Dr. Cher Hill on New Materiality, Practitioner Inquiry and the Importance of Research to Serve Communities

December 10, 2020

Dr. Cher Hill is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. Her primary areas of expertise include teacher education, qualitative research methods, and practitioner-inquiry, as well as reflective and diffractive practice. Her current scholarship utilizes new materialist theories and to make visible the complex entanglements between humans and more-than-humans within educational contexts. Dr. Hill is a passionate supporter of community-based, participatory learning initiatives. Her recent work involves collaborating with community partners to educate citizens about the impact of colonialism on the Fraser watershed and mobilizing them to restore local creeks.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself including your academic and professional backgrounds.

I have assumed various roles within the Faculty of Education over the past decade and have been privileged to work with many colleagues on many diverse projects focusing on gender-equity, internationalization, in-service teacher education, pre-service teacher education, new materialist research, place-conscious education, and decolonizing pedagogies.

My scholarship is very eclectic and has often involved the exciting challenge of delving into areas of literature that are unfamiliar to me. This past year for example, I was learning about riparian management that can offset the effects of climate change. I am very influenced by the scholarship of Rosi Bradotti and her conceptualizations of nomadic subjectivity and intellectual camping. She understands ‘subjectivity’ as always in flux and encourages working across various scholarly traditions in creative ways to address current issues. I can feel scattered at times, and sometimes I think to myself “I can’t believe I am doing this.” However, the underlying themes of equity and justice, the flourishing of communities, living-life as inquiry, and working across boundaries, are foundational aspects that cut across all of my projects and serve to ground me. I find that my scholarship is most generative when I work across disciplines, knowledge systems and disrupt the personal/professional divide.

Your research focuses on practitioner inquiry and in-service teacher education. Why are they important?

I feel that practitioner inquiry is invaluable to all educators as the issues we face in classrooms and in communities are constantly shifting. This has never been clearer than during the pandemic when teachers had to reinvent their practice as educators literally overnight, with little to no support. Nothing could have prepared teachers for the challenges they faced in 2020, but even prior to the pandemic, teachers were working to address issues in schools that were likely not part of their teacher training, including the mental health crisis, supporting students who came to Canada as refugees, and enacting the new BC curriculum.

Through inquiry into their own practice as educators, teachers have the capacity to self direct their professional learning and are empowered as producers of local knowledge. They can work to align their actions with their values, and can develop responses that address the unique nature of their specific teaching contexts. Practitioner-inquirers work at the very intersection of theory and practice to enliven scholarship and in collaboration with others, critically and creatively lead change in schools.

How did you become interested in new materiality theory? How would you explain the theory and its implication in education to a non- academic?

I was introduced to new materiality by my colleagues, Nathalie Sinclair, Margaret MacDonald, Diane Dagenais, Suzanne Smythe and Kelleen Toohey, within the context of our interdisciplinary research group. While I did not know too much about post-human theories in the beginning, the groups’ focus on relationality, equity and community-based research felt like a good fit for me.

New materiality scholarship is diverse, evolving and never static, so it is difficult to describe it without colonizing it. There are, however, often some commonalities across multiple conceptualizations. They typically include disrupting the primacy of the human, and understanding knowing, being, doing and valuing as embedded within material webs (e.g., physical world, nature). These material webs involve both humans and the more-than-human, and are constantly shifting, producing new identities, new knowledges and new ontologies. It allows us to think of our worlds and ourselves as open to new possibilities and always in the making. New Materiality scholarship disrupts binaries and hierarchies, and encourages thinking along rhizomatic pathways in which movement is non-linear and emergent. During this time of the pandemic, the climate emergency, and the anti-racism uprising, we know that education is/must/will change(ing), and new materialist scholarship entices us to follow emergent and unexpected flows that can enable something new to unfold.

What impact would you like to see your research have on communities and society at large?

For me I believe that the most profound impact of my research is through community dissemination. I have worked with hundreds of teachers over the past ten years. When I share with teachers about my conceptualization of the Diffractive Practitioner and they choose to take up this work within their own classrooms, teaching and learning can become more collaborative, emergent, relevant, creative, inclusive, and ethical.

When I share my visioning of local creek restoration as a site of transformative reconciliation with the teachers I work with, some of them decide to take up this work with their own students. I love the idea of people in faraway places reading my articles and taking up my thinking, but I am most satisfied if educators carry my stories back into their classrooms and adapt them to create their own stories that contribute to flourishing within their communities broadly defined.

What suggestion would you like to give to prospective graduate students interested in your field of research?

Both practitioner inquiry and new materialist scholarship are open and emergent methodologies. This provides a lot of scope for creative enactments, and provides exciting possibilities for graduate students. I highly recommend joining various formal and informal communities of scholars who are interested in the same practices and ideas as you. Delving into the complexities of new material scholarship, as well as the enactment of theory within practice, is always more fun and more generative with friends. Above all, be mindful about how your research will serve our community and work to enable flourishing within human and more-than-human worlds.