Going against the groove with a groovy beat – a #blimage story

vinylsheffield

Sheffield sits uneasily in my soul.  It is a city I love, but it is also where I have faced death in the face and just about survived.  It is a place I go back to regularly, each time finding new ways to love its energy, its independent spirit and connect with dear friends.  But it is also troubling, as I am always accompanied by ghosts of that near-ending, and of the way of being that led me to that point.

I visited Sheffield again recently.

And I found that I related to it differently (even though it was only a year since I was there last).  Sure, the ghosts were there, but I wasn’t troubled by them so much.  I let them be.  They are hungry ghosts, never satisfied, no matter the quantity of anguish I give them.  So I let them sit there.  Instead, it was the image of the record shop above that captivated my imagination because it spoke of a Sheffield that feeds my soul (as my new home of Galway does).  And it is this image I want to spend some time reflecting on.

Why an image?

Because of a challenge.

What challenge?

Well, a good colleague and friend @sharonflynn  alerted me the #blimage challenge, and well, to get on and do a post god damn it!!!!  Use an image to get thinking about learning.

And so @vinylsheffield.

In a way, this image reduced the ghosts to silence. How?  This record shop stands for much of my Sheffield, the Sheffield I love.  It doesn’t care to be like London, or other big cities nearby like Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.  They celebrate their uniqueness, not caring much if it is out of fashion (whose fashion?).  It is its independence of spirit that attracts me (and perhaps why Galway feels so familiar).  And this independent spirit is in the water, is part of its historical DNA – no matter where people originate from.  It is Steel City, but not that imagined by so many folks, who imagine it incorrectly as being about hot furnaces and sheets of glowing steel.

Instead, it has always been a creative place, a maker space, a place of crafts and imagination.

And this spirit lives on in a multitude of creative acts that belie the national story of conservative revolution, austerity, and the industrial (and social) decline of the North of England (they still vote Labour there you know).

What has this got to do with learning you may ask.

Well, it speaks to the learning or the philosophy and politics of education I try to embody and inhabit (though not always, and not always successfully).  Its about an idea of education that is more like the independent spirit of places like Sheffield and Galway, the insistence that the hungry ghosts of neo-liberal depression need not be fed, and that we can just get on and do it our own way, thank you very much.

The hungry ghosts seem to tell us that we are always failing, always not meeting the target or outcome, always in need of improvement (continuous improvement), that only excellence is enough.  We know that often we are forced to feed these ghosts.  We do so reluctantly.  But there are too many in education who do so willingly, actually believing in the bullshit (really, what was the point of their education?).  The independently spirited education I favour encourages folks to see the bullshit for what it is, and to encourage them to be creative, to be their own makers, to share, to believe in generosity.

On this recent trip I was able to inhabit Sheffield with a new spirit of freedom.  I was able to share in the generosity of my friends, enjoy the creativity of the city’s inhabitants, to marvel at the free spirits – and yes, of course, the fine beer.  The ghosts were there.  I nodded to them.  But ignored them.  I was in no mood to feed them.

And what does this have to do with a record shop?  There is a struggle in Sheffield (as everywhere) to resist the onslaught of corporate thinking and its astonishing lack of imagination and soul.  This record shop, like many other created and creative spaces in the city stands against that desert like logic (I know deserts are not lifeless or without feature but you know what I’m getting at).  It is apparently ‘out of step’, yet, so right!

I leave you with two examples of the spirit I enjoy.

Who would have thought that Northern English Brassband culture could become this:

And in Galway we groove our nights away with abandon regardless of the performative culture:

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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.

grade point averages and the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon

marking

i picked up a tweet earlier today from @mike_rat concerning the possible/probable introduction of GPA (Grade Point Average) scores.  this emanates from the UK’s Higher Education Academy facilitating a discussion on the introduction of GPA in the UK.

alongside this a number of UK universities are considering introducing GPA unilaterally (i think).

i am not sure why this particular item caught my attention, and why it ‘troubled’ me.  i paused, and tried to locate where the feeling for this piece of news resided.  i felt my heart pounding – like a flight/fight response.  for a moment i wondered whether this was just an effect of the viral flu i have been suffering and/or the tinnitus.

for reasons i am still unsure of (and mike was very accommodating to my strange intervention) i tweeted these lines from the Tao Te Ching:

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

what on earth did i mean?  more properly, what on earth did these words mean to me and how did i think they related to the introduction of GPA?

the tweet appeared just after i had sent a student a very strongly worded email detailing how their draft dissertation would not pass the grade.  all the way through reading and commenting on their work i struggled with what we ‘scientifically’ call formative and summative evaluation.  how NEUTRAL these words appear. 

i wanted to ENCOURAGE the student’s efforts, enthusiasm for the topic, commitment to social justice.  i wanted to coach her in skills and tricks of the trade that could enable her to communicate her meaning more clearly.  i still hold to what i said, to those nurturing comments in bold.  as i wrote those comments, thought those thoughts, offered my own experience, i thought of what this degree might mean for her.  i thought about the personal-emotional-financial investment, how this could be more than a private act as much as a family and communal act.  i thought about my responsibility in enabling her to SUCCEED. 

and then i thought about the network of texts into which she was now inserted – application forms, grade sheets, dissertation cover sheets, applications for extension, student progress reports, etc.  i felt the weight of this.  i knew she would be judged harshly and that i had better get in first so that she had some chance to get through with something that would affirm her.

so, she was attempting to pour nourishment into her bowl.

i contemplated grading her according to our 100 point scale, index her successes and failures according to percentage points against each descriptor.  

i contemplated, in other words, to dehumanise what was an absolutely human endeavour.  

i contemplated reducing her fears and hopes, anxieties and dreams to mere numbers.  

i contemplated asking her to fill her bowl to the brim rather than choose carefully the food that nourishes, because filling to overflow appears more valued than the wisdom that might arise from her educational engagement.  

and the knife that is blunted?  the GAP perhaps; every technology of division and discrimination.

i know how students (i am one now myself) may welcome the detailed gradation offered by GPA systems.  i know for myself how attracted i am to the descriptors and 100 point scale offered by our masters courses compared to the pass/fail on our professional doctorates.  i know how as a teacher they help me direct attention to specific areas for development and to make my job of commenting easier when i am tired and find ‘creating’ hard.  but surely these things come AFTER.

they come AFTER the relationship that is at the core of learning (relationship between teacher and student, between student and knowledge collectively produced over millennia).

they come AFTER the creation of knowledge that is the product of the uncertainty inherent in those relationships, the fact that we come to KNOW because we realise we don’t know, or see things as new, or come to KNOW what was formerly FELT.

they come AFTER we contemplate the WHY.  why is this (degree, topic, writing, etc.) of value to THIS PERSON in the fulness of their living.  all else is simply the games we play or are inclined to play in the context of ‘globalisation of higher education’.  we know that the GPA will not change the basic discriminatory structure of global higher education.

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law

And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

Before doing that, though, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,

    the snow and moon. 

Ikkyu, “Rain, the Snow, and Moon

before we get caught up in how best to grade we should consider how we read the love letters!

when a teacher becomes a student

 20130920_103621

S:  so, what you up to?

me:  this teacher has become a student.

S:  what, like you are trying to see the world through your students’ eyes?

me:  this is not a philosophical point.  i have registered on a programme of study, have a student card, student email account, access to an online learning environment, and a timetable. 

S: you what?

me:  i’m a student.  actually, i am in my first session, and we are tasked to set up a blog as part of a module on ‘new media’. yipee!

S: but you have a blog.

me: i know, so i was momentarily thinking of setting up another one just for the course. but, no, i couldn’t manage two blogs like that.

S: so, you’re going to use this blog?

me: yes.  why? do you think i shouldn’t?

S: well…

me: i know, i know, ethically it could be a problem. but i wouldn’t want to comment on my teachers or fellow (sorry for the gendered nature of that) students.  the blog is a vehicle for reflecting on my identity as a teacher, to work out what teaching as service means in practice, to work through what teaching for wisdom might be like, what contemplative pedagogy is – for me.  i have no wish to evaluate others, but i do hope that my reflections are of some interest or use to others who may come across the blog.

S:  and you don’t mind your teachers and the other students seeing what you are thinking, what your ‘mission’ is?

me: no.

S: and you are on the course to pursue contemplative pedagogy?

me: no, not really.

S: then why?

me: well, for me mostly.  just for FUN.  i was just reading Ronald Pelias’ book “A Methodology of the Heart“. its a poetic contemplation on academic life. in one chapter, or essay really, he was considering how as an academic we spend so much time evaluating others – we evaluate our students (sometimes harshly), if we have managerial roles we evaluate our colleagues, our scholarly activity might involve evaluating policy makers (in my case) or other academics’ ideas or methodologies.  yes, we are evaluated, but mostly we evaluate ourselves, and quite brutally at times.

S: and?

me: well, its nice to be on the other side, as it were.  i want to engage with something mostly for its own value, enjoyment and not because it will help me write this article, teach that course, etc.

S: but this is aimed at teachers, right?

me: yes….OK, its also something that can help me with my new job, but that wasn’t really why i want to do this.  i do want to enhance my pedagogic skills, but what i really want is to reinvigorate my artistic and creative angles.  you know, i haven’t sketched in nearly 15 years or more.  i have just started getting back into reading and writing poetry and it really makes me happy. the blog is part of that creativity i want to revive and make much more part of my academic me.

S: so what’s it like being a student?

me: great. 

S: but?

me: what do you mean, but?

S: there is always a BUT with you.  its the way your mind works, it is always interrogating, always trying to get under the surface, you know what i mean.

me: well….the but is nothing to do with the course, its me.  i always want to be the ‘good’ student, the ‘good’ colleague’ or ’employee’.  

S: authentic?

me: certainly not.  not authentic at all.  anyway, i think that’s enough ‘private’ me for one blog post.

S: so what do you have to do?

me: we have homework.

S: homework?

me: yeh, setting up a blog (done), read the module blog and add a comment.

S: cool.

me: better get going.

me: by the way, why am i talking to myself?