Feedback in a Looping System: Heuretic Pedagogy and Experimental Music

David Prescott-Steed

David Prescott-Steed is a sound artist, writer and urban explorer based in Melbourne. He is employed as an Academic Fellow at the Academy of Design Australia, teaching visual culture studies and art history to undergraduate design-arts students engaged in a range of industry-led areas such as graphic and digital design, fashion and costume, and visual arts. David's sound works have contributed to a range of international events, including the (h)ear XL II: Multimedia Sound Art Exhibition (2014, The Netherlands), the PNEM Sound Art Festival (2015, The Netherlands), Kinokophonography (2012-15, London, UK), and The Politics of Ambience (2016, Oxford Brookes University, UK). Recent publications include: "Intersections of Creative Praxis and Urban Exploration" (2015) in The Journal for Artistic Research (JAR), Issue 9, Bern, Switzerland, and "We are in an Image of the Subterranean Now: Making New Memories of Underground Space" (2017) in Textshop Experiments, Issue 3.


Creator's Statement

Situated within the new rhetoric that "replaces the logic governing argumentative writing with associational networks," Gregory Ulmer defines the term 'heuretics' as an intervention in the writing process that leads to its inversion (p. 18). An intervention maybe a call for human agency. Those who intervene become involved in the affairs of others, out of care, perhaps in response to perceived risky behaviour. Having given themselves permission to interfere, those who intervene lead in the face of an emergency, to initiate an inversion towards positive change. Intervening means making steps to 'turn turtle,' this maritime idiom denoting the capsizing of a boat's superstructure, exposing its hull to the atmosphere. Intervention, itself, is risky.

Here, heuretics can be understood as an invitation to embark upon risk-taking behaviour in the context of writing, that presents a call for participation in a subversion of the linear logic of traditional academic explication, logic of a time before code consumed our dreams. Heuretics raises the alarm for a reversal, an invalidation of a seat of authority, the disruption of ambience, for which the first motion is an overture, is an approach and an opening to what D. W. Winnicott referred to as the potential play space of the transitioning imagination. In a post-tradition order (Giddens), our default is flux; flux is the technologically driven constant that affects us all.

"ADAPT OR DIE," reads the quasi-Darwinian slogan on an A4 poster in the kitchenette at my workplace and, directly below it, "EVOLUTION IS THE SOLUTION." The poster is on the table next to a half-eaten velvet cake coated with thick, bright-green icing. Behind the text, the poster's background image is of an ocean; a bare-backed turtle paddles in a boat made from his own shell.

I stood in the kitchenette, thinking about invention and intervention and risky writing, though admittedly mostly concerned with the question of how deep I could plunge the knife into the cake-sponge beneath the icing without it appearing too much like a hack. But then, as the routine task of mastication occupied my basal ganglia, thus leaving my prefrontal cortex free to work on other matters, I had an idea about how I might defamiliarise writing, that is, how I could use my passion for experimental music and digital sound-based manipulation as an opportunity to investigate the kind of writing to which I had become accustomed, as a necessary consequence of my role teaching art history and visual culture studies to design-arts undergraduates; essay feedback.

In The Power of Feedback, their paper on "one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement," John Hattie and Helen Timperley discuss the meaning, the function and the effectiveness of the modes by which teachers deliver feedback to their students. In summary, they are interested in how feedback promotes student learning, defining feedback as

information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding. A teacher or parent can provide corrective information, a peer can provide an alternative strategy, a book can provide information to clarify ideas, a parent can provide encouragement, and a learner can look up the answer to evaluate the correctness of a response. Feedback thus is a “consequence” of performance. (Hattie and Timperley p. 81)

When assessing student essays, I remain mindful that students are not expected to be academics. To help combat the sometimes abstract nature of the teachers' final comments, I always hand write notes in the margins and between lines of type throughout the work, i.e., in situ feedback.

Although well intended, this effort seems pointless when, several months later, you are sitting in front of a pile of marked essays that no-one bothered collecting. Whatever reason students' might have (perhaps because it was written during their final semester of study before welcomed liberation from critical writing), from a pedagogical perspective, at stake here is the learning opportunity that a feedback loop serves to foster.

Looking  at abandoned essays, what I see is a feedback glitch, a subversion of writing effort, dead annotations, already fragmented and now also emptied of their potential to further educationally useful thought. Thus, they are fragments of wasted labour that'll now be disposed of via the paper-shredder. Feedback is wasted and then destroyed and, in our culture of recycling, sent off to become something else, like the limbic ghost in the pulp of future paper.

But first, a game or salvage and recuperation—a game of creative resuscitation! In my experience, the student essay is a word-processed document that may or may not have been developed in part from handwritten notes, that is digitally documented and submitted as a paper copy for assessment (from digital to print), on which I place my pen and try to make meaningful marks. Because I am a sound artist, the idea of a feedback loop is closely associated with sound samples being arranged in a digital audio workstation, a software program such as Ableton, marketed to DJ's and popular among a wide range of sound producers. What I have done for this video presentation, speaking to a kind of heuretic pedagogy, is to bring my feedback annotations into the digital realm (from print to digital) by sitting with the abandoned essays in front of my sound recorder, and dictating my annotations into the microphone. Affecting a cut-up intervention reminiscent of David Bowie or the Surrealists (or Freud, for that matter), the resulting audio files have been listened to and analysed; I went through the recordings and extracted several dozen sound-snippets (samples) and then arranged them in the Ableton Live audio workstation. I then 'jammed' them, triggering different combinations of samples, running them through effects, using my sequencer to make them play in different patterns, reshuffling word orders of phrases (automating, randomising them for spontaneous utterances), causing collisions, contortions, granulations, repetitions, degradations, perversions that lead us further away from the 'truth' of the original model (heretic).

In short, this audio-visual piece comprises sounds from a ruptured pedagogical feedback loop that have been fed into a software looping system and creatively fed back with audible non-linearity. I listened to my own mangled words offering semi-coherent insight (subverting my own role from provider to recipient) and leading me to wonder if it sounded this nonsensical to students (learning from experience and through trial and error: heuristic). As per Hattie and Timperley's definition, the resulting reconfiguration of the learning process, in light of digital intervention, is quite literally a consequence of performance, an experimental music generation of a vanguard pedagogical text.


Works Consulted

Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. "The Power of Feedback." Review of Educational Research vol. 77, no. 1, 2007, pp. 81-112.

Ulmer, Gregory. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.