Projection"Projection" is a term from psycho-analytic theory, associated particularly with a strange woman called Melanie Klein, but don't let that put you off. It happens. Whether the Kleinian theoretical account — which is about the good breast and the bad breast in early infancy — has anything going for it is a quite different question.
Basically, Liberal Studies was about teaching students anything they did not want to know about. I taught comparative religion to medical lab. technicians, economic theory to electricians, and psychology to plumbers.
As I met each new class, there was a bit of each student that did not want to know (represented in red on the diagram on the right). For some, this bit was not very big, and they were willing to give it a try. For others, it was much bigger.
After about three sessions, the pattern would have changed. If I was any good at all, I would have got most of the students interested, all except one or two. They, however, would be implacably and often vocally opposed to the class. With luck, they would not bother to turn up at all, or just sit at the back reading the Sun. In worse cases, they would disrupt the proceedings, and their colleagues would try to control them in a half-hearted way: "Why can't you shut up? This is quite interesting!"
If they did actually leave, someone else would take their place.
The strange thing about all this was that there seemed to be a fixed quantity of "don't-want-to-know"-ness. All that had changed was its distribution. Instead of being fairly shared by everyone, it came to be embodied by a few members. Moreover, somehow — despite their protestations — the students who now did want to know seemed to need those who did not, to act out or carry those bits of themselves which they now disowned.
This is the root of projection: the process of disowning a part of yourself, and projecting it on to someone else to act out on your behalf. As you will have realised, the classic case is scapegoating, but it is far from confined to that. Any aspect of a person can be projected — good and powerful parts as well as nasty and weak bits.
There is much more to say about projection: it is endemic in all groups, and very powerful indeed. It can possess entire communities. It can underpin racism and all forms of discrimination, and it can creat cults. It can kill people: but most of the time it is contained and tamed. Even so, even tamed, it can disrupt learning, and "fix" people in roles so that they cannot learn in a particular class. Teachers are not immune from colluding with the class, and it can lead to labelling and writing students off.
The important lessons are:
- If the feelings associated with something are disproportionate to the real importance of the issue, suspect some kind of out-of-awareness (or "unconscious") process such as projection.
- Sometimes a topic comes up which the group just cannot drop (rather like trying to throw away a piece of sticky tape). Even your efforts to cool the discussion or redirect it add fuel to the flames rather than quenching them (second metaphor). This kind of situation reminds one of Denis Healey's first rule of politics (third metaphor) — "When in a hole, stop digging". But somehow the group can't stop. Again, suspect projection at the root.
- If you want to help someone who is the recipient of projections to get back into the mainstream, it is not enough just to work with that person. You have to work with the rest of the group, to give the member space to change. This is difficult, because it involves the rest of the group acknowledging parts of themselves they would rather deny, so do not expect an easy ride. You may well become the screen for some projections, yourself. Projections can be contagious: if they operate by any rules, they are those of shame-culture.
- People who respond to or get stuck with projections often do so because they are predisposed to do so. They may even identify with the projection (projective identification, technically). They may be victims in some senses, but we are talking normal class groups here, not pathological circumstances. They are still responsible for their actions, and you are a teacher not a therapist. The issue can be argued, but broadly speaking you only have authority to intervene — with adult students — insofar as the situation affects learning within the class.
- One of the least recognised projected roles, and one of the most difficult to handle, if you think about it, is that of the class "swot".
- Projection is weird, potentially destructive, but normal. It happens transitorily all the time: it's only a problem when someone is getting stuck with a role in the group which limits their ability to learn.
- Don't make it any worse. Don't collude with the rest of the group (or even with your colleagues who may have labelled this person on the basis of projection)
- If the person shows any efforts to change, encourage them, and create space. "Hang on — give him a chance..." Find something positive to latch on to.
- If someone else in the group occasionally takes the projected role, respond to it. Don't laugh only at the "Joker's" jokes (and don't join in laughing at him or her). If someone else is messing about, comment on their behaviour as well as the usual suspect.