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.
PRIVATE TROUBLES/PUBLIC ISSUES
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.
TRANSFORMING DISCIPLINARY PRACTICE
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.
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 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.
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?
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.]
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