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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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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me (e.henderson@warwick.ac.uk) to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.


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Insights for newer and emerging researchers of higher education

by Camille Kandiko Howson

This is a long overdue blog on my keynote Higher Education Research: A Personal Reflection on Policy and Practice at the 2017 SRHE Newer Researchers Conference (available on the SRHE website as well as a post-Keynote interview). In my defence, I was 8 months pregnant at the time and am starting a new job at Imperial College London. Which means that I have been reflecting on these insights myself, and in relation to colleagues (including those newer and emerging in their higher education careers as well as some very well-established).

Develop skill sets

Personal skills: A research career always starts with your personal skills. Through hundreds of interviews with academics and professional leaders, I have learned that research careers are hard work. A journal publication is akin to the tip of an iceberg of activity. Research requires tenacity, perseverance and loads of patience (from delayed trains to waiting for reviews to come back). Good public speaking requires a lot of practice (and do not read from your slides).

Collaboration skills: Find ways to work with those within your institution. This may be on projects related to your job or be more practical in nature. To progress you will need to work across institutions. This may be strategically for multi-institutional projects or to leverage resources. International collaborations are vital for niche expertise and comparative research. As you narrow your research specialism you will find there are usually a handful of people exploring similar topics. And working internationally does not need to entail a massive budget—I have long-term collaborators I have only met via Skype. Tip: this is a great website to find time zones to connect.

Methodological skills: Develop your methodological toolkit. This means going beyond a simplistic quantitative/qualitative divide. The methods should follow from the research questions and the best way to address them. I use various quantitative and qualitative analyses as appropriate, as well as concept mapping (and developed concept-map mediated interviewing), cognitive interviewing techniques, focus groups (I am a fan of 4-6 people, more than that and voices get lost) as well as interviews. Even more creative methods are being used – from photo elicitation to dance and Lego (which I personally get enough of at home). Tip: distinctive methods can go a long way in selling a research bid.

Writing skills for different audiences: There is no point in doing research if you cannot communicate the findings. There are very different writing styles for different audiences. Academic writing can be heavily referenced and jargon-heavy. The practitioner audience wants to hear the ‘so what’ answered. Writing for policymakers is tough, but at least is always brief. The public is a whole other beast – if your work has public interest I recommend professional media training, it really helped me with live radio broadcasts when you get five minutes to prepare. And when writing for students, it helps to “show your work”, not just the conclusion. I am still working on the skill of taking one piece of research and ‘translating’ it for different audiences (hence a massive pile of rejected journal articles from policy-oriented research projects).

Building a career

Be strategic: Be creative in approaches to roles and responsibilities to build longer term success. Can you turn an internal project evaluation into a research project? Can you repeat a pedagogical intervention each term to build up a longitudinal dataset? Or have a colleague to the same and work together?

Be green: Re-use resources and recycle your data. Within ethical boundaries, you can continually mine your own data. I managed to draw out the theme of ‘creativity’ for a journal special issue from  a large dataset on leadership.

Be free: You do not need external funding to do HE research (although it helps!). If you do not have, or are in between, funded projects, carry on small bits of longitudinal research or pet projects. I have seen full professors present on research they did ‘on the side’ over 5-10 years.

Be you: Develop your own strand or niche within a larger project. This may be within a professional position or a funded research project. You will always be assigned some roles, but seek out related activities that allow you some freedom to pursue your own interests.

Be savvy: This is not for novices, but if you start early it is a lot easier. Conducting a meta-analysis across projects and strands of research allows you to inform policy and have high impact. This can start with high-quality literature reviews or cataloguing studies in your research area.

Research impact

It used to be ‘publish or perish’. For better or worse, impact is the new name of the game now. Think of multiple audiences and what aspects of your research they may be interested in – this may differ for students, academics, institutions, government policy and the wider public. A straightforward way to have research impact is to bid for commissioned research projects: an eager audience already awaits.

Impact means getting your boots dirty – hit the rails, the road, the sky. You need to get your message out there. A tip for research bids – set aside plenty of funding to support dissemination. In addition to the SRHE blog, use Twitter to get your findings out, Wonkhe is great for policy, Times Higher Education has a wide readership and University World News has international reach.

Forging your own path

In the absence of large student cohorts, there are very few ‘traditional’ academic jobs in higher education studies; exceptions are the Master’s in Higher Education courses in the US or a few large-scale doctoral programmes. That means most higher education researchers have their own unique career path, often in hybrid roles with a mix of academic, professional services and managerial responsibilities.

To keep moving ahead in your career, build research networks across institutions and countries. If you do not know where to start, ask questions about someone’s research. Develop broad networks, including for professional work, research, across the sector, as well as policy influencers.

Get off your phone and email and be present and active at conferences; develop a public profile; request coffee chats with those whose work you like. Draw others in to your area of interest. I suggest informal mentors and champions as I have never found a formal scheme that seemed to work out. Find commonalities with others in related and semi-related areas (methods is always a good start). Tip: Write half an article then ask for collaborators rather than starting from scratch.

Challenges and opportunities

Sustaining a research career is not easy. You may encounter research and policy fads. There are endless calls for accountability and the resulting need to translate outputs to meet targets for your institution, REF and impact. It is also a lot easier to publish some kinds of research than others. Building networks can be daunting, and you will encounter tribes and territories and the intimidating disciplinary ‘old guard’ or ‘Mean Girls’-style cliques.

I know several colleagues who have built up professional and research expertise in a niche area or in a specific institutional context, and then feel stuck or are afraid to let go of what they have achieved to move on.

There is also the challenge of positional power in higher education. You might know more than your VC about access, but best not tell her that. Expertise and knowledge can be threatening to those above and around you – academia is not immune to the cry of “enough of experts”. Your research will always be more respected outside your institution.

However, chin up, as they say. Keep the big picture in mind and play the long game. Keep multiple strands of work going. Build supportive networks. Play to your strengths and build on your weaknesses. I need to force myself to stop and write instead of chasing the next grant sometimes. When tensions get tight, speak to facts. And be humble (at least on the outside).

Final points of wisdom

Your specialism will only ever be part of what your day job is; every HE role has its “bread and butter” elements (what pays your salary). Keep your career goals in mind (do you want to be a REF star? Do you want to have policy impact? Or institutional impact? Do you love teaching?

Don’t pull up the ladder behind you, build new ones to drop down. Provide and pass on opportunities to others. Some activities pay your salary, some offer generous or pitiful compensation, others offer prestige, networking, goodwill or, if lucky, a cup of tea and some biscuits. And a random one to finish, never put a country name or a discipline in a title (it is a turn-off to everyone else).

SRHE member Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship at Imperial College London. Camille is also a member of the SRHE Research & Development Committee


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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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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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Discussing the Discussant – a Queer-ish Role?

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her most recent post is on the role of the discussant, and is reblogged with permission here. Other recent posts include:

https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/guest-post-by-donald-nicolson-the-problem-of-thinking-about-conferences-and-return-on-investment-roi/

 https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/conference-inference-on-raewyn-connells-surviving-and-thriving-at-academic-conferences/

 https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com/2018/09/10/interview-with-nicholas-rowe-conferences-when-you-get-what-you-want-but-not-what-you-need/

Discussing the Discussant – a Queer-ish Role?

Receiving the invitation to act as discussant or respondent at an academic event can be accompanied by all kinds of emotion – excitement, relief at not having to prepare a paper, fear of not having anything to say… Recently, Conference Inference editor Emily was invited to act as a discussant for a one-day colloquium at the SARChI Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme, University of the Free State, South Africa. This was a new experience, as previously she had taken on this role at smaller events with one or just a few papers. As usual, being a conference researcher meant that the lived experience of this role took on the added intensity of reflexivity. Following the event, Emily and James (the other editor of Conference Inference) reflected further on the experience and decided that a fuller discussion on the discussant role – and its queerness – may be of use.

The discussant role is simple in name, queer in nature. The basic definition of a discussant is someone who participates in a discussion, particularly a prearranged discussion. In practice, acting as a discussant does not exactly match its name, in that a discussant tends to have to come up with a set of ideas based on the seminar or conference papers, which acts as a sort of impromptu paper in its own right. Dialogue may follow, but more often than not being a discussant involves something of a monologue. Sometimes, the presentation/s may even be supplied in advance so that the discussant can literally write a paper on the paper. There is a lot of variety in this role, and the format varies hugely, but we have brought together our thoughts on the topic to give experienced discussants some further things to think about, and to introduce this somewhat queer phenomenon to novice conference goers. Continue reading


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The ‘Holy Grail’ of pedagogical research: the quest to measure learning gain

by Camille Kandiko Howson, Corony Edwards, Alex Forsythe and Carol Evans

Just over a year ago, and learning gain was ‘trending’. Following a presentation at SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2017, the Times Higher Education Supplement trumpeted that ‘Cambridge looks to crack measurement of ‘learning gain’; however, research-informed policy making is a long and winding road.

Learning gain is caught between a rock and a hard place — on the one hand there is a high bar for quality standards in social science research; on the other, there is the reality that policy-makers are using the currently available data to inform decision-making. Should the quest be to develop measures that meet the threshold for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or simply improve on what we have now?

The latest version of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) remains wedded to the possibility of better measures of learning gain, and has been fully adopted by the OfS.  And we do undoubtedly need a better measure than those currently used. An interim evaluation of the learning gain pilot projects concludes: ‘data on satisfaction from the NSS, data from DHLE on employment, and LEO on earnings [are] all … awful proxies for learning gain’. The reduction in value of the NSS to 50% in the most recent TEF process make it no better a predictor of how students learn.  Fifty percent of a poor measure is still poor measurement.  The evaluation report argues that:

“The development of measures of learning gain involves theoretical questions of what to measure, and turning these into practical measures that can be empirically developed and tested. This is in a broader political context of asking ‘why’ measure learning gain and, ‘for what purpose’” (p7).

Given the current political climate, this has been answered by the insidious phrase ‘value for money’. This positioning of learning gain will inevitably result in the measurement of primarily employment data and career-readiness attributes. The sector’s response to this narrow view of HE has given renewed vigour to the debate on the purpose of higher education. Although many experts engage with the philosophical debate, fewer are addressing questions of the robustness of pedagogical research, methodological rigour and ethics.

The article Making Sense of Learning Gain in Higher Education, in a special issue of Higher Education Pedagogies (HEP) highlights these tricky questions. Continue reading


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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