The Dean’s Graduate Student Research Conference/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, March 2006

Michael J. Coulis

The text posted below appeared in a poster presentation I took part in at OISE/UT in 2006. I  stress that the dimensions of this particular poster presentation are not typical. I do hope other of our researchers will supply this site with examples of poster presentations bearing closer resemblance to more typical presentation styles and methods.

I have had an unconventional life long learning journey (I think it all began somewhere in Kindergarten!) and I have, only as of late, been able to parse pieces of this journey together into something that continues to change into new meaning and shape.

My interest in life long learning developed through grieving Kerry McNamara’s death, which occurred in the year 1997. Kerry was a childhood friend and the woman I married in 1995.  Two years later, at the age of 32, Kerry was killed in an automobile accident.

The following year I undertook a solo bicycle journey across Canada. The impulsion arrived in me to include my body in my healing journey. The bicycle ride ultimately turned into a moving meditation on grief. Because of the ride a new form arose within me to be with and explore grief in a way that would have remained unimaginable but for the bicycle ride.

I did not know this to be true at the time. I was, for lack of a better term, responding to my internal drives and image schemas (Johnson, 1987). The ride took six months to complete; and at its completion I had compiled 80-hours of oral-memos-to-myself. I choose to record my voice and its utterances during the ride rather than writing things down. It was an entirely pragmatic decision to use this method of ‘data’ collection. The microcassette recordings allowed for a much wider range of sound/ambiance to be captured. In many of the tapes one does hear something of the tension and exhaustion my body was going through during long climbs through the Rocky Mountains. As well one can hear what amounts to ecstasy ringing out in my voice on my rocketing descents of these same mountain passes. The recordings do manage to contain an echo of the body’s vocalizing motions as I made my way across the country on a bicycle. I spent November and December of 1998 transcribing these microcassette recordings, which turned into a 600 page single-spaced type written manuscript of raw data.

In 2002 I started my graduate studies at OISE/UT and fell in with a group of researchers operating out of the “Centre for Arts-Informed Research” [CAIR].  Professors Ardra Cole and J. Gary Knowles are the founders of the centre at OISE, and as well they became my thesis supervisors on this project.

The topic concerns the phenomenon of embodied consciousness and self-discovery that I maintain is related directly to the bicycle journey; and more specifically, my having relied on human locomotion as my form of traversing such an expansive landscape. My work has been written in the format of an atlas. The written text is excerpts from the oral recordings, which are then shaped into poetic prose. My method of research writing is qualitative and is more specifically referred to as Poetic-Transcription, a style of writing having gained wide acceptance and use through Laurel Richardson’s writing in sociology [Richardson, 1991].

The analysis of my data, more congenially referred to as ‘findings’ in qualitative research methods, consisted of me, first transcribing the tape recordings then reading and re-reading the document in order to uncover strong thematic or topical content. Once having discerned such themes I then recast them through a mix genre of travel journal writing and memoir (Knowles and Cole, 2001] depicting the cyclist’s reflexive voice as he is singularly engaged in his moving meditations, moved to mediate, through the simple actions of riding a bicycle. The resulting document is thus a personal cartography, which juxtaposes the cyclist’s sensing-emotional experience of reality in landscape.

There is something deeply revealing about the body’s influence on my sensibilities and perceptible capacities when it has undergone the experience of covering those many kilometers by the gift of its own human powered locomotion. It is my contention that only through applying an arts-based methodology am I then enabled to express the significance of my learning journey; a journey which expanded my imaginative spectrum of thought processes, which opened me up further to entirely new ranges of self expression and self-reflection. Through the physical engagement, and being fully exposed and integrated with varying environments, I locate a body’s authority; an authority found latent through the mode of travel and the solitude in which different knowledge manifested.

Just in the last number of months I have been reading the works of Eugene Gendlin, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Johnson and Lakoff have spawned what is called Second Generation Cognitive Science, which incorporates animate body into theories of knowledge and consciousness. Their philosophical position is referred to as experiential realism and is consistent with traditional realism in the following ways:
•    A commitment to the existence of the real world
•    A recognition that reality places constraints upon concepts
•    A conception of truth that goes beyond mere internal coherence
•    A commitment to the existence of stable knowledge of the external world.

Johnson and Lakoff also exceed traditional realism, with their brand of experiential realism, in the following manner:
•    Human reason is made by the body
•    Human reason grows out of the nature of the organism and all that contributes to its individual and collective experience:
1.    Genetic inheritance
2.    Nature of its environment
3.    The nature of its social functioning

[Excerpt from Htm The New Philosophy: Cognitive Science and Experiential Realism. By Dr. Jan Garrett January 18, 2005)

What I share in common with Johnson and Lakoff is an aim to incorporate the fragments of the motioned voice, its attachment/or character to bodily movement and how the body’s immediate kinetic abundance, thus becomes a dimension of awareness that not only affects voice and text, but reason itself (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Where I go past the work of second-generation cognitive science is in my propensity to remain steadfast affiliated to body’s gestures themselves, which I regard less as representational, and purely expressive of meaning. Such meaning is not necessarily apparent in the immediate. Poetry and motion have been joined for centuries each attempting to mirror or even emulate the other; motion conduces to poetry and the reverse applies as well. Poetry, motion and movement exist as a living body’s heritage. It has been and still remains, amongst human and non-human forms, the principle form of expressing tacit sensibilities that belong to places and situations which bodies find themselves in and exposed through. Non-human bodies remain fixed and indubitably embedded in motion. While human bodies can develop an imaginative recourse to creating text in order to become differently expressed/expressive: “Text is a human form, is a figure, an anagram of the body, the art of what is called ‘writing aloud’ and this is the art of guiding one’s body.” (Vernon, 1979).

My ride across the country was gesture welled up from within my body. Leaving on a bike was no conscious decision; it arrived in me. I do most certainly report that my actions on the bike did facilitate my deeper understanding of the pain of death and this is a conscious reflective purposeful act. But it is a form of reasoning that consciousness takes to well after the fact of having been propelled internally, and viscerally across the country on a bike.  What precedes intentional conduct of any sort is thus of primary interest to myself as the researcher of this particular experience.

Presenting on this form of learning takes the shape of an atlas for reasons well beyond any novelty. The atlas is an appropriate metaphor displaying the growing interdependence between self understanding and the geographical context through which understanding unfolds itself. Geography exists as knowledge formulations of the earth and many of the earth’s physical features. In the instance of my bicycle ride I give primacy of place to the earth’s physical being: its physical nature, a part of which I exist, drew from me a conscience via new vocalizations embedding through the motion on the bike. These vocalizations were not detached from the body doing the cycling. The cycling became a functional isomorphic that created an opening in me which opened up a sensibility toward placement, a sensibility toward feeling this predicament of living grief.

Mapping a personal atlas is my attempt to express the experience of shifting internal and external landscapes through a self application of active imagination which leads to knowing that words do in fact become artifacts, which our species trades in. “The body introduces language into the world in the form of speech and the body introduces the world into the matter of weight, flesh, thrust up inside speech…in fact, speech is a kind of physical possession….I never know what my body is revealing or hiding in my act of speaking.” (Vernon, 1979).

Michael J. Coulis
OISE/University of Toronto, March 2006


Knowles, G. & Cole, A. (2001). Lives in context : the art of life history research. AltaMira Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.
Richardson, L. et al. (1991) Gender and university teaching : a negotiated difference. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Vernon, John. (1979). Poetry and the body. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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