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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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


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Experts, knowledge and criticality in the age of ‘alternative facts’: re-examining the contribution of higher education

by Neil Harrison

Higher education is in danger of sleepwalking into a crisis. There is a growing assault on the very idea of expertise and on the experts that hold it. As educators, we need to respond decisively or risk a slow drift into irrelevance.

The starting points for this post need little rehearsal. The digital revolution has put potentially limitless information at the fingertips of most of world at little or no cost. Social media have opened up new lines of communication that enable individuals to reach unmediated audiences that would not have been possible even ten years ago. However Continue reading


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All swans are grey when you’d rather not look

by Paul Temple

Peter Bernstein, in his book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (Wiley, 1996), argues that risk was the revolutionary idea that defined modernity: “a rational process of risk-taking…provided the missing ingredient that has propelled science and enterprise…[into] our own age” (2). Bernstein argues that an understanding of risk enabled people to think about the future in a new way, and, crucially, to see that they might have some control over it. Tomorrow need not be like today.

I don’t know about you, but when I last completed a risk register entry, it didn’t quite feel as if I was pushing the boundaries of modernity. I always made sure that my entries were completely in the red sectors of the form: high risk of failure with catastrophic consequences and no mitigating actions possible. This was for two reasons: Continue reading


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Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

by Juliette Torabian

Click on the title followed by ‘version française’ below to jump to the French language version of this post. We continue to encourage submissions such as the one below to include perspectives in languages other than English. Please send all contributions to the editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

l’UE: L’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente! (version française)

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

Fostering equity and equality between men and women and reducing different forms of gendered discrimination has taken centre stage in the European policies of the past two decades, for example in the pact for gender equality (2011-2020).

Gender equality policies and legislation have also proliferated at national and institutional levels, in an attempt to reduce existing vertical and horizontal gender segregations which have traditionally favoured men. For example, 23 out of 28 European Member States have established a voluntary or legislative quota for political parties and their parliaments to ensure women representation. To tackle the gender pay gap – which is one of the most persistent horizontal gender inequalities – in the UK and in Germany, for instance, companies are now required to establish transparency in their salary and bonus systems.

Similar policies have been applied to academia and research. In Austria, for example, there is a 40% quota for all university committees and universities are awarded additional funds for appointing women professors. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit monitors and supports equity and equality among staff and students in higher education, and in Sweden extra support is provided to women approaching professorship. Such initiatives also exist, in different degrees and forms, in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, according to the EIGE report.

Have these multiplying initiatives transformed gendered norms and stereotypes in higher education systems and helped creating equal opportunities for both men and women? The reality is not as promising as one might wish for.

One basic issue arises from the distorted interpretations of gender equality as a concept. Increasingly, it is used as an equivalent to women’s rights and empowerment in the so-called battle of the sexes.

Within this distorted perception, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor”- to use Freire’s words. Instead of rewarding institutions where outcomes for women practically equal those of men, the tendency is for near-parity or women outperforming men to be applauded – while in both cases the actual participation levels are hidden and/or ignored. In effect, this worldview harms men but harms women even more severely. It objectifies women in institutions’ tokenism while no actual shift in power relations has taken place.

This perplexing view has a direct impact on access and success in higher education. In many OECD countries, particularly those with higher income, boys are more likely to repeat a grade, dropout of high school, and opt for directly entering the labour market rather than higher education. This has led to a ‘feminisation’ of bachelor’s programmes (58% female graduates). The choice of fields and progress in the level of study remain gender segregated. Women are more likely to study undergraduate programmes considered feminine, including education, business, law, social science, health and welfare. Men, on the other hand, study in engineering and STEM fields and outnumber women at PhD levels – that is, if they opt to enter university.

Gender inequalities that still persist are indeed causing considerable economic loss of public and private investment in higher education. “Across the EU, women have better educational outcomes than men (44% of women aged 30-34 in the EU completed tertiary education, compared to 34% of men)”, yet receive an average of 16%  less hourly pay.  Around 10% of their wage difference remains “unexplained” according to the 2018 EU report on equality.

Likewise, according to Eurostat’s 2017 report, 22.4% of the European population are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We know that men are increasingly shunning higher education. It is also clear that “those with only upper secondary education have earned around 50% less than those with a tertiary education between 2000-15 in OECD countries”. The prospects for the average European household poverty rate in the next decades sound worrying with less educated men and lower paid educated women. It may be, therefore, fair to say that gender equality policies- in their current forms- have not delivered equal opportunities and are not fit to create sustainable societies.

I have elsewhere expressed my concern on access policies that can be carrying a “Cinderella syndrome”, hence betraying the promise of higher education in bringing social change. I reiterate my argument here with regard to the current formulation and application of gender equality policies and quotas in European higher education.

Despite some progress, gender policies have systematically failed in ‘undoing’ gender stereotypes. They are – at least partially – responsible for : increasing inequality of access for men to a majority of undergraduate fields of studies; maintaining the proportions of men and women in fields traditionally assigned to their gendered roles; and not having completely reversed trends in salaries and representation of women at professorial and higher management levels in universities. Evidence from a recent study in France has also shown the failure of gender-related quotas. It argues that having more women on appointment committees has, in fact, had reverse impacts and dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired.

It is time to mind and close the gender gaps that still persist and to redress the new ones we have fabricated by the inadequacy of our gender policies in higher education systems.  Or, We could confide it to AI, but that might make things worse!

Juliette Torabian is a senior international specialist in education and sustainable development. She holds a PhD in Education from the Institute of Education, University College, London and a Masters in Development from SciencesPo, Paris. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education policy and practice, social justice and gender equality.

l’UE: l’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente!

par Juliette Torabian

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’équité des genres et l’égalité entre hommes et femmes ainsi que la réduction des différentes formes de discrimination fondée sur le genre, ont été au centre des politiques européennes; par exemple, le pacte pour l’égalité des genres (2011-2020).

Les politiques et les législations dans ce domaine ont également proliféré aux niveaux national et institutionnel dans les États membres européens afin de réduire les ségrégations de natures verticales et horizontales entre hommes et femmes, favorisant traditionnellement les hommes. Par exemple, 23 États membres européens sur 28 ont établi un quota volontaire ou légal pour la représentation des femmes au sein des partis politiques et dans les parlements. Pour faire face à l’écart des rémunérations entre hommes et femmes – l’une des inégalités horizontales des plus persistantes – au Royaume-Uni et en Allemagne, par exemple, les entreprises sont désormais tenues d’instaurer une transparence dans leurs systèmes de rémunération et de primes.

Des politiques similaires en matière de genre ont été appliquées dans les universités et la recherche. En Autriche, par exemple, il existe un quota de 40% pour la composition des comités universitaires mais également une compensation financière pour chaque affectation de femme académique. Au Royaume-Uni, « Equality Challenge Unit » surveille et soutient l’équité et l’égalité au sein du personnel et des étudiants, tandis qu’en Suède, il existe un mécanisme de soutien supplémentaire aux femmes en phase d’accéder aux plus hauts niveaux académiques. Selon le rapport EIGE (Institut européen pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes), de telles initiatives existent également, à divers degrés et sous différentes formes, en Belgique, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, au Danemark et en Finlande.

Ces innombrables initiatives, ont-elles réussi à transformer les stéréotypes dans les systèmes d’enseignements supérieurs et par conséquent à créer des chances égales pour les hommes et les femmes ? La réalité n’est pas aussi prometteuse qu’on pourrait espérer.

Un problème fondamental découle de l’interprétation erronée du concept de l’égalité des genres. Il est de plus en plus utilisé comme synonyme des droits et de l’autonomisation des femmes dans la prétendue bataille des sexes.

Dans cette perception tordue, “les opprimés deviennent les oppresseurs”, selon Freire. Au lieu de valoriser les institutions où les mesures prises ont donné lieu à des résultats concrets assurant l’égalité des femmes et des hommes, la tendance serait davantage à applaudir la semi-parité ou bien les femmes qui surpassent les hommes ; alors que dans les deux cas le taux réel de participation en général demeure ignoré pour ne pas dire dissimulé. En effet, cette vision nuit aux hommes mais nuit encore plus gravement aux femmes. Les femmes sont ainsi stigmatisées à travers des mesures purement symboliques sans aucun changement à l’horizon dans les rapports de force.

Cette conception perplexe de l’égalité des hommes et des femmes dans l’enseignement supérieur a un impact direct sur l’accès à l’université et sur le succès dans les études. Dans de nombreux pays de l’OCDE, en particulier ceux où les revenus sont les plus élevés, les hommes sont plus en proie au redoublement, à l’abandon de leurs études secondaires et à opter pour le marché du travail plutôt que pour les études supérieures. Cela s’est traduit par une « féminisation » accrue au niveau des licences (58% de femmes diplômées). Le choix des filières et la progression du niveau des diplômes restent dominés par les stéréotypes de genre. Les étudiantes sont davantage enclines d’obtenir une licence dans les filières dites féminines : le droit, les sciences sociales, l’enseignement, le commerce et la santé. Alors que les étudiants choisissent davantage des filières d’ingénieur, des sciences et des technologies, dépassant en final, le nombre de femmes titulaires d’un doctorat, -si bien sûr ils poursuivent leurs études supérieures.

Les inégalités de genres qui persistent entraînent une perte économique considérable en termes d’investissements publics et privés dans l’enseignement supérieur. “Dans l’ensemble de l’UE, les femmes obtiennent de meilleurs résultats scolaires que les hommes (44% des femmes âgées de 30 à 34 ans dans l’UE ont achevé leurs études supérieures, contre 34% des hommes)”, mais perçoivent en moyenne 16% de moins en salaire horaire. Considérant que 10% de cette différence de salaire, reste « injustifiée » selon le rapport 2018 de l’UE sur l’égalité.

De même, selon le rapport d’Eurostat 2017, 22.4% de la population européenne est exposée au risque de pauvreté et d’exclusion sociale. Nous savons que les hommes s’éloignent de plus en plus des études supérieures. Il est avéré que « ceux qui n’ont suivi que le deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire, ont gagné 50% de moins que ceux qui ont fait des études supérieures entre 2000 et 2015 dans les pays d’OCDE ». La prospective d’un taux moyen de pauvreté au cours des prochaines décennies dans les ménages européens comptant des hommes moins scolarisés et des femmes éduquées mais moins bien payées, est inquiétante. Il serait donc juste de dire que les politiques d’égalité de genre -dans leurs formes actuelles- ne sont pas susceptibles de créer des chances égales pour une meilleure cohésion sociale.

A d’autres occasions, j’ai exprimé ma préoccupation à propos des politiques d’accès pouvant entraîner un “syndrome de Cendrillon” trahissant ainsi la promesse de l’enseignement supérieur pour assurer un changement social. Je considère donc que le même raisonnement s’avère juste quant à la formulation et l’application actuelles des politiques et des quotas en matière d’égalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur européen.

En dépit de certains progrès, les politiques en faveur de l’égalité des sexes ont systématiquement échoué dans la « suppression » des stéréotypes sexistes. Ces politiques sont au moins partiellement responsables : des inégalités d’accès des hommes à une majorité des programmes de licence ; de maintenir le statu quo de la représentation des deux sexes dans les filières traditionnellement associées à leur rôle social respectif ; et enfin, de ne pas avoir complètement inversé les tendances des niveaux de salaires et la représentativité des femmes dans les hautes fonctions universitaires. Effectivement une étude récente en France fait écho de l’échec des quotas. Elle établit que le fait d’imposer des quotas pour la présence des femmes dans les comités de sélection, a eu de facto des répercussions inverses et a considérablement réduit le nombre d’enseignantes embauchées dans les universités.

Il serait peut-être temps de traiter une fois pour toutes, l’imbroglio des disparités persistantes entre les genres et de réparer nos politiques qui par leur inadéquation, fabriquent de nouvelles formes d’inégalités dans nos systèmes universitaires en Europe. Ou bien, confions cela à l’intelligence artificielle,… à nos risques et périls !

Juliette Torabian est une spécialiste internationale dans le domaine de l’éducation et du développement durable; PhD de Institute of Education, University College London; Diplômée de SciencesPo – Paris; ses recherches sont concentrées sur l’analyse comparative des politiques de l’enseignement supérieur, la justice sociale et l’égalité des genres.