Posthuman exploration of learning as an exercise in open scholarship

Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development

 [This draft is being shared in the spirit of open scholarship. If you would like to offer observations on the work please do so via simon.warren@nuigalway.ie 

This draft should not be quoted without the permission of the author.]

 
Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Over some months I have shared my reading and thinking related to a writing project that drew on practice and posthuman theories to inquire into the nature of learning.  You will find these posts here,  here and here.  My blog has been a space for sharing my ongoing intellectual work in an open way, and sharing its messiness.  In this full public draft you will see how I have built directly on my previous posts, but also how I have further developed the emergent ideas. The blog has thus acted as a place to rehearse my writing.  I would welcome any feedback as a kind of open source review of this draft.

Jean-Luc_Picard_as_Borg

Introduction

When we think of learning we usually think of the brain, of learning as a primarily cognitive activity. When we think of higher education learning this assumption becomes even more evident. This cultural default is seen in the distinction offered by the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, where knowledge is the weightier and more important of the two, especially in its uncoupling from the physical. And if this is how we habitually imagine knowledge what of the spaces within which higher education knowledge is acquired? Do we imagine them as spaces of the mind?

I recall standing in one such space. This was not the objective almost abstract space often referred to in ‘how to’ teach texts. This was a particular space, new to me but very familiar to its inhabitants. I looked out from my corner and observed rows of benches arranged in parallel lines. Along each row were stools, clustered in pairs along one long edge of the bench. Computer screens and keyboards took up some of the space in front of the stools. There were instruments on the benches that I will later learn are ‘vortexes’ that vibrate and help to mix solutions in test tubes. Facing the stools across the wooden surface are shelving that stretch along the other long edge, forming a kind of wall. And on the shelving stood beakers, and pots, and books. At one end of the bench stood a sink, and a weighing machine enclosed in a glass cabinet. All benches were the same. Elsewhere in the room were other machines, other computer screens and keyboards, other kinds of measuring equipment, and a large screen at the front of the room where the lecturer’s slides were displayed. The first impression was the shier quantity of machines or equipment of different kinds. This is different from the learning spaces I am used to where, apart from a computer and some form of table, it is paper and books that are mostly present. My social scientific space is not the “…place densely stacked with instruments and materials and populated by researchers” which represents the scientific space as noted by Karin Knorr Cetina (Cetina, 2009, p. 25). I was immediately fascinated by the array of equipment and what this meant for the activities I observed. This was not the social science space I was accustomed to but a pharmacology laboratory practical. The spatial arrangement obviously says something about the structure and culture of knowledge and the signature pedagogies of chemistry and pharmacology (see Shulman, 2006 for discussion of signature pedagogies).

Also in the room were bodies, lots of bodies. In fact a little over 50 bodies. Initially the social distinction between the bodies was not apparent since all wore white laboratory coats. The distinctions become clearer as the bodies took up their allocated places. ‘Students’ were defined by sitting in pairs on the stools, forming ‘work stations’ in their relationship with that part of the bench, and shelving, and computer. The benches were thus populated in this way. At the sides of the room were others who were not that distinct from those who were obviously the students in this setting. They were similarly young, similarly dressed. While they were ‘students’ in the sense that they were conducting postgraduate studies, in this particular setting they are ‘instructors’ and so are socially different to the undergraduate students arranged around their workstations. There was one other person also dressed in a white laboratory coat. Their status as ‘lecturer’ was more clearly marked, being older than both ‘students’ and ‘instructors’, dressed differently beneath the laboratory coat, and perhaps importantly, standing at the front of the room by the screen looking down across all the benches.

My own position in the room was not neutral; it was not without some regard. I was there to see what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines in my university. My role as an academic/educational developer meant that I worked with lecturers across the disciplines to ‘develop’ their academic practice, particularly in relation to teaching and learning in higher education. But I come from a particular background, from a sub-discipline in the social sciences. What exactly did ‘teaching’ mean when this became the object of reflection for a chemist, and in this instance in the discipline of pharmacology?   It was developmental in that I felt the need to observe disciplinary teaching in order to better understand the context of practice that would be reflected upon by a colleague taking one of our courses. But it also related to a key methodological approach in academic development, that of ‘decoding the disciplines’ (Middendorf & Pace, 2004). If I was to support colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to grasp the pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 2006)needed to support student disciplinary learning, I needed to understand the pedagogic context of practice and its specific disciplinary modes. And this indexes the ontological terrain upon which I stood and observed the pharmacology laboratory practical before me. My observation was filtered, for the most part, through the lens of constructivist discourses of learning that placed the student learning experience as central to pedagogical concerns (Ramsden, 2006). I was attuned to trying to understand how the students went about the business of learning in this context. The heterodox view in academic development is that better understanding of the student experience of learning leads to better teaching.

But, as I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory and posthumanism. I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014). Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the laboratory activity (Pickering, 2010). That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds. I found myself asking the following questions: What would learning look like if we went beyond the constructivist paradigm? How useful might it be to explore learning as socially embedded and distributed across human and non-human domains? And what implications would this have for my own practice as an academic/educational developer?

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation. As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education. It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning, which are distinctly humanist. As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference. Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related. I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human. In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice. Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

I begin by outlining the activity undertaken in the pharmacology laboratory practical I observed. This works to introduce two initial readings of the situation – one based on the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004), and the other ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2005). This allows me to outline the doxa of my practice as an academic/educational developer and set the ground for extending this humanist approach. The next two sections then present a different ontological reading of the laboratory practical drawing on a combination of practice theory and posthumanist science. This seeks to integrate the conceptual and material dimensions of the setting and so pose generative questions about how we might understand learning in this particular context.

What does a pharmacology laboratory practical look like?

The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  The pedagogic rationale for this activity can be seen to be threefold. It offers the students opportunity to practice a procedure that is fairly common to the testing of substances. Secondly, it provides a practical context for the application of pharmacological knowledge. And finally it has a very practical rationale because paracetamol toxicity is one of the most common forms of poisoning worldwide, hence the importance for those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects. The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine its therapeutic/toxic concentration. The assay involved the students in the preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including Eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machines for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide). Based on the reading from a spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity. Essentially, the spectrophotometer measures the degree to which light that is passed through each solution is absorbed by the solution. The reading from the spectrophotometer is then plotted on a graph using Beer’s Law. Consequently, the greater the toxicity of the solution the higher the rate of absorption.

In observing the pharmacology laboratory practical we witness a range of human activity, including students reading array instructions from their work sheets; laboratory partners discussing the procedure, conferring over measurements and interpretations; measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.) and dispensing solutions into test tubes; operating the vortex machine in order to mix the solutions; placing samples into the spectrophotometer and then interpreting the results; charting the graph and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’; and all the time recording the process and results. It is clearly busy. Students are constantly moving around their benches, interacting with each other, using equipment, and writing. The lecturer moves around the room observing, asking pairs and individual students questions, offering advise. The teaching assistants also observe, question and advise. They can be seen standing back and looking across the benches they are responsible for, checking whether students are following the procedure correctly, paying particular attention to the production of the correct solutions. These instructors are some times called upon by students to advise, and at other times they step in at critical moments. Advice is often formative, sometimes summative. But what is the meaning of this activity? What is it about all this activity that leads students to comprehend the discipline of pharmacology? There would be little point to all this activity if it did not enable students to better understand pharmacology, indeed lead to a change in understanding and a new orientation to the world.

Within the scholarship of teaching and learning this issue of understanding is often configured around the privileging of student-focused conceptual change approaches to teaching (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999) or deep learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976). In my role as an academic/educational developer I am frequently encouraging my faculty colleagues to re-orient themselves from a content (disciplinary knowledge) centred approach to teaching to one that considers teaching in light of the student experience of learning. Consequently, much of the knowledge base of my own practice are empirical studies of this student experience (Entwistle & Peterson, 2004; Entwistle & McCune, 2004; Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2010; Trigwell & Prosser, 1991; 2006) and of university teachers’ pedagogic intentions . In many ways this perspective forms a doxic frame of reference for academic/educational development work. My tendency then would be to view the pharmacology laboratory practical through this lens.

An early iteration of this doxic frame is a study conducted by some of the key thinkers in the scholarship of teaching and learning, Keith Trigwell and Michael Prosser (Trigwell & Prosser, 1996). This study sought to examine university teachers’ pedagogic intentions by exploring the extent to which their teaching approaches were student/teacher centred and oriented towards information transmission or conceptual change. This research is particularly relevant here because it focused on the teaching of first year chemistry and physics. Significant is the association between student centred approaches and conceptual change. This analysis was further developed and formed the basis for the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ which has become a fairly widespread instrument for evaluating and mapping teaching styles (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004). The research asserts that deep learning is strongly associated with student centred approaches to teaching. Informed by this approach we might follow the lead offered by Michael Prosser and colleagues and inquire into the relationship between the pharmacology lecturer’s conception of disciplinary knowledge and the teaching strategies and intentions behind the laboratory practical (Prosser, Martin, Trigwell, Ramsden, & Lueckenhausen, 2005). We would want to examine the extent to which the lecturer conceived of chemical knowledge as a set of isolated pieces of information and skills or was based on related concepts, issues and procedures. Furthermore, we might then seek to understand if these concepts, issues and procedures are understood as linked or related in an integrated fashion. We would then observe if this way of understanding chemical knowledge manifested in particular pedagogic practices.

Another useful way of interpreting the activity in the laboratory practical is through ‘Threshold concepts’(Meyer & Land, 2005). Here, the emphasis would be on the identification of particular concepts, processes and practices essential for students to fully enter a disciplinary way of thinking and so promote deep learning. For instance, Vincente Talanquer

(Talanquer, 2015) states that,

If we were to ask chemistry teachers and instructors to list some threshold concepts in chemistry, it is likely that many of them would include concepts such as “Atomicity”, “Chemical Bonding”, “Intermolecular Forces”, and “Chemical Equilibrium”. (p.4)

Talanquer’s argument is that chemistry students often encounter particular difficulties in grasping the underlying meaning of key features of disciplinary knowledge. For instance, students will understand chemical compounds in an ‘additive’ or ‘intrinsic’ fashion, viewing the different elements that make up a compound as static. ‘Learning’ then becomes a matter of adding on bits of knowledge. Transformation of their disciplinary understanding comes about when they grasp the dynamic and emergent properties of both compound and element. This also challenges the pedagogic assumptions made by educators. Talanquer notes the tendency for educators to argue that undergraduate students, particularly in earlier years of study, cannot deal with the overly abstract nature of these ontological aspects of disciplinary knowledge and that they have to concentrate on teacher centred information transfer approaches in order to build a base for later, deeper thinking. This gives rise to what Courtney Ngaia, Hannah Seviana and Vicente Talanquer term a ‘toolbox’ approach of loosely related topics, the introduction of chemical nomenclature, and isolated skills (such as laboratory protocols) (Ngai, Sevian, & Talanquer, 2014).   Instead, these authors propose the need to base the chemistry curriculum on sets of central questions aimed at the development in students of authentic ‘chemical thinking’. They develop this proposal through a discussion of ‘chemical identity’ as a disciplinary specific, but cross-cutting threshold concept. Chemical identity refers to the ways of thinking associated with identifying one entity as distinct from another, and doing so in relation to its extrinsic and dynamic properties.

We could imagine, therefore, viewing the pharmacology laboratory practical using these concepts. As with the ideas suggested earlier, these are also oriented towards developing pedagogic practices that maximize deeper forms of learning. We might be guided, therefore, to inquire into whether the way the laboratory practical is set up encourages students to see both the integrated nature of what they are doing (applying knowledge, operating equipment, following protocols, measuring, interpreting and reporting) and allows both students and educators to uncover implicit assumptions about chemical knowledge and properties. This last point is central to the studies on ‘chemical identity’ conducted by Talanquer and colleagues. This would suggest that any assessment of learning that might be going on in the laboratory practical would be focused on students’ ontological assumptions and how these influence their chemical reasoning.

It is my view that both of these are perfectly legitimate and worthwhile approaches to take. Both offer academic developers and educators more widely a lot of thoughtful and considered material for reflection on academic practice and student learning.   And both are based on similar ethical commitments to maximizing deep learning for as many students as possible. But let’s go back to the initial observation. Here we see a dynamic setting that not only involves interaction between different categories of human agent – student-to-student; student-to-teaching assistant; student-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-teaching assistant; teaching assistant-to-student; and lecturer to all. But we also see the necessary interrelationships between all these human agents and objects of various kinds – work benches, pens, computers (and the algorithms that make them function); presentation software, chemical substances and compounds, vortex machines, spectrophotometers, taps and sinks, measuring machines; as well as concepts, issues and procedures. To speak predominantly of the human and the cognitive, as do the approaches I have reviewed, seems to bypass essential ingredients of the ontological landscape of learning. And so, it is the relevance and importance of ‘artefacts’ that I want to turn to in the next section.

Protocols, epistemic objects, and knowledge centred activity

 

Beyond the mainstream of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and academic development, are theories of practice that take seriously the interaction of human and non-human that could usefully be applied to the learning context before me. Practice foregrounds “…the acts of making knowledge” (Cetina, 2009, p. 9). This seems apt for an educational setting. And so learning and teaching might be about doing things, and I want to argue it is about human engagements with the world, and specifically how this relationship between human and non-human can be understood as central to epistemic practices. In this section my emphasis is on the role of non-human objects in the mediation of epistemic practice. Therefore, I propose that the particular knowledge being dealt with in the pharmacology laboratory practical is situated within the practices undertaken in the laboratory and mediated by the engagement with non-human objects and the protocols the students follow in their testing of paracetomol toxicity. I will be using the terminology of ‘epistemic objects’ and ‘epistemic practices’, drawn from the work of Karin Knorr Cetina (2009)(epistemic cultures), and Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Jensen, 2014). The array and the protocols the students follow are examples of what Nerland and Jensen call epistemic objects. In this particular case it is the inquiry into the problem of toxicity and how to determine it that organizes the activities undertaken in the laboratory. They provide examples such as the way ‘care’ operates as an epistemic object for nurses, or medical procedures for doctors. Epistemic objects invite purposeful activity such as assessing, evaluating, recording results, etc. It is these practices that we can term epistemic. But first I want to explore how the artefacts that are necessary for epistemic practices can be usefully discussed in terms of tools and signs.

How artefacts work as tools and signs to create a laboratory practical

The scene I observed in the pharmacology laboratory practical had all the semiotic cues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space. The Danish anthropologist Cathrine Hasse has examined the way objects work simultaneously as tools and signs in relation to scientific practice and technology.   For instance, she discusses the use of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.) (Hasse, 2013). Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion.  Building on insights developed by Vygotsky and taken up in activity theory ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness.  The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world as when, proposes Hasse, we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house.  Although signs are oriented to consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments. Again, Hasse notes, as when an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others. Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as we treat artefacts meaningfully.

What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology laboratory practical? Hasse’s argument indicates that learning in this context is related in some way to the meaningful relationship with artefacts, in this case material apparatus as well as concepts and processes. The particular arrangement of bodies, apparatus and the circulation of concepts at play in this space constitute it as a ‘laboratory’, as a particular kind of space linked to specific structures of knowledge and social activity – science. Earlier I noted how different this space was to the social scientific one I am more familiar with, and that the abundance of artefacts was a significant feature of this difference. Mirroring Hasse I could say that it is this specific functioning of artefacts as tools and signs that makes it a pharmacology laboratory practical. It is this arrangement of bodies to artefacts and processes that, according to Karin Knorr Cetina (2009), produces what we call scientific knowledge. This is an approach that views scientific knowledge as an effect of what scientists do (and often do with artefacts) rather than as a disembodied object of cognition.

A laboratory can also bee seen as working simultaneously as a tool (a delineated space for a specific activity) and as a sign (the spatial and social arrangements within the space as well as the artefacts and procedures giving legitimacy to the activity as science). Laboratories gain their social significance in turning aspects of the natural order into epistemic objects that are manipulated through the operation of particular methodologies. Importantly, though, for Knorr Cetina laboratories are not just spaces within which social agents act upon natural objects. The scientist, or the science student in this case, is not the social counterpart to chemical compounds or water or machine. Within the laboratory the students do not deal with chemicals in their natural state but in transformed states as ‘images, extractions, and a multitude of other things’ (Cetina, 2009, p. 32)and instead scientists work with “…object images or with their visual, auditory, or electrical traces, and with their components, their extractions, and their “purified” versions” (p.27). In this particular space the students engage with paracetamol through a trace, through an electronic representation of the degree of light absorption as worked through the (spectrophotometer). The students will seldom engage with the ‘things themselves’. Knorr Cetina’s argument is that scientists are also transformed by the laboratory, molded behaviorally depending on the social organization of specific scientific enterprises and the reliance on artefacts for conducting scientific activity. For instance, she contrasts the epistemic cultures that arise in large scale high energy physics experiments such as those in the CERN particle accelerator, compared to smaller scale molecular biology experiments. Only certain kinds of human activity are available or legitimate within the context of the laboratory, and the objects of the laboratory delimit social agency. There is then, for Knorr Cetina, disunity in practice between these two scientific endeavours, the scientists do different kinds of science, produce different kinds of knowledge. The two examples in her study represent two different epistemic cultures.

The pharmacology laboratory practical takes on the character of a ‘workshop’ similar to the molecular biology work in Knorr Cetina’s study of epistemic cultures. The whole point of the activity in the room is to intervene and manipulate chemical compounds. Scientific endeavor in this context is not framed by a principle of non-interference, in fact the opposite. From this orientation of scientific endeavor comes the actual behaviours the students have to engage in, and which can be captured in the protocols they are required to follow. While the term protocol can often refer to seemingly non-signifying activities, from the perspective of epistemic culture they are in fact deeply significant. Protocols can be seen as epistemic practices related to particular conceptions of scientific endeavor. Similarly, the various artifacts that make up this space as a laboratory, and not some other kind of space, should also be understood as epistemic objects (Cetina, 1997). It would, I think, be a mistake to consider the various machines and containers, for instance, as only having instrumental value (act as tools). Instead, they do epistemic work related to the development of scientific expertise (also act as signs). The ability to understand the toxicity of any paracetamol compound is unthinkable in the absence of these artefacts. Scientific knowledge is therefore bundled with epistemic objects and epistemic practices. There is, then, an intimate relationship between the ‘expert’ (the lecturer as well as the science student) and ‘epistemic objects’ (the way tools function as signs) (Cetina, 1997). The knowledge work of the students can be seen to be done through the interaction with epistemic objects and “…the reaction granted by them” (Cetina, 2008, p. 83). This interaction is mediated via ‘protocols’, the particular procedures by which the scientist conducts an experiment, in this case a paracetamol array. Protocols take on the character of ‘knowledge centred practice’ as defined by Karin Knorr Cetina. This doesn’t mean that protocols enable students to access or acquire knowledge as something that lies outside of their doing in the laboratory. To be proficient (that is approach being expert) means that the various objects such as beakers, pipettes, vortex machines, etc. become almost invisible in the hands of the student. That is the object in mind is that of producing the results. It is to this object of knowledge that the student stands in relation, not the artifacts surrounding them and which are necessary for producing the results. They are a means to an end, simple tools. It is only when something goes wrong that the student will suddenly be in relation to the artefact directly.

This routinized mode of behavior means that the boundaries between human and non-human, and between artefacts blurs. Let me give an example. As part of the protocol students use Eppendorf pipettes to measure out specified quantities of water solution. On first attempt the student may be all too aware of the separation of human mind and eye and hand with the instrument of the pipette and the solution to be measured. It has an awkward quality about it, the movement stilted, slow, considered. However, once the student has become more proficient the boundary between all of these becomes less obvious. This resembles the transparency between objects and human and non-human found by Karin Knorr Cetina in her study of epistemic cultures cited earlier (Cetina, 2009). This kind of routinized procedure is common to much laboratory and scientific practice. While the practice contained by the protocol is a knowledge centred practice, and thus an epistemic practice, it is also mindless in that students might not, in any particular moment, be conscious subjects related in a direct way with certain artefacts or processes. It is the practices of holding pipettes, manipulating pipettes, picking up beakers, holding test tubes, reading instructions or the visual displays on electronic weighing machines that are most evident. Far from being an external, disembodied object of mind, knowledge of paracetamol toxicity is bound up in the protocols, and thus entangled with instruments, processes, chemical compounds, computer algorithms, digital displays, as well as concepts and equations. Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014), for instance, have investigated the way procedures are essential for how nurses and computer engineers engage with knowledge. The procedures and various artefacts this entails (texts and documents for nurses, and information technologies for the engineers) directly mediate their professional learning. Also, these intermediary objects function simultaneously as tools and signs (c.f. Hasse, 2013). These artefacts mediate understanding of how certain chemical structures interact with the human organism in potentially dangerous ways. This knowledge is both embedded in the practices I observe in the laboratory and distributed across them, no matter how mundane they may seem.

 

 

The totality of action as epistemic object and the dance of agency

In the previous section I examined some consequences of moving away from the acquisition metaphor of learning and how this confronts us with the idea of learning as a ‘doing’, to borrow from Karin Barad’s work (Barad, 2007). The intent was to make explicit the humanist and social-constructivist presumptions of learning entailing the inter-action of quite separate entities – knowledge and the knower. I sought to extend this understanding by introducing the power of artefacts as mediating this relationship, and giving artefacts a distinctive sense of agency or power in this process, in particular the elaborated discussion of artefacts functioning as tools and signs. I gave special attention to the way the laboratory protocol followed by the students had epistemic value, that it was a practice of knowing. But there still remained a distinction between knower, knowledge, and mediating artefacts. The work of posthumanist scholars invites us to further extend such understandings and to examine the ‘agency’ that ‘things’ have, to glimpse the tantalizing possibility that test tubes, Eppendorf pipettes, and chemical compounds themselves can be regarded as agentic. Through this lens the laboratory protocol, I argue, becomes a ‘dance of agency’ (Pickering, 2010)between human and non-human. What we call learning is an effect of this performance.

From paracetamol toxicity as epistemic object to array as phenomenon

Karen Barad’s (2007) work critiques the separation of scientific practice, such as measuring quantities of paracetamol, or reading the spectrophotometer display from scientific knowledge and theory. Although her work focuses on particle physics she details how the act of measuring or observing cannot be separated from scientific knowledge. For example, she considers the act of observing light scattered from an atomic particle and captured on a fixed photographic plate, rather like taking a photo. The ‘phenomenon’ or ‘event’ is neither the atomic particle nor the light itself, but the light as captured by the measuring apparatus. As with a camera the photograph is not the observed object itself but an effect of capturing the light on light sensitive material. The phenomenon is an ‘event’ that incorporates the particles, the problem under consideration (the epistemic object) and the act of measuring/observing (epistemic practice) (Barad, 2003, p. 171). Following Barad the paracetamol array and protocol as a whole is the phenomenon, rather than the toxicity of paracetamol itself. The phenomenon involves a related set of active elements including the lecturer’s intentions for the laboratory practical, the activities of the teaching assistants, the students’ engagement with the task, the functioning of the apparatus, and the action of the chemical compounds. It is worth remembering that I noted earlier the students do not encounter the toxicity of paracetamol directly. They encounter an electronic display of the degree of light absorption. And it is this that stands for toxicity.   Similarly, the toxicity of paracetamol has to be considered as an effect of the measuring activity and not as an abstract quality of the chemical compound. After all, the problem of paracetamol toxicity emerges from the relationship between the compound and the human organism. Toxicity is not in and of itself a quality of the chemical compound outside of its relationship with an organism and the mechanism by which that compound enters the human body. This reiterates the main point of the previous section, that knowledge and learning are effects of the phenomenon as a whole.

 

Knowledge as performance and the dance of agency

This approach takes us beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ and to an understanding of ‘science-as-performance’. Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and explores how in reality the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology laboratory practical by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency, following the sequence of activity required by the protocol:

  Human Agency Human Passivity
Sequence 1 ·      Reading array instructions

·      Discussion with bench partner

·      Measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)

·      Dispensing solutions into test tubes

·      Operating vortex machine to mix paracetamol solutions

·      Recording the process

·      Waiting for the solutions to mix and settle
Sequence 2 ·      Placing samples into the spectrophotometer ·      Waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine
Sequence 3 ·      Interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer

·      Charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’

·      Recording and reporting the results

We see here that what I previously referred to as epistemic practices correlates with human agency in the laboratory practical. If we take sequence 1 the acts of measuring, recording, dispensing, mixing are classic examples of epistemic practice. However, this epistemic practice folds into and around moments where the students have to wait on the action of chemical compounds or machines to do their work. In these moments it is the non-human artefacts that have agency. For example, while operating the vortex machine it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait. This is visually observed in the laboratory where we see the deliberate, if at times hesitant, movement of the students as they co-ordinate their actions in relation to the artefacts they rely upon to conduct the array. In one moment limbs are moved to enact measuring, or holding, or writing. In the next the student stands and waits, passive for a moment while the lead is taken over by the vortex machine. The activity takes on the character of a choreographed performance, hence the utility of Pickering’s terminology.

Viewed this way, as Barad argues, it is difficult to think of scientific knowledge as some how abstracted from the doing of science. Pharmacological knowledge is inseparable from the handling of Eppendorf pipettes, from measuring, from waiting for a vortex machine to do its work, from encountering the visual display of the spectrophotometer and performing an act of imagination to read this as being ‘toxicity’. It is inseparable from the benches and the physical organization of the laboratory. In other words, learning is something accomplished by corporeal beings, in specific places, and with artefacts. It is not a purely cognitive event. If the ‘science’ the students are engaged in is a phenomenon, as Barad claims, then learning is also an effect of the phenomenon and so is entangled with non-human action.

Conclusion

 

I began this paper by making reference to how my attention was drawn to the abundance of artefacts in this space, and how the particular relationship between people and artefacts in a specific location (a university) constituted this space as a pharmacology laboratory practical. The abundance of artefacts in this space matters to learning. Building on the notions of epistemic objects and practices, in this conclusion I want to propose that it is worth considering knowledge as embedded. This approach requires us to understand learning in ways that take use beyond that normally conveyed by humanist philosophies, and requires us to think differently about the aim of academic/educational development.

Having said that the students do not engage with paracetamol toxicity directly, this does not mean the students only engage with representations of the real or the material. Along with the symbolic (texts, diagrams, speech) the students do engage with a material reality. In the humanist paradigm this material world can sometimes get lost, obfuscated, hidden. It is not present in the same way as thought, the cognitive, and language. Yet, I hope I have convinced you that in spaces such as the pharmacology laboratory practical we are confronted with an abundance of material artefacts, we are confronted with matter. Through epistemic practices students encounter not just a symbolic world of representations (which we often take to be knowledge) but also a world of material meaning. Students’ ideas, concepts, and theories of chemical interactions with the human organism have to be understood as part of a wider material configuration that includes chemical compounds, measuring instrumentation, visual displays of light absorption, benches, pens, computers, and other bodies (the lecturer and the post doctoral students) (for a detailed discussion of material configuration and scientific practice see Barad, 2007). It is not the case, I argue, that science education and the material world are separate entities. It is through the calibration and choreographing of bodies, artefacts, and concepts that students might cross thresholds into different ways of being in the world.

Consequently, the artefacts are not neutral but are products of particular conceptions of what constitutes science. The Eppendorf pipette, paracetamol compounds, and the spectrophotometer are brought together in a particular kind of relationship with the students’ bodies in a specific place; and the students’ behaviours are modified and regulated by these artefacts. It is these particular, rather than general, articulations that we can call the phenomenon, and it is the phenomenon that is the epistemic object and simultaneously constitutes and envelopes the epistemic practices. This is why scientific knowledge is inseparable from specific scientific practices. It is why the abundance of artefacts ‘matter’; it is why learning is not something separate from the flow or dance of agency.

All of this has consequences for the practice of academic development. If academic development is framed by metaphors of acquisition then it mirrors the conception of knowledge as somehow dis-embedded from social practice and the material world (Boud & Hager, 2012). I want to finish, therefore, with some questions that are worth pursuing in order to re-frame academic/educational development practice. If we take the posthuman perspective seriously then what becomes the epistemic object of academic practice? What are the consequences of this for what constitute our epistemic practices? I believe that these two questions can form the basis for a productive research agenda.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), 801–831. http://doi.org/10.1086/345321

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Boud, D., & Hager, P. (2012). Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices. Studies in Continuing Education, 34(1), 17–30. http://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2011.608656

Cetina, K. K. (1997). Sociality with objects : Social relations in postsocial knowledge societies. Theory, Culture & Society, 14(4), 1–30.

Cetina, K. K. (2008). Objectual practice. In M. Mazzoli (Ed.), Knowledge as Social Order Rethinking the Sociology of Barry Barnes. Aldershot : Ashgate.

Cetina, K. K. (2009). Epistemic Cultures. Harvard University Press.

Entwistle, N. J., & Peterson, E. R. (2004). Conceptions of learning and knowledge in higher education: Relationships with study behaviour and influences of learning environments. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(6), 407–428. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2005.08.009

Entwistle, N., & McCune, V. (2004). The Conceptual Bases of Study Strategy Inventories. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 325–345. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-004-0003-0

Hasse, C. (2013). Artefacts that talk: Mediating technologies as multistable signs and tools, 6(1), 79–100. http://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2012.29

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46(1), 4–11. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8279.1976.tb02980.x

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5

Middendorf, J., & Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(98), 1–12. http://doi.org/10.1002/tl.142

Nerland, M., & Fenwick, T. (Eds.). (2014). Reconceptualising Professional Learning: Sociomaterial Knowledges, Practices and Responsibilities. Abingdon: Routledge.

Nerland, M., & Jensen, K. (2014). Learning through epistemic practices in professional work: Examples from nursing and computer engineering. In M. Nerland & T. Fenwick (Eds.), Reconceptualising Professional Learning: Sociomaterial Knowledges, Practices and Responsibilities (pp. 25–37). Abingdon: Routledge.

Ngai, C., Sevian, H., & Talanquer, V. (2014). What is this Substance? What Makes it Different? Mapping Progression in Students’ Assumptions about Chemical Identity. International Journal of Science Education, 36(14), 2438–2461. http://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2014.927082

Pickering, A. (2010). The Mangle of Practice. University of Chicago Press.

Prosser, M., Martin, E., Trigwell, K., Ramsden, P., & Lueckenhausen, G. (2005). Academics’ experiences of understanding of their subject matter and the relationship of this to their experiences of teaching and learning. Instructional Science, 33(2), 137–157. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-004-7687-x

Prosser, M., Ramsden, P., Trigwell, K., & Martin, E. (2010). Dissonance in Experience of Teaching and its Relation to the Quality of Student Learning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(1), 37–48. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075070309299

Ramsden, P. (2006). Student Learning Research: Retrospect and Prospect. Higher Education Research & Development, 4(1), 51–69. http://doi.org/10.1080/0729436850040104

Shulman, L. S. (2006). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Dx.Doi.org, 134(3), 52–59. http://doi.org/10.1162/0011526054622015

Talanquer, V. (2015). Threshold Concepts in Chemistry: The Critical Role of Implicit Schemas. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(1), 3–9. http://doi.org/10.1021/ed500679k

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (1991). Improving the quality of student learning: the influence of learning context and student approaches to learning on learning outcomes. Higher Education, 22(3), 251–266. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF00132290

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (1996). Congruence between intention and strategy in university science teachers’ approaches to teaching. Higher Education, 32(1), 77–87. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF00139219

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2004). Development and Use of the Approaches to Teaching Inventory. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 409–424. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-004-0007-9

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2006). Changing approaches to teaching: A relational perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 21(3), 275–284. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075079612331381211

Trigwell, K., Prosser, M., & Waterhouse, F. (1999). Relations between teachers“ approaches to teaching and students” approaches to learning. Higher Education, 37(1), 57–70. http://doi.org/10.1023/A:1003548313194

Techniques are what teachers use until the real teacher arrives a #cel260 story

Baltasar_van_den_Bosch_001

Balthasar van den Bosch – A.M. Koldeweij, P. Vandenbroeck en B. Vermet (2001) Jheronimus Bosch. Alle schilderijen en tekeningen, Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers [enz.], ISBN 9056622196, ill. 131, p. 150. The Conjurer

We welcomed a new intake on our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course.  Over Tuesday and Wednesday evening 36 lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived with a range of expectations, hopes, and concerns.

Whether career progression was a motivating factor or not, all sought some support to develop their teaching skills and knowledge.  Some would arrive explicitly aiming to grapple with theories of teaching and learning.  All would hope to leave the course with new ‘tricks and tips’, practical techniques that they could employ in their classes NOW.

But ‘tips and tricks’ is a misnomer, since it suggests a separation from theory (and that theory is somehow separate from practice).  Kurt Lewin, a scholar of very practical inclinations, is reputed to have said that,

there is nothing as practical as a good theory

In outlining the curricular intention of the course we exposed the underlying constructivist philosophies of learning, modeling the method we hoped our colleagues would adopt in relation to their own practice.  Why?

The title of this post paraphrases a comment by Parker Palmer about the nature of teaching.  In his inspiring book ‘The Courage to Teach‘ he espouses a manifesto for a heartfelt practice of teaching – teaching as service (as distinct from service teaching).  Part of his thesis is that technique alone is never enough.  We can deploy the most sophisticated or engaging methods, but if they are devoid of a wider purpose they are likely to fail.  The reality is that when we experience a good teacher this wider purpose may not be clearly articulated (to us or to themselves).  So this is not a call to theory dominated teaching.  Rather it links to the questions I think Gert Biesta asks when he seeks to reprieve the language of teaching that seems often neglected by constructivist philosophies.  He asks us to think seriously about what it is we think we teach.

Because our license to practice as university teachers is the PhD (or other similar qualification) we are actually licensed to research.  We are comfortable with our domains and communities of knowledge.  Consequently, we can be mistaken in thinking that what we teach is our subject.  But, Biesta and others suggest, what we teach are views of the world and how we engage with that world.

On the course we expose the underlying constructivist beliefs in order to demonstrate how these weave in and through the techniques we use in class.  The fact that we construct the course around a small number of key concepts (rather than a list of content); that we privilege reflective modes of inquiry; that we promote dialogical engagement are all enactments of the underlying view of knowledge and the knower.  We do not do this in order to recruit them to these philosophies.  Instead, we want them to consider the authenticity of what they do.

What is meant by authenticity here?

Going back to the way we try to model the practice we encourage our colleagues to adopt, we are also hopefully modeling an authentic practice.  Its authenticity does not derive from its proximity to constructivist approaches to teaching, but to an openness to being questioned.  If we want our students to conceive of themselves as makers of the world rather than mere consumers, to be open to different perspectives, to be attentive to the values that underpin and guide their behaviours, then our teaching needs to model that in some way (and in imperfect ways).  We need to teach in ways that show the limits of our practice.

 

Academic Exchange as Emergent Practice – a #TJC15 Story

Garni_Gorge3

(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garni_Gorge3.jpg)

The piece below is the brother post to Laura Gogia’s “Becoming Pedagogy for Becoming People“.  This relates to #TJC15 that I have written about before.  Our blog posts are an extension of our participation in #TJC15 and an instantiation of open scholarship.  We have published a Storify of a ‘twinterview‘ where we discussed ideas that are now found in extended form in these two blog posts.  As part of our commitment to open scholarship we are sharing the various iterations of our thinking/writing, inviting responses and contributions from others.  There will be further iterations over the coming weeks.

In the piece below, in the spirit of the particular ethic of open scholarship that I articulate I present my writing in an unfinished form (there are now hyperlinks or references). This is version 2.  Below you will see version 1.  This version was written using Ommwriter, a tool for contemplative computing.  The ethos of Ommwriter is that you focus on writing and so do not avail of the distractions of editing or spell checks.  I use this for first drafts so that I can concentrate on the essential ideas rather than formatting.


OPENINGS

Twitter Journal Club arrived in front of me at a moment of opening. I was open to a reconfiguration of my practice, a revisioning, in almost every sense of that term. I was a year into my job, in a new institution, a new country, and a new field of practice. I had moved from a fairly well bounded field of sociology of education to the more porous field of academic practice (jackson). I had already shifted balance, perhaps even sought to be off-balance in making this move. I had moved from familiarity to deep unfamiliarity. I had moved from a sense of authority or certainty to being a novice. So a year in I was emerging from that steep learning curve you encounter on entering new terrain. Continuing with that metaphor I had navigated safely through this new topography and rather than seek refuge in the new known, I sought disruption, disorientation. I sought to pocket the map and replace it with a new way of travelling, a form of travel more akin to the Situationist dérive.

Let me open up this moment of opening a little more.

I arrived in my current post mid-year. Although I arrived eager to make teaching and learning the core of my interests (rather than the core of my activity though not the core of my knowledge or personal learning networks) I was faced with more immediate demands – to cope, to cope with an existing curriculum and syllabus, with a cohort of students who had gained familiarity with each other for a semester and had formed relationships with their tutors. I was washed up ashore and needed to make it habitable, for me. I made my mark here or there, but it was a time characterised by a sense of cognitive dissonance. Everything looked familiar – how many configurations of higher education classes can you have? But everything was strange, slightly off kilter. There was new literature to get to grips with, and concepts half understood had to be more fully grasped. While some of my habitual ways of thinking and doing traveled well, many had to be put aside, leaving me feeling exposed. I started a new academic year feeling that I ‘knew’ the course, I knew its contours, I knew it peaks and valleys, I knew where to ford the rivers, I knew which were the places that were less clearly defined and so should be approached with some caution. I was even able to start re-drawing the map, becoming a cartographer of learning myself. I felt empowered in being able to apply principles of academic practice that had long been constrained, of enacting modes of constructivist being.

While the digital landscape was all around me and digital learning was in deed part of my remit, though one I was still to engage with, connectivism was not one of the lines drawn on the map, not a symbol, not a northing or easting. But it was there, in collegial conversations, hinted at when talking of open educational resources, of breaking out of the constraints of learning management systems. Even though I was already a fairly active blogger, both professionally and otherwise, and used twitter, the idea of these being platforms for a reimagined educational landscape was only slowly coming into view for me. One colleague nudged me in particular. I was challenged by her talk, by her practice, by her desire for more open educational practices. I felt resistance, resistance to the unfamiliar, to the challenging, to the not-quite-understood. While I was trying to put order on my anxiety, she was encouraging something that felt reckless. So, even though I was stimulated by the anarchic philosophy of Rânciere, and talked of enacting freedom and seeing what happens, my actual practice was somewhat different. And so I took a step from what I came to understand as striated to soft space (bayne) and engaging with forms of open education and scholarship that could be viewed as types of ‘nomadic science’ (D&G).

My entanglement with this was multiple in that it spoke directly to my new role in academic development, but also to a broader critique of academia as dangerous space. Over years of working in the striated spaces of postgraduate programmes and professional doctorates I had come to see the limitations not of the striated spaces but of the weak structures and failure to utilise the capabilities offered by the LMS. Coming into this job I was able to introduce into my courses those elements I had often found lacking in my previous work. Specifically this took the form of maximising the LMS so that it became less of an archive and more of a hub. But it is clear now that what I was mostly maximising was its MANAGMENT aspect. Its pedagogic function was less clear to me. However, I did introduce many elements of the flipped classroom and ‘just-in-time’ teaching.  Of course, I have come to see how this also works as an enframing device, of locking me and the participants into a closed system. My desire to provide clarity and clear signposting also had this mix of striation and softness, of clarity within enframement. Expectations, underlying pedagogies were all opened up to participants as central to my daily practice with them. This seemed more than appropriate given that we were focused on the development of teaching and learning in higher education. I tried to model the practices that were expected of them in the courses. If they had to keep a reflective journal then I did; if they had to talk openly about their signature pedagogies, then I did.  So, in this regard my slow turn towards open pedagogies and connectivism was a continuation of a journey I was already on.

OPEN SCHOLARSHIP

I had also been involved in critiquing higher education as a particular kind of dangerous space. I had done this from an autoethnographic perspective in my ongoing ‘broken academic’ project (link). This involved linking wellbeing and the micro-aggressions of academic life to the broader political economy of higher education. But this also found form in another kind of journal club. And it is this particular experience that resonates so much with TJC. The space was that of a combined MA in Academic Practice and a loose cluster of colleagues interested in the scholarship of higher education. Some structure was provided through the development of a journal club activity whereby we focused on a particular journal article in our fortnightly sessions. Although I initially volunteered the readings it was how we engaged with this structure that brought it close to my growing commitment to open scholarship. We were engaged in this reading in a context of a highly charged gender politics of academic promotions. We read in the context of petitions, court cases, and demonstrations. Our reading took up these themes, allowing us to examine a range of debates about how the university and academic practice could be both critiqued and re-imagined. The boundary between scholarship and our daily lives as academics became seriously blurred, and blurred seriously. For me this was reflected in a renewed interest in using my professional blogs a spaces to rehearse ideas, to practice writing, and to speak out loud about thoughts and writings that were in progress, unfinished. This covered both reflections on what was going on in class (links) and those emerging from the critical space of the MA.

TJC appeared at the confluence of these streams of activity, of these openings. Importantly, here, it housed two sets of practices/ideas that have increasingly defined my practice:

  • TJC as an enactment of academic practice beyond the ‘managed CV’
  • TJC as involving an ethic of care.

BEYOND THE MANAGED CV

The modern university, certainly in the UK and Irish contexts, is being experienced by many as a dangerous space. I will say more on this in relation to the ethic of care. But one dominant characteristic is the growth of methods of management that seek to align the personal CV of the academic to institutional objectives. We live and work in an age of the ‘managed CV’ or the ‘accelerated academy’ (links). These practices work to alter our own practices and relate to how we perceive ourselves as academics. TJC was interesting for me because it positively challenged both my inherited academic identity and the strictures of the ‘managed CV’.

The experience has tested my technical capabilities in relation to managing the various tools required to engage in this particular digitally mediated interaction. I had to move quickly from being mostly a consumer to being a producer in the twitterscape. You become entangled in the algorithms in a way that demands an intensity of thought, quite contrary to the ‘slow thought’ that I have sought to cultivate and value highly (link slow university). The content of the articles also demanded an acceleration of cognitive shift, to become familiar with a new terrain of connectivist discourse and digital pedagogies. I might have been operating from within an LMS but I was still an analogue academic. I would leave the TJC sessions simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted.

I came to reflect on how this experience differed from much of my day to day practice, and the feelings that this produced. The idea that a core feature of academic practice is the free exchange of knowledge, and that this is structured through academic journals and conferences sat uneasily beside the exhilaration of TJC. The unease did not come just from the contrast of intensities. Firstly, It came from recognition that in this particular experiment there was a quality of exchange and interaction that was largely absent from my own experience of traditional modes of academic exchange. Academic knowledge is locked behind a series of pay walls – journal subscriptions and conference fees in particular. The MA reading group discussed often the way the outputs of our endeavours were being commodified and knowledge privatised. We discussed the attacks on the very idea of academics as involved in eh production of public goods. The structures of academic progression demand that we collude with this privatisation of knowledge and locking it behind various pay walls. Indeed, many if not most academics see this as unproblematic. Secondly, the idea that what actually happens in academic journals and conferences is a free exchange of knowledge feels näive. Journals and conferences are substantively hierarchical spaces. Indeed, academic promotion is premised upon this hierarchy. We are counselled to publish in high impact journals, regardless of the quality or innovativeness of what we actually write. The assumption of course is that high impact journals equate with high quality scholarship. But the algorithms for measuring ‘impact’ (ref) do not assess quality of outputs and are mechanisms that increasingly tie the practice of academic endeavour to the commercial interests of academic publishers. Again this links back to the privatisation of knowledge.  Thirdly, academic publishing through the closed spaces of pay-per-view journals disguises the process of writing and working with ideas; it disguises the collective and collaborative nature of the academic enterprise. Writing is messy. Thoughts are usually emergent, being worked out in the moment. Academic publishing demands polished, non-messy, products. They are non-emergent. Even when articles have multiple authors there is a sense that the ideas contained within the bounded space of the article ‘belong’ somehow to the authors. This ‘belonging’, this notion of ownership of ideas is of course what gives legitimacy to academic promotion. You have appropriated the collective endeavour of many scholars, of participants in research, and privatised it, made it yours, and so added it to your CV, which you submit to the promotion panel.

TJC, despite its many limitations, for me, works against this culture of closure and privatisation. Accepting that no platform is ever fully inclusive, the use of this particular platform to engage in academic discussion breaks free of the institutionally defined spaces for academic exchange. There is inevitably a pay wall involved. You have to have access to the essential infrastructure – internet connection and a device for connecting to the platform and accessing the articles. But these are much more ubiquitous than the closed systems of universities, academic journals and academic conferences. The principle of using open access articles (whether pre or post published) is important in affording more people the capacity to participate. Using a digital platform means that the restrictions on international collaboration are, in principle, ameliorated, so long as attention is given to different time zones.

Activities such as TJC bear many of the hallmarks of Wabisabi, the Japanese aesthetic that celebrates incompleteness, amongst other qualities. The nature of the platform itself necessitates messiness, incompletness, disjuncture and non-continuous interaction. In this sense it also resembles the Situationist dérive and so can be thought of as a way of moving through a particular academic terrain (defined initially by the article of choice) but without a definite end point in mind. Following the idea of the dérive or psychogeography this is not without purpose, just that the purpose is emergent in the activity itself, and is likely to come out of specific interactions. It is marked by the way each of us would zone in on initial comments or questions posed by other participants, following up on those threads of discussion. The initial attraction might reflect a current interest or indeed might be recognised as something one had not thought of and so worth exploring. Each of us would then construct a representation of the event defined not by external criteria but by the impulses of attraction or repulsion. I would follow perhaps a number of threads but eventually concentrate on one or at most two. As has been seen in other events of this type, and I am thinking of various connectivist projects such as MOOCMOC and #rhizome, the interactions take on lives of their own outside of the specific frame the initial event. Indeed, this article is an example of just that. Again, this runs counter to the instrumental character of policy and institutional discourse on academic productivity and careers. In spaces such as this it is the connections and the working out of ideas, it is the emergent quality of academic practice that is foregrounded. This is enhanced by the way participants have chosen not to interrogate the articles as such but use them as springboards to reflect back on their own practices. There are interesting processes of feeding back on existing practice and feeding forward, of contemplation of new practices.

This relates to the third element, that of the way some TJC practices carry aspects of hacker culture. TJC discussions spring up in a wide network of places and spaces. Although Laura produces a storify after each event this is then available for anyone, TJC participant or not, to hack, to produce derivatives. Derivatives appear in peoples’ blogs or resurface in discussions in other connectivist spaces. This hacker commitment to re-use emphasises the collaborative nature of any endeavour. It is a different way of conceiving of the free exchange of knowledge that maintains a ‘public good’ aspect. While academics can become obsessed with plagiarism (in our students but also in relation to colleagues), TJC picks up on the growing interest in open data or experiments in collaborative education (lincoln ). It is non-proprietorial.

For me, TJC has felt like a ‘wild’ space escaping many of the closed systems that characterises and structures academic practice. In discussion with Laura I likened it to a ‘potluck’ meal rather than a three-course dinner. Although we had an entrée, the meaning of the event was given by what each of us brought to the table. Perhaps, building on the open access and hacker analogies, we can think of experiments such as TJC as forms of academic ‘maker spaces’.

ETHIC OF CARE

Personal circumstances (link) have made me particularly attuned to the many micro-aggressions we experience in academia. It would be nice to apportion blame to the rise of various neo-liberal forms of management and performative culture. But, as Kathleen Lynch has so rightly noted, higher education is almost endemically ‘careless’. In her discussion of this Kathleen Lynch points to the way the academic self is fashioned on a primary distinction between mind and body, a distinction that has historically privileged the male. Of course, this cascades out along a chain of other binaries such as public/private, assertive/passive, hard/soft science. By fetishising the the cognitive this model of academic identity and practice and its cross-referencing to gender means that women, in particular, have been poorly served by higher education. Some have sought to re-imagine higher education in ways that place care as central to the academic project and specifically as a public service (refs). What this actually means in the micro-practices of individuals is still a little uncertain.

I would argue that there are aspects of my experience of TJC that rehearse an ethic of care. In some ways the actual articles that form the initial point of contact are almost irrelevant, other than acting to signal the boundary of an affinity group. Thinking back on the idea of the ‘potluck’ and dérive, it is the specific character of connecting (what attracts and repels us in the different threads), the capacity of the article to support a feeding back on practice and feeding forward to imagining new practices that is important.   It is the emergent character of the activity the practices we undertake while engaged in TJC perhaps makes it more amenable to caring practice. Some of us have built up a certain amount of care and affection for each other over time and regular interaction in this and other spaces. But it is important to note that affection is not a necessary requirement. This is another example of how TJC resembles certain hacker practices. We are linked by a mutual interest in this project. We may or may not go on to work on other projects. It is the project and our interest in it that will determine the longevity of our commitment. Of course, proprietary practices are possible in such spaces. The hacker ethic simply dictates that if that happens, and if people don’t like it, then people go off and form other projects. Unlike the institutionally bounded spaces there is no requirement to keep TJC going. Anybody who has been involved in conference organising committees or editorial boards know how keeping the structure going all too easily becomes the underlying rationale. When that happens then care also dissipates. When participation in a project becomes a positional good in an academic market I believe care is undermined.


I am conscious of certain weaknesses in this piece, in particular

  • lack of discussion of the inherent problem of the ‘echo chamber’ effect in activities such as TJC
  • advancement of aspects of hacker culture that are too positive

I will deal with these in further iterations.


THE EXPEDITED VERSION (written with Ommwriter)

OPENINGS
Twitter Journal Club arrived in front of me at a moment of opening. I was open to a reconfiguration of my practice, a revisioning, in almost every sense of that term. I was a year into my job, in a new institution, a new country, and a new field of practice. I had moved from a fairly well bounded filed of sociaology of education to the more porous field of academic practice (jackson). I had already shifted balance, perhaps even sought to be off-balance in making this move. I had moved from familiratiy to deep unfamiliratity. I had moved from a sense of authority or certainty to being a novice (who had to act authoriorial). So a year in I was emerging from that steep learning curve you encounter on entering new terrain. Continuing with that metphor I had navigated safely through this new topography abd, rather than seek refuge in the new known, I sought disruption, disorientation. I sought to pocket the map and replace it with a new way of travelling, a fomr of travel more akin to the situationist derive .

let me open up this moment of opening a little more.

I arrived in y current post mid-semester. although i arrived eager to make teaching adn learning the core of my interests (rather than the core of my activity though not th ecore of th eknowledge networks) i was faced with more immediate demands – to cope, to cope with an existing curriculum and syllabus, with a cohort of students who had gained familirarity with each other for a semester already and had formed relationships with their tutors. I was washed up ashore and needed to make it habitable, for me. I made my mark here or there, but it was a time characterised by a sense of cognitive dissonance. Everything looked familiar – how many configurations of higher educatin classes can you have. But everything was strange, slightly off kilter. There was new literature to get to grips with, concepts half understood had to be more fully grasped. While some of my habitual ways of thinking and doing traveled well, many had to be put aside, leaving feeling exposed. I started the new academic year feeling that I ‘knew’ the course, I knew its contours, I knew it peaks and valleys, I knew wher to ford the rivers, I knew which were the places that were less clearly defined and so should be aproached with some caution. I was even able to start re-drawing the map, becoming a cartogrpher of learning myself. I felt empowered in being able to apply principles of academic practice that had long been constrained, of enacting modes of constructivist being. I fashioned forms of formative fedback, content as heuristics, drew out blackboard?????

I could have stayed in that place. The ill-defined zones were now more granular in their….

While the digital loandcape was all around me and digital learning was in deed part of my remit, though one I was still to engage with, connectivism was not on eof the lines drawn on teh map, not a sumbol, not a northing or easting. But it ws there, in collegial conversations, hinted at when talkin gof ‘open educational resources’, of breaking out of the constraints of learning management systems. Even though I was already a fairly active blogger, both professionally and otherwise, and used twitter, the idea of thes being platforms for a reimagined educational landscape was only slowly coming into view for me. I was nudged by one colleague in particular. I was challenged by her talk, by her practice, by her desire for more open educational practices. I felt resistance, resistance to the unfamlirar, to the challenging to the not-quite-understood. While I was trying to put order on my anxiety, she was encouraging a somethig that felt reckless. So, even though I was stimulated by the anarchic philosophy of RAnciere, and talked of enacting fredom ‘and seeing what happens’, my actually practice was somewhat different. And so I took a step from what I came to understand as a striated space to soft space (bayne) and enaging with forms of open education and scholarship that could be viewed as types of ‘nomadic science’ (D&G).
My entanglement with this was multiple in that it spoke directly to my new role in academic development, but also to a broader critique of academia as dangerous space. Over years of working in the striated spaces of postgraduate programmes and professionaldoctorates I had come to see th eliitations not of the striated spaces but of the weak structures and failure to utilise the capabitilites of offered by the LMS. Coming into this job I was able to introduce into my courses those elements I had often found lacking in my previous work. Specifically this took the form of maximising the LMS so that it became more than an archive and more of a hub. But it is clear now that what I was mostly maximising was its MANAGMENT aspect. Its pedagogic function was less clear to me. However, I did intorduce many elements of the flipped classroom and ‘just-in-time’ teaching. Of course, I have come to see how this also works as an enframing device, of locking me and the participants into a closed system. My desire to provide clarity and clear signposting also had this mix of striation and softness, of clarity within enframement. Expectations, underlhying pedagogies were all opened up to participants as central to my daily practice with them. This seemed more than appropriate given that we were focused on the development of teaching and learning in higher education. I tried to model the practices that were expected of them in the courses. If they had to keep a refelctive journal then I did; if they had to talk openly about their signiture pedagogies, then I did. So, in this regard my slow turn towards open pedagogies and connectivism was a continuation of a ourney I was already on.

OPEN SCHOLARSHIP
I had also been involved in critiquing higher education as a particular kind of dangerous space. I had done this from an autoethnographic perspective in my ongoing ’broken academic’ project (link). This involved linking wellbeing and the micro-agressions of academic life to the broader political economy of higher education. But this also found form in another kind og journal club. And it is this particular expereince that resonates so much with TJC. The space was that of a combined MA in Academic Practice and a loose cluster of colleagues interested in the scholarship of higher education. Some structure was provided through the development of a ‘journal club’ activity whereby we focused on a particular journal article. Although I initially volunteered the readings it was how we engaged with this structure that brought it close to my growing commitment to form sof open scholarlship. We were engaged in this ‘reading’ in a context of a highly charged gender politics of academic prmotions. Our reading took up these themes, allowing us to examine a range of debates about how the university and academic practice could be both critiqued and re-imagined. The boundary between scholarship and our daily lives as academics became seriously blurred. For me this was reflected in a renewed interst in using my professional blogs a spaces to rehearse ideas, to practice writing, and to speak out loud about thoughts and writings that were ‘in progress’, unfinished. This covered both refelctions on what was going on in class (links) and those emerging from the critical space of the MA.

TJC appeared at teh confluence of thse streams of activity, of these openings. Importantly, here, it housed two sets of practices/ideas that have increasingly defined my practice:

TJC as an enactment of academic practice beyond the ‘managed CV’

TJC as invovling an ethic of care

BEYOND THE MANAGED CV
The modern university, certainly in the UK and Irish contexts, is being expereincedby many as adangerous space. I was will say more on this in realtion to the ethic of care. But one dominant characteristic is the growth of methods of managment that seek to align the personal CV of the academic to instituional objectives. We liveand work in an age of the ‘managed CV’ or the ‘accelerated acdemy’. These practices work to alter our own practices and relate to how we perceive ourselves as acadmics. TJC was interesting for me because of how it positively challenged both my inherited academic identity and the strictures of the ‘managed CV’.

The expereince has tested my technical capabilities in relation to managing the various tools required to enage in this particular digitially mediated interaction. I had to move quickly from being mostly a consumer to being a producer in the twitterscape. You become entangled in teh algorithms in a way that demands an intensity of thought, quite contrary to the ‘slow thought’ that I have sought to cultivate and value highly. The content of the articles also demanded an execleration of cognitive shift, to become familiar with a new terrain of connectivist discourse and digital pedagogies. I might have been operating from within an LMS but I was still an analogue academic. I would leave the TJC sessions simulataneously exhilerated and exhausted. They were physically exhausting.

I came to reflect on how this expereince differed from much of my day to day practice, and the feelings that this produced. The idea that a core feature of academic practice is the free exchange of knowledge, and that this is structured through academic journals and conferences sat uneasily beside exhileration of TJC. The unease did not come just from teh contrast of intensities. Firstly, It came from a recognition that in this particular epxeriement there was a degree of exahcnage and interaction that was largely absent from my wn expereince of traditional modes of academic exchange. Academic knowledge is locked behiond a series of paywalls – journal subscriptions and conference fees in particular. The MA reading group discussed often the way the outputs of our endeavours were increasingly being commodified and knowledge privatised. We discussed the attacks on the very idea of acadcmis as involved in eh production of public goods. Teh structures of academic progression demand that we colude with this privatisation of knowledge and locking it behind various pay walls. Indeed, many if not most academics see this as unproblematic. Secondly it the idea that what actually happens in academic journals and conferences is a free exchange of knowledge feels naive. Journals and conferences are substantially hierachical spaces. Indeed, academic promotionn is premised upon this hierarchy. We are counselled to publish in high impact journals, regardless of the quality or inovativeness of qhat we actually write. The assumption of course is that high impact journals equates with high quality scholarship. but the algorithms for measuring ‘impact’ do not assess quality of outputs and are mechanisms that increasingly tie the prctice of academic endeavour to the commercial interests of academic publishers. Again, this links back to the privatisation of knolwedge. Academic conferences…Thirdly, acadmic publishing through the closed sapces of pay-per-view journals disguises the process of writing and working with ideas; it disguises the collective and collaborative nature of the academic enterprise. Writing is messy. Thoughts are usually emergent, being worked out in the moment. Academic publishing demands polished, nojn-messy, products. They are nn-emergent. Even when articles have multiple authors there is a sense that the ideas contained with in the bounded space of the article ‘belong’ somehow to the authros. this ‘belonging’, this notion of ownership of ideas is of course what gives legitimacy to academic promotion. You have appropriated the collective endeavour of many scholars, of participants in research, and privatised it, made it yours, and so added it to your CV which you submit to the promotion panel.

TJC, despire its many limitations, for me, works against this culture of closure and privatisation. Accepting that no platform is is ever fully inclusive, the use of this particular platform to enage in academic discussion breaks free of the institutionally defined spaces for academic exchange. There is inevitably a pay wall involved. You ahve to have access to teh basic essential infrastructure – internet connection and a device for connectign to th eplatform and accessing the articles. But these are much more ubiquitous than the closed systems of universities, academic journals and academic conferences. The principle of using open access articles (whether pre or post published) is important in affording more people the capacity to particpate. Using a digital platform means that the restrictions oninternational collaboration are, in principle, ameliorated, so long as attention is given to different time zones.

Activities such as TJC bear many of the hallmarks of Wabisabi, the Japanese aesthetic that celebrates incompleteness, amongst other qualities. The nature of the platform itself necessitates messiness, incompletness, disjuncrure and non-continuous interation. In this sense it also resembles the situatinist derive an dso can be thought of as a way of moving through a particular academic terrain (defined intially by the article of choice) but without a definite end point in mind. Following teh idea of the derive or psychogeography this is not without purpose, just that the purpose is emegent in the activity itself, and is likely to com eout of specific interactions. It is marked by the way each of us would zone in on initial comments or questions posed by other participants, following up on those threads of discussion. The initial attraction might reflect a current interest or indeed might be recognised as something on ehad not thought of and so worth exploring. Each of us woul dthen construct a represetnation of the event defined not by external criteria but by the impulses of attraction (and opposite?). I would follow perhaps a number of threads but eventually concetrate on one or at most two. As has been seen in other events of this type, and i am thinking of various connectivist projects such as MOOCMOC and rhizome, the interactions take on lives of their own outside of thespecific frame wothe initial event. Indeed, this article is an example of just that. Again, this runs counter to the instrumental character of policy and institutional discourse on academic peoductivity and careers. In sapces such as this it is the connections and the workingout of ideas, it is the emergent quality of academic practice that is foregrounded. this is enahnced by the way particpants have chosen not to iterrogate the articles as such but use them as springboards to reflect back on their own practices. There are interesting processes of feeding back on existing practice and feeding forward, of contemplation sof new practices.

This relates to the thrid element, that of the way some TJC practices carry aspects of hacker culture. TJC discussions spring up in a wide network of places and spaces. Although Laura produces a storify after each event this is then availabe for anyone, TJC participant or not, to hack, to produce derivatives. Derivatives appear in people’s blogs or resurface in discussions in other connectivist spaces. this hacker commitment to re-use emphaises the collaborative nature of any endeavour. It is a different way of conceiving of the free exchange of knowledge that maintains a ‘public’ aspect. While acaddmics can become obsessed with plagiarism (in our students but also in relation to coleagues) , TJC ick sup on the growing interst in open data or experiments in collaborative education (lincoln ). It is non-propriatorial.

For me, TJC has felt ‘wild’, escaping many of the closed systems that charactersies and strucures academic practice. In discussion with Laura I likened it to a ‘potluck’ meal rather than a three course dinner. Although we had an entre, the meaning of the event was given by what each of us brought to the table. Perhaps, building on the open access and hacker analogies, we can think of experiments such as TJC as form sof academic ‘maker spaces’.

ETHIC OF CARE
Personal circumstances (link) have made me particularly attuned to the many micro-aggressions we expereince in academia. It would be nice to apportion blame to the rise of various neo-liberal fomrs of managment and performative culture. But, as Katheen Lynch has so rightly noted, higher education is almost endemically ‘careless’. In her discussion of this Kathleen Lynch points to the way the academic self is fashioned on a priary distinction between mind and body. of course, thiscascades out along a chain of toher binaries such as public/private, assertive/passive, hard/soft science. By festishing the teh cognitive this model of academic identity and practice and its cross-referencing to gender means that women, in particular, have been poorly served by higher education. Some have sought to re-imagine higher education in ways that place care as cenral to the academi cproject and specifically as a public service (refs). What this actually measn in the micro-practices of individuals is still a little uncertain.

I would argue that there are aspects of my expereince of TJC that rehearse an ethic of care. In some ways the actual articles that form the initial poit of contact are almost irrelevant, other than acting to signal the boundary of an affinity group. Thinking back on the idea of the ‘potluck’ and derive, it is the specifica caharecter of connecting (what attracts and repels us in the different threads), the capacity of the article to support a feeding back on practice and feeding forward to imagining new practices that is important. It is the emergent character of teh activity the practices we undertake whlle engaged in TJC perhaps makes it more amenable to caring practice. Some of us have built up a certain amount of care and affection for each other over time and regualr interation in this an dother spaces. But it is important to note that affection is not a neccesary requirement. This is another example of how TJC resembes certain hacker practices. We are linked by a mutual interest in this project. We may or may not go on to work on other projects. It is the project and our interest in it that will determine the longevity of our commitment. Of course, proprietary practices are possible in such spaces. The hacker ethic simply dictates that if that happens, and if people don’t like it, then people go off an dform other projects. Unlike th einstituionaly bounded spaces there is no requirement to keep TJC going. Anybody who has been invlved in conference rganising committees or editorial boards know how keeping the structure going all too easily becomes the underlyhing rationale. When that hapens then care also dissipates. When participation in a project becomes a positional good in an academic market I believe care is undermined.

It’s amazing what happens over coffee: or deterritoralising the curriculum (a #rhizo15 story 2)

Cracked_Toadstool_Stock_PNG_by_pixievamp_stock

I had meant to take a break from #rhizo15 but instead found myself taking a coffee break that brought me right back.

Over coffee, at the end of a year’s teaching (my first full academic year in the job), myself and a colleague got to reflecting on how the year had gone and how we might develop things next year.  In the back of my mind was the article by @sbayne that I think was put out there by@NomadWarMachine (not @davecormier) and the task he proposed for #rhizo15 this week.

So, I don’t know to what extent this musing is a detailing of my ‘subjective’:

How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

or a working out of ideas partly inspired by Sian’s article.


During the coffee chat it became clear that while happy with the main course I oversee (for me still new, to my colleague now possible tired), having made various changes to emphasise the challenges I wanted participants to engage with rather than just go through content (the content instead working as a vehicle for engaging with concepts and problems), I felt a desire to push explore the possibility of creating more open/connected/distributed forms of learning.

My recent engagement with digital scholarship and #connectedlearning has propelled me to consider other options, and to think about how I might hack my own course, hybridise it.

The stimulats, very much driven my the discussions in #tjc15 and #rhizo15, are:

  • think of resources rather than content: while remaining with the striated texture of the current course (a pre-defined syllabus and form of assessment) how might we reconfigure these so that they are more like initial sets of resources organised around difficult ideas that we face as university educators?  How do we communicate that intent and encourage a mode of engagement with them that is more akin to ‘hacking’ than consumption?
  • can aspects of the syllabus be participant driven? one idea that occurred to me as we talked was of playing with the current timetabling in order to facilitate more participant engagement and potential to generate participant relevant content.  Folks did find useful the clear signposting (and if you read my #rhizo15 story previously you know how attached I am to signposting) of key texts/resources that were organised around difficult or challenging ideas.  Rather than being tied to the fortnightly 3 hour workshop (at the end of busy days) why not have the participants work in cross-disciplinary groups (like action learning sets) to work on the key texts and find their own texts, all the time focusing on the critical questions for practice this reading produces (semester 1 is more theory focused while semester 2 is more practice focused); and have shorter workshops that model many of the ideas we promote.  I think this is about pushing my interest in practice theory further to see how it can reconfigure the current approach.  It is also about playing with the potential for learning to come out of the connections folks make within the course.
  • making emergent objectives explicit: while we will have learning objectives, the reality is that folks operate with their own emergent objectives.  They are motivated differently to participate in the course, this motivation often changing over time, and in relation to different aspects of the course.  I make the assumption that they are all strategic learners.  So why not make emergent objectives an explicit structure within the course?  This would be transient, and would help them see their own students differently, more positively.  Emergent objectives could become points for reflecting on what the course should be dealing with, what the difficult ideas and issues are, and therefore the content required.
  • disrupting my role as obligatory point of passage: and how can I dislodge myself as the obligatory point of passage, the ultimate point of authority? I have tried to break this down a little already by sharing with them my own critical reflections on the course (see here and here for examples).  But by constraining the power to archive materials in the institutional VLE a clear hierarchy is established.  I will not pretend that I am removing the hierarchy since I am after all a final arbiter, the one who, institutionally, is responsible for assessment – this Sian Bayne’s struggle to institute smooth spaces within striated institutions.  But this can be disrupted by distributing the curating role across as many participants as possible through the use of social bookmarking to share resources (as well as the VLE).  Also, could we introduce aspects of peer review?

What have I done here?  I think I have, in the doing of this post, identified an emergent objective – that is the way my participation in #rhizo15 can feed back into my thinking about my own practice as an educator; working with the play of smooth and striated space.

But also, it is subjective in that it speaks to how I want to constitute my self as practitioner – what kind of educator can I be?

the unsettling headiness of #rhizo15

Connectivism_and_Connective_Knowledge_(CCK08)_course_network

(image: A network diagram showing the distributive nature of Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ CCK08 course, one of the first MOOCs and the course that inspired the term MOOC to become adopted. Source: http://x28newblog.blog.uni-heidelberg.de/2008/09/06/cck08-first-impressions/)


The pre-rhizo15 cMOOC chatter builds up and a sense of unease wraps itself around me.

This is another step into the digital scholar space, the #connectedlearning space, the #connectivist space that I have ventured into over the past few (only a few?) months, and which is having a transformative effect on my practice and conceptualisation of my professional identity.

Already there are some good pointers as to how to approach this different mode of educational engagement.  Dave Cormier (is he the instigator/facilitator?) has blogged and produced a neat video on ‘managing’ engagement with #rhizo15 and cMOOCs more generally.

Yet there is still that unease, that nervousness, that “maybe I’ll leave this one till next year” feeling.

I know this anxiety well, and the aversion to unfamiliar situations well.  In my everyday teaching, which is overwhelmingly f-2-f these days I deal with this by building in lots of ‘signposting’ for course participants.  I justify this, reasonably, as providing some clarity of direction so that participants can get to grips with the difficult stuff they will encounter.  This is reasonable, but I know it is me transferring my own sense of panic in new situations.

I take a deep breath and steel myself for the adventure (it will be an adventure won’t it?).

So, what’s the source of my unease?

The lack of an explicit, GIVEN syllabus and objectives provokes both desire and aversion in almost equal measure.  Desire because it is liberating (more on this in a moment).  Aversion because my inner voice is screaming: “BUT WHERE’S THE MAP? WON’T YOU GET LOST? WON’T YOU MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF BY NOT GETTING THE RULES OF THE GAME?”.  And of course, that’ s cMOOCs for you, that’s ‘connectivism’.

And yet…and yet am I not also irritated by the (over)abundance of course ‘content’ that yearly I seek to reduce believing, knowing that a richer strain of educational engagement can often emerge when we (learner/teacher participants) are challenged with the invitation/threat of open space?  There has been an intuitive understanding of connectivism that has driven me to open my teaching to more uncertainty (or at least less definitiveness), an approach that has sometimes led to conflict.  It is an approach that underpinned my more creative days as a community educator/artist where I used drama techniques with adults with intellectual disabilities in creating rich and powerful narratives about their lives where all the content and action came from them, and not a learning objective in site.

I have stated that my approach to this uncertain terrain is that of the dérive, a concept that has has guided me over the past year or so professionally and intellectually.

derive

I will meander through this new landscape, slowly picking out the features that resonate with (or frighten) me, and begin to see the social structure of this ‘openness’ – that is see the rules-walls-and-public-spaces.  I will explore the contours of this connectivist mode, and try to grasp (which is impossible) the rhizomatic metaphor, of enjoying its inbetweeness:

‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ (Deleuze & Guattari ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’)

 

Some useful ideas emerging on #rhizo15

http://tachesdesens.blogspot.ie/2015/04/no-pushing-please.html

http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/04/10/a-practical-guide-to-rhizo15/

#rhizo15

Somewhere between the audit culture and authentic planning: explorations of learning outcomes

This is another entry from the learning journal I am keeping alongside my ‘teaching’ of a module on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.  It parallels the kind of ‘reflective learning‘ activity the lecturer/participants are asked to engage in.  I am using it to develop my own appreciation of this new field of practice for me (academic development) and to utilise the course to help me critically reflect on curriculum design – a kind of reflection-in and on-practice.  This entry examines the module focus on learning outcomes as a contribution to the lecturer/participants undertaking a module redesign exercise.


Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can often appear as managerial or administrative hurdles with little obvious relation to the ‘real’ job of teaching. Also, research suggests that within any one institution (or sub-unit within an institution) there can be varied approaches to an outcomes-based approach to learning and teaching. Although I am sensitive to the advantages of an outcomes approach to teaching and learning, I had not examined the learning outcomes of the courses I was co-ordinating, until now. It seems to me that an outcomes approach poses at least two key challenges for educators:

  • Are we teaching our discipline or our students?
  • Are we teaching for success or exclusion?

The first challenge refers to the tension that arises from the apprenticeship academics receive (usually the PhD) as part of their entry into academia. This is based on the discipline and subject knowledge, and specifically on research training in the discipline – not on teaching. So, we become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘engineer’ rather than engender an approach to ‘sociological education’ or ‘engineering education’. It is no surprise then that we fall back on the ‘signature pedagogies’ we might have encountered that were teacher and content centred. We see ourselves as teaching the subject rather than educating students.

The second challenge is posed by John Biggs and his idea of ‘constructive alignment’. In his article ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’ he challenges higher education educators to face the exclusionary effect of habitual ways of teaching. Specifically he argues that much teaching assumes a student who has already mastered the threshold concepts and ways of practicing the discipline. Consequently, students who might still be operating in the liminal space of uncertainty can be ‘left behind’ or fail. Failure is then couched in terms of the student rather than teaching strategies. Biggs has proposed a particular planning technology to deal with some of these issues and to maximize the opportunity to design-in success and inclusion – constructive alignment. He asserts that by focusing on what we want students to come away with from the educative experience, rather than the subject matter we want to teach, we place learning at the centre of our activity. Furthermore, we need to plan for alignment between these outcomes and both the teaching activities and assessment methods.

Below I outline how I see the learning outcomes align with the teaching activities and assessment methods for CEL260:

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 17.43.36

For the most part there seems to be a reasonable alignment between the teaching activities and the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes and teaching activities suggest a process of learning that would cover a number of sessions and avoid too much precision. This both allows for more nuanced focus in each session, allowing for a degree of improvisation and possible collaboration over the exact content to be engaged with (participants may drive a focus on specific issues not planned for by me as the co-ordinator).

Being broad in this way the learning outcomes cannot clearly indicate the depth or breadth of learning aimed for. For instance, the first learning outcome does not specify exactly what is meant by ‘identify’. What depth of identification is required? What range of ‘key theories’ constitutes an adequate understanding? In particular, to what extent would participants be required to understand the range of debates around teaching and learning, such as those related to learning outcomes? This specificity is largely provided by the selection of resources and the particular methods of participation utilised. Even if I were to propose a more inquiry-based or collaborative approach to developing course content, it is likely that this would be restricted. The difference would lie in the value placed on different approaches rather than on the range of content dealt with.

There are likely, then, to be emergent learning outcomes that reflect the ‘corridor of tolerance’ available. That is learning outcomes will emerge as a consequence of mine and the participants’ interests at the time, as well as the energy levels that each might have at their disposal (Hussey & Smith 2008). However, the degree of ‘diversion’ from the syllabus will be limited since each session in the module is related to all others and provides a basis for the module in semester 2.

However, the degree of deviance may be fairly broad and open up some potential for more negotiation about the actual content of each session. The whole course was configured around some key concepts – paradigm shift from teacher to student centred learning; signature pedagogies; threshold concepts/deconstructing the discipline; deep/strategic/surface learning. In that sense the actual content or subject matter is less important. It is these central concepts that provide the basis for an integrative approach to the curriculum rather than content. Consequently, I disagree with Hussey and Smith’s suggestion that for a module learning outcomes do little more than provide a list of content. This disagreement might have something to do with the nature of the course. As an academic development programme the PgCert is not tied to subject matter in the same way that a more established discipline might be. The ‘signature’ of academic development work is given more by its pedagogy than by its content matter.

For the moment, then, I am happy enough with the learning outcomes as stated. This ‘happiness’ is based in part on the understanding that there will always be emergent learning outcomes that reflect something of the particular tone of the interactions that take place. These cannot be pre-planned. But, it does raise a question for me about the degree to which the content could be negotiated.

The diagram above does raise another issue for me though. This relates to the method of assessment.

As it is currently represented the use of the reflective learning journal might appear a rather blunt instrument for assessing the specified learning outcomes. This will be looked at again when I discuss ‘assessment’. For the moment I want to generate some questions:

  • How suitable are the learning outcomes when the method of assessment stresses higher order cognitive functions?
  • What might the relationship between learning outcomes and assessment look like when you take into account both the in-class assessment and the formative feedback provided over the duration of the module?
  • What balance between ‘academic rigour’ (perhaps suggested by the first learning outcome) and professional practice development should there be on such a course, and how could this be captured in the assessment method.

There is much more detail to the assessment method than articulated in the label ‘Reflective Learning Journal’. It certainly begs the question as to what kind of reflection is demanded and how this might relate to ideas of critical thinking.

John Biggs (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 39-55

Kerry Dobbins, Sara Brooks, Jon J.A. Scott, Mark Rawlinson & Robert I. Norman (2014): Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective, Studies in Higher Education

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2003) The Uses of Learning Outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education, 8:3, 357-368

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2008) Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis, Teaching in Higher Education, 13:1, 107-115

M.W. Jackson & M.T. Prosser (1989) Less lecturing, more learning, Studies in Higher Education, 14:1, 55-68

Reflections on an emergent identity as an Academic Developer

celbracion de internet

 

I am a neophyte OPEN EDUCATOR, a newbie on the digital scholarship block.

My move into ACADEMIC DEVELOPMENT has come hand in hand with the challenges of networked learning, learning technologies, etc.

The  notion of openness has slowly transformed from a political stance to an emerging pedagogic practice.  As part of that I am involved in various ‘projects’ where I am experimenting with different aspects of open scholarship.  One project is my BROKEN ACADEMIC blog where I am sharing my thinking and writing on academic wellbeing.  Another involves my reflections on the process of BECOMING an academic developer through engaging in some of the learning activities of participants on one of the courses I co-ordinate.  Below is another extract from an inconsistent learning journal I am keeping alongside the lecturer/participants.  I have edited some of the detail because I have taken the decision to not mention my institution explicitly unless the meaning of the post demands it.  This space is a reflection on my practice rather than on my place of work.


 

What is Curriculum?

For the purpose of this Course Review Folder I will be reflecting upon one of the modules I am responsible for on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education….[I am referring to a module that runs in the preceding semester].

 

I started [here] in January 2014. This meant that my teaching began with the two other modules on this course…In that sense I ‘inherited’ the legacy of [the module] without actually experiencing it. That semester was very much one of getting through and felt like I was ‘delivering’ a course that I only had a shallow understanding of , though I did manage to introduce elements…that reflected my own interests and knowledge.

Using Fraser and Bosanquet’s framework (2006), this first semester of working on the [the module] (and the PgDip and MA) felt very much one of ‘The structure and content of a unit’ of teaching. I was dealing with getting the material ready for each week’s teaching, becoming familiar with a different way of using the [VLE] learning environment, and trying to approach my feedback on the fortnightly ‘learning journal’ entries as meaningfully as possible. The ‘curriculum’ was very much conceived, at that point, as ‘syllabus’. My overriding concern was with content and meeting the necessary requirements of the job. Much of the content was inherited. But more importantly, the job required a shift in knowledge and practice. While there was much about the ‘signature pedagogy’ of the role of academic developer that was familiar to me … the knowledge base and many practices and ‘ways of knowing’ were different enough to invoke anxiety. I was experiencing the troubling nature of the enterprise, teetering on the threshold of a new world. Reading up (to gain appreciation of the knowledge – of constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, assessment, learning outcomes, etc.) was not an issue. Becoming functionally familiar with the structure of the course was a challenge at times (a challenge of time management), but doable. What was really challenging was getting to grips with the underlying episteme of the course (Perkins 2006), of its ‘deep structure’ (Schulman 2005). What was the fundamental rationale of the course and therefore how did this translate into the expectations I communicated to the course participants?

The immediacy of the flow of experience meant that I was hardly able to even consider the curriculum in terms of the ‘structure and content of a programme of study’. That aspect really only impressed itself upon me when I had to prepare for our internal exam board in the summer. Only then did I really begin to see each unit of teaching within an overarching programme, of how each unit related to others, how participants might travel from one point to another, and how the immediate demands of the job sat within and related to university level structures and processes (registration, syllabus, exams, conferment).

Thinking of the generative ideas presented by Burnett and Coate (2005), my ‘experience’ of the course was dominated by the domain of knowledge. I was focused on what ‘I’ needed to know as well as what knowledge I perceived participants needing to be exposed to. The nascent sense of the beingness of participation in a course such as this was not really on my horizon at that point. As the weeks passed and I became more familiar with it, the practices required for full participation in the course increased in visibility.

I approached the new academic year with a desire to frame the whole programme with a coherent curricula idea. Some of this was already there. The programme I inherited had behind it a dual function to simultaneously address the technical concerns of higher education teachers and to support a paradigm shift institutionally (though admittedly this actually involved multiple paradigms). The syllabus reflected this. All modules … spoke directly to those technical concerns we all face teaching in higher education – large classes, small group work, assessment, planning, learning technologies, engagement, diversity, supervision. Much of the ‘content’ addressed these issues in terms of ‘how to’, ideas for practice, etc. But there were also other ideas on offer. Empirical, theoretical and philosophical resources were also available for participants to consider. These perhaps offered alternative perspectives on the mundane concerns we bring with us. But they also animate those concerns and reveal to us that they are not so mundane after all. Our apparently mundane issues (which we may deem technical) are always rich with nuance, possibility, and meaning. Then there was the key signature pedagogy of academic development, that of reflective learning. This was an inheritance I could subscribe to. It was pragmatic (something that attracted me to the job in the first place). It built on my desire to integrate scholarly engagement with professional development that placed practice at its heart. It was also scholarly, which, in a university, should be central to any educative activity. And it was strategic, it sought to encourage a shift in orientation that a) took teaching seriously, b) conceived teaching and learning as knowledgeable activities, and c) saw itself as engaged in institutional learning.

So, if the nature of the educative environment I was faced with between January-August 2014 resembled something like this:

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what did I want it to look like, and what was the curricula intent or animating idea that would frame consideration of content, sequencing and practice?

In fact there were three animating ideas.

  • It’s not about blaming the teacher: I was conscious of Catherine Manathunga’s identification of the association between academic development work and institutional quality assurance concerns (Manathunga 2014). Specifically, I was concerned that our courses would be viewed as viewing university teachers as the ‘problem’.
  • Professional education: I was keen to conceive of what we do as a form of professional education as a way of bridging the ‘training’ and ‘educative’ aspects of the course. My hope was that the metaphors through which I viewed what we were aiming to do escaped the language of ‘acquiring’ knowledge or skills that were then ‘applied’ or ‘transferred’ to the practice context (See Boud & Hager 2012). I didn’t want to present an idea of the knowledge about teaching and learning practices as something exterior to the context of practice nor of practice as absent of theory (implicit or otherwise). Along with many others I wanted to locate our approach in relation to a practice approach to professional learning (for instance see Fenwick & Nerland 2014) that “…provides a holistic way of thinking that integrates what people do, where they do it, with whom and for what purpose.” (Boud & Hager 2012: 22). Practice (what university teachers do, where, with whom and for what purposes) becomes the ‘site’ of attention for professional education (Nicoline 2011). The site of practice (and therefore learning) is always situated socially. It happens in particular places, at particular times. It is conditioned, changeable, moving. Therefore, educative endeavors have to somehow account for this. So we need to move from thinking of knowledge as something static that is acquired to knowing that is accomplished. Also, knowing is conceived as distributed through all the myriad small acts of professional practice, as knowing-in-practice. This indexes back to earlier organizational learning work by Argyris on ‘theory in practice’ (Argyris & Schon 1974).
  • And scholarship: While aware of some of the limits of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Boshier 2009), I was heartened by Carolin Kreber’s (2006) conceptualization of the potential of SoTL that lies in the ethics or values it conveys rather than notions of ‘best practice’. SoTL and a constructivist approach to matters of learning (and therefore teaching) are central features of academic development’s signature pedagogy, of its deep structure. But its implicit structure can be vague, or can over-emphasise a highly normative sense of what should be done. I did want to signal the broad body of knowledge that existed that could stimulate thought and reflection, offering new thresholds through which participants could travel. But rather than perceive this as linear, I have increasingly come to see it as framed more openly, where the relationship between knowledge, teaching and learning is highly dynamic, and is oriented not towards best practice but to cultivating a way of individuals orienting themselves to the world. This seems quite abstract at the moment and needs further development.

So, my aspiration was that the curriculum, following the curricula intent outlined above, would resemble something more like this:

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References

Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1974) A Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005) Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead.

Roger Boshier (2009) Why is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning such a hard sell? Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2009, 1–15.

David Boud & Paul Hager (2012) Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices, Studies in Continuing Education, 34:1, 17-30.

Sue Clegg (2012) Conceptualising higher education research and/or academic development as ‘fields’: a critical analysis, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:5,

Fenwick T & Nerland M, (eds.) (2014) Reconceptualising professional learning: Sociomaterial knowledges, practices and responsibilities. London: Routledge.

Fraser, S, and Bosanquet, A (2006) The Curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it? Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 31, (3), pp. 269-284

Carolin Kreber (2006) Developing the Scholarship of Teaching Through Transformative Learning, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6(1):88 – 109.

Catherine Manathunga (2014) The deviant university student: historical discourses about student failure and ‘wastage’ in the antipodes, International Journal for Academic Development, 19:2, 76-86.

Davide Nicolini, (2011) Practice as the Site of Knowing: Insights from the Field of Telemedicine. Organization Science 22(3):602-620.

Perkins, D. N. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge

Shulman, L. S. (2005). “Signature pedagogies in the professions.” Daedalus 134.3: 52-59.