarded by what others seem to think are ‘common sense’ ways of being and thinking but which we think are madness.

In their discussion of liminality, Meyer and Land differentiate between different liminal states which is something we will expand upon in the text. One aspect of Meyer and Land’s discussion is ‘subliminal variation,’ which they conceptualise as variation in predisposition toward knowledge building in a disciplinary knowledge area or awareness of the ‘underlying game’ that structures or informs a discipline. This subliminal variation will influence how learners can and will negotiate different states of liminality and thus give rise to further variation. For the purposes of this book we can interpret this subliminality in a broader sense as a person’s predisposition toward engaging with the road to heterotopia. This is a way to make sense of some of our examples of certain books we picked up or people we met who resonated with our selves greatly, despite the sometime randomness of the first encounter. After all most of us jackmezirow(most people) have picked up books or met new people by chance, but (potentially) it is our states of subliminality that influences how we engage them. Jack Mezirow, a founding figure regarding transformative learning theory, most likely would connect this to different habits of mind that influence our frames of reference and points of view. One key point of this book then is that when we become aware of (aspects of ) our own subliminal predispositions we increase our possibilities to act and further transform our subliminality and selves. This is reflected in how we (in addition to chance meetings with texts and people) also consciously seek out certain new texts or people who might help us grow or continue to develop as individuals and part of communities.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan told us that ‘the media is the message.’ In other words, he was claiming that the manner of doing things is itself integral to the content being expressed. In this book, the subject matter will be presented in a manner consistent with the ideas being described. This may sound simple, but it creates challenges for both authors and readers. This introduction will lay out the contours of the discussion and the range of material to be encountered. We will do so in part by each author speaking from their own positions and experiences (John, Caroline, Jens) where these are different from each other.

We are going to explore transformations, what is possible, what we think about it, what terms we might need, what thresholds we have to cross, when acting as a socially just citizen or ‘professional’ in our current societies. In the text we will be using ‘engineering’ as an example of a profession whose work affects everything that we do, how we act and behave on a day to day basis. The way we approach our critique of engineering may be applied to any such profession (law, medicine, commerce etc.) so we hope to make it as accessible as possible to any reader. This transformation is mediated by the dialogues between an engineering academic who initiated the ‘Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace’ network (ESJP) (Caroline) and an engineering education scholar (Jens) in order to question the dominant paradigms in their profession. These transformations and our way of thinking about them is then critiqued and informed by our third author, a public theologian with expertise in political economics and sociology ( John) and who deals on a daily basis with the aftermath of global and local ‘professional’ economic, educational, medical, farming and other intangible decisions and policies. John is at the receiving end of the practices of the politi- cians, professionals and policy makers. We see these as very different angles or lenses onto the same problem.

Throughout the text, we reflect from a theoretical perspective on the issues and questions raised, we apply these to engineering as an variationtheoryexample of the profession under study and we additionally ground this by transferring the ideas to personal experiential and down to earth contexts (indicated by text in quotation marks and in different font). We hope, in this way, to assist readers, as they move into the liminal space, to learn through experience of variation. Lets look at this idea of variation in relation to a child learning about colour. Variation theory suggests that we understand ‘red’ by the existence of ‘blue’ and by varying around the critically important aspects we get to understand these. Showing the child a variety of red objects so they can see that red remains the same, whilst the object itself changes (red book, red shoe etc.), then showing them a red book, a blue book, a yellow book etc. will help them see the difference between ‘red’ and ‘book.’ Hence we will present very different lenses to view the same phenomena, in order to describe the variation to be experienced, thereby highlighting its critical features.

As a result, what follows draws upon ideas and theories from a wide range of sources, some of which may be less familiar than others, some of which are very academic, others very practical and down to earth. We are aware that this presents a unique challenge to those who are more comfortable within their own particular discipline, or indeed are not engaged in academic discourse and its peculiar conventions, as well as those who are! We intend to make it clear where material comes from so that readers can pursue this for themselves if they wish. Since it is central to our argument however, that development and trans- formation are more likely to occur when different ideas are brought into contact and new combinations of thoughts and insights emerge, we do not intend to produce a grand theory about how these different ideas should be harmonised or brought together. On the contrary, it is consistent with our argument that concepts and notions that may not obviously or neatly fit together be brought into contact in order that what we call our ‘heterotopian liminal space’ might be understood. Even as authors, we are also in this space, experiencing it differently from one another.



Caroline Baillie is an engineering professor who explores the boundaries of engineering knowledge and practice and their impact on social justice.
Jens Kabo is a scholar in the area of engineering education with an interest in the social dimension of engineering. Currently he works at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
Revd Dr John Reader is a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation and the University of Chester, and has published in the field of Practical and Public Theology.

coverHeterotopia - Alternative pathways to social justice

ISBN: 978-1-78099-228-0, $14.95 / £9.99, paperback, 113pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-917-3, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

Many of us are concerned with the structures, systems and values that we meet on a day to day basis. We seem to be rushing headlong to a destination not of our choosing. How did we get here and what can we do about it? This book is the result of an exploration into the ideas of transformation. What does it mean to transform the way we live, to something that we value? In this book we take on the challenge of exploring a potential transformation in one professional field, that of engineering, as an example of how we might break free of common dysfunctional discourses and enter what we call a counter hegemonic 'Heterotopia' - a space or place where we might dream alternative futures. The text is a unique collaboration spanning the disciplines of engineering education, philosophy and social theory.


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