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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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  


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What is Times Higher Education for?

By Paul Temple

Have you been to a THE Awards bash? If not, it’s worth blagging an invite – your University must be on the shortlist for Herbaceous Border Strategy Team of the Year, or some such, as the business model obviously depends on getting as many universities as possible onto the shortlists, and then persuading each university to cough up to send along as many of its staff as possible. A night out at a posh Park Lane hotel for staff whose work most likely is normally unnoticed by the brass: where’s the harm? I went once – once is enough – mainly I think because our Marketing Director wanted to see if I really possessed a dinner jacket. (She was generous enough to say that I “scrubbed up nicely”.)

I mention this because THE itself seems to be becoming less a publication dealing with higher education news and comment and more a business aimed at extracting cash from higher education institutions, with the weekly magazine merely being a marketing vehicle in support of this aim. The Awards events are the least bothersome aspect of this. The THE rankings – highly valued as “how not to use data” examples by teachers of basic quantitative methods courses – have now entered the realm of parody (“Emerging Economy Universities with an R in their names”) although the associated conferences and double-page advertising spreads in the magazine rake in a nice bit of revenue, one imagines. THE might fairly respond by saying that nobody makes these universities come to their conferences or buy corporate advertising in their pages, and anyway they weren’t the ones who decided that the marketization of higher education worldwide would be a good idea. True, but their profit-making activities give the ratchet another turn, making it harder for universities trying to survive in a competitive market to say no to marketing blandishments, and so helping to move yet more spending away from teaching and research: something regularly lampooned by Laurie Taylor in – remind me where his Poppleton column appears?

The newer, more problematic, development is THE then selling itself as a branding consultancy to the same universities that it is including in its rankings and maybe covering in its news or comment pages. Now it goes without saying that a journal with the standards of THE would never allow the fact that it was earning consultancy fees from a university to influence that university’s position in the rankings that it publishes or how it was covered editorially. It would be unthinkable: not least because it would at a stroke undermine the whole basis of the rankings themselves. Audit firms similarly assure us that the fact that they are earning consultancy fees from a company could never affect the audit process affecting that company. The causes of misleading audit reports – on Carillion, say – should be sought elsewhere, we’re told.

But wait a minute, what’s this on the THE website? “THE is the data provider underpinning university excellence in every continent across the world. As the company behind the world’s most influential university ranking, and with almost five decades of experience as a source of analysis and insight on higher education, we have unparalleled expertise on the trends underpinning university performance globally. Our data and benchmarking tools are used by many of the world’s most prestigious universities to help them achieve their strategic goals.” This seems to be saying that the data used to create the THE rankings are available, at a price, to allow universities to improve their own performance. Leaving aside the old joke about a consultant being someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, referring to the data used to produce rankings and in the following sentence proposing using the same data to help universities achieve their strategic goals (and I’d be surprised if these goals didn’t include rising in the aforementioned rankings) will suggest to potential clients that these two THE activities are linked. Otherwise why mention them in the same breath? This is skating on thin ethical ice.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

 


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Powerful knowledge in the fishbowl

By Jim Hordern

A review of an SRHE South West Regional Network event on ‘Knowledge and power in higher education’

On 8 May 2018 an SRHE SW Regional Network event held at the International Centre for Higher Education Management (ICHEM) at the University of Bath examined ‘knowledge and power in higher education’. Two speakers, Michael Young and Melz Owusu (who also treated the audience to some rap), gave opposing views. This was followed by brief comments from David Packham and a ‘fishbowl’ discussion session, which offered audience members opportunities to voice their opinions on the topic.

Young, well known for his advocacy of ‘powerful knowledge’, outlined key tenets of his thesis: firstly, that the knowledge taught in schools and higher education should be specialised and differentiated from everyday experience, and secondly that the disciplines in higher education provide a reasonable means for organising that knowledge. Young emphasised that access to powerful knowledge should be an entitlement in a democratic society, and that this entitlement is undermined by the attack on collegiality in academia.

Owusu echoed aspects of postcolonial and critical theory to argue that the academy represents an ‘all-encompassing Eurocentric epistemology’, and that this implicitly and explicitly excludes non-European knowledges and cultural traditions. For Owusu, Continue reading


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Preventing Plagiarism – Professional Development Programme

By Caroline Jones and Gill Mills

Report of an SRHE Professional Development Programme Event held in January 2018

This event was relevant and current for all who work in and across HE. Plagiarism is a contentious and serious matter for students in higher education and a challenge for staff; it made the ‘Preventing Plagiarism’ professional development programme both intriguing and attractive. We all want to know how to ensure our students never fall into the trap of attempting to pass off the work of others as their own.  However many times we point students in the direction of institutional regulations and talk about ‘plagiarism’ and ‘misconduct’ there are still frequent cases. Sadly, plagiarism is becoming more accessible to students, owing to the perils of essay mills, contract cheating and now even spy kits. Institutional policies are rightly steeped in procedural routes and punishments can be severe, with misconduct panel meetings, outcomes logged on a student’s record, and even expulsion from the institution. Both staff and students report that these processes are stressful, severe and unpleasant experiences. In a bid to make changes Continue reading


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Doing good by wealth

By Paul Temple

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: Continue reading

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Academic freedom and freedom of speech

By Rob Cuthbert

In universities worldwide the debate about academic freedom and free speech continues, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile journalists in the popular press seem to have decided that political correctness and the ‘snowflake generation’ have made it impossible for anyone to debate anything in universities any more. But for those journalists, ‘research’ usually consists of looking at other journalists’ opinion pieces and referring to an alleged ‘free speech’ ranking from Spiked. This greatly exercised Registrarism’s Paul Greatrix, whose vituperative blog on 16 February 2017 said that as usual the new ranking was “sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press”. As if to prove his point, a report from the Adam Smith Institute on alleged left-wing bias in academia was attacked by Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole), aiming to debunk what he called this sinister new addition to the debate. The report was called Lackademia, though the URL was blunter: it read “Left Wing Bias Paper”.

Beyond the mass media there is a more informed debate. A faculty committee at the University of Minnesota Continue reading


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Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes : Continue reading

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Academic practice, identity and careers

By Bruce Macfarlane

The word ‘traditional’ is possibly the most over-used term in the higher education discourse. In common with nearly all institutions that have endured for any substantial length of time, such as the Church of England or the Conservative Party, the University has been adroit at re-inventing itself. The latest re-imagining is that ‘traditional’ universities are research-led institutions. This myth has comparatively recent roots linked to the growth of an audit culture, expansion and stratification on an international basis, and academic performativity at an individual level. These trends have collectively re-shaped the nature of academic practice and identity over the last 50 years.

An insight into how priorities have changed among academics during the recent past is provided by Halsey and Trow’s seminal study, published in 1971, of a then still small and elite British higher education sector drawing on data gathered in the mid-1960s (at a time when the SRHE was being formed). They found that British academics were overwhelmingly oriented towards teaching rather than research. A mere 10 per cent were even ‘interested’ in research while just 4 per cent regarded research as their primary responsibility (Halsey & Trow, 1971). The study concludes Continue reading