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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Making knowledge more explicit in the English for Academic Purposes classroom

by Mark Brooke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. This special issue aimed to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which are accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

In 2000, Moore (2000: 33) wrote that the ‘curriculum of the future should be the curriculum of knowledge’. He argued that knowledge should be accessible to all members of society and, in this way, education should promote social and educational justice. However, we find that the educational climate for such an objective is not wholly welcoming. In many university settings, academic language courses tend to be devoid of a theoretical approach to education that places the teacher in the role of linguistic expert. Indeed, courses prominently feature notions such as grammatical accuracy instruction based on isolated clauses at the lexico-grammatical level or independent self-directed learning and study habits. Unfortunately, in these cases, the focus of instruction may first be decontextualised as extracts, which oversimplifies the meanings in the texts; and second, a theory of language or knowledge may play a backseat role or even be entirely absent. As many researchers have pointed out, focusing on common errors in a de-contextualised way is probably not effective. Additionally, independent learning, although a useful process, is often given too much focus. This detracts from the time spent with a qualified tutor as knowledge provider, taking the onus away from what the teacher does. In the case of independent learning instruction, what is being foregrounded is ‘the social circumstances of knowers’ (Maton, 2014: 5), not knowledge.

In contrast, the main goal of our research is to provide knowledge to students in the form of analytical lenses to enable them to deconstruct and judge information effectively. What we strive to do is move away from educational ‘knowledge blindness’ (Maton, 2014). Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) as a sociological framework has guided our educational practices to do this. The basic premise of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is that knowledge is power. LCT is a toolkit for analysing socio-cultural practices and uncovering what constitutes the ‘rules of the game’ that provide the means to that power. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a gaze or ‘a mode of thinking, acting and being’ (Dong et al, 2015: 8) through the explanatory power of the codes. In this research we seek to develop our students’ critical gaze. We achieve this by applying the dimensions of specialisation (including cosmologies) and semantics.

Specialisation determines principles of privilege in fields of practice. Practices that emphasise epistemic relation and downplay actors’ dispositions view specialised knowledge as the basis of achievement (ER+). We believe a curriculum should primarily be built on ER+. Practices that emphasise social relations, and downplay epistemic relations, are represented by the knower codes (SR+). Independent learning is an example of this, which has often been given too much focus in our field. Knower codes can be explored in greater depth through the use of the concept of ‘axiological cosmologies’. Maton (2013) defines cosmologies as ‘constitutive features of social fields that underlie the way social actors and practices are differentially characterised and valued’ (p 152). In identifying how clusters are formed, we can help students to understand the means by which experts and authors attempt to persuade the reader to align with a position on a particular issue. ‘Semantics’ is a dimension from LCT that ‘conceives social fields of practice as semantic structures whose organizing principles are conceptualized as semantic codes’ (Maton, 2014: 2). Using Semantics, it is possible to explore the relations that exist between knowledge structures and, in particular for this purpose, how to apply a critical lens to a social phenomenon or text to analyse it. 

We conducted research between 2015 and 2017 at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. Our findings, from three parallel case studies within the broad framework of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), provide results from classroom-based action research working with semantics, specialisation and axiological cosmologies from Legitimation Code Theory. Each case study is outlined, explaining how these LCT dimensions have guided practice in the teaching of English for academic writing. Specifically, LCT has been applied in the development of our students’ critical dispositions by teaching them how to apply critical lenses to analyse texts and to make informed judgements. The first case study explores semantics as a strategy for teaching how to use lenses for the theoretical framework section of an IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Research and Discussion) research paper in the social sciences. The second is set in a standalone EAP module and describes the use of a systemic-functional linguistics-informed pedagogical tool as a lens to analyse academic discourse so learners can better understand the meanings including the assumptions, unsupported claims, or biases in texts. The third regards the embedding of LCT approaches for students engaged in writing hortatory blogs in a unit entitled Public Writing and Communication. Students are taught to explore ‘axiological cosmologies’ to understand how evaluative meanings form patterns of clusters that enable the writer to create a persuasive expository text.

References

Dong, A, Maton, K and Carvalho L, (2015) The structuring of design knowledge The Routledge Companion to Design Research, pp38-49 London: Routledge.

Maton, K (2008) ‘Knowledge-building: how can we create powerful and influential ideas?’ Paper presented at Disciplinarity, Knowledge and Language: An International Symposium Sydney: University of Sydney

Maton, K (2013) Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education Routledge: London

Maton, K (2014) ‘Building powerful knowledge: the significance of semantic waves’ in Barrett, B and Rata, E (eds) (2014) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum, pp181–197 London: Palgrave Macmillan, Palgrave Studies in Excellence and Equity in Global Education.

Moore, R (2000) ‘For knowledge: tradition, progressivism and progress in education – reconstructing the curriculum debate’ Cambridge Journal of Education 30(1): 17–36

Mark Brooke is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research and teaching in two fields: English for Academic Purposes and the Sociology of Sport. He can be found on Google Scholar, Facebook and LinkedIn.The full article by Mark Brooke, Laetitia Monbec and Namala Tilakaratna (all National University of Singapore), ‘The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses’, is in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 428-443


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Academics in the Digital University

By Ibrar Bhatt

I was honoured to organise, introduce and chair this SRHE digital university network event on 22 February 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast. It was the second Digital University Network event to take place here at Queen’s and I hope that it becomes a new tradition for both the SRHE and QUB.

The event hosted three papers, from varying perspectives, to discuss the issue of digitisation and how it has affected the professional work of academics. Since most research on digitisation tends to focus on students, there is now a justifiably growing body of work which examine the impact of digitisation on academics, especially in light of new practices of knowledge production, knowledge distribution, and, more broadly, academic identity formation in current times. In other words, what it means to be an academic and to do academic work.

The event began with the team of the ESRC funded ‘Academics Writing’ project (David Barton, Mary Hamilton (both Lancaster), and myself (QUB)), outlining how digital media and digitisation policies are shaping the knowledge-producing work and professional lives of academics in new and unexpected ways. One focus of this talk was email and how to manage it and experience it as part of professional life in academia. Much of the discussion which emerged was around how universities are managed and how, if at all, academic labour is divided. You can read more about this project’s findings in our new book Academics Writing. I worked on this project and found that it was a great induction into the academic working life!

This was followed by Katy Jordan’s (Open University) paper, which drew on three of her recent projects. The projects  focused on academics’ use of social media platforms for networking, how these engender different types of impact, different types of professional connections and relationships, and how these relate across different discipline groups. Notably, one of Katy’s many findings is that academic online spaces are not ‘democratising’ spaces, but rather spaces where hierarchies are reflected and in some cases algorithmically perpetuated.

Mark Carrigan’s (Cambridge) paper explored how the proliferation of platforms is reshaping social life, particularly in relation to the social sciences and their role within and beyond the university. Among the various perspectives critically explored by Mark were ‘project time’ in academic work, ‘amplification-itis’ where pursuit of online popularity is an end in itself, and overall ’acceleration’ in the academy as a result. You can find out more about Mark’s work here.

The papers together presented arguments about how many of these new practices, brought about through digitisation but also given impetus by deeper changes such as the marketisation and massification of HE, are becoming key indicators against which academic professional success is being measured, with online profiles being factored into an academic’s reputation and potential to influence their own field. This event, therefore, critically explored some of the challenges faced by new and established researchers in understanding what the ‘digital university’ portends for the future of the academic workforce and for scholarly work in general. The scope is quite vast so we hope to cover this theme again in future events to include more international perspectives.

All three sets of slides for the papers are available here.Ibrar Bhatt is a Lecturer in Education at Queen’s University Belfast, a member of the SRHE’s Governing Council, and a convener of its Digital University Network. His recent publications include the following monographs published by Routledge/T&F: Assignments as Controversies: Digital Literacy and Writing in Classroom Practice and (co-authored) Academics Writing: The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation. He tweets at @ibrar_bhatt


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Pedagogic rights and higher expertise in the post-truth society

by Jim Hordern

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

Bernstein’s three pedagogic rights (enhancement, participation, inclusion) set out the ‘conditions for effective democracy’ (in discourse and practice) at the ‘individual’, ‘social’ and ‘political’ level (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). Developed as a reflection on political transition in Chile in the 1980s and remaining to an extent ‘enigmatic’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016), the rights have recently been employed to discuss the South African higher education context (Luckett and Naicker, 2016) and the role of universities in human development and capability expansion (McClean et al, 2013). Consideration of the relationship between the three pedagogic rights aids reflection on the role of higher expertise in contemporary societies facing ‘post-truth’ challenges. If fully exercised the pedagogic rights could mitigate against the destructive potential of ‘alternative facts’ – but does the current context of higher education allow the rights to be exercised?

The right to ‘individual enhancement’ is described as a ‘a condition for experiencing boundaries’ and ‘tension points condensing the past and opening up possible futures’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). This is the process whereby individuals acquire expertise through engagement in higher education, and become equipped for future thought and action. The right to enhancement assumes the existence of expert communities that can judge when boundaries and tensions have been experienced and enhancement has taken place, as part of a trajectory towards greater expertise and understanding (Winch, 2010). However, the process by which enhancement occurs is not static but rests on the potential for imagining ‘new possibilities’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). As Luckett and Naicker point out, this is the right ‘that realises both the private and public goods of HE’ (2016: 12). However, it is heavily compromised without the other two rights (participation and inclusion). If higher education is only concerned with individual enhancement rather than ensuring all have the right to participate and to be included, then there is a risk not only that the most powerful individuals will dominate access to expertise, but also that expertise itself becomes increasingly moribund and irrelevant to contemporary society.

The right to participate means participation in the ‘procedures whereby order is constructed, maintained and changed’ (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). This extends to participation in the re-shaping of expertise to meet new requirements as societies change, while not losing the condensed lessons of the past. Participation is the condition for ‘civic practice’ (ibid: xxi), and affects the extent to which an expert body of knowledge maintains or loses relevance to contemporary concerns. A fully democratic society is founded on a right not only to access expertise but also to become an expert oneself. When participation becomes problematic democracy starts to break down, leading to increasing alienation from expertise and the potential for mistrust of the ‘experts’ themselves.

Lastly, the right to inclusion suggests ‘the right to be included, socially, intellectually, culturally and personally’, but also ‘a right to be separate, to be autonomous’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx), and therefore to have one’s individuality and minority view respected while nevertheless remaining ‘included’ in a community. Inclusion must occur, importantly, ‘without absorption’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016: 16), allowing new perspectives to thrive and challenge existing expertise. Without this subtle conception of inclusion, higher expertise risks retreating to a notion of ‘received truth’ which all must accept with deference. Expertise may be transformed if new and convincing claims come to light that authentically improve understanding, but this can only be achieved through a mode of inclusion that respects difference and independence.

But are these pedagogic rights practised together in contemporary higher education? Some higher education institutions risk becoming increasingly distant from the communities in which they are located, answering instead to the demands of league tables and notions of the ‘global research university’ (Marginson, 2006). Furthermore, academic work is often defined in terms of narrow output measures, irrespective of concerns for participation and inclusion. Market and bureaucratic logics actively undermine the potential for expert communities to operate, and dismiss the criteria of excellence upon which notions of higher expertise are based, replacing them with a belief in the ‘inevitable obsolescence of accumulated knowledge’ (Beck and Young, 2005: 191). Are these promising conditions for the upholding of an open and iterative model of higher expertise which can effectively challenge ‘post-truths’, while valuing the full participation and inclusion of all citizens?

One thesis might be that the post truth context is a consequence of a collapse of deference for ‘authority’, both in institutional and epistemic terms. An alternative argument would assert that ongoing assaults on deference are necessary to expose dominance and bias, and that a ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-enlightenment’ context allows multiple voices to be heard and undue influence to be exposed. Arguably these views foreground either enhancement or participation at the expense of the other pedagogic rights. A further view might suggest that the post-truth context illustrates how expertise is increasingly ‘divorced from persons, their commitments, their personal dedications’ (Bernstein, 2000, 86), partly as a consequence of the extension of market logics into higher education (and the professions). Truth has become commodified so that knowledge can ‘flow like money to wherever it can create advantage and profit’ (ibid), allowing opportunists to exploit increasing levels of public and private disorientation. Enhancement, participation and inclusion are all threatened – and all must be re-thought for the future vitality and relevance of higher education, and for societal ownership of expertise.

Higher education institutions and professional communities responsible for higher expertise have thus far insufficiently recognised the implications of a non-deferential society in which all assertions are challenged, and need to work harder at ensuring inclusion and participation to make enhancement a possibility for all. Making pedagogic rights central to a refreshed notion of higher expertise thus requires a commitment to all three rights: enhancement, inclusion and participation. Commitment to one or two without the other is almost as detrimental to the future of higher education as commitment to none.

References

Beck, J and Young, M (2005) ‘The assault on the professions and the restructuring of academic and professional identities: a Bernsteinian analysis.’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 26 (2): 183-197

Bernstein, B (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity 2nd edn New York: Rowman and Littlefield

Frandji, D and Vitale, P (2016) ‘The enigma of Bernstein’s ‘pedagogic rights’.’ In Vitale, P and Exley, B (eds) (2016) Pedagogic rights and democratic education: Bernsteinian explorations of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, pp13–32 London: Routledge

Luckett, K and Naicker, V (2016) ‘Responding to misrecognition from a (post)/colonial university.’ Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234495

Marginson, S (2006) ‘Dynamics of national and global competition in higher education.’ Higher Education 52(1): 1–39

McClean, M, Abbas, A and P Ashwin (2013) ‘University knowledge, human development and pedagogic rights’ in Boni, A and Walker, M (eds) (2013) Human development and capabilities: Re-imagining the university of the twenty-first century, pp30–43 London: Routledge

Winch, C (2010) Dimensions of expertise: A conceptual exploration of vocational knowledge London: Continuum.

Jim Hordern is Reader in Educational Studies at Bath Spa University, U.K. His research interests are in educational knowledge and practice, particularly in higher, professional and vocational education. He is Book Reviews Editor of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Internationale Berufsbildungsforschung Springer book series.

You can find Jim’s full article, ‘Higher expertise, pedagogic rights and the post-truth society’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 288-301 athttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1532957


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Teach someone to fish, and … changing how students think about knowledge and learning

by Elizabeth Hauke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

There is a long-standing expectation that higher education will produce critical thinkers, able to tackle the big issues of the day. Criticality is tackled differently in various disciplines, and is arguably hardest to develop within traditional science and engineering education where the nature of the learning is more atomistic and cumulative. However, criticality is no less important in science and engineering graduates who are often tasked with becoming innovative problem solvers as well as big thinkers. How can these students be challenged and supported to learn in different ways and consider themselves and their growing relationship with the world around them to a create complex, integrated and dynamic ‘knowing’.

In my paper ‘Understanding the world today: the roles of knowledge and knowing in higher education’, I argue that this ‘knowing’ is a key component of knowledge – that knowledge can be thought of as a process rather than as a defined and static object to be acquired. I explore some philosophical and epistemological underpinnings of the concept of knowledge and relate these to my experience working with final year undergraduate science and engineering students taking an optional history module. The students are used to processing and memorising vast quantities of information for their disciplinary study and approach learning in quite a transactional fashion. They view knowledge as something that is held by experts, and may be bestowed upon them. It has an ethereal, almost holy quality and must not be questioned. We work hard during the module to unpack these preconceptions, and during the classes the students have to build their own knowledge of historical events by gathering evidence, information, opinion and experience and working this into a sense of knowing. As they build an understanding of a phenomenon that has occurred in the world, they must commentate on this process, recognising, reviewing and critiquing how their ‘knowledge’ is developing.

As a learning self-reflection exercise, I recently challenged the student teams to write short stories about their experience of learning on the course. I provided a story structure to help them with plot, and a list of character types to help them get started. The rules stated that the story must include all the students in their team, at least one student from another team, the teacher and someone from outside the module as characters. They could use whatever aspects of their learning experience that they felt were important to form the story.

I was fascinated to find that two of the stories featured ‘knowledge’ as a character. In one story knowledge was a princess that needed to be protected, rescued from danger and allowed to grow and develop in safety. In another, knowledge was a mysterious character that the students needed to find and befriend. This could only be achieved by tackling a number of challenges that showed the students different aspects of knowledge’s character. Once they had overcome these challenges, they were able to find and ‘live happily ever after’ with knowledge. Although these stories were simplistic and admittedly a bit tongue in cheek, they nevertheless revealed novel conceptualisations of knowledge for these students that moved beyond the explicit discussions that we had during the module.

I hope that by working with students to view knowledge as a ‘development of knowing’, a process that they can practice, master and use, they become empowered to use this criticality to inform their engagement with the wider world.

SRHE member Elizabeth Hauke is a Principal Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication at Imperial College, London. She specialises in research, curriculum development and teaching about interdisciplinarity and transferable skill development in higher education, specifically for STEM students. She tweets as @ehauke and @impchangemakers, can be found on Instagram as @imperialchangemakers and has a learning and teaching blog at www.livelovelearn.education.

You can find Elizabeth’s full article (‘Understanding the world today: the roles of knowledge and knowing in higher education’) here:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1544122


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Undergraduate experiences of the research/teaching nexus across the whole student lifecycle

by Tom Clark and Rita Hordósy

Within the landscapes of higher education, the integration of research and teaching is now seen as a crucial part of ‘the student experience’. Terms such as ‘research-led’ ‘research-intensive’, ‘research-oriented’, and ‘research-based’ are frequently used in the marketing strategies of HEIs to demonstrate the prestige, status and expertise of their teaching portfolios. It is tacitly taken for granted that research necessarily enhances the experience of learning. However, given the increases in the cost of university study, the continuing emphasis on ‘graduate outcomes’, and the popular and political denigration of expertise in a post-truth society, how contemporary students are responding to the emphasis on research remains a key point of concern.

Broadly speaking, the literature on what is termed ‘the research/teaching nexus’ (RTN) has focussed on four issues: the general lack of association between research outputs of staff and teaching evaluations; the differences that exist between and within HEIs in respect to the RTN; the attitudes of staff towards their different roles as researchers and/or teachers; and, the experiences of students, which are not necessarily positive. The vast majority of this empirical work has relied on research designs that are cross-sectional. Unfortunately, this means that the changing nature of the nexus as it is experienced by students across their degree has been largely unexplored. 

Taking a ‘whole student lifecycle’ approach, we have followed a diverse group of undergraduates within a ‘research-intensive learning environment’ as they made their way into, through, and beyond their programme of study (n=40). Interviewing them on three occasions throughout their studies, we sought to examine the dimensions through which students understood the relationship between research and teaching, and how these experiences are variously constrained and enabled.

Our findings suggest that the RTN is a dynamic process of development that is actively and affectively experienced by students across their degree programme. Multidimensional in nature, experiences of the RTN also changed over time. The key phases of development can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Phases of development in the research/teaching nexus

  Phase one Phase two Phase three
Focus of
disciplinary
knowledge
Broad Selecting Narrow
Relationship with
researchers
Distant Personable Close
Experience of
research
practice
Guided Problem-based Generative
Nature of
independent
learning
Answering Critical Discovering

However, because students also developed feelings and reactions to the nexus – and regardless of pedagogical practice or curriculum design – not all of the undergraduates we interviewed progressed through each phase in a uniform manner. The nexus could constrain as much as it enabled. These restraints were broadly concerned with a diminishing interest in the nature and utility of research; the lack of sufficient scaffolding around experiences of research and teaching; the perceived distance between students and researchers; and, issues related to participation, such as ethnic and/or class related identities. How students conceived and experienced the RTN was contingent on, and understood in respect to, other aspects of their lives. This included emergent individual interests, experiences of other students, developing career goals, and the wider contexts of higher education policy and practice within which participation takes place.

Taken together, our results highlight the need to problematize the normative presentation of research in terms of its relationship with learning and teaching. Research is not something that can be used with teaching to instantaneously produce better student experiences or graduate outcomes. In the context of an increasingly competitive global graduate labour market, there can be individual and collective benefits in connecting teaching with research, but these should not simply be assumed. Indeed, it remains important for HEIs to engage meaningfully with the RTN to understand how and why it is experienced in the way that it is, and, who might be excluded in the process. It should not be used as a cynical vehicle to justify academic research in the face of the rising costs of higher education level study. 

Dr Tom Clark is a Lecturer in Research Methods at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in all aspects of method and methodology, particularly with respect to learning and teaching. His other interests have variously focussed on the sociology of evil, student experiences of higher education, and football fandom. His textbook How to do your social science dissertation or research project will be published by Oxford University Press in the summer of 2019.

Dr Rita Hordósy is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. Her interests concern social justice issues in education, post-compulsory education trajectories, and comparing educational phenomena between national settings. She tweets as @rhordosy.


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Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities

by Santosh Mahapatra

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This paper analyses how different kinds of identities are articulated as a part of building and opposing domination in the context of English education in Indian universities. We try to prove that the process of hegemony-making which started during the British rule in India is still shaping English education in India albeit in newer forms. It is not difficult to realise that today, English and English education have lent voice to multiple identities and knowledge systems. In this paper, we have made an attempt to evaluate and present some of the important debates and discussions related to English language education in institutes of higher education in India. We also look into how different groups are taught English and demonstrate how contexts of teaching are defining knowledge systems, imposing patterns and simultaneously, articulating resistance.

English has become the language through which Indians can imagine articulating their identities. It started as a language which was used used for translation and communication purposes in courts and British administrative offices. Later, however, it got turned into a powerful tool of subjugation and hegemonization. Research suggests that initially, the British were unsure about introducing English education. They then adopted a rather cautious approach and made it available to some selected groups of Indians. It would be appropriate to believe that during the mid-19th century, the British had the realisation that the seed of colonialism could be sowed in the education system. It changed the game in the favour of the British. A concept like ‘modernity’ received a colonial makeover and English education got inextricably associated with the term. English-education became synonymous with social mobility and is still continuing to shape social mobility in a major way.

If one analyses the position of English in the HE system, one can observe that it has been often used, misused and abused in India, a country with a multi-layered and complex social set-up. While people belonging to the lowest socioeconomic strata demanded access to more English and found progress and resistance against the upper class in higher education, another section, mainly comprising the elite, strengthened their position in higher education by availing themselves high quality English education. One can find evidence to support the claim that the field of English education in India has been highly political in nature. What acts as a balancing tool in this political game is the constant effort made by a section of the society to access opportunities and create desired identities. Therefore, instead of focusing on how English education has shaped identities in higher education, we must see the larger picture in which different sections of population have utilised English and hammered out contradictory and complementary identities that have catered to their needs, hopes and desires.

Santosh Mahapatra teaches academic English to engineering students and guides doctoral research at BITS Pilani Hyderabad Campus. His current research interests are Critical Pedagogy, Teacher Development and Classroom Assessment.

You can find the full article by Santosh Mahapatra and Sunita Mishra, ‘Articulating identities – the role of English language education in Indian universities’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 346-360 athttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547277


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Estranged Students in Higher and Further Education

by Yvette Taylor

This report is based on research by Yvette Taylor (Strathclyde) and Cristina Costa (West of England) as part of an SRHE funded project ‘Exploring ‘Estrangement’ in Higher Education: Standing Alone or Settling In?’

Estrangement feels very taboo… it’s almost like having to out myself a lot of the time to people… people are more familiar with the idea that your parents are divorced or have died or whatever“ (Jennifer, 31)

It’s like a rope round you pulling you back as you’re going forward, but I don’t think it’s a barrier that stops, I think it’s a barrier that’s just there and to be aware of.” (Robert, 29)

Estranged students can be defined as a group of young adults who have unstable, minimal or no contact with their parents and/or their wider family networks. In the context of Scotland estrangement status among students was only recognised in 2016 through campaigning initiatives supported by Stand Alone and ButtleUK. To date, only seven Scottish universities and colleges have explicit policies in place to support this group as signatories to the Stand Alone Pledge.

Little is known about the experiences of estranged students either in the UK or internationally: based on interviews (n=23), this study represents the first of its kind in Scotland, exploring how estranged students navigate education structures and the institutional and interpersonal resources available. It examines estranged students’ further and higher education experiences, identities and expectations, how these are supported and managed and what educational and employment aspirations are fostered and developed. While it is clear that steps have been made in helping education institutions identify and support estranged students, often estranged students do not fit pre-existing widening participation policies or funding categories (eg Bland, 2018; UCAS, 2017); discretion, care and flexibility are needed.

Students become estranged from their families for a number of reasons, including emotional and physical abuse, clash of values and mismatched expectations around family roles. In addition, estrangement can also relate to ‘divorce, honour-based violence, forced marriage, and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students’ (Blake, 2015).

Research Findings

  • Definitions of estrangement are restrictive and inflexible, offering little understanding or appreciation of the complexity of estrangement experiences and practices and hardships: the Office for Students limits the status of estrangement in higher education to students between 18 and 24 years old and stipulates that estrangement means no communicative relationship with either living biological parent (2018), a definition also shared by the Student Loans Company (2016). It can be very difficult to ‘prove’ the status of estrangement under such restrictive conditions.
  • Definitions of estrangement shape the identities and realities of those who are formally associated with it and who can become, or fear becoming, victims of scrutinisation and unfair surveillance strategies, justified in the name of anti-fraud detection. Often monitoring approaches do not take into account the specificities, vulnerabilities or characteristics of estranged students (Bland, 2018).
  • Estrangement does not cease or become irrelevant when a student reaches the age of 25. Even when young people leave the family home it ‘continues to be the site through which many of their individual biographies and expectations are routed’ beyond the tidy age of 25 (Valentine et al, 2003: 481).  This signals the complexity in defining ‘youth’ and the significance of this (expanding) point in the life-course of an individual, especially when they may lack the social and economic support that they are assumed to receive via family.
  • Although well intentioned, supporting structures only cater partially for the needs of estranged students who are often considered from the perspective and experience of traditional students, with ‘add-on’ support recognising additional financial hardships. The intersection of financial, social and emotional needs still has to be taken into account.
  • There are enduring similarities in the experiences of estranged students, with many reporting, for example, experiences of homelessness, severe financial hardship, mental health issues, disrupted study, etc. Experiences of estrangement can lead to a strong sense of difference and exclusion within further and higher education contexts. As colleges and universities claim readiness to welcome a diverse student body, there is a need to acknowledge the complexity of students’ lives, encompassing an approach inclusive of those do not fit within a regular or expected pattern of what it means to be a student.
  • While there are group commonalities, little is known about the differences in estranged students’ experiences, in terms of such issues as race, class, gender and sexuality, a knowledge gap that requires research attention. Students’ struggles need to be accounted for intersectionally rather than through a tick box exercise of widening participation/diversity agendas to which institutions sign up. The Stand Alone Pledge has to be agreed, actively implemented and monitored.  
  • Inclusion of estranged students in academia does not stop at entry point; to measure entry as success would be to ignore the challenges students bring and carry with them throughout their studies, and indeed beyond. Positioning students as ‘non-traditional’ can encourage a deficit perspective (and labelling students as ‘disadvantaged’ may strengthen stereotypes rather than contest them). This ‘othering’ of students from non-traditional backgrounds may well foster a sense of difference, with institutional variations in student integration.
  • It is important to consider students’ own definitions, as well as resistances and personal strength evident in all interviews. Often students face isolation, uncertainty, financial instability and experience or fear of homelessness, and yet have still secured a place at college or university using whatever limited resources, personal and practical, they have to navigate barriers to their academic success.
  • Family estrangement is often regarded as a form of deviance and interference in relation to both unquestioned assumptions and the cultural imagination that ‘a family is forever’ (Sharp, 2017). This is problematic in that such an approach casts estrangement as an anomaly that requires fixing, whereas family estrangement is becoming a more prevalent reality in modern society (Conti, 2015). 

It [estrangement] seems negative that you’re either cut off or cut yourself off from your family, and normally that comes with the attachment of ‘what have they done wrong for that to happen?’ (Robert, 29)

[estrangement comes with] a degree of further responsibility and further pressures that not everybody has to experience.” (Dylan, 28)

So I think financially it is a big difference [from peers who are not estranged]. As well as like focusing on my studies I need to focus on an income.” (Ingrid, 22)

Maybe they [students who are not estranged] can have worries about other things, but they will never lack food, they will never have to worry about rent or stuff like this.” (Martin, 22)

References

Blake, L (2017) ‘Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: a review and discussion of the literature’ Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (4): 521–36 https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12216

Bland, B (2018) ‘It’s all about the money: the influence of family estrangement, accommodation struggles and homelessness on student success in UK higher education’ Text. July 2018. https://doi.org/info:doi/10.5456/WPLL.20.3.68.

Conti, RP (2015) ‘Family estrangement: establishing a prevalence rate’ Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science 3 (2): 28–35 https://doi.org/10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4

Scharp, KM (2017) ‘‘‘You’re not welcome here”: a grounded theory of family distancing’ Communication Research, June https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542

Taylor, Y (2018) ‘The strange experiences of ‘estranged’ students’ Discover Society (blog) 2018 https://discoversociety.org/2018/11/06/the-strange-experiences-of-estranged-students/

Image: Postcard produced by research participant (see Taylor, 2018).

SRHE member Yvette Taylor is Professor of Education and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education at Strathclyde University.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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What’s wrong with the debate about widening participation and fair access?

By Rob Cuthbert

The invaluable Higher Education Policy Institute breakfast seminar series at the House of Commons continued on 27 February 2019 with speakers Chris Millward of the Office for Students, Alan Rusbridger (Oxford) and NUS President Shakira Martin asking the question: ‘Widening participation and fair access: is it time to reset the debate?’. The answer: yes it is, but the seminar didn’t.

This seminar could have happened at any time in the last 20 years, and probably did: obsession with Oxbridge admissions, with a nod to the severe but lesser difficulties of the (rest of the) Russell Group; a lament about social mobility being at a standstill; a deficit model of disadvantaged applicants still being used to excuse lack of progress; and a plea for greater use of contextualised admissions. There was a hint of menace in Millward’s reference to the much greater and more nuanced regulatory powers available to the OfS, reinforced as Rusbridger referred to Oxford’s changes – such as they were – being driven only by greater transparency and the fear of closer regulation. Shakira Martin gave an excellent tub-thumping speech but didn’t go beyond a general exhortation to dismantle the system and build a new one.

There were positive steps. Millward, having noted – with a tinge of regret? – that OfS powers did not extend to admissions, was good on reconstruing ‘merit’ as ability to benefit, rather than level of prior qualifications, citing Princeton’s recent example in tripling its proportion of student intake from disadvantaged backgrounds from 7% to 21%. He also properly emphasised the need for a package of support pre- and post-application: “getting in and getting on”, to which later comments added “getting out” – ie not letting employers escape their share of responsibility. But he pointed out that on present trends fair access would take 50 years to be realised, and Martin asked how many people would suffer in the meantime.

We are doing no more than inching in the right direction. The elephant in the room was the higher education ‘market’, taken for granted so much that it had become invisible as part of the problem. The whole debate was implicitly framed in a market environment. The last Labour government, the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and now the Conservative government developed a tripartisan agreement that HE should be treated as a market, in the profoundly mistaken belief that marketisation is the best way to ensure accountability and, as HE ministers always say, ‘to drive up standards’. This is a no-win game for universities, because government thinks that having more students getting better degrees is evidence not of rising standards but of grade inflation. And it’s a no-lose game for government: the marketisation policy survives despite the evidence that the HE market allowed in some for-profit operators who induce students with loans to transfer large sums of public money to them, in return for educational programmes of dubious quality.

In present circumstances the widening participation debate starts with the taken-for-granted assumption that universities and colleges are atomistic individual players in competition. However, institutions should not be allowed to do what, perhaps in desperation, they might think best in the competitive market – unconditional offers, closing unpopular science or language courses, or whatever. Government knows better and wants them to do things differently, even as it nods through the collateral damage of a policy-driven catastrophic fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students, and contemplates with equanimity the closure of entire universities – not the ‘top’ universities attended by ministers and civil servants, obviously, just the ones most likely to be serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, government knows better than students what is in students’ best interests, so the policy obsession is with admissions to Oxbridge and the Russell Group, to which of course all students would apply if only they knew what was best for them.

Hence the WP debate continues to be treated as a matter of institution-by-institution target-setting, public embarrassment, regulation, and occasional punishment of the deviants (only the lower-status deviants, obviously), in a way which implicitly and strongly reinforces higher education’s reputational hierarchy. We have travelled a long way from David Watson’s wise celebration of the UK’s ‘controlled reputational range’ and his reminder that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’ in widening participation.

Diagnoses are plentiful, but where might we find a solution? The first step is to remember that there is more to a widening participation philosophy than self-styled ‘top’ universities’ could dream of. Government could and should do much more to celebrate and reward the ‘other’ HE institutions – those which go on providing good or excellent HE for the great majority of students (over 80% of students do not attend Russell Group universities), but which may not appear in the top 20 of any university league table. And if that is too much to ask, then widening participation initiatives, at least, should raise their heads above institutional level. WP practitioners know that collaboration is the key to success.

Aimhigher, a national WP initiative based on collaboration, was killed in 2010 by the then new HE Minister David Willetts, having already been marked for execution by the outgoing Labour government. This was because, as HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, has said, there was not enough evidence (from the Treasury’s point of view) to save it rather than others from the axe. In subsequent years the collaboration was slowly reconstructed, as far as it could be, by WP stalwarts swimming against the rising tide of market forces in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The £50million annual cost of Aimhigher is by now outstripped by a much larger sum being spent much less efficiently on bursaries and predominantly institution-focused outreach activities. Rusbridger reminded us that Oxford’s £14million spend over 2009-2016 had benefited just 126 students, characterised by one seminar participant as spending ‘to keep things exactly as they are’.

How can we reset the debate on widening participation and fair access? We will not do it by encouraging another surge in the market tide. OfS’s widely-admired Chris Millward is doing his best to square the circle, with guidance issued on 28 February 2019 for institutions on their access and participation plans, but the overall programme is inevitably still enslaved by the ambitions and fears of excessively market-conscious institutions. We need to expand ringfenced funding and empower the people who spend it, for fair access initiatives which benefit institutions beyond their own – or, importantly, bring benefits to others but not at all to their own institution. (Yes, Russell Group, that means you.) Initiatives must be rooted in the institutions but promote higher education in general, and should rely for their success on improved participation from truly disadvantaged groups – not those often wrongly flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data. We need to support more institution-based activity which is not institution-focused. We need to help potential students find courses and institutions which are best for them, not courses in the ‘best’ institutions which their qualifications allow them to consider. Contextualised admissions make good sense in terms of reconstruing merit and ability to succeed, but institutions need to discover that for themselves, and discover how they need to change to accommodate different kinds of merit. Regulation will not change minds in the way that the experience and contribution of a more diverse student body will.

Just as we should be professional, but not mistake academics for a profession, be businesslike, but not mistake the university for a business, we should compete for students, but not mistake higher education for a market. Government and the Office for Students should encourage institutions to collaborate for fair access, and not mistake collaboration for a cabal. The OfS could then focus its attention on any ‘top’ university that is so insecure or selfish about its standing that it fails to collaborate in such collectively-funded fair access initiatives. Most institutions, allowed to be true to the values that motivate most of their staff and students, will do more for fair access than the Office for Students could ever impose.

SRHE Fellow Rob Cuthbert is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management and a former Deputy VC. He chaired Aimhigher South West, which had an integrated  region-wide programme of WP activity involving all of the South West’s 13 HEIs, 40 FE colleges, state secondary schools, regional agencies and the TUC. He edits SRHE News and the SRHE Blog and is interim chair of the SRHE Publications Committee


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The Intercultural Deterritorialisation of Knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the Enunciation of the Educator’s Rihla

 by Wisam Abdul-Jabbar

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This study appropriates the notion of deterritorialisation, a process that determines the nature of an assemblage introduced by Deleuze and Guattari, to refer to Al-Ghazali’s conceptualisation of scholarship and methodology as the antithesis of the pursuit of a fixed area of research. The article focuses on the eleventh-century teacher, philosopher, and Persian theologian Al-Ghazali. It explores his pedagogical response to the dominant controversy of his age, the question of true knowledge and authority in an Islamic landscape that was brilliantly diverse but intellectually confusing. The article examines intercultural practices that challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge. In what sense can rihla be an educational practice to challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge? How can Al-Ghazali’s response to scepticism, knowledge, and authority inform practices in higher education today? Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, it equally seeks cultural and intellectual reconciliation, which is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic, and entrapped in ethnocentric academic practices.

The aim of the paper is twofold. Firstly, the article employs the concept of rihla, as an intercultural practice that negates the notion of research as stasis and recovers its semantic origin of movement and process. Secondly, in my attempt to provide a theoretical framework for Al-Ghazali’s concept of rihla, which registers his response to skepticism, I draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialisation. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are French thinkers known for their collaborative works such as The Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). The concept of deterritorialisation refers to the disruption of a continuance, a movement or a process that determines the nature and the quality of an assemblage. In other words, deterritorialisation occurs when a rupture disrupts a cultural, religious or a sociopolitical assemblage.

Al-Ghazali’s methodological response to scepticism is marked by an understanding of academic scholarship as a moving interdisciplinary trajectory, always in flight, which ultimately enunciates rihla. Scholarship, therefore, materialises as an interdisciplinary zone whose trajectory deterritorialises the rigid lines of one discipline-based dissemination of knowledge. This article, thus, explores how Al-Ghazali negotiated epistemological notions such as “expertise” and “authority” within a thriving medieval interfaith and intercultural ambience marked by the convergence between knowledge and the public domain. Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, but it also challenges present-day divisive debates by extending the dialogical rhetoric beyond the Western landscape. To achieve that objective, this article first revisits two prominent events that sparked interest in how to generate and disseminate knowledge: the demise of prophecy and the encounter with foreignness as an intellectual entity. These two moments illustrate how a rupture in the Islamic epistemological assemblage initiated a profound intercultural encounter with foreignness and the resulting deterritorialisation that necessitated new educational practices. Accordingly, revisiting this encounter with the Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic traditions and examining how Islam and its ulama struggled but equally sought cultural and intellectual reconciliation is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic and entrapped in ethnocentric pedagogical practices.

Al-Ghazali’s autobiography, travel experience and interdisciplinary training demonstrate his methodology. Hence, the significance of using Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual framework is essential in the sense that they conceptualise knowledge to be an assemblage of multiliteracies that provokes the deterritorialisation of academic disciplines that would otherwise degenerate into metanarratives. An actualisation of rihla qualifies the traveler to participate in this intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue rather than being merely a distant, detached, and observer mentally trapped in an already-framed, meta-narrative academic discourse. A sabbatical leave, for example, is an opportunity to enact rihla as an alternative approach to common domesticated institutional comfort. To challenge the unadventurous, almost tourist-like stay, and become a more involved observer who is engaged in the transformative holistic experience of venturing outside one’s comfort zone becomes essential. It is an attempt to unpack the uncanny, nonconformist ways towards the acquisition of knowledge and reconcile our worldviews to what seemingly appears antithetical. I refer here to the culture of complacency that has crept into academia in which interdisciplinary academic rigour is mistakenly considered the antithesis of focused studies, which diminishes exposure to different theoretical lenses and pedagogical practices.

Such a culture runs the risk of having experts on postcolonialism who have never been to postcolonial countries except for short tourist-like visits, or tenured professors in international education who have never taught or studied abroad. It must be maintained here that for both Deleuze and Al-Ghazali, altthough the interdisciplinary dissemination of knowledge is fundamental, it is the absence of the diversification of knowledge that becomes an overiding concern. The Deleuzian notion of deterritorialisation can encourage institutions to look outside canonical methods of knowledge production and embed curriculum approaches that support the decentralisation of higher education. Similarly, Al-Ghazali, in his resilience and determination to abandon his post at Nizamiyya madrassa, was perhaps defying the notion of institutionalised knowledge. However, in the pre-modern Islamic world, the division between non-traditional learning experiences, such as rihla, and the institutionalised acquisition of knowledge, as represented by the madrassa, was not entirely unconnected and independent.

Al-Ghazali was troubled by how complacency in education amounts to sheer argumentation and malpresentation of knowledge. He pursued a line of flight that seeks intercultural connectivity. Rihla offers an opportunity to cross boundaries and relinquish regimented research. The medieval scholarly fascination with interdisciplinary rigour and multidimensional perspectives negates contemporary reluctance, often disavowed, to abandon disciplinary focus and figuratively sail perilously close to other academic shores. Moreover, unlike contemporary practices, Al-Ghazali’s understanding of interdisciplinary training is unfettered by academic departmentalisation. The initial stages of rigorous interdisciplinary training can be university-driven. However, it is detrimental once it becomes terminal. Al-Ghazali internalised that well-informed dissemination of knowledge is profoundly existential, intercultural and experimental. He is, arguably, one of the earliest proponents of the notion of lived curriculum.

Wisam Abdul-Jabbar is an adjunct academic colleague at the University of Alberta. His primary research interest is in intercultural education, curriculum theory, and multiculturalism. His previous articles have appeared in journals by Cambridge University Press, Duke University Press, California University Press and Routledge.

You can find Wisam’s full article (“The intercultural deterritorialization of knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the enunciation of the educator’s Rihla”) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1542378


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How our teaching encourages naïve skepticism

by Jake Wright

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

A common problem instructors face at the introductory level is naïve skepticism. Such skepticism is not the result of some thoroughly considered view of truth, but rather a reflexive, unthinking rejection of universal truth. It can take the form of claims like, “Well, that may be true for you,” or “that’s just your opinion.” Of course, claims like this might be warranted for certain propositions, like whether a hamburger is delicious, but seem clearly out of place for clearly factual questions like whether humans cause climate change or whether increased access to guns leads to an increase in gun deaths. Such claims also might be warranted given a particular, well-developed skeptical view like scientific anti-realism, but these sorts of nuanced, well-supported views are not typically the sorts of views introductory students bring with them to class. Thus, a natural question one might ask is why students would do this, especially if the point of education is to gain knowledge.

In my forthcoming paper, “The truth, but not yet: Avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims,” I argue that there are a variety of reasons why students might be motivated to adopt naïve skepticism. Many of these reasons have to do with the students themselves. For example, they may be at a stage on Perry’s intellectual development framework that predisposes them to such claims, or they may have moral commitments to tolerance and diversity that seemingly obligates them to adopt a purely relativistic view of truth. 

Some reasons have to do with the claims that are themselves at issue. Research has shown that claims that are normative, controversial, and unsettled are more likely to elicit relativistic responses, and for disciplines like mine – philosophy – if it’s not normative, controversial, and unsettled, it’s often not worth talking about. Even if you’re not a philosopher, nearly every discipline faces such questions. We must ask ourselves what the normative implications of agreed-upon facts are, we must interpret evidence that is unclear, and we must choose theoretical lenses through which we interpret our data, and such choices are not always as clear-cut as we would like.

In addition to the above reasons, I argue, students’ naïve skepticism is also the result of our teaching. In other words, many of the otherwise justifiable pedagogical choices we make carry with them the unfortunate consequence of encouraging naïve skepticism in our students. Let me give an example. One common strategy for presenting normative, controversial, and unsettled claims is to “teach the debate,” or present the most plausible views in their best light without explicitly settling on one as clearly preferable. There are many excellent reasons why one might want to teach the debate. The instructor may be trying to develop particular skills (eg metacognition and critical thinking) that may be negatively impacted by declarations of truth by fiat. Epistemic humility may be called for. Teaching the debate may encourage discussion or respect the effect of instructor/student power dynamics. As I said, these are all excellent reasons, but these pedagogical benefits come with a cost. 

When teaching the debate, especially at the introductory level, the emphasis of the course often shifts from one of discovering the truth to being able to demonstrate particular disciplinary skills. For example, suppose I assign a paper asking students to argue for whether or not the mind is a purely physical entity.  If I teach the debate, students will have three broad options to choose from: the view that the mind is purely physical; the view that the mind is purely non-physical; and the view that the mind is made of physical matter, but has certain non-physical properties. If I’m teaching an introductory course, I can expect my students to have only the most rudimentary understanding of these views. They do not, nor should they be expected to, understand complicated versions of each position built upon decades of disciplinary activity. Further, what I’m ultimately interested in is whether my students can demonstrate certain basic philosophical skills, like argument construction and analysis. Thus, the standards on which I am grading my students hew much closer to “show me you can do a thing” than “tell me what the fact of the matter is.” It shouldn’t be surprising in such circumstances, where topics are presented without any indication of which competing view is correct and when assignments assess skill development rather than truth discovery, that students feel comfortable declaring that there simply is no underlying fact.

The question, then, becomes what we should do about this. As I argue in my paper, I don’t think the proper response is to abandon pedagogical techniques like teaching the debate. The pedagogical benefits they bring with them would reduce such a response to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The most common response has been to maintain our pedagogies while directly confronting the naïve skeptic. When a student declares there is no truth, we try to point out why they obviously don’t really think that. But such strategies fall flat. The naïve skeptic may abandon (or feign abandoning) their view for the nonce, but they often quickly return to it after the discomfort of direct confrontation has left them.

Instead, I argue that we should work to overcome naïve skepticism via a reconception of our introductory courses as an extended discussion of metadisciplinary aims and how those aims differ from the particular aims of the course itself. In other words, I suggest undermining the conditions in the course that give rise to naïve skepticism itself by moving students away from the defensive posture that comes with direct confrontation, addressing the prior commitments that students bring with them, and giving students the opportunity to interrogate whether a particular discipline is able to discover truths about the world.  There’s much to say about how the strategy plays out in practice, but space prevents it here.  For a detailed discussion, though, I would encourage you to read the article, which I hope you find useful and thought-provoking.

Jake Wright is a senior lecturer in the Center for Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. His research focuses on the pedagogical and ethical justifications for in-class practices at the introductory level. He can be found on Twitter (@bcnjake), Google Scholar, and PhilPeople.

You can find Jake’s full article (“The truth, but not yet: avoiding naïve skepticism via explicit communication of metadisciplinary aims”) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1544552