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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Practising a Pragmatic Critical Pedagogy in Higher Education

by Mona Sakr

Reflections on a workshop hosted by the SRHE Academic Practice Network

At a workshop on 8 May 2019 in the SRHE offices Jennifer Bain and Juliet Sprake (Goldsmiths University) shared their emerging conceptualisations of a ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’. Their ground-breaking approach comes about as a way to grapple positively with the tensions and affective dissonance that critical pedagogues encounter in the contemporary HE landscape, characterised as it is by neoliberal definitions of learning as consumption and the relentless emphasis on ‘student satisfaction’. What do we do with the uneasiness we feel? How do we move from our experiences of discomfort? Bain and Sprake shared in this workshop the spaces that they have created as a response to these questions, and, in particular, innovations emerging through a research and teaching project that they have conducted with partners in the Philippines.

The approach presented in the workshop hinges on the infusion of critical pedagogies with principles and processes that are essential to design education. Bain and Sprake argue that working with design mindsets and methods can enable us to find and make the micro-adjustments to practice that allow critical pedagogies to flourish in a potentially stifling wider climate. Through design, we can grapple with the contradictions and complexities we encounter as researchers and teachers without falling into a pit of despair. Through the design process, we identify responsive actions to the disjunctions and the dissonance. As we move against and around dominant neoliberal discourses of ‘learning as consumption’, the design process can inspire us to move on to the ‘what next’.

As participants in the workshop, we had the opportunity to try out for ourselves the design infused critical pedagogy that Bain and Sprake advocate. What Bain and Sprake call ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’ was put to work in small groups where we decided on a particular problem statement relating to the research-practice culture of universities; statements such as ‘collaboration is time-consuming’ or ‘teaching-led research is undervalued’. We were then prompted through a series of design-focused questions to see the opportunities for design at work in the statement. We applied particular design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’ or ‘empathy’) to find new ways of seeing the problem. The point was not to ‘unsee’ the contradictions, tensions and frictions, but rather to see them from a different perspective, inviting new avenues for action.

Reactions to the task were enthusiastic. Discussion after the activity suggested that participants appreciated how the design nature of the task invited participants to launch into genuine and open dialogues with each other. At the same time, as you would expect, new points of tension emerged. What does the design process do to the affective dimensions of  critical pedagogy? Do design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’) override affective dimensions that might be a vital part of critical pedagogy? What happens to the anger, what Freire calls the ‘just ire’ (Freire, 2004), that comes with disjunction and dissonance? What happens when we push beyond despair to occupy an artificially induced space of optimism? How much of the design approach privileges working within the constraints and conditions of our situation (designing for an audience and to a brief), and therefore enables micro-adjustments that align with, rather than challenge, the status quo?

It is exciting to see that Bain and Sprake are currently extending their research, with support from the British Council, to look at how pragmatic critical pedagogies might play out on digital platforms. As they observed in the workshop, digital learning tends to be designed around behaviourist principles of learning, rather than tuning into the foundations of critical pedagogy. It will be fascinating to see how their explorations as part of the project ‘A Sustainable Framework for Design Thinking in Education’ might begin to unsettle the dominant models of digital learning and help to move the sector forward. 

SRHE member Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at Middlesex University. Her latest book is Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives.

Reference

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm. 


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What is an academic judgement?

By Geoff Hinchliffe

Academics make academic judgements virtually every working day. But what exactly is an academic judgement? As a starting point, one might have recourse to appropriate statutory documents: for example, the 2004 Higher Education Act mentions that a student complaint does not count as a ‘qualifying’ complaint if it relates to matters pertaining to an ‘academic judgment’ (Higher Education Act, 2004, p5, Section 12). The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) helps to provide a gloss on the term:

“Academic judgment is not any judgment made by an academic; it is a judgment that is made about a matter where the opinion of an academic expert is essential. So for example a judgment about marks awarded, degree classification, research methodology, whether feedback is correct or adequate, and the content or outcomes of a course will normally involve academic judgment.” (OIA, 2018, Section 30.2)

But although it is heartening to see that some deference is paid to academic judgment, little light is thrown on what it actually is. This can, of course, be useful: for example, Cambridge University’s (2018) complaint procedure quotes the OIA definition without further elaboration. Providing no-one is prepared to question the nature of academic judgement, who are we to complain? But, at the risk of disturbing sleeping dogs, I propose to enquire more closely as to what constitutes an academic judgement.

Two points are worth making at the outset. The first is that academic judgements should not be construed as the special preserve of those designated as ‘academics’. Students also make academic judgements along the same lines as academics, so it’s not the case that academics make special judgements that students couldn’t possibly understand. The second point is that the object of judgements – what is being judged – may vary considerably, but the kind of judgement being made is still of the same type. The elements of judgement remain the same whether the object of scrutiny is a first year undergraduate essay or a paper in a leading journal.

It seems to me that there are four basic types of academic judgement and they frequently operate in combination – it is this that gives the whole business of judgement its mystique and rarefied quality.

1. Process judgements

When we evaluate any kind of process that has (or is supposed to have) a definable outcome we tend to use a set of criteria, although the latter may be carefully delineated or may operate as background guidelines. Examples are the following of some clinical procedure (where the criteria are strict) or following laboratory protocols (ditto). But they could also include the evaluation of the methodology in a piece of empirical research, in which we consider the suitability of the methodology used and its success or otherwise. Process judgements are also entailed in the evaluation of essays in terms of structure and argumentation leading up (hopefully) to a conclusion. In this case, we evaluate the process of writing and structuring an essay or report; we consider, for example,  whether the author has ‘signposted’ the argument so that its trajectory has some kind of sense and cohesion. Process judgements tend to be ‘rule-governed’. But as I have indicated, in some cases the rules are pretty clear and in other cases there is much room for flexibility. So, regarding essays, there are no fixed rules for demonstrating a process of argumentation; but neither are there no rules at all. In the film Pirates of the Caribbean it is explained that the Pirate’s Code is not to be adhered to strictly at all times because it is not so much a fixed code as ‘guidelines’. Very sound advice too.

For those interested in philosophy, process judgements are roughly akin to what Wittgenstein thinks of as ‘following a rule’ (see Wittgenstein, 1958, paras 201-2). In this case, what Wittgenstein has in mind are the rules for using words so that they have a meaning that is understood. But since meanings are never fixed (unless through prior stipulation) then they are indeed ‘guidelines’. Who would have thought a pirate would be reading Wittgenstein?

2. Epistemic Judgements

In the case of epistemic judgements we are assessing claims to knowledge. That is, we are assessing whether the claimant has sufficient evidence and reasons for making a knowledge claim. Of course, we are also interested in the context – that is whether and to what extent the claimant is aware of relevant context that may affect the claims they are making. Furthermore, we are often reluctant to make positive judgements if the claim simply asserts a proposition – to the effect that such-and such is the case – even if the proposition is true. We need to see the evidence and reasoning that back up the knowledge claim – bare assertions are usually not enough.

There are two further features of epistemic judgements: first they are objective, in the sense of being propositional – they purport to say ‘how the world is’. Second, they are universal in the sense that in making such a judgement I am claiming that everyone will reach the same conclusion as myself. Of course, others may disagree but the idea is that, in principle, these disagreements are adjudicable (Steinberger, 2018, p38).

Notice that if I am marking a student paper then I am assessing the kinds of epistemic judgements the student is making – whether the claims made are true and whether they are well founded. It’s not the case that the student is doing one thing and I am doing something else – the writer of the paper and the assessor are both making the same kind of judgements. That is, the student needs to be in the habit of assessing their own epistemic judgements as to evidence and reasoning in exactly the same way that I, the assessor, am doing. The process is the same: the only difference is that in the one case the outcome is a paper and in the other, the outcome is a mark.

3. Reflective Judgements

This kind of judgement is tricky to explain but I think readers will see its importance. By ‘reflective’ I don’t mean the reflective judgement beloved of writers of practitioner manuals where ‘reflective’ means ‘self-reflective’. Thus interpreted, reflection is usually reflection on a procedure and one’s part in it. In other words, practitioner self-reflective judgements are really a kind of process judgement.

What I have in mind as ‘reflective’ is when we think of a piece of data, a theory, or a concept in functional or relational terms. We look for a broader framework within which phenomena can be better understood. Thus, Kant thought that when we reflect on a natural phenomenon we situate nature in a purposive or teleological framework, in order to provide a kind of interpretive unity (Kant, 2000, p67).  More generally, we can think of reflective judgements as contextual: we look for links and relationships in order to make sense of the object of study, to bring some sense of order and unity to bear. Reflective judgements can be highly creative when links are made between phenomena that weren’t thought of before. Quite a lot of Foucault’s work was of this type – for example, the way in which he related different kinds of formative behaviours into the notion of the disciplinary: in seeing that behaviours in schools, prisons, hospitals and the like were produced and reproduced he was able to fashion a new concept – the ‘disciplinary’ – which gives us real insight into how modernity works.

Peter Steinberger (2018, pp47-50) explains the nature of reflective judgements rather well, in my view – he sees reflective judgements as different from what I have called epistemic judgements (following Kant, he calls the latter ‘determinate’ judgements). What a reflective judgement does is to provide an interpretive context in which different knowledge claims can be related and thus better understood. Reflective judgements operate at the level of meaning. When we ask our students to make the links both within and across modules we are asking them to think reflectively.

4. Normative Judgements

We need to be clear that normative judgements are not the same as ethical judgements. I see the latter as delivering a verdict on the worth or rightness of a person or action. As such, ethical judgements play (or should play) a minor role in academic research and production. It is irritating if a historian gives us ethical verdicts on her subject matter (Henry was a good king, but King John was a bad one) – ethical judgements are almost always unnecessary.

But normative judgements are something else. They involve according due sensitivity to the values and norms associated with the subject matter under consideration. By their very nature, normative judgements are contextual. For example, if a student fails to appreciate the nature of religiosity in fifteenth century England (for example, by seeing it in terms of ignorance and superstition because of a modernist, secular approach which the student brings to bear) then it is the normative judgement that has gone awry. Or, if a research methodology fails to take due account of the needs of confidentiality, again, it is a normative judgement that is deficient. Normative judgements often operate in combination with other judgements (especially with process and reflective judgements) and this is one of the reasons why academic judgement can be complex.

Conclusion

If I am right then there are four basic elements to an academic judgement. Typically in any assessment all four elements are operating together – process, epistemic, reflective and normative. The judgements we use are precisely those that we want our students to develop. We can see straight away that attempts to categorise and tabulate all of these elements may be helpful but are unlikely to be comprehensive. The precise nature of the judgement will vary according to subject matter and no set of assessment criteria that I have seen comes anywhere near to giving full justice to the complexity of the judgements involved. Moreover, most of those outside academia (government ministers, MPs, media people and the like) are just clueless regarding how much they know of this complexity.

Complex, yes: but not so complex that we can’t attempt to say what is involved in giving an academic judgement. But the above sketch cannot be the last word – if I have succeeded in suggesting some initial ‘guidelines’ then that is a start.

SRHE member Geoff Hinchliffe teaches undergraduates in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia. This blog is partly based on a paper he gave at the 2018 SRHE Research Conference.

Bibliography

Cambridge University (2018) Student Complaints https://www.studentcomplaints.admin.cam.ac.uk/general-points-about-procedures/academic-judgment

Higher Education Act (2004) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/8/pdfs/ukpga_20040008_en.pdf

Kant, I (1933) Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Kemp-Smith, N, London: Macmillan

Kant, I (2000) Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. Guyer, P and Matthews, E, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

OIA (2018) Guidance Note on the OIA Rules http://www.oiahe.org.uk/rules-and-the-complaints-process/guidance-note-on-the-oias-rules.aspx#para30

Steinberger, P.J (2018), Political Judgement, Cambridge: Polity Press

Wittgenstein, L (1958) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell


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Teaching for Epistemic Justice in a Post-truth World

by Kathy Luckett

In Teaching in Higher Education’s recent special issue on ‘Experts, Knowledge and Criticality’ (2019) we noted in the editorial that traditional forms of expertise and epistemic authority are under threat. In his subsequent blog, Harrison warned: “Higher education is in danger of sleep walking into a crisis”.

In this post-truth era it is useful to be reminded of Castells’ (1996, 2010) warnings about the crumbling of liberal democratic institutions, which he predicted would become ‘empty shells’, devoid of power and meaning in the ‘information age’ (2010:353). As early as 1996 he warned that the ‘network society’ would bypass the rationalising influence of civil society institutions (include here institutions of higher education). Castells also predicted a related loss of influence for the old ‘legitimising identities’ based on roles located in civil society institutions – such as those of experts and academics in universities and research institutes. The information and communication technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have huge potential to democratise flows of information in open spaces on the web and strengthen civil society, but Castells’ corpus shows how this ‘communication power’ is caught in the contradictions of the global capitalist market. Nation states have limited power to regulate information flows on behalf of their citizens, while control of communication power now rests in the hands of global corporations such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Apple which are driven by market rather than democratic logics.

At a cultural level, individuals’ access to mass communication via social media has led to ‘communicative autonomy’ and the emergence of radical forms of individualism which undermine older identities based on tradition or citizenship of sovereign nation states (Castells 2010, 2012). Despite the decline of these older forms of solidarity, those individuals who participate in the wealth and power of the global economy feel recognised and included in society, but those who do not feel excluded and misrecognised. Because the latter groups no longer feel (or never were) included as full citizens of civil society, they are taking up ‘resistance identities’ put out on social media. Resistance identities are invariably based on subordinated groups’ sense of misrecognition and exclusion from the mainstream and tap into axiologically charged ‘structures of feeling’ (Rizvi, 2006:196).  In some cases, the construction of resistance identities draws on fundamentalist or essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, religion or place. More generally, resistance identities create a sense of belonging by appealing to individual attributes, authentic experience and/or personal pain and trauma. On social media these attributes become reified as new cultural codes, captured in new images of representation and commodified for display. Castells (2010) describes these as closed fragmented identities that fail to connect or transcend into broader forms of human solidarity.

This analysis by Castells is useful for thinking about the recent student protests on South African campuses (2015-2017). Student activists in the #RMF (RhodesMustFall) and #FMF (FeesMustFall) movements creatively used multi-media platforms to spread their message, organise protests and perform their politics, creating new anti-establishment resistance identities and cultural codes. In a post-settler society such as South Africa, where identities remain highly ‘raced’, the contradictions of global capital alluded to above are played out through a race-based identity politics that pits ‘blackness’ against ‘whiteness’. Undoubtedly the assertion of ‘blackness’ by black students and staff, particularly on historically white campuses, was a consequence of their continued misrecognition and exclusion by the ‘whiteness’ of institutional cultures and practices, a generation after South Africa’s political transition (the long shadow of ‘coloniality’). In such neo-colonial contexts, the frustration and anger of black students from poor homes and schools is exacerbated by their continued exclusion from academic success and from the promise of employment in the global economy and the relief from poverty that this guarantees. What also became apparent during the protests was the students’ rejection and dismissal of authority based on the old ‘legitimising’ identities of civil society – such as those of university executives, senior managers, academics and government officials.

In such post-truth contexts where the liberal democratic order is dissipating and our own roles and identities are no longer naturally legitimate, the challenge for academics is how to connect with our students and teach in ways that address their concerns and issues. I suggest this means teaching for epistemic justice. What does this mean?

In the editorial for the special issue (Harrison and Luckett, 2019) we argued that we should work with the destabilisation of modern epistemology and its problematic blindness about the relationship between power and reason. We noted the capacity of digital technologies to open up previously protected boundaries around knowledge production – to include historically excluded and silenced knowers and their ways of knowing. However, we also advocated that we teach our students how to use the epistemic rules, criteria and norms developed by expert communities of practice for validating truth claims. The promotion of epistemic justice involves showing students how to move beyond naïve scepticism and judgmental relativism about truth claims and how to become active and critical participants in processes of knowledge production. The articles in the special issue include creative ideas and strategies on how to give students the tools to judge truth claims for themselves.

I believe the degree to which the academy is prepared to work at promoting epistemic justice – not only on campuses but also on digital platforms – will be reflected in our students’ capacity to judge old and new truth claims for themselves. The achievement of greater epistemic justice in curricula and pedagogy in higher education institutions could empower students to refuse capture by the communicative and axiological power of closed, potentially authoritarian forms of resistance identities. Social and epistemic justice entails the freedom to choose to dis-identify from fixed social identities and encouraging students to work with identity as a process of becoming who they hope to become in a complex heterogeneous public sphere.

Here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • What are the implications for our teaching of the fact that students are highly ‘mediatised’ and may not recognise our expertise and authority as legitimate?
  • When students take up resistance identities do we acknowledge that this is invariably a consequence of their feeling misrecognised and excluded?
  • To what extent do our institutional policies that claim to address equity, access, diversity and inclusion, assume assimilation and compliance? To what extent do they challenge given hierarchies of power and unequal patterns of participation in the academic project?
  • Do we articulate for students our own social and historical locations, acknowledging their political salience for our academic work?
  • In our curriculum development, how far is it possible to challenge the hegemonic grip of the North over knowledge production? Do we, wherever possible, promote a ‘pluriversal’ approach to knowledge that includes making space for new cultural codes, new knowers and alternative ways of knowing?
  • Do we teach students to critically historicise and contextualise the development of the modern disciplines and thus question false claims to universality?

Kathy Luckett is the Director of the Humanities Education Development Unit and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is a member of the Review Board for Teaching in Higher Education.

References

Castells, M (1996) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Rise of the Network Society Volume I Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2009) Communication Power Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M (2010) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. The Power of Identity. Volume II (2nd edn) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Harrison, N and Luckett, K (2019) ‘Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education 24 (3): 259-271

Rizvi, F (2006) ‘Imagination and the Globalisation of Educational Policy Research’ Globalisation, Societies and Education 4(2): 193-205