Have you ever had a student walk out of your class? I did, but should I feel good about it?

Empty classroom in 56 St. building


I have recently finished a busy weekend of teaching on a doctoral study school.  When asked how it went my immediate response is to state that a student walked out.  This is met, so far, with a little hesitation as the recipient of this news struggles to find an adequate response.

Possible responses might include:

  • Oh dear, what went wrong?
  • What did you do to make her leave?
  • Are you OK?

As they pause, ever so slightly, perhaps looking for a polite way to comment on this extraordinary revelation, I have added: “..and I take it as a badge of honour”.

That really sets the internal narratives going awry.

Of course, I say this a little tongue in cheek, but only a little.

It’s not that I am actually proud that a student felt so frustrated that they walked out.  It was certainly not my intent to irritate and annoy.  But irritate and annoy I did.  But disrupt, upset?  Well, in part, yes.

It appears that the first rumblings of discontent began early in the weekend.

It is at this point that I need to state that I had this group of students for the whole weekend.  This is rather unusual in our programme.  The study schools are for working professionals undertaking a professional doctorate in education.  Normal practice is for students to experience a series of one-off lecture type sessions within an overall theme.  The module I co-ordinate is modelled differently.  On paper there is a more explicit coherence to the structure, flow and content.  Built around the thematic title of ‘Approaches to Educational Policy Research’, the stated aim of the module is to introduce students to the field of education policy studies.  The students are provided with a smaller set of pre-readings than usual.  These readings have a dual purpose of providing them with subject content whilst also signposting different ways of approaching the study of education policy.  The structure of the weekend is primarily organised around a set of linked and guided activities through which it is hoped students enhance their understanding of a number of key research approaches and appreciate the role of policy in their forthcoming research.  Apart from the initial introductory session, the remainder of the weekend entails structured student inquiry and tutor facilitated reflection.

What perhaps makes this module different is that there is very little ‘content’, and hardly any ‘delivery’.  This is deliberate.  It is also what appeared to cause some upset.

The first news of possible discontent arrived at my door on the Sunday morning, that is following a full day of activity on the Saturday, and just before the students delivered their presentations.  As with the overall design of the module I made clear that the presentations themselves were less important than the discussions that the students engaged in the process of working towards the presentations.  Similarly, some of the ’empirical’ material for the weekend (a particular piece of English education reform) was a vehicle for engaging with a number of important strands in educational research thinking.   I was informed by a student that some of their colleagues had registered an unhappiness with the seeming lack of ‘content’ in the module.

I felt unsettled by this.  My internal narratives immediately began accusing me of ‘failing’ the students, of not being a ‘good teacher’, etc.  I had to pause, disrupt the flow of mental agitation.

In this pause came to mind a Zen story that I felt spoke to the situation.  The story goes something like this:

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.  The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.  In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

At the time I saw this as referring to the students wanting to be ‘filled’ with content.   A number of questions then formulated in my mind, questions I thought I could use in response to what I anticipated as a chorus of complaints about the ‘lack’ of content:

  • How much content would you require to feel full?
  • Is information the same as knowledge?
  • Is knowledge the same as understanding?

My speculations and anticipations were to be confounded.  No questions about content arose during the student presentations.  All seemed well after all.  The final session involved a structured activity to guide the students to think and plan for their module assignment.  They had already been provided with an assignment brief.  Again this differed slightly from practice in the programme where students were often provided with suggested assignment questions or titles.  As an indication of my pedagogic stance I made clear that I would not field questions that asked for direct guidance, that such questions were a matter for discussion between students and their assignment tutor.  Instead, having gone through the guided activity I invited them to share their initial thoughts on their assignment.  The first student outlined their plan and suggested how it might help them build towards their thesis research.


Then the next student asked the following type of question: ‘Should I do this or that?”.

I tried to reflect the question back by reframing it so that it directed the student to the dilemma they felt in relation to the task – that is, what did the assignment brief ask them to consider and did they think their initial ideas helped them address that brief?

“But should I do this or that?”.

Again, another round of attempts to reframe or redirect the dependent question.

I thought that maybe it was now clear that I would not answer dependent questions.  But no.  It was as if I had actually said: “Please. please, let me tell you what is right and what is wrong”.

Even though a number of students started to intervene to suggest ways their colleagues might reframe their questions there was still this insistence to pose dependent questions.

My frustration grew.

Faced with another dependent question I eventually called a stop.  I made it clear that I would not answer such questions.

At this point a student stood up stating that if I wasn’t going to tell them anything she might as well go.  In this statement she claimed that I was saying that they could do whatever they wanted.

She left.

There was a pause.

What would I do?

Would this anger spread and a mass walkout occur?

What an interesting construction of the pedagogy.  By not telling students what to do to ‘pass the test’ then anything counted.  But of course, that logic is incorrect.  Let me explain, as I did to the remaining students.

I felt I needed to make explicit my pedagogic stance.  So let me go back to the Sen story earlier and use it to explicate what I thought was going on in that weekend.

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.

It could be argued that there was a presumption on the part of many students that weekend that ‘doctoral’ study was matter of ‘learning’ from a ‘master’ explicator (as Jacques Rancière would put it).  That is, enter a relationship structured around one who knows and one who lacks such knowledge.  You could say that most education enacts this social arrangement.

But what is the problem with ‘learning’ in this context?

The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.

In refusing the role of ‘master explicator’ not only was the presumption of the social order challenged but by explicitly refusing both this role and the relational ‘other’ – the student as unknowing, this placed back upon students the burden of freedom – the reality that a certain ontological choice was made, a role identified.  There are times when learning, when doctoral education, is and perhaps should be uncomfortable.  Perhaps it is those moments of existential disruption that the most powerful learning occurs.

 In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

What is our responsibility then as educators?  Is it to ‘satisfy’ students as customers?  Is it to validate ourselves by seeking their approval, even love?  Or is it to invite them, in all its uncomfortableness, to recognise the presumptions they bring on entering the classroom (to recognise our own presumptions both pedagogic and psychic) and to empty them and open themselves to understanding and wisdom?

The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

A recent post on the retractionwatch website ‘revealed’ that a journalist was able to successfully submit a ‘spoof’ article to a series of open access journals despite the article containing glaringly obvious errors.

Depending on who you are (the editors of said journals not being one) this is entertaining reading.  But is it news?  Is it revelatory?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because I feel it misses crucial points.

The unprofessional acceptance of such obviously bad scholarly ‘work’ should be a note of serious concern for the academic community, especially in an age when governments are all too happy to micro-manage our work.   As the UK media are now realising, the regulatory bargain whereby professions regulate themselves is a precarious ground upon which to establish oneself.  The more public scandal attached to professions the less self-regulation will be acceptable.  The key term here is ‘public’.  This does not mean an authentic public voice.  Public here means whatever is heated up in the fire of 24/7 news (including blogs).  If something can gain enough traction to be noticeable then the chances are the degree of self-regulation accorded a profession will be diminished.  We see this everywhere.  In the UK social workers and the whole social care field have been under intense public scrutiny because of yet another ‘failure’ to secure the wellbeing of a child, ending in their death.

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

But politicians and media comment on these tragedies as if they are not related to the wider political environment, to the dominant political ethics.  It is as if all of those decisions to cut or privatise public services have no consequence for the lives of those who should be served well by such professionals.

And so back to academic publishing.

The ‘scandal’ of online academic journals accepting hoax articles fails to note the true nature of the political economy of higher education.

It would be nice to think that academic publishing was primarily about the free exchange of scientific knowledge, whereby our peers could scrutinise our findings, assess our methodologies, and through collegial critique improve the lot of scientific inquiry, and by implication, improve our contribution to society more widely.  That is the myth.

The reality is rather different, and to me, is the real scandal.

Career progression and performance related funding are intimately linked and form the bedrock for such publishing scandals that ‘retractwatch’ deal with.

The particular elements that contribute to academic career progression will differ from one system of higher education to another.  But ‘publish or die’ is a key aspect to academic practice, and therefore job security, worldwide.  Where this works well the publishing record reflects an academic’s contribution to their field of study.  But, even here, it is not uncommon to see the same basic content distributed across a range of academic outputs in peer reviewed journals.  A little can indeed go a long way. In the social sciences for instance, a piece of work conducted in education could conceivably be written up for journals in a range of disciplinary areas – education studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy.  The motivated and ambitious academic could strategically place the same text in a range of journals on the understanding that they are unlikely use the same reviewers.  Of course, such strategists can come a cropper and be found out.  The reputational damage can be severe, and reputation is everything.  But there is an imperative to  publish, and the newer you are as an academic, the more pressure there is.  Another side to this is that acting as journal reviewers, indeed sitting on editorial boards, is good for the CV.  Taking short cuts can seem appealing when securing tenure is your main objective.  This pressure can increase when managers put pressure on you because they too are measured by the productivity of their staff (no matter how much the term ‘collegiality’ is used).

Linked to this is performance related funding.  It is increasingly the case that governments can nudge higher education into line through funding.  Although a degree of central funding is still quite normal around the world, some governments have also introduced elements of performance related funding.  Two areas where this is becoming increasingly evident is teaching and research.  By teaching I don’t really mean the evaluation of quality but rather the move towards student satisfaction surveys in determining levels of government core funding.  The good side of this is the attention it gives to teaching quality.  But in the real world Harvard, Oxford or Yale don’t really have to worry that much about how their teaching is judged because the fact you went to Harvard, Oxford or Yale counts a lot more on your CV that the poor teaching of Professor X.  Where this does impact the most is lower down the academic food chain, on intermediate institutions.

Alongside this is the rise of research as a quality judgement on academic institutions.  High research reputation attracts a lot of money.  It can attract a lot of money from governments looking for a good return on public investment.  We all teach.  We all do administration.  What differentiates one institution from another is research – both quantity and quality.  High research reputation can also attract the brightest faculty and students – and international student fees.  This leads to investment decisions within institutions and therefore what academic life feels like at an individual level.  If you are lower down the ranks this can be experienced as getting pressure from both ends – increased teaching, increased scrutiny of your teaching, and increased pressure to publish and attract research grants.  This can be pretty punishing.  You don’t want to have anything as frivolous as a young family while doing all that.  But, if you are reasonably successful as attracting research funding you can move all of that troublesome teaching and marking down the supply chain to part-time staff and post-graduate students.  In other words you can simultaneously reduce the unit cost of teaching and increase your own time to publish and conduct important scholarly activity such as editing and reviewing.

So, lets imagine a situation where an academic is fielding increased teaching due to the rise in student numbers; is conscious of needing to please their students (this doesn’t actually have to do with quality teaching as such which might not be necessarily pleasurable for students if it takes them out of their comfort zones); is dealing with pressure to publish; is trying to secure research funding; and is conducting their scholarly responsibilities by taking on the role of reviewer for a number of academic journals.

Is it really any surprise that poor, incorrect or bogus articles get published?

We, as a community of scholars, should do what we can to minimise such systemic errors.  But, the real scandal is that education, and higher education, has been made a commodity.  Any sense of the wider purpose of education in the cultivation of a whole person, an ethical citizen, is lost.

getting research questions wrong – then right

On research design as discovery


It’s the time of year when beginning doctoral researchers start to think about formulating their research proposals. In addition to reading a lot – to locate their study and find useful ideas and approaches – they also have to come up with a research question or research questions.

I’ve just come across a little resource that might help – Paul Trowler’s set of ibooks on researching in higher education. These are self published books and are pretty inexpensive to buy (and share if you know how).

In the text on thesis structure he has a very helpful set of criteria for formulating research questions. I’ve adapted his wording somewhat to suit this blog, but this is basically his formulation. Trowler says that research questions must:

!. be answerable – even if the final answer is not definitive, there must be AN answer
2. be specific – they must establish clear…

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Regional Global & League Tables

Why Higher Education Rankings are bad for your educational health

ag foghlaim


So this week we had a ‘Global Irish Regional Forum” – whatever that is meant to mean. Attached to the national event in Dublin, this regional session gave an opportunity for the business sector to berate the public sector and in some cases to argue that we suffered here from not having a university in the top 100 in the World. More of the chatter about ‘underperforming’ and league tables continue in corners of the press. Of course, the fact that we are in fact one of the cheapest/efficient/underfunded (delete according to ideology) education sectors in the developed world and that despite financial cutbacks and significant reductions in staff, five of our seven universities remain in the Times Higher rankings and indeed most of them climbed upwards, seems only like excuses to the macho barons of business and those bitter commentators (that clearly had a bad time when…

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