HOW RESEARCH PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT KILLS EPISTEMIC DIVERSITY

bilbia-oso

Primera página de la Biblia del oso, traducción al castellano de Casiodoro de Reyna, basilea, 1569.

Silenced societies are, of course, societies in which talking and writing take place but which are not heard in the planetary production of knowledge managed from the local histories and local languages of the ‘silencing’ [the dominant powers] Walter Mignolo referring to Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages

 

Recently I gave a presentation on “Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship”.  An earlier iteration of this was presented at a conference in Dublin and posted here.  Below I present the text of this presentation.  It deals with the way contemporary research performance management practices result in what I and my colleagues call ‘epistemic closure’.  That is we are concerned that these management practices, related as they are to the growing dominance of English as the primary means of scientific communication, and to the determining influence of global higher education rankings and the power of the major academic publishing companies, are closing down what can be considered legitimate knowledge.


My presentation is based on early stage conceptualization for a cross European research project looking at the impact of research performance management on academic practice and identity.

In this sense it approaches the broad theme of mobility in terms of the mobility of academics, and the mobility of knowledge. That is, instead of academics looking at ‘others’ mobilities and migrations, it looks at the observers; it turns the critical gaze upon systems of higher education and academic practice in the context of dominant narratives of internationalisation of higher education.

Specifically, it began life at a conference in Poland where my colleagues Marcin Starnawski and Marcin Gołębniak presented a paper discussing the increasing pressure on Polish academics to publish in ‘international’ academic journals, where international translates as English language. They raised questions about a) the transactional costs of this national and institutional pressure (e.g. the capacity to become proficient in high status academic English – who does this, and who does not, and what are the consequences of this), and b) what impact this might have on internal academic discourse, and the issue of the possible un-translatability of key terms of debate.

This has led to cooperation around developing a research project that has now involved:

  • Exploratory empirical research in Ireland, Poland and Portugal
  • Seminars and conference presentations in Ireland and Poland
  • Work on a number of journal articles
  • Development of a COST Action proposal

Although this presentation draws largely on the Irish material, it resonates closely with that found in both Poland and Portugal.

Because of where I am giving this presentation (Galway, Ireland), it takes academics working largely through the medium of Irish in the humanities as a critical case of the phenomenon of research performance management. While it is not an exploration of the position of Irish in wider Irish society, it does touch on the contested nature of Irish as a public rather than private good.

Fundamentally we are arguing that research performance management as we often experience it is to do with more than workload, but also with knowledge work itself.

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So, where to start?

Reading these two documents recently I was struck by what now appears as their naivity.

The first report, “Advancing Humanities and Social Sciences Research in Ireland”, published in 2007, sought to make the case for the humanities and social sciences in the context of dominant discourses of the knowledge economy. There was a kind of strategic accommodation here, of accepting the terms of political debate – that is the very idea of the knowledge based economy, and argue the positive case for the humanities and social sciences within the logic of this discourse.

6 years later, the Higher Education Authority produced a report that seems to have come from a more innocent time, particularly when looked at from post-2008. It argued that there was no need for Irish higher education to emulate the UK and tie performance management to crude indicators of research output. Indeed, it argued that it was and should be possible for the arts and humanities to be judged on the basis of the wide array of outputs and not merely those amenable to simple statistical capture or the algorithms of the major publishing companies.

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Yet, what we see is our own institutions, in the absence of clear guidance otherwise, reproducing all the known negative effects of the Research Excellence Framework.

It is as if our institutional leaders are ignorant of, or simply ignore the findings from reviews such as this.

We can view this as a local manifestation of an increasingly globalised model of higher education – of a global political economy of higher education.

Looking across Europe, as with much of the world, we see certain regular systemic features of this political economy:

  • Government support for increased participation in higher education as part of an economic strategy to maximize the stock of human capital in aid of securing economic competitive advantage in a global economy
  • Reduction in direct funding from governments whilst promoting a process of mass higher education in conjunction with competitive funding streams and diversified income streams (e.g student fees)
  • Government steering of research priorities to meet economic needs, specifically prioritising certain STEM areas that are perceived to be close to the market, and using ideas of market readiness to evaluate all research.

 

slide1We are all fairly familiar with key features of the global higher education landscape as it relates to research selectivity.  We can conceive of research selectivity as a site for struggles over external and internal visibility, particularly for semi-peripheral higher education systems and for more peripheral disciplines.

EXTERNAL VISIBILITY

  • A defining characteristic of the political economy of higher education is that of STATUS COMPETITION – how well are we all doing in the global league tables
  • In other words institutional managers are concerned with visibility within the status economy of higher education. Politicians are concerned about this and gear funding priorities around securing greater visibility in the status economy as well as aligning research to economic requirements.

INTERNAL VISIBILITY

This largely takes the form of research performance management:

  • Management practices that increasingly seek to align individual CVs and research concerns with institutional objectives, objectives aimed at increasing the institution’s external visibility – this introduces a degree of moral coercion: if I don’t improve my visibility will this impact negatively on my institution and therefore on my colleagues
  • Alignment is enacted through various performance management practices: PMDS – annual reviews – institutional research audits – etc.

 

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I want to present some of our initial reflections through Niamh’s Story. Niamh is a condensation of academics who work predominantly through the medium of Irish and who participated in our pilot study. However, while here I focus on Irish language scholarship, they mirror almost exactly the views expressed by the scholars from academics we have spoken to in Poland and Portugal, in a range of disciplines. It also resonates with evidence found in scholarship in critical translation studies, critical linguistics, and global English.   What I share with you here is obviously tentative, and emergent.

Initial inductive analysis of the pilot project interviews indicates a number of themes/motifs that animate academics’ experiences and concerns:

  • Although the time periods associated with the production process of academic publishing may be stretched out, with delays between submission and final publication, this sits within a context of time-pressure
  • Institutions and individual scholars are increasingly conscious of the desire to improve their relative position in annual university rankings
  • This can be exacerbated by national and institutional systems of research performance management. Improvement in research performance are evaluated over short time frames, generating demands to produce measurable outputs quickly
  • Because the bibliometrics privilege English language publications, and privilege journal articles, this can lead to increase in outputs in English as the PRIMARY language of academic output
  • This may also transform disciplinary ways of producing and disseminating knowledge.
  • Within the intensified environment of academia, scholars largely experience this systemic phenomenon as private troubles rather than public issues.

This is not about language itself, but about how a scholar relates to epistemic communities, including linguistic communities. It is about the link between the generation of knowledge and the people you commune with in order to do that, to push the boundaries of knowledge. In this way of thinking and being decisions about form of output, vehicle for communication, and language of communication are determined by this relationship to epistemic communities. This is posed as potentially different to the institutionally determined way of being, which is driven by publishing companies bibliometrics, and university rankings.

She sought personal, individual strategies to negotiate her way through the tensions of an institutionally managed CV on the one hand and being true to herself on the other. There were no collective or solidaristic spaces where these concerns could be mobilised as public issues. She spoke about how the various systems of performance management and audit undermined the capacity of academics to work collectively, and so either rely on individual strategies, or appear supine,

 

…the system keeps everybody in a constant state of anxiety,

trying to meet sometimes reasonable, but often

undreasonable targets across so many different

arenas of academic activity…

 As my colleague Marcin Starnawski put it, we are so busy complying with the Regime of Compliance that we don’t pause for critical reflection and so create the conditions for discussing this as a public issue rather than a personal problem.

There was a very real sense that research performance management, and feeling herself under the gaze of performance metrics Niamh managed her efforts so that she was increasing her English language publications. To make herself more visible to the institution meant making herself less visible to the epistemic communities that gave meaning to her work. This is a zero-sum game. To write more in English means to write less in another language; to create “balance” is subtractive. 

If I was to look at the ratio over the last ten years

in my own academic writing life,

the balance between writing in Irish and writing in English,

writing in English for international academic publishers,

and writing and producing material for local publishers,

it’s definitiely the direction of English,

definitely the pull is towards international publishers rather than Irish publishes;

and the presumption there is that it is superior.

This alludes to linguistic hierarchies of knowledge, even of which languages can convey knowledge, be knowledgeable. In a sense, under the dominance of English, all other languages become minor languages

Fundamentally, Niamh felt that research performance management undermined her relationship with epistemic communities, and therefore with both the nature of knowledge and knowledge production. The pressure to publish in certain kinds of English language journals broke the connection between her, meaningful exchange of knowledge, knowledge production, and authentic scholarship.

 slide1

Clearly, what we are presenting here relates to wider concerns about:

  • The intensification of academic labour
  • About forms of management practice that devalue and undermine ideas of academic freedom
  • And the privatisation of knowledge that are very closely associated with the dominance of major academic publishers in determining what ‘counts’ as valued knowledge. Lets remember that the various ranking systems and metrics are controlled by profit seeking private companies.

 In the guise of technical issues of how best to measure research performance I believe we are actually seeing a transformation in what counts as knowledge and knowledge production. However, this is not being done as a result of public debate, not articulated in the public sphere. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but I believe it does, as it concerns what the role of academic scholarship is in relation to human flourishing, and concerns the values by which we think life should or could be lived. 

But I want to touch on something in my conclusion that relates specifically to academics working with what are often called minority languages, but also makes sense in relation to large language communities that are made peripheral by a zero sum approach to research performance management as it articulates with the dominance of English.

EPISTEMIC VIOLENCE/EPISTEMICIDE

I want to briefly discuss this in relation to concepts used by the Portuguese academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos, specifically the idea that current systems of research performance management act as forms of epistemic dominance and violence, even that the imperialism of certain ideas of what counts as knowledge constitute epistemicide, the death of what Niamh referred to as an ecology of research and Santos calls an ecology of knowledge.

 

  • Research selectivity, as I have discussed it here, can be seen to be re-ordering Europe (and I will keep my remarks to Europe) in relation to hierarchies of knowledge
  • Clearly certain domains of knowledge, those deemed applied or close to the market, are privileged over more speculative knowledge practices. This is very much why the humanities is under such pressure, but also areas of epistemic practice.
  • The linguistic dimension of this new terrain is illuminating
  • We can see from Niamh’s account that her practice is indeed one of an ecology of research or an ecology of knowledge. She regularly speaks from between Irish and English, both seen as capable of articulating knowledge
  • However, the intense pressure she and her colleagues experience to render their research amenable to only certain audiences and certain forms of publication (where the mode of publication appears to be more important than the rigour of scholarship) works to make invisible Irish as a legitimate language of knowledge, in deed as not being a knowledgeable language in its own right. To different degrees the same can be said of Polish, or Finnish, or Latvian, or Hungarian, or Russian, or possibly French and German.
  • So, the Irish language, literature, artefacts can be objects of scientific inquiry, but Irish cannot be a legitimate medium for thinking.
  • The increasing requirement to produce or reproduce work in English, carries with it the inequality of languages, the suggestion that English has a unique capacity to articulate all meaning adequately. English is presumed to have the robustness to convey meaning originally conceived in a different linguistic and cultural frame.
  • This attitude leads, I believe, to epistemic closure.

This is not an argument against English as a shared language of scientific exchange, but it is an argument against a diminished ecology of research, and a call to think higher education otherwise, and not to collude in epistemicide.

The Ethics of Academic Practice: Combatting Exploitation and Working for Social Justice

Is modern academia an economy of theft?

I am continuing with my contemplations on the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and how they can inform an ethics of academic practice.

In this second post I take the training on ‘True Happiness’:

True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

 

What is meant by this ambitious declaration and how might it be imprinted on my academic practice?

I want to begin at the end, as it were, and the direct referencing of a commitment to reversing global warming.  This is a kind of aside but bear with me.

In referencing global warming specifically I feel that Thay is indicating that while the ‘trainings’ are universal, in the sense that their core orientations can be applied in any context, they should be adapted to the specific contexts within which we live.  This understanding of the universal yet contextual nature of the ‘trainings’ is important.  The ‘trainings’ are to be worked with rather than simply applied.  They are designed to sensitise us to certain ways of being rather than rules to be imposed.

The only authority behind the ‘trainings’ is our own commitment to ethical practice.

…and now down to business.

There are a number of topics that arise during discussion with colleagues on the academic development programmes I run that deal with issues of integrity and honesty.  They can arise in two specific contexts, those of academic integrity/plagiarism, and the ethics of authorship.  But I want to add another, that of the increasingly institutionally ‘managed’ nature of our academic CVs.

Plagiarism, authorship, and integrity

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others

When writing, as academics or students, we are entering into discussion with communities of thinkers and writers – past, present and future.  Central to the idea of scholarly activity is the dispassionate exchange of ideas in the common pursuit of knowledge – that is, the ideal of the Republic of Letters (see the Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 project for an interesting piece of research on this).  I know this is an idealised notion of academic and scholarly activity.  I also know that it can hide the imperial and gendered natured of the enterprise.  But there is something in the idea that offers different ways of being an academic in the contemporary moment.

What I take from the idea is the notion that we are never the ‘owners’ of knowledge, of ideas, of text, but only ever the custodians.

Viewing knowledge-work in this way places a slightly different emphasis on issues of academic honesty and integrity.  Often, we come to these issues in relation to students who ‘cheat’.  Actual scholarly work on this demonstrates that it is seldom as easy or straightforward as our anecdotes would suggest.  This is usually how it is initially surfaced in discussions with colleagues in academic development programmes.  Then the discussion shifts towards considering the issue in terms of enculturation of students into the disciplinary forms of academic writing and of how we, as academics, deal with referencing.

But I think there is some value in also contemplating how we are custodians rather than owners of knowledge.  The idea of the custodian of knowledge can encourage practices of care and consideration which are, in my view, healthier and more productive kinds of sensibility than mere attention to the rules of referencing, or how to punish students who cheat.  The attention to proper referencing should not be an issue of rules but rather of the ‘public’ nature of our knowledge-work.  We not only share our knowledge-work, but make ourselves accountable through such mechanisms as referencing.  In modern parlance there is an ‘open source’ element to academic practice – we are revealing the code.

A possible negative side to the custodian metaphor is that we can become reverential towards knowledge, of attending to the gatekeeping function of protecting cannons of knowledge.  Such approaches are inevitably conservative and restrictive.  But if we think of the custodian role as one of care, and respect, this still leaves knowledge-work as open and as something we then leave to others to continue working with.

I feel that there is some mileage in this metaphor, but I need to explore it further.

…and institutional ‘management’ of academic CVs

But, perhaps the issue most pertinent to this ‘training’ is the increase in the way the institutions we work for seek to manage our scholarly activity in the pursuit of market advantage.

What do I mean by this?

The emergence of the what scholars such as Simon Marginson call the ‘global university’ and heightened global competition in higher education has brought in forms of management that views our individual scholarly ambitions as little more than institutional assets.  What I mean by this is the idea that my scholarly research and writing are viewed as contributing to or undermining my employing organisation’s stock of status capital.  The ethical, social, or cultural content of my scholastic activity is therefore of no real importance other than in its capacity to contribute to the university’s competitive ambitions as measured by various ranking systems.

This fundamentally undermines the idea of the Republic of Letters and of the scholar as a custodian.

It introduces a subtle, I think, change in the nature of social relations in academic practice.  This change is in the direction of making academic practice one of ‘value relations’ in the classic Marxist sense.  For more on this perspective I think it is worth looking at the work of Joss Winn.  In this change of relations the university acts much more like the traditional capitalist enterprise directly and indirectly appropriating my academic labour.  The drive is not to have control over my labour (and here I am referring specifically to academic writing and the direction of academic research) in order to produce better or ‘higher quality’ research, but as a private good (private for the university) in its efforts to improve its market position.

As well as leading to a ‘carelessness’ in the way academics and students are treated in universities, it changes the social relationship to knowledge.  Rather than being custodians of knowledge, as individual academics, we are increasingly encouraged to view writing and research and teaching as private property that can improve our individual status within academic markets.  It also means that our employers, universities, seek to appropriate (steal) the fruits of our labour.  Knowledge is there to be plundered.

Stealing from the poor….

It is one thing for employing organisations to be seen in the role of capitalist ‘robber barons’ of academic labour.  But when we see our role as custodians of knowledge then this also implies a certain social relationship to those who participate in our research and so form the basis for our writing.  Surely we have a duty of responsibility here as well?

Much of my research has been concerned with the impact of policy on different groups, often with an explicit social justice dimension.  When this work involves interviews I am inviting folks to talk with me about their experiences, concerns, interpretations, etc.  Some of these people will be those in positions of power, others not.  I believe that there is a duty placed upon me then to treat their participation with care, responsibly.  We are used to the various ethical protocols we are asked to sign up to.  But there is something that is not mentioned in these protocols – the duty of not appropriating their generosity and commitment of time, or their openness, simply to build a career.

Indeed there can be two levels of appropriation going on simultaneously.  As the academic I may appropriate their involvement in my research as part of a strategic manoeuvre designed to improve my career prospects.  And, my employing organisation may appropriate this as part of its strategy to improve its advantage in relation to other institutions.

Both are forms of theft.

The ethical cost of eroding the custodian role

What can we do in such circumstances?

It seems to me that we (academics), collectively, are allowing and enabling  this theft to continue.  Apart from complaining privately we seldom refuse, let alone resist this economy of theft.

The question remains, then, what can we do?

Should Academics be Licensed?

 

This question was raised in the context of a session on ‘Evaluation of Teaching’ on a postgraduate course on teaching and learning in higher education.  The ‘students’ are all academics who have chosen to do this course.  And this aspect is important because in a way they are a self-selecting sample of those who are interested in developing their practice as university teachers.  So, it is of note that this question should arise in this context.

Another aspect of the context was the immediate focus of the afternoon – evaluation of teaching.

In a way this focus of attention could have produced a good deal of defensiveness, of complaints about unfair student commentary.  Sure, there was some discussion of the difficulty of interpreting student feedback on teaching, of contradictory statements.

But what would provoke the above question?

Well, it arose in a broader discussion about the ethics and politics of institutional systems for collecting student feedback on teaching.

The question was asked whether it was ethical to collect such feedback if it was not going to be used improve teaching and learning at an organisational level.  In other words – why bother, why should students or educators bother if academic managers do not use this information wisely?

Why, it was asked, were incompetent teachers allowed to continue?

It is important to remember that this question came from university teachers about university teachers.  It did not come from a tabloid journalist or populist politician.

This led to a further question: in what sense are academics a ‘profession’ like others?

If we are not required to undertake regular professional development then in what sense can we claim to be professionals like clinical psychologists, or medical doctors, or nurses and midwives – all of whom are require to demonstrate engagement with continuous professional development (CPD)?  Indeed, in Ireland over recent years, Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians have been required to undertake CPD in order to continue practicing.  So, why not university teachers?

One defence could be that the gaining of a PhD is a suitable proxy for a license to teach.  But is it?  It might be a requisite qualification to join the ranks of academic researchers, but teaching?  In many respects, as academics, our identities are formed around knowledge and acceptance by an epistemic community.  But teaching?  Is a PhD an adequate proxy for a license to teach?

I leave this as an open question because I don’t know.  I say I don’t know because I am not necessarily trustful of university managers (who are also academics) to act wisely in the face of a possible call for this particular form of professional license.

However, governments and academic leaders turned higher education business leaders may lead the charge towards such licensing as a way of achieving other objectives, such as greater managerial control over academic labour. There is a growing trend in the UK of promotion for early career academics being requisite on completion of training in teaching and learning in higher education courses, membership of the Higher Education Academy, and possibly achievement of a Higher Education Academy teaching award.  This was not planned.  It has emerged.

So, the current situation is not stable.  To paraphrase Marx, the only constant is change. The question is – who will determine the direction of that change?

On Being a Student – When Lecturers Become Students

What IS  a student?

Seems an obvious answer to say somebody who participates in a programme of study.

For me the possible answers become many and complex if we reconsider such terms as ‘programme of study’.  Despite the long history of universities, surprisingly little academic study has been done on the nature of teaching and learning, and the attendant subjectivities of ‘lecturer’ and ‘student’, and even less on the nature of ‘curriculum’.

The problematic meaning of curriculum, and therefore learning and teaching in higher education are the focus of my current ‘teaching’.  Working on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education this semester’s theme is Curriculum Design & Assessment.  We kicked off with a contribution from Dr Kelly Coate (King’s College, London) where she discussed, amongst other things, a framework for inquiring into curriculum. Continue reading

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

Empty classroom in 56 St. building

 

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

Possible responses might include:

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

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

That really sets the internal narratives going awry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great.

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

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

“But should I do this or that?”.

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

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

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

My frustration grew.

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

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

She left.

There was a pause.

What would I do?

Would this anger spread and a mass walkout occur?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

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

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

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

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

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

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

And so back to academic publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

feeling the pressure

marking

the pressure is on and i am definitely feeling it.

i am taking a short break to gather myself before i get back to my work.  this ‘work’ comprises marking draft Masters dissertations, which follows immediately on marking module assignments and what feels like a mountain of second marking. there is nothing remarkable about this.  its bread and butter stuff as far as academic life goes.

and, to be honest, its what i actually enjoy (much of the time). TEACHING is very much at the core of my scholarly or academic identity. the interactions between students and myself, the mutual, though differentiated, engagement with knowledge, ideas, thoughts. i am excited by that space in the interactions between students, teacher, knowledge, knowledge communities where LEARNING happens.  not the learning captured by matrices, student satisfaction surveys, end of module reports, etc. i mean those moments when it, whatever it is, becomes clear, or new in some way. the ‘knowing’ it is new or clear may still be inchoate, but it is there, a pleasant kind of troubling, almost like an itch at the base of the skull.  often, this learning makes you smile. and it may come days, weeks, months, even years after that interaction.

so, what is getting me down enough to want to write about it?

is it the institutional pressure to deliver the marking on time – that ‘time’ determined not by pedagogic purpose but administrative necessity? yes, but not just that.  the exam board looms and i still have a lot to do.  there is much, potentially, at stake here.  yes, there is my reputation to think of.  i don’t want to be thought of as the awkward, or slow colleague. of course, i suffer from that continual desire to be ‘liked’, to be seen as the ‘good’ colleague.  but actually, i had let go of much of that baggage – i had to.  i do take collegiality and professionalism seriously.  collegiality, a word banded about by academics, is a scarce commodity in academic life, and probably always has been.  teaching, including in higher education, is often an intensely private matter, a matter between you and your students. you don’t actually want any colleagues seeing how you teach, or how you mark, or how you supervise.  its bad enough that we are required to share what we write through academic publishing. collegiality can be code for ‘leave me alone’.  ‘professionalism’ can act in the same way.  for me, though, they denote responsibility.  i have a responsibility towards my colleagues.  i might believe the academic horse is being wagged by the bureaucratic tale, but i have colleagues who are invested in these procedures and time tables.  that is their job.  they don’t get to sit at 8.58 am in their kitchen listening to the birds outside and fresh coffee brewing on the stove while they ‘work’.  no, they have to be IN THE OFFICE, AT the desk, and ORGANISING the detail of the exam board.  i have a responsibility.

i have a responsibility towards the students.  there will be many reasons why they do these programmes of study, and those reasons often change over time.  but i feel a responsibility to do my work on time.  if i don’t, i can rehearse all the ‘pedagogic necessity’ stuff all i want, i do not have the responsibility to dump anxiety on the students.  i have a duty of care, as it were.

so, the pressure is on.  the clock ticks.

but there is an added pressure here. two added pressure points.

  1. this is the ‘second arrow’ syndrome. in Buddhism there is a teaching story that goes something like this: i feel under pressure to get my marking done, but i know that i could easily have sorted this earlier.  there were days when i didn’t attend fully to what was needed, i diverted myself onto other tasks, or just plain and simply lost track of the examination clock.  i COULD have avoided the pressure i now feel.  that is the first arrow. that is hard enough to bear.  but it is the ‘second arrow’ that hurts most. this arrow is the critical one, and i mean ‘critical’ in all of its nasty judgemental sense.  the internal narrative turns up the volume and shouts: AGAIN?  haven’t you been in this situation, this exact same situation before?  don’t you learn anything?  you are a FRAUD. you are not a proper teacher at all.  do us all a favour and just GO.  the second arrow.  the most painful arrow that both pushes the first deeper into the wound and twists away causing immense agony.  the fact that i have been battling the flu for two weeks and that some days i can hardly eat or drink seems lost in this self-critical excoriation. 
  2. the other ‘pressure’ is more philosophical.  as i sit and comment on these students’ work Ronald Pelias’s words in ‘Methodology of the Heart’ keep coming back to me.  his commentary on how, as academics, we live and breath evaluation – constantly.  we are judge (am i a reliable colleague who can get his marking in on time?), but we judge.  i sit judging these students, with the knowledge that my words, my comments in the text, my annoyance that basic grammatical errors are still present in the FINAL draft before submission, that my grading, could really hurt somebody.  but should that worry me?  isn’t there a higher ideal here, of KNOWLEDGE? the fact that these students may feel put out by my comments should not deter me from acting as a gatekeeper to STANDARDS.  but, BUT, am i really so confident about this thing called knowledge?  am i so confident about standards?  this comes home most starkly for me when i am working with students from across the globe.  when ‘marking’ a dissertation from a student located in the Caribbean what does ‘standard English’ mean?  do i dismiss the ACTUAL language of the students that is perfectly capable of communicating meaning and insist on the institutionally powerful ‘standard’ against which they will be judged by the academy?  of course, i HAVE  to dismiss, and cajole, and nudge, because they WILL be judged against the ‘standard’ of the former imperial centre. perhaps that partly lies behind my desire to find a different kind of academic life.  

so, i will get back to the marking.  i will fend off those second arrows.  i will, for the moment, bracket my philosophical doubts, i will make a cup of coffee and get on with the task in hand.  BUT – i won’t be taking it so seriously.  i know its a game.  maybe my job, in this instance, is to let my students in on the game and help them play it successfully without buying into it.