Shaping an Identity: hacking the human?

Higher education shapes identity on many levels. We can readily identify three:

  1. the individual student/academic;
  2. the institutional characteristics of the higher education sector;
  3. and wider transnational cultural-historical activity.

This slicing into comprehensible tranches is characteristic of my pragmatic approach to knowing, characterised by a logic of effectiveness in the present: sure, it is a continuum, but clumping into useful groups helps if you want to do something.

The empiricist might gather observational data and seek patterns by which to describe and explain observed phenomena from the past.

The rationalist normalises a desired arrangement of tranches and posits steps towards hypothesised (predicted, anticipated) outcomes.

Again we see the pragmatist slicing into parts: rational, empirical and pragmatic. These and other ways of discovering, synthesising, applying and curating knowledge form orientations to scholarship and academic practice. That is, our orientation to knowledge itself is part of our identity.

Knowledge has two foundational questions underpinning it: identity and agency.

  • Who is it that knows? The question of mind-body dualism, multiplicity or unity underpins approaches to education. Any theory predicated on the nature of the learner must have variants of this question at heart. Do we have “souls”? Can our consciousness be abstracted: uploaded to a sufficiently powerful computer? Can we “insert” knowledge into others?
  • How does the knower shape their knowledge (free will v. determinism?). Are we a behavioural bundle of conditioned responses? Are our acts determined by our cultural-historical performance roles: gender, colour, cohort, ability, religion, status, etc? Are we, or to what extent are we, agents of our world?

These two questions shape our approach to education policy.

Knowing authentic learning experiences

Evidence is one truth condition. There are at least three others. These give us a way of knowing authentic learning experiences and provide indicators of engagement, participation and outcomes. They are, also unsurprisingly, aligned with conceptions of authority and power.

Badiou (2014) recognises four truth conditions: four ways that truths or a truth may be known or experienced: 1) desire, 2) maths, 3) poetry and 4) politics. These may be re-expressed as: love, science, art and action. I have observed, drawing on Scheffler (1965) and more recent work on reliablism (Smith 2016, Riedel 2009), that a contemporary epistemology might also recognise four conditions for truth: 1) rational, 2) empirical, 3) poetic and 4) pragmatic. I suggest these systems are perhaps unsurprisingly also closely aligned around conceptions of authenticity – true to (Kreber et al. 2007) – and engagement in learning and teaching.

Each of these conditions has different orientations to authority, knowing, theory and time. As teachers, I suggest this is our “toolbox”, and may be recognisable in collections of intended learning outcomes and evaluation (marking) criteria (rubrics), which may be set and aligned. Continue reading

Scaffolding Ed Dev conversations: a response to Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2017)

  • Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2017). Agency and structure in academic development practices: are we liberating academic teachers or are we part of a machinery suppressing them? International Journal for Academic Development, 22(2), 95–105.

Roxå and Mårtensson (2017) argue that the discourses of academic development as mediated through formal education and training programmes by academic development departments are seen by some academics as:

a suppressing machinery anchored in globalisation and economification with an agenda to control academic teachers for the benefit of economic growth linked to a neoliberal ideology of life… Academic teachers can no longer embody the idea of academia as a place for free and critical inquiry (p 97).

To counter this critique they assert an absence. They say:

“Academic teachers need to talk to each other about their experiences of teaching and student learning and about their everyday life inside higher education organisations” (103).

I invite the question, do academics in disciplines not already do this? Is this conversation a terra nullius? That such conversations may not make it to the ears of academic developers does not mean that they are not being enunciated. Roxå and Mårtensson (2017) continue, suggesting the absence: “… implies a counter discourse: … an alternative discourse about academic teaching and student learning (103).”

They suggest that academic developers must be the problematisers, the problem posers who stimulate conversations. “Our job…” they say, “… as academic developers is to scaffold these conversations to become informed and critical and ultimately transformative.”

The result they suggest is that:

Over time, conversations will grow in frequency and in quality. The result is a trace of learning and knowledge-production linked to genuine experiences made by academic teachers (p 103).

Maybe. If “we”, “as academic developers”, have “power” to amass voices of the everyday reality of learning in higher education, and claim – and sometimes exercise – the power to problematise, then our project or our purpose becomes one of ethics and morality. We can easily end in a trap that is a problem for Freireians: the authentic experiences of groups learning through the authentic artefacts of indigenous cultures may produce both pick-up trucks of masked paramilitaries as well as doctors without borders. If we simply scaffold the conversations and stand back without aligning them to a course, have we any right to complain about the outcome? Or do we just continue to problematise? This is the interpretivist rabbit hole: the unending end of Socratism: no-one really knows anything.

Or, instead of doing the problematising ourselves, we might try to stand back as an empiricist and describe what was at a particular moment or for a particular period in time past.

Another trap is to argue rationally that there is a better future, which can be reached if historical truth will be more accurately known, and such truth rigorously applied (aligned) according to better theory. That such rigorous application may lead to Stalinistic “broken eggs” is unfortunate, unavoidable; we should shed few tears. This is the critical-theoretical (what could be called the Leninist or “final”, sometimes Machiavellian) solution.

I suggest we have to navigate this complexity with both truth and morality as a guide. Without both these touchstones in the argument, the word “transformation” becomes an empty signifier meaning simply “good in someone’s judgement”. While accepting Badiou’s “Real” – in the sense that real people are really drowning on beaches on Greek holiday islands – and Lyotard’s “pétits réceits” – in the sense that the holiday makers and the drowning migrants have equally valid narratives of the situation, are we, as Žižek (2008, xlvii) invites us to consider, “… an ethically neutral instrument which can be put to different sociopolitical uses, from the most peaceful ones to the most destuctive?” How do we “scaffold these conversation”? Do we build the scaffold first? Do we throw down a bunch of poles? Do we even use poles? Do we let others figure out how to build even the scaffold not to mention the structure it supports. Any scaffold presumes a structure (or at least a range). Are we building the scaffold that we are being asked to build, that we need to build or that we want to build?

Teachers professional development as an NSS action?

I read our recently issued NSS action table in the context of preparation guidance for staff annual Performance and Development Review (PDR):

One of the NSS actions (dressed up as principles) and echoing the UK PFS Values, is that,

All staff who support learning participate annually in collective professional development to ensure that their practice is evidence-based, informed by the scholarship of learning and teaching, and employs up-to-date learning tools and technologies.

I love collective professional development but feel a little queasy about “to ensure“. Always prefer a developmental/enhancement led approach… to enhance their practice through evidence informed by the scholarship of teaching ….

But it can amount to the same thing. Depends on what is measured

Pretty much everything else in the NSS action table is just stuff we shouldn’t have to mention. The fact that we have to speaks bucket-loads. But ultimately it obscures what the message should be, which is that we love our discipline and our students and teach them as well as we can.

Flipping icebergs: a neo-liberal curriculum?

It feels to me like an iceberg about to tip.
Ultimately this is an argument for qualitative research into the so-called subjective realms of values, beliefs and feelings. Because, in part, I suggest it is the enclosure of the subject for the reward of a few, which is at the root of the general mess we (me? Britain? Liberalism? Society? the globe?) appear to be in (NHS crisis, austerity, higher education funding and regulation, housing, migration, cyber-security, etc).

The theoretical approach or perspective of a neo-liberal curriculum appears to be:

  • Utilitarian (idealist, ratio-driven: promoting the greatest good for the greatest number
  • Pragmatic (what works);
  • Pareto-optimal (80% of the reward or output comes from 20% of the input or effort and the remaining 20% of the output comes from 80% of the input).

Continue reading

A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Continue reading

Where risk lies for HEIs: the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement

I had a conversation with our head of QA about the consultations current in HE regulation. Her pragmatic approach is refreshing.
I thought I might share the gist of my side of the conversation. I am working through documents at a more leisurely pace than the folk at Wonkhe. And I did read David kernohan’s  A game of risk. So, I have probably tainted my mind.
David took a very useful wider political perspective and wasn’t looking at the practicalities of working in a main-sequence institution, upon which the larger burden of risk appears to be being laid. Russell Group: fine. New providers: fine. It’s all you ex-polytechnics that are the problem. It is not only Andrew Adonis taking this position. It could be read as the same old “Media Studies are Mickey Mouse Degrees” argument: sound and fury signifying old attitudes dying hard.
But my tentative conclusion is the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement is where the risk lies. Institutions need to be careful not to conflate NSS, TEF and league-table positionality with either: their own enhancement or the regulatory regime. I think those are three different “games”.

Continue reading

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading

Is the machine us?

Wait a minute. Learning analytics are always mediated by a human, or by humans (plural).

Sheila MacNeil, in a thought provoking post subtitled … analytics of the oppressed, launches into “… the learning analytics interventions should always be mediated by a human debate later this week at Digifest.”

Software and machinery always embed human values and beliefs about what is good and how to achieve it. And when it is asserted that “the machine says…” the first point holds true. The machine says only what people have enabled it to say. Whether the machine is reflective and self-aware, with anything like a recognisable value system? This is a question we can no more meaningfully ask of a machine than we can of a lobster, except to the extent that we can recognise the machine as an emergent phenomenon of human technology, and the lobster, arguably, not.

Unless, as Mike Wetsch put it, the machine is us? And then we have to ask, who are we?

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..