Guest Blogger Fenella Kennedy ponders: Psychological Ownership in Dance

This is the first post of a series of guest posts that will  investigate a variety of issues that undoubtedly will circle back to pedagogy and professional issues. The following is a discussion with one of my former students Fenella Kennedy who is currently completing a PhD at The Ohio State University.

Julia K Gleich: I put to Fenella Kennedy a term that I coined recently, Psychological Ownership, which I have witnessed in teacher-student, director-dancer relationships. I asked Fenella to share their thoughts on this new term and propose a definition.

Fenella Kennedy: Well that has a nicely abusive-sounding ring to it and If I understand you correctly, I would say psychological ownership is the practice of gaining authority over a student/performer etc, on the grounds of superior emotional knowledge. In training it might be directed both at the students themselves, or at other members of staff. You could use it individually, but usually you see it used cumulatively in order to justify a position of authority over the student body as a whole.

JKG: Yes, I agree it sounds vaguely abusive. I guess in the context in which I first used it, I was concerned about student independence. How do you think this attitude so easily gains purchase in dance training?

FK: Well it draws on ideas of holistic training: engaging with bodies and minds rather than "just" bodies. What it overlooks though is the fact that "emotional issues" are very easy to show engagement with without any requirement to show discernible improvements in overall learning. It's also a very simplistic, overly-cartesian idea of mind/body engagement. Psychological ownership has little practical impact on what is done in the classroom, and is in fact a handy side-step to avoid addressing problems in teaching practice/student technique: I teach well, but my poor students just can't cope with it. Any question of teaching methods can then be derailed into a discussion of the emotional needs of the students, rather than the practices of the teacher/actual technical values.

JKG: It seems to me this goes beyond emotional psychology and into power relationships. I suppose anyone in a position of authority runs the risk of falling into a pattern of interaction with students or dancers or employees(?) which might fall into this category. Do think there is any justification to how it's used? What could be done instead?

FK: It may have temporary value to students: my issues are being acknowledged - but without an in-depth empathetic connection to back up this acknowledgement, can there really be any benefit to the student that staff simply know the issue is there? Do we have a duty as teachers to provide the semblance of empathy? A shoulder to cry on? ....I'm sure most institutions have staff specifically for this purpose in order to allow the actual teaching body NOT to have to engage with this?

I feel as if where psychological ownership manifests solutions are unwelcome, because they'd take away the authority given by the problem. The whole concept presumes that emotional issues are correlated to a weak mind and a weak body; that students with these issues will never achieve at the level of "normal" students and should not be asked to try. Teachers presume that students want their grading softened, rather than the achievement of their place in the standard system - I wonder what the students would say if you asked them?

JKG: Of course, you and I often speak about these ideas in the context of higher education/university level students and professionals. I acknowledge that younger populations have similar situations wrt the handling of emotional/psychological issues and the roles teachers should have in these personal interactions. And you have specialised experience with developmentally disabled populations as well. But in our dance context, how do you avoid engaging in a psychological ownership of your students and dancers?

FK: As I've said to you, I'm all about behaviour-specific action. Examples: tell me where you're grabbing before you grab; make allowance for the fact I may be five minutes late on occasion (gasp); if you give a free combination in the assessment, give it with your back to me so I stand the best chance of picking it up... All of these kinds of things make the student think about what is going on with them and come up with practical ways of mitigating it – getting students to a place where they can take responsibility for that is a great goal! They might need to work with friends, mentors, mental health professionals to find that, but given the right resources I absolutely believe they can take that responsibility.

JKG: Thanks so much for your thoughts on this, Fenella. I hope we can continue to define this concept of Psychological Ownership in order to put a name to some of these less desirable even if sometimes well meant approaches to teaching, directing, etc.

Fenella Kennedy is a PhD student at The Ohio State University. She received a BA in Dance from Trinity Laban and is an expert in Labanotation and Laban studies including Choreological Studies and dance history. Fenella has unique experience in working with disabled populations, not only in dance, but as a carer and educator. My former student and a thoughtful friend and colleague, we have presented at conferences and frequently debate issues in higher education and in the profession, not to mention our unending interests in dance analysis and choreography. Our lecture-performance, “A Choreographer and an Analyst Walk Into a Barre” was presented June 2014 at the Performing Process: Sharing Practice at C-DaRE, Coventry University.