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.