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?

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