Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship? The View from the (semi) Periphery


Below is the text of a proposal to the European Educational Research conference in Dublin this year.  It outlines some research under development with colleagues in Poland looking at the way research evaluation frameworks are re-shaping academic practice and the nature of what is knowledge in higher education.  Far more than being mechanisms for assessing the quality of academic research outputs, we argue that these are means by which knowledge itself is being changed but without making that an explicit object of policy.  Most disturbing of all is the way academics themselves are complicit in this.  It makes us wonder if many academics, and academic managers in particular have given up on higher education as a public good.



Research selectivity, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see; Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005).

However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education. Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research selectivity and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit form being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? For the purposes of our pilot project we also wanted to inquire into how this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines, especially the humanities. The legitimacy of the humanities has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented. Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. Al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity.


Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
The paper reports on the pilot study for this project, which aims to clarify the research problematic, scope, and questions.  The lead author’s home institution was selected as the site for the empirical work, with the Polish academics taking the lead in conducting the interviews.  This was undertaken as itself an ethnographic inquiry into the paradox of the proposed research – that of critically examining research selectivity as part of neoliberal political rationality (which includes the problematic place of non-high status English as a medium of academic exchange) whilst also seeking to publish in ‘high impact’ English language outputs and use English as a medium for cross-country collaboration.  This (auto)ethnographic aspect will be part of the broad mix of approaches taken in the larger study.  Therefore the proposed research has a strong reflexive mode. The discipline of humanities was chosen because a) the problematic place it currently has in higher education, and b) the particular challenges faced by the humanities in Irish universities.  Specifically, Irish Studies and German Studies were selected.  This was partly opportunistic due to established links between these areas and the lead author.  These were selected because they also provided an opportunity to explore linguistic capital as a dimension of the field of study (see Outcomes below). Irish Studies enabled the exploration of the structural location of a European minority language (we selected scholars who wrote through the medium of Irish).  German Studies enabled an examination of the structural location of a major European language within both a semi-peripheral system of higher education and a semi-peripheral discipline. The pilot project involved 7 semi-structured interviews with full-time members of academic staff on permanent contracts (Irish Studies = 3; German Studies = 2; plus two colleagues with expertise in the field of internationalisation in higher education).  The current paper focuses primarily on the 5 interviews with Irish Studies and German Studies. It is proposed that a grounded theory approach will be utilised as a basic analytical approach for the whole project.  For the purposes of this paper an initial inductive approach is taken.  The larger project will use a mix of methods.


Although institutional practices of internal research selectivity are systemic in nature, all academics interviewed discussed how they relied upon personal strategies to negotiate the various management techniques. All spoke about the general concern within their fields and the wider discipline but that there had been no collective or solidaristic space to mobilise these concerns as public and systemic issues.

Such strategies included reorienting effort to write in English language journals as well as in Irish or German, to seek a ‘balance’ of outputs.  This was a subtractive strategy as it meant less was written in their preferred language.  It was suggested that the emphasis on research articles as the institutionally privileged output changed the nature of disciplinary knowledge development and exchange. Specifically it challenged the way a body of work was captured in the production of monographs in the humanities. This was see as being driven by institutional concern with metrics and not with authentic scholarship.

Participants stressed that writing in English was a reduced form of scholarship that did not allow them to fully articulate meaning.  Performance against institutionally defined criteria bore no relation to the objective of knowledge production and exchange in knowledge communities.  Rather than being additive research selectivity was being experienced as subtractive and diminishing.

Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.
Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.

Academic Life#1 #AcademicLife

This is the first in a series of daily photos capturing the many moments of #AcademicLife as part of my exploration of the materiality of academic practice.


love, narrative and the academic conference


Love is not something you would immediately associate with an academic conference.  For all their vigour they can also be lonely and brutal places, which is why I have been careful in deciding where, when, and with whom I want to congregate.  Below is a ‘non-report’ from a different kind of conference experience, and takes the form of a piece of ‘flash fiction‘ written during an 8 minute window in a workshop run by Shauna Gilligan (who you can find here and here – depending on which identification suits you).

This was at the 2nd Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference, held at Maynooth University.  I might write something on my experience of the conference but for now I just want to preface the flash fiction with a short observation: rather than a series of monological deliverences, the kind of ‘look at me’ style so redolent of the academic conference, this event (for me) was more akin to community building, of nurturing existing connections, found connections, renewed connections. Sure, there was a certain absence of intellectual interrogation, but that’s fine as such conversations can occur after the event, in more negotiated spaces.  It was a sharing that, in conversations in the conference ‘between spaces’, allowed folks to reflect there (and then and then and later again) without posture.  It was a moment outside the managed CV or the managerial strategic alignment to institutional objectives.  And neither was it about boundary setting and gateways.  There was a sense of free roaming – free range academia?

So, it seems fitting that my first response to this event is to share the flash fiction, the 8 minute novel (thanks Shauna for the opportunity):

I think I hadn’t quite noticed it, Spring.  The blossom on the cherry tree caught my eye as I made my early morning coffee.  How you worried over that tree, the westerly winds blowing in from the sea.  You would rush to the kitchen window and just smile quietly when you saw the pink and white bear up.  And me? The tree was just there; a feature; but easily ignored as I busied myself on whatever project I had in mind – and it usually was IN MY MIND.  How I neglected the delicate blossom; how I failed to catch the coming storm; how I failed to run to the kitchen and check on this beautiful thing.  I sip my coffee and think on all I have neglected and how I am left OUT OF MY MIND.

Suicide and the University Mission


Last month we buried my daughter’s boyfriend.

As she celebrated getting her place at college he took his own life.

So I have had no appetite for blogging, planning for the new semester has been delayed, dealing with outstanding issues from last academic year shelved, and as for my own academic writing – that has been well and truly dismissed. We struggle to make sense of the tragedy and all else seems pointless.

I have struggled with myself about the ethics of writing about such a painful and personal matter for a public blog. He was not my son, so what right do I have to write of his death. But this tragedy is our tragedy. Ours in the sense of a societal tragedy. It is the scale of male suicide that make these personal issues public concerns.

This wonderful young man is part of a phenomena that rips open the hearts of families and communities on a scale resembling that of an epidemic. The biggest killer of young men under 24 in Ireland is suicide. 8 out of 10 suicides are committed by young men, and men are more likely to use violent forms of self-murder.

Our region, economically and geographically ‘marginal’ is viewed as a suicide blackspot for male suicide. Indeed, it is a fact that out there, in this region, there is another young man who sees in this awful event a cue to his own act of self-murder. The terrible pain we are all feeling will not be a deterrent. It is likely he will barely see this, instead focusing on suicide as a final escape from a daily horror of emptiness and mental anguish. It is also likely that he is self-medicating in some way, self-medication that hardly registers as such as high levels of alcohol consumption are socially sanctioned, indeed expected at such events as Christenings, birthdays, weddings, and of course funerals.

It is my daughter’s boyfriend’s place in this litany of youthful death that makes it a legitimate item for this blog.

It is probably no coincidence that he took his own life when he did. He was about to return to university, but with little apparent appetite for it. All around him were young people who had just received news of their exam results and about to take up places at college. As my own daughter celebrated this with him his mind was already turned towards providing a permanent solution to a temporary pain.

[As a sufferer of depression myself I know all too well that such phrases mean little when, having been happy, you again find yourself dipped into another anguishing period of bleakness. There feels nothing ‘temporary’ about it.]

With all this ‘hope’ around him, his own sense of hopelessness was most likely amplified. We know the end point of that amplification.

But I know from talking with many of these young people that alongside the sense of success and achievement at having ACQUIRED the grades, and GOT their place on a preferred course of study, there is a doubt. There is a doubt about the societal path they have followed all these years. A path lined with ‘cheerleaders of success’ – parents, teachers, politicians. To GET the grades, to GET the place is held up as the pinnacle of their young lives. While their school and college SUCCESSES will be regarded as evidencing the good work of education, their FAILURE, indeed their DEATHS will be viewed as failings of the individual, the family. As parents we know that we are hardly ever called into school to share in our children’s achievements, only ever their misdemeanours.

There is a doubt carried by many young people about the wisdom and truthfulness of the narrative that tells them that all this learning, all this acquiring of grades and college places is worth the personal and psychic cost. There is a doubt about the ‘opportunity bargain‘ – they are to play their part in increasing national economic advantage by participating in higher education, and as a result they will have better, more lucrative lives.

But there is a doubt.

Paul Verhaeghe has written recently about the neoliberal fetishisation of consumption, of the construction of societies where the the constant acquisition of SUCCESS through education, jobs, love is the total measure of a persons value. Elsewhere, at at a different time, Erich Fromm analysed modern Western society as one dominated by a particular mode of living characterised as ‘having’ as opposed to ‘being’. A soulless society. A society where we are haunted by hungry ghosts, tormented by never being satisfied. Always seeking more and better.

Just BEING somebody’s son, or BEING somebody’s boyfriend could never be enough in our society, not when society said that the QUALITY OF BEING was measured in such external and ephemeral things as qualifications.


I can’t help but wonder whether this young man, in whatever inchoate sense it appeared to him, also confronted this doubt. At the heart of mental health issues is a deep sense of disquiet. All around you see a world that demands success, but success framed by HAVING – money, fame, power, qualifications, authority. The idea of doing something well simply to do it well, for no external validation, is anathema to this culture. You look around at this, and then at yourself, and realise that HAVING SUCCEEDED at school, and SUCCESS at getting into college, you sense an emptiness, a LACK OF BEING.

I look out of my window here at the university and see all of these new first year students. I feel the tears rise up as I am consumed by a sense of dread. Which of these bright, energetic, wonderful people will be so consumed by emptiness that they will take their lives. This area has seen over 20 suicides this year alone.

Does the University take care of them? Well, we know that they don’t take care of us. CARELESSNESS seems to be the hidden (and perhaps not so hidden) reality of our universities, something Kathleen Lynch has written so eloquently on.

So is it time to reconsider what this is all for?

Is it time to reconsider what the role of the university is when confronted with a society whose young men wish to die. Will we TRULY look after the young people who enter our gates?

Can we put CAREFULNESS at the heart of our work?

And if not, is there any point in working here?

That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.

This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’.  In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor.  Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life.  Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.

So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?

Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’.  In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:

Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives


For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life.  But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.

Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.


There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching.  Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.

As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development.  In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively.  And yes, we try to do this.  But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.

But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same.  Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness.  Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”.  What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics.  There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race.  This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.

For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life.  I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege.  Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent.  It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.

And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.

Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl.  Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future.  In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness.  In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed.  This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed.  In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events.  And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze.  Got it?  I am not sure I have quite got it yet.

Let me try this again.

In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time.  There is no separation between ‘us’ and time.  Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies.  The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice.  This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’).  But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated.  The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning.  The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative  or story in which it is situated.  This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking  up a professional development course.  It will always be this learning at this time for this person.  There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person.  Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.

Is this the lesson from phenomenology?

From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice.  My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone.  Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy).  The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded  into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies.  The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.


In conclusion, Van Manen says:

To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.




[Does that make sense?  As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]



Troubling Reading – Troubled Reader

I’m on holiday, hence all the posts.

I have a number of thoughts that still need thinking through and had hoped to write a few posts to do this while taking a break from work.  However, it is the nature of my reading over the past week that forms the basis of this entry.

Basically, the stuff I have been reading has disturbed me.

No, I haven’t been sat in the corner of the sofa reading Stephen King.  Instead, I have been reading some books on Action Research.

Action Research?  And how is that disturbing?

Of course, as a topic it isn’t disturbing at all, though I have had some interesting discussions with colleagues recently about the difficulty of getting action research projects through institutional ethics committees.

It isn’t the topic itself that has proven disturbing, more the reflection on how I see myself as an academic that has proven disruptive and uncomfortable at times. And it is the reading that has prompted this reflection.

The ‘culprits’ have been ‘Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization‘ by David Coghlan and Teresa Brannick and ‘The Action Research Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty‘ by Kathryn Herr and Gary Anderson.  Having completed my first semester in the new job I wanted to spend some time reflecting on how things had gone, think about how I might want to develop the role, and catch up on weak areas of knowledge.  Given that much of the teaching and learning philosophy of the programmes we run involve active learning, and given that our ‘students’ are academics involved in various forms of developmental reflection on their professional practice (that is insider researchers) there were two fields I wanted to become more familiar with – action learning and action research.

My reading began with Action Research because I am supervising students who are conducting forms of insider research, though not specifically adopting action research methodologies.  So, there is a pragmatic element to this reading.

But, there is a synergy between the reading, my current reflections, and taking this job in the first place.  And this is where my current sense of disturbance arises.

Over the past few years I have had occasion to reflect on my role as an academic, indeed to re-think what being an ‘academic’ means to me.  This has induced a dispositional shift away from what Jacque Rancière would call the ‘master explicator’.  We all know the ‘master explicator’, and indeed have been such a person, perhaps often.  The ‘master explicator’ is comfortable in their command of the knowledge they expound, and usually engage in ‘delivering’ this knowledge.  It implies a process of ‘transmission’ from one who knows to one who does not.  I am not arguing against transmission in all instances.  I am simply directing attention towards a mode of being an educator and the social relationships it carries.  It directs attention towards a particular configuration of power and knowledge.

At the level of disposition I have been moving away from this mode.  My own practice as an educator has increasingly been defined by the centrality of ‘learning’ more than ‘teaching’, and of ‘active learning’ as a preferred mode. I have written here about one such example of this approach and how it can be disruptive of assumed social relations.  This dispositional shift made me open to the job I now have.  Also, the dispositional shift is conducive to a positive engagement with action learning and action research.  So, why is it disturbing?

While there has been a dispositional shift this has not, I have found, been accompanied by a cognitive shift.

The sense of myself as an academic has been more bound up in certain knowledge and knowledge communities than I realised.  I was very comfortable inhabiting  the role of ‘critical scholar’ where that critical stance was conducted through the mode of ‘master explicator’.  Rancière makes this point in his own critique of the critical theory tradition. This tradition, which for me was framed by my alignment with the work of Bourdieu and Foucault, enables the critical scholar to take on a special role in relation to wider society.  As a ‘critical’ scholar I can see the world in a way that others cannot.  And it is my role to reveal the true nature of power. I do not deride this function of critique.  But I am perhaps much more aware of the desire inherent in this role, of the ‘honorable’ role it places on the scholar – we can see what others can’t; and our role is to help them see more clearly.  But, I asked myself, apart from speaking from such a lofty position, what does this clarity of vision lead me to DO?

I know that I my explication has had positive effects on students.  I know that I have influenced students to generate new knowledge in their professional fields that have drawn on this tradition of critique, that enables them to act in terms of raising disturbing questions.  And this questioning may lead to change.  I do not reject this.  I do not reject the role this tradition can play.  But I am aware that the ‘change’ that it can effect is often personal, and if institutional is usually small and incremental.

And yet, the ‘small’ and ‘incremental’ change offered by most practitioners of Action Research (an Action Learning) was something I often looked down upon as inadequate in face of the inequities of the world.

Sober reflection on my actual effect on the world due to my role as educator has led me to be more humble in my ambitions.  And my recent reading has made much clearer to me the dissonance between my often lofty claims for my theory heavy approach to education and my desire for education to matter, to effect change in the professional practice of my students.

I still feel that some of what I am reading lacks philosophical content.  The challenge for me is not to jettison the critical theory tradition, but rather to expand my intellectual and practical repertoire so as to induce a more creative dynamic between my cognitive and dispositional orientations.

There is much to be unpicked here.  For instance there are the obvious connections between some strands of Action Research and critical theory, in particular the influence of Habermas on many action researchers, and obviously the role of Paulo Freire in the development of Participatory Action Research.  Perhaps, more troubling for my sense of cognitive self is the pragmatist orientation of much Action Research, and perhaps the way aspects challenge my previous dependence on propositional knowledge and deductive reasoning.

I will write more on how this develops.







Taming My Inbox or Taming Myself – a follow-up to Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

My recent post “Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance” created a little flurry of interest on the Twittersphere (thanks I think to a friend and colleague – thanks Catherine).  It also attracted a couple of comments (I am never really sure what to do in relation to comments, revealing an certain ambiguity on my part about the ‘public’ aspect of my blogging).

One comment made reference to my use of a Calmbox signature on my emails:

This is a Calm Inbox: email is checked once in the AM and once in the PM. Learn why at


I have used this for a few years now and apply it to my work and personal email boxes.  Why?

Before I answer that question I want to briefly reflect upon how people have responded. While there has been some jokey and not so jokey dismissals of it, or scepticism about whether I actually practice what the signature apparently preaches, there has been an overwhelming positive response from folks.  This has not led to an increase in observable use of the Calmbox signature but perhaps it has encouraged some thoughtful reflection on how we relate to email (particularly work email), the boundaries between work and home life, and our capacity to do our work in effective ways.

But my use of the signature is primarily personal.  It is a daily reminder to be mindful about how I relate to email, and more broadly to the quality of my professional practice.

I came across Calmbox while searching for ideas and resources that would encourage a more mindful and contemplative engagement with computing.  This was partly driven by an experience of a problematic use of email in a professional context.

This happened a while back in a previous employment.  Like many academics I was not very good at maintaining good boundaries between work and home life.  I sold myself the story that this was a necessary consequence of the relative autonomy that can be enjoyed by academics (though certainly not all).  If I wanted some flexibility in how I did my job outside of those periods that required direct contact with colleagues and students, then I had to accept that the ‘job’ would bleed into my weekends, evening, etc.  And, to be honest, this is not such a bad deal.  Being an academic is a pretty good thing.  Of course, this blurring of professional and private life can also be a result of the passion that we can often have for our subjects and our teaching.  In a very real sense the boundary between professional requirement and personal interest can be very obscure.  And, if one is in any kind of management role you very quickly learn that the day job can’t be done without also working evening shifts and weekends.

This has always been the case.  One question to ask, though, is whether the ubiquitous presence of ‘instant’ communication whereby we can receive our work emails on our smartphone means that the blurring of boundaries can become intensified and possibly toxic.

The incident I referred above went something like this:

I was checking my work emails one Sunday evening.  I came across a discussion thread that related to an issue raised at the departmental Teaching and Learning Committee the previous week.  Were this simply a continuation of discussion or reflection amongst a number of colleagues I would not have felt so concerned.  However, this exchange between senior members of faculty was of a qualitatively different kind.  While cc-ing all members of the T&L Committee (good?) the discussion was mostly confined to about three people and they were actually trying to make decisions.  They were in effect holding the T&L Committee meeting on a Sunday evening when most members of that committee were not visibly joining the discussion, and were not actually invited.  The ethics of this immediately flared up in front of me.  I felt compelled to intervene in this discussion and point out the ethical problems it raised.  There was nothing urgent about the decisions that were being sought.  So why the compulsion?  In the following week a number of colleagues agreed with me about the ethical problems of that misuse of email.  While the central players in this issue did not really see what the problem was there certainly a diminution of such types of email exchange at weekends.  My argument to one colleague was that while I might ‘choose’ to ‘work’ at a weekend, it should not be presumed that I would.  Any email exchange, any writing activity, any planning or communication with students at the weekend should be viewed as ‘voluntary’.

I felt though that what I had just witnessed was emblematic of a wider malaise in academia.  The instantaneous nature of communication, the technological capacity to access emails from anywhere at anytime can work to diminish our individual agency and entice us into a world where we feel compelled to be accessible or gain access at all times.

Where is the boundary between an individual voluntarily choosing to access their email at 2 am on a Sunday morning and a working assumption that colleagues will access their emails at the weekend?

When does voluntary action become compulsion become requirement?

To me this is not the flexibility to do my ‘thinking’ when most effective.

To me this is not the flexibility to write when it is most conducive to do so.

Does this constant chatter, this constant noise of email communication make us more effective at what we do? I think not.


I could criticise others for their use or misuse of email, and the wider uses of computing technology.  But what about me?  What was I doing?  How could I change my relationship with this culture of continuous and instantaneous communication?

The Calmbox signature is a means by which I discipline myself.  It means, for me, that I give a definite period of time to managing the flow of communication that comes through my email.   There is a degree of necessary flexibility in that when saying I check my email once in the morning this could last for a few hours.  But what is most important is that it introduces a pause into the process of communication.  I sort the emails rather than just respond immediately (as many people do) and deliberately pause, asking myself how I should respond, whether some need more thought before I reply. I like to think that my responses tend to be more considered.  There is a small, subtle resistance to the demand for instant responses, believing that considered ones are preferable.

Does this mean that my emails back up?  No.  If anything I think I am much more efficient than I used to be when my email was constantly on.

Importantly I do not have my work emails going to my phone.  This is for two reasons.  Firstly, I think it is immoral for organisations to assume that we are ‘on call’ constantly (there is more that could be said about that).  Secondly, I think there is something wrong in me subsidising the organisation by utilising my personal phone for work communication.

Most importantly though this more disciplined approach to engaging with email communication means that I can give attention to many of my core tasks.  I give myself a ‘digital sabbath‘ as it were.  I can be more attentive to planning activities, to responding to students’ work, to writing letters, to reading, to academic writing.  It gives me time to meet with colleagues.  Its not radical.  Its not intrusive.  But it does help cultivate attention.  It helps me work in a mindful way, being attentive to the task in front of me rather than distracted and scattered in my approach. I am less stressed.  My response to things are more measured.

For some interesting thoughts on this topic check out Megan Miller’s discussion on “Mindful Media: A New Culture of Immersiveness” @BuddhistGeeks:


Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

When you send an email to somebody do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work asking them for help do you expect an answer?

I can’t speak for others, only for myself, and the answer to the above questions is YES.


My current reflection arises from an observation about the ethics of email etiquette in professional settings.  Some time ago I sent an email to a colleague in another institution offering to provide a workshop on contemporary policy developments.  This wasn’t just any random person but somebody responsible for professional development.  Hopefully I am not so arrogant as to presume that simply because I made this offer that it should be picked up joyously.  But, I had run a number of successful seminars on this topic so it wasn’t complete fantasy to think that my offer might be at least considered.  That was three years ago.  I am still to receive even a confirmation of having received the email.

I would like to say that this was unusual.  But it isn’t.

When you have been successful in applying for a job then it is normal to spend some time in communication with the prospective employer’s human resources department.  And it was for me recently.  Except that email after email went unanswered.

It doesn’t stop there.  As an Academic Developer my job is to work with other academic colleagues in the development of their academic practice.  So it is not unusual for me to request support from academic colleagues in this endeavour.  And so it was a few weeks ago.  I sent an email to a group of colleagues who had graduated from one of our courses asking if they would participate in a workshop to guide their own colleagues on the assessment aspects of the course – colleagues supporting colleagues.  Out of the 10 emails I received one reply.  That means that the other 9 colleagues did not even reply to decline the invitation.  This scenario was repeated again more recently and in relation to an identical request for support.  And the response?  The same.  Many emails posted, one positive reply, lots of completely unanswered requests.

What is the issue?

On the one hand there is the matter of simple courtesy.  I might be naive but if a colleague sends me an email containing a direct request I answer it.  Now, there are plenty of times when I miss an email and reply late, or have to be reminded – but 9 out of 10?

There was no expectation that people would say yes simply because I asked them.  The expectation, though subdued and implicit, was that there would be some reply.

I have to say that, unlike some years ago, the lack of collegial response did not upset me.  I didn’t go away feeling that I had been rejected, that I was discounted, that I – and that is it, I.  And so it is to the ‘I’ of this concern that I must turn.

A while back this series of mini-events would have caused me much pain, even if only temporarily.  The fact that it doesn’t now (though obviously it plays on the mind as a curiosity) is what I want to think through here, because it has something to do with the ‘I’ and the Buddhist concept of ‘no-self’.

The terms ‘academic identity’, ‘identity’, and ‘identity work’ can be found in scholarly discussions of how we see ourselves, of our struggles for authenticity, of battling with ‘managerialism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, of ‘reform’.  The language can often conflate our personal identities into that of the ‘academic’.  And often it can feel like that.  Who, on reading their students’ feedback, doesn’t zoom in on the one or two negative comments, blind to all the positive ones?  Its no surprise really.  Academic life is often isolating and vulnerable.  We are vulnerable in the face of our students, asking ourselves if we are good enough, if we are failing our students.  We are vulnerable in the face of academic publishing – remember the deep psychic pain when you receive a rejection from a journal editor?  We don’t even need a rejection.  Suggestions for revision can feel like a public declaration of failure.

It is as if my fundamental self is bound up so completely in the day job.

This reminds of Art Bochner’s wonderful piece on the divided self, “It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self“.  In this article Bochner recounts how he was confronted with the chasm between his personal and professional selves.  Importantly he talks about how the ‘academic self’ rejected the affective self, pushing emotion into the private shadows of the personal.  So, we often feel, on a day to day basis, that hurt caused to our professional self is an attack on our deep self, on us as a PERSON.  Yet, the academic sensibility often negates the affective, the felt.  We struggle with an ‘I’ as if it were one and the other, the personal AS the professional.

And this is where ‘no-self’ comes in, and why, I think, I felt a healthy detachment from the lack of collegial response; why I was able to observe it as a phenomena, but not as something that caused pain.

Faced with the lack of collegial responses I was confronted with the possibility of seeing this as a comment on ‘myself’, as an evaluation of ‘me’ by my colleagues.  There is a moment, then, when I have to consider the ‘I-ness’ or ‘me-ness’ of my emotional responses.  If I see that what I call ‘me’ has no real substance, then there is no ‘me’ to be hurt.  This is not a lack of emotion, or a lack of identity.  Instead, what this notion signals is that what we conventionally refer to as ‘me’, as ‘I’, as ‘identity’ is of such a composite nature that it is finally difficult to identify with it in such a way that the normal slights visited upon us by social interaction can really touch ‘me’.

The feeling of love, of rejection, of course arise.  We, I, do FEEL them, sometimes intensely.

But what I have in my power to do is respond to them.  There is a moment when I can pause, and allow the mind and body to observe these rising feelings, a pause where the understanding that ‘I’ am a complex composite of inherited dispositions (like Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’).

In that pause before inherited emotional responses take over, I can see that it is the attachment to an essential and substantive self that causes the pain.  It is the desperate clinging to the idea of myself as an independent entity that causes me anxiety.  The ‘me’ that my colleagues might or might not reply to is not ‘me’ at all.  If there is a ‘me’ to which they are not replying (and there is an arrogance in assuming that there is a ‘me’ that prompts their not responding) then it is a phenomena of their mind.

A brief reflection on the substantial nature of ‘me’ can reveal that it is largely a narrative through which I seek to construe a sense of coherence  in the midst of impermanence and change, a coherence that carries me from a linear past to a distinct future.  In this narrative of self is a hint of the emptiness of this phenomena – ‘me’.  Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ I can see myself as a condensation of history, of family, social and cultural location, historical events, chance happenings and meetings.  I am ‘me’ only so far as the conditions of my existence allow.  And those conditions do and can change.  In what sense does this composite of elements make me a coherent and substantive thing?

The empirical self is actually composed of a flow of mental and physical states that are co-dependent on history, on the different environments within which I exist and move.  While ‘I’ or ‘me’ are relative terms, phenomena of the mind, this does not mean that there is no ‘sense of self’, of a ‘me’ that is in the world.  Recognising that much of what I regard as myself is a composite of inherited dispositions, these do not wholly determine me.  Devoid of an essential self, I am faced with a different reality.  Faced with the lack of collegial response I have only that moment.  And in that moment I have power.  I have the power to respond in line with inherited dispositions that might see the lack of collegial response as something personal, OR I can respond otherwise.  I can accept the variety of feeling responses that might arise, but I do not have to identify with them AS IF THEY WERE ME.

I may still feel upset.  My feeling of worth may be rattled (as when we receive negative feedback from students).  But, if I do not attach too strongly with an essential sense of self that subsumes all of me into the professional me, then I can avoid much of the pain of those moments.

I am bemused by the lack of collegial response.  But my responsibility is not that, it is my ethical being in the world.  And that is another post.