What if? Or, alternative ways to structure the HE curriculum

i-think-therefore-i-am-dangerous

What if we organised the curriculum around difficult knowledge and awkward issues?

My favourite ‘teaching’ (such an awkward term when applied to colleagues) is the MA in Academic Practice which is also host to a wider network of colleagues across the institution who are interested in looking at different aspects of higher education.

So why is this my favourite?

As well as a new set of colleagues undertaking inquiry into aspects of their academic practice (understanding student engagement through time spent on online resources, deconstruction of discourses and practices of internationalisation, exploring the pedagogic role of service learning in constructing ‘professional’ identities, examining facilitation of student online engagement in ethical issues) there were a number of people who were looking for a home within which to have rigorous and vigorous debate.  Some are doing doctorates in different institutions but wanted a ‘local’ space for critical discussion.  To facilitate both sets of participants it was proposed that we organise the sessions around both presentations of ongoing research and a ‘journal club’ type activity where we would focus on an article.

We have been focusing on the contested nature of academic practice, specifically struggles to define the role of the academic and the university in neo-liberal times.  This took us recently to a discussion by Jon Nixon on the values that could underpin a new conception of academic professionalism as part of the university and academic work as public goods.  This was extended recently by looking at the work of Melanie Walker.

Melanie Walker, and many others, are entailed in re-inventing public sector professional work fit for a post-Apartheid South Africa. This has necessitated questioning the role of universities and their central role in professional education.  The article demonstrated a distinct difference in academics’ priorities with British academics privileging (disciplinary) knowledge whereas the data from South Africa placed greater emphasis on ethical and public good responsibilities.

Go into any European university and we will see that covering and delivering disciplinary knowledge is the way the idea of curriculum is enacted.  Within this there is little space for serious consideration of the ethical content of professional practice.  When looking at institutions such as my own, they are engaged in producing graduates who will be leaders and decision makers – that is engineers who are making decisions about engineering projects rather than tightening the bolts.  Craig Calhoun has argued that because of this universities have a moral obligation to take seriously the ethical dimension.  This is not a call for some kind of social engineering but to ensure that our graduates have had the opportunity to practice the kinds of skills necessary for identifying and working through the dilemmas that they will confront.  For instance, law students will sit through lecture after lecture going through case law.  Case law deals with numerous dilemmas yet are often dealt with as disembedded and disembodied knowledge to be recalled in exams.

We wondered, then, whether there was a different way of envisioning the higher education curriculum, one that was structured around difficult knowledge and professional dilemmas.

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