Tag Archives: Higher Education

Walking the tightrope of academic writings

Pulcinella’s balancing act

There is a perilous paradox in the established literatures on academic writing that suggests we have choices in the way we write academically.

By established ‘literatures’ I mean the textbooks and advice guides, including those ‘How to’ photocopied handouts you get in Student Services, aimed at university student writers. The literatures that tell you to keep your style formal, clear, precise, impersonal, logical, critical, deferential. Advice that isn’t really advice, but a precept. Joan Turner explains all of this here.

By ‘choices’, I mean other ways of writing. Writing that is more creative, more personal, more original, more multimodal, more visual, more layered. Invitations to explore and experiment, to find ‘your’ voice, contribution, originality. The idea that you can be playful, take risks, and survive. See for example, Archer and Breuer and Thesen and Cooper.

'L’altalena dei pagliacci' di Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

L’altalena dei pagliacci (o dei Pulcinella), affresco, Ca’ Rezzonico (Palazzo del Settecento), Venezia

The two sets of advice – the literatures versus the choices – don’t sit comfortably together, in my experience. In fact, in my experience, they massively irritate each other. They encourage each other to polarise by entrenching their respective advocacies.

Those in the established ‘literatures’ camp fear those who advocate choice because choice means anarchy, the erosion of standards and heterogeneity (diversity); those in the ‘choice’ camp resist the literatures because these embody an imperialist, rationalist paradigm of exclusion, transparency and exactitude.

Parallels with the current political climate – polarised between the Right that is hard-lining and the Left that is flat-lining – are hard to resist.

And it is equally hard to communicate all of this to students because they rely on you for guidance to pass the assessments that are based on the advice of the established ‘literatures’, not the advice of the ‘choices’.

In this sense, a teacher of academic writing can feel a little like Pulcinella, the Neapolitan character in La Commedia dell’Arte, who somehow muddles through his contradictions, swinging perilously between being rueful and jocular, popular and alone, accepted and rejected, paradoxically lazy but ingeniously inventive.



Writing a PhD Chapter: incubating, owning, learning

Little chronicle of becoming un-stuck

The chapter-writing phase of the PhD is seriously challenging me. I’m in the process of writing one now, but also allowing for respite via a blogging interlude, because I’ve been at it all day, and have 30 minutes before I need to be somewhere else, and there is no more historical literature on academic writing that I can tackle in half an hour. I want to record what this moment feels like in the spirit of other reflective, research process posts such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one

Incubating it

The chapter I am currently writing is the 2nd of 6 that I have so far proposed to my supervisors. In retrospect, the first one was really easy – it didn’t feel like it at the time, it does now (cliched child birth analogies come to mind, but I won’t go there!). This one has been a beast. I thought I had it sorted 2 months ago. I had done all the reading, left myself a month to write it (ca. 12,000 words), and when I actually sat down to write, I had about 3-weeks to the deadline. But nothing coherent popped out, just copy-and-paste words stuck in a document hoping something would make sense. Serious writer’s block prevented access to my study, my computer, and any attempt to open a ‘new document’.



Part of the problem, I now realise, is that this chapter is linked to the previous one and paves the way for the next one; it does not stand alone, and all of my readings don’t take any of this into account! How inconsiderate of them! It’s me who needs to make the connections, work out their relevance to what I have said and what I am going to say. So I underestimated how much incubation/gestation is required between reading the stuff of others and writing my own when ‘my own’ consists of chapters, not stand-alone assignments reporting what others have said.

Owning it

I have been so restless and disorientated in the incubation process. I tried to fight it by sitting myself at my desk. But to no avail. I eventually gave up and accepted I could not write. I ate, had family time, slept, ran, took a blank sheet of real paper, a physical sheet of A4, sat on a sofa in a different room and wrote down a stripped, penned, unreferenced memo – akin to a tweet – of what


Back to basics

I wanted to say in this chapter. I went back to my computer feeling that I owned the readings, that they were serving me, not me serving them.

Learning it

I’ve been writing since early morning. It is flowing. I now have far too many words, but I know that is a good sign because I need to say it all before I can strip it back and edit it for my readers. What is making it flow is that I am learning from it and enjoying it, and this is keeping me keen and interested. I am not simply performing. I am actively, visibly making my contribution.

Letting it go

Clearly, these are just process thoughts. Tomorrow may be a total disaster. Inevitably, when they do eventually receive it, my supervisors will rip the chapter apart. But that’s not the point. The point is that I needed to get myself to the point of writing it. I am now at that point. I am writing, but as usual, I now have only a few days rather than a whole month left to finish, so this post ends here.

ps. Moral of the story

Don’t give up, keep pushing!

Writing as an act of love

It’s not about cheating, it’s about care, passion and taking responsibility


Écrire est un acte d’amour. S’il ne l’est pas, il n’est qu’écriture (Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman (downloaded from Google Images)

Ghostwriting. A rotten issue that is not going to go away unless universities profoundly change their attitude to and understanding of what academic writing is, why it matters and how we learn to do it.

Several stories on how students cheat by paying ghostwriters to write their essays and on the essay mills that supply them have been hitting the headlines, such as this one, which appeared yesterday.

I have also drawn attention to unfairness in our academic writing expectations, the ethics surrounding essay mills, and the problem with not recognising academic writing as an actual subject or discipline .

What these stories on essay mills have in common (including reader comments) is that they often forefront the behaviour of the students as cheats, of the essay mills as moral corruptors and of the universities as upholders of standards and integrity, the sorry victims of an army of lazy, conniving, quick-fix customers who are undermining their credibility and who need to be punished and shamed.


My recent Tweets on this issue

I so profoundly object to the discourses surrounding ‘academic misconduct’ that I am compelled to point out a number of alterantive perspectives, all of which forefront the conditions that allow misconduct to fester and essay mills to profit.

Clearly, I do not condone cheating and I am not so naive as to believe the world is full of do-gooders who are hapless victims of an unfair system. But nor do I condone what I consider to be unhealthy academic writing cultures within universities which seem to be fundamentally and irresponsibly ignorant of a rich and established tradition of scholarly research on academic writing and how you learn to do it.

Some anecdotal evidence

Firstly, I have been teaching university students for 25 years in the UK and in Italy and I like them, trust them, find them interesting, learn from them, respect them. A very small number of these students cheat for no other reason than laziness and lack of interest, but some cheat because they are consumed with anxiety or lack self-esteem; others because they simply do not understand what is expected of them.

Secondly, I have recently become involved in an initiative to support home students with their academic studies – ie those students who have been through the British education system (as opposed to international students who have not). This is because, surprise surprise, home students also struggle with understanding the expectations of academic writing! This initiative is part of a wider university strategy to provide drop-in student services: with the huge amounts students pay in fees, universities need to be seen to be helping. Whether they are or not is contentious.

I have read some published work on how home students struggle with the transition from A-Level writing or Access courses (see for example Lillis 2011 and other work by academic literacies scholars) and on who is/should be responsible for helping these students: their departments, EAP centres, student services, writing centres, library staff? But talking to the students allows me to hear and see first hand what feedback their subject tutors are giving them and to glean insights into what is worrying these learners.

Here is a representative example of what I hear (from an undergraduate):

I got 48% in my midwifery essay and I don’t understand why. I got distinctions in my access course and when I was writing this essay, I thought it was good. I put in references, I looked at different aspects of the research question, my sister, who is really good academically, advised me to start with some context and give some definitions, but my tutor said I had too many ideas and they weren’t really connected to the main question. I also don’t really know what a paragraph is or how long it should be and what should go in the introduction and conclusion? Is the conclusion just a summary? I need to start writing my second essay and I just don’t know where to start now. I want to do it right, but I don’t know how. How do you write an academic essay? How is it different to what they taught me on my access course? I know people who have done A-Levels and they also say it is completely different to an A-Level essay

There is so much to unpack here. As an EAP teacher and academic writing researcher, this is my daily bread and it makes my heart sink to hear this. In a 30-minute drop-in session, I cannot possibly address systemic historical and political dysfunctions in how Further Education and Higher Education join-up, especially now that the UK has roughly reached its university widening participation targets of 50% of 18 year-olds (which means a huge range of students from diverse scholastic backgrounds). Nor can I single-handedly change each academic department’s perception of its own responsibilities when it comes to essay writing. But I can blog about it so let’s see who else out there shares some of my perspectives on this.

Some academic evidence

Much has been written on the issues raised by the student above. I’ve already mentioned work being done by academic literacies scholars. However, there are deeper and wider contexts in which all of this takes place. For example, ongoing work by researchers at Lancaster University on The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation is drawing attention to how academics themselves struggle to write and to meet the demands of an ever increasing marketisation of writing which requires them to publish in some journals and not others or to privilige some genres (eg the academic journal article) above others (eg the monograph or audiovisuals, and other multimodal texts). backThis leads to what Les Back has called a culture of ‘absenteeism’ because academics can’t meet their own writing targets if they have to be in their university offices, and therefore available for students, during the day. Consequently, universities are full of empty offices and the “smooth running of universities depends on those who are left behind. Usually referred to as ‘support staff'”(p. 104 of Academic Diary).

And there is the influential work of Charles Bazerman who draws attention to the ways in which writing shapes disciplinary epistemologies. This means that we cannot divorce writing from the socialisation processes that create it and this, in turn, means that academics and students alike need to be socialised into writing by their departments and  not be palmed off to drop-in sessions like the ones I am doing or forced to resort to essay mills (see also this impressive collection of Open Access research on  academic writing which, when taken together, provides ample evidence that writing is a highly complex cultural activity, not a transferable skill).


These, first and foremost, need to rein in some of the more legalistic and accusatory tones  that end up stigmatising students as cheats when some are are genuinely struggling through no fault of their own. Yes, of course some cheat because they are lazy, but that is so far removed from the issue at stake that it shouldn’t even enter into the debate (yet it always manages to and ends up skewing the whole problem).

Here is what Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottigham, has to say and why I find it problematic, despite it being well-intentioned (my reactions are in red):

  • “Companies like this are profiting from students cheating. This is their raison d’être. The approach they take makes it very difficult to detect, but the sector has to find a way to deal with this corrupting activity. Legislation is not the only way forward – we do need a multi-faceted approach as the QAA suggests including:
  • educating students better about the importance of submitting their own work

students know about the importance of submitting their own work. The question is how to foster their passion for writing and their engagement with their discipline, and to raise their awareness of how the two are related. We need to inspire students to write their own work and to care about it, and we need academics in each discipline to do this

  • improved study skills provision

no, writing is not a skill, it is an embedded disciplinary social practice. See, for example, Ursula Wingate here and Joan Turner here. This is why it can’t be outsourced to somebody who is not socialised in the academic discipline that the student is learning to engage with. Students who already come from academic backgrounds, both in terms of family life and in terms of schools, adapt more quickly to university writing, but even they need nurturing once at university because they are unlikely to have written essays in the disciplines they are now studying

  • ensuring more assessments are designed to prevent plagiarism opportunities

this I agree with but not if the rationale is to ‘prevent plagiarism’. The rationale should reflect what counts as academic writing and the values we place on it, including process writing, multimodal writing, writing for different audiences.

  • working together across the sector, with the QAA and other agencies, to take on the cheating companies profiting from our students
  • ensuring university regulations specifically address essays procured in this way, including listing companies to be avoided, and stressing the punishments that will be fairly and rigorously applied to those who cheat

There would be far less need for law enforcement strategies if universities took a bit more responsibility for how their sector approaches the representation of knowledge. I urge students to speak out about this. What do they think is going on and what are they doing about it?

And to finish, here is Les Back again on how we should re-evaluate what academic writing means (p. 64, my emphasis):

More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically than an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking with interlocutors that remain anonymous. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.

SETs (Student Evaluation of Teaching surveys): wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Survey fatigue, and other reflections on Higher Education in the UK

Not all that counts can be measured and not all that can be measured counts (can’t remember who said this, but it’s true)

Several thoughts and (re)sources on how university teachers are being (d)evaluated and how students see Higher Education have been languishing  in my head, my Twitter feed, emails, and ‘to be filed’ folders, so this post attempts to bring them together, spurred by an @PhilOfEdGB talk given yesterday by @JoshForstenzer at the Philosophy Department of the University of Nottingham (where half of my PhD is based).


A wolf in sheep’s clothing (Francis Barlow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The essence of Dr Forstenzer’s talk was this: current government trends to privatise Higher Education and to introduce Gold, Silver, Bronze rankings for universities based on how well they do on the TEF (the Teaching Excellence Framework, designed to measure teaching quality in higher education) are ideologically-driven by neoliberalism (whereby free-market competition determines what counts and doesn’t count as ‘education’). Such trends further eschew evidence which actually undermines any significant correlation between privatisation (of which SETs are an expression)  and improved educational quality. Forstenzer further claims that, as such, the TEF is simply a ‘managerial tool’ devoid of Teaching & Learning value.

To my mind, too, there are several problems with privatisation that are based on principle, and not on whether privatisation may or may not work under certain circumstances (I am sure that there are places where it works a treat, but that is not the point).

Firstly, the very principle of privatisation undermines one of the main purposes of higher education, that is the ability of universties to ‘out-think all others‘; secondly, privatisation clips the wings of HE at the outset by denying it the possibility to be truly imaginitive, creative, and multiversal (see also here, here, here, here, and here); thirdly, it enshrines the teacher-student relationship as one of seller-buyer, which is wrong because of this (i.e. the purpose of higher education is not to make loads of money and get a good job) and because of this (which undermines the entire mechanism and aim of SETs); fourthly, as both a teacher and a student (and a citizen, consumer, and parent), I am sick of surveys: a) they detract from valuable teaching time and rapport-building; b) they are irrelevant to my relationship with my supervisors; c) they are uttterly unreliable; fifthly, privatisation fuels job insecurity.

I therefore share the following view:

University, particularly in the humanities, is, or should be, a door into doubt, not a leap into “knowledge”. And unless you understand that it is there to help you to frame questions, rather than to give you answers, the numbers of those disappointed with higher education is unlikely to fall in the near future (@timlottwriter)

Josh Forstenzer’s advice on how to counter these government trends is as follows:

  • for students: join your Union and speak up for your right to be educated, not trained to do a job (you can get the training once you get the job);
  • for university teachers (and concerned parents, like myself): join your Union and speak out against being demeaned by metrics that have no value and join lobby groups such as this one (not sure if this is the one Josh meant, so apologies if it is not)

(This post was rushed. All comments and corrections welcome, as ever)

Multimodality and fairness in #acwri

Could a multimodal approach to academic writing be a harbinger of fairness in recognition of a diverse 21st century literacy landscape?

Some key quotes and reflections from recent #acwri readings

This post is linked to others on multimodality here and here. It helps me keep track of readings, but it may be of interest to both teachers and learners of academic writing including Research Writing, EAP (English for Academic Purposes), Academic Literacies, and Writing Studies. All bolds are mine (they refer to key words in my research).

Multimodality refers to a field of application rather than a theory (Bezemer and Jewitt, 2010, p. 180 cited in Archer and Breuer, 2016, p. 1).

Most research on academic discourse has been based on the analysis of written text and as a result, most classes on the teaching of academic writing have concentrated on language (p.1)

What is seen as ‘academic’ writing is contestable and always emergent (p.2)

[…] the writer does not have complete freedom to change genre characteristics – especially if the writer is not a long-standing member of the academic community (Bhatia, 2004, 2010; Hyland, 2004 in Archer and Breuer, p. 3)


Me discussing multimodality with a group of EdD students using ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis to explore how argument can unfold in a visual mode.

When comparing academic texts emanating from different academic contexts, one can see that students from English speaking backgrounds tend to focus on creating linearity in texts that contain content that is topic relevant […]. Other academic approaches, for example, in France, Germany, Russia, Arabia, do not cohere to this rule of linearity but prefer to present a wider picture of the topic or of taking different perspectives on them. Reading these texts is more demanding , and could result in academic communities being seen as elitist, trying to ‘keep out’ readers that do not belong to the academic community. These traditions tend not to ‘sell’ ideas as does the English academic community, but rather to ‘tell’ them […] and the text is understood as working as a “stimulus for thought or even intellectual pleasure” […] (p. 3)

On the one hand, it would be in their learners’ interests if they [teachers] could help them to conform to the expectations of the institution. On the other hand, by doing so, they are reproducing the ideologies and inequities of the institution and society at large (p. 4)

The cartoon argument below sharply brings into focus the claims made in a recent  Times Higher Education article in which the writer argues that the priviliging of writing in academic assessments leads to inequalities and discrimination.

I would also argue that priviliging writing leads to missed opportunites for exploring diverse epistemological commitments and perspectives because different modes afford different things: this cartoon, for example, connects more directly, in my view, with our embodied experiences of education than a verbose academic abstract or quote might do, and if one of the purposes of academic communication is to trigger action – see Threshold Concept # 1.5: Writing Mediates Activity – then, arguably, this visual stands a far better chance of generating discussion (at least).


I also find the comments posted in response to this article indicative of profound political and ideological orientations towards education more broadly, and to academic writing (literacy), specifically. I’ve copied these comments below hoping to hear what others think:

unfair_assessment_commentinequalityInterestingly, Commentators #2 and #3 seem to be unaware of the fact that it is possible to “rethink the relationship between modes, for example, the interaction between image and writing in a text” (p. 7) and that a fairer, more just and more inclusive approach to academic writing consists in “recognising student ‘interest’ […] and agency as people who choose how to represent meaning from a range of possibilities […]” (p. 7).

These commentators also seem to assume that writing (i.e. language) is the best and only way to put forward an argument and be ‘scholarly’. This view is challenged by many in the field of literacies and writing studies such as Archer and Breuer (Eds), by Andrews (2010), and Andrews, Borg, Boyd Davis, Domingo and England (Eds) (2012). In their extensive body of research on what argumentation is and what the best way of advancing it might be given the range of modes available to us, they strongly argue that relying on language alone limits our academic expression.

Archer and Breuer’s edited collection provides many examples which extend our conception of academic writing beyond its propositional remit (i.e. language) and towards its mutlimodal affordances whereby mode is undersood as a “socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning” Kress cited in Archer and Breuer, p. 5).

I’m ending this post with a visual reflection on why education matters.


On the value of Education


Archer, A. and Breuer, O. (2016) ‘A Multimodal Response to Changing Communication Landscapes’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston: 1-17

Andrews, R. (2010) Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through Theory and Research Routledge

Andrews, R., Borg, E., Boyd Davis, S., Domingo, M. and England, J. (Eds) (2012) The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses, Sage

Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening, HUP

Photo credits: I am ashamed to admit that I dowloaded these straight from the Internet and now can’t re-trace their origins. If anybody objects to me using them here, please let me know and I will either credit them (if you know their source) or take them down.

The Future University (Part VI)

Chapter notes (VI)

The following notes, taken from Ronald Barnett’s edited collection on what a university might be in the 21st century, relate to two key concepts (or possibilities) for imagining the ‘future university’: the first is the concept of ‘care’; the second is the concept of ‘wisdom’.

Like the notions annotated in the previous 5 posts, these two notions also foreground a vision of higher education which seems to me to be many times removed from the vision outlined in the UK government’s Green Paper.

Dall’Alba draws on Martin Heidegger‘s concept of care as a defining characteristic of humanness. She warns against having an instrumental approach to education because “of a danger that the pervasiveness of such an instrumental, exploitative view may eventually mean we are unable to understand ourselves in any other way” (p. 114).


Monkeys dressed as apothecaries caring for sick animals (Wellcome)

For Heidegger, the concept of care refers to the care that we have for ‘others’ and for ‘things’ in the world (as outlined in his book Being and Time). From this, Dall’Alba argues that (p.115):

Conceiving education in terms of care for others and things turns attention differently towards education. Not only does it feature what students are expected to know and be able to do (an epistemological dimension), but also who students are becoming or, in other words, how they are learning to be (an ontological dimension)

She gives the example of how knowledge of the built environment and nature requires both the capacity to learn and to care and argues that inherent in the concept of ‘care’ is the notion of ‘responsibility’: responsibility to and for others, the environment, education, research. As such, the telos of developing knowledge and skills becomes one of care and responsibility which in turn opens up new directions and futures, new ‘possibilities for being’ (p. 116-119). These new possibilities require us to become ‘attuned’ to knowing and to knowledge in ways that allow us to detect possibilities for teaching and learning, research, and outreach into the wider community (p. 120).

Thus, the purpose of a university education, in Dall’Alba’s vision, is to learn how to be, not how to do (p.122).

  • Creating a better world: Towards the university of wisdom (by Nicholas Maxwell)

Maxwell’s thesis is that the current dominant knowledge-inquiry model of a university education – 1) acquire knowledge; 2) apply this knowledge; 3) solve the world’s problems – is fundamentally flawed because merely having knowledge of and knowing how to apply technology, for example, does not entail the avoidance of destruction and injustice (eg climate change and inequality).

Establishing what 1) is the first instance, and then getting from 1) to 3), therefore, requires a further step, and that step is ‘wisdom’.


Athene cuniculariaa (Goddess of Wisdom and War)

Maxwell therefore proposes that university education endorse a wisdom-inquiry model (again, this is far removed from the vision of the Green Paper, but it is also far removed from the vision of what even a primary and secondary education should be about, as outlined in the recent statement from the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, who essentially argues that ‘facts’ should come before critical thinking, as though determining what ‘a fact’ is in the first place were unproblematic and did not require us to think critically about the nature of reality, i.e. the nature of ‘facts’, whether physical, psychological or social).

Here is what is wrong, according to Maxwell, with a knowledge-inquiry model (p. 124)

Knowledge-inquiry demands that a sharp split be made between the social or humanitarian aims of inquiry and the intellectual aim. This latter is to acquire knowledge of truth, nothing being presupposed about the truth. Only those considerations may enter into the intellectual domain of inquiry relevant to the determination of truth – claims to knowledge, results of observation and experiment, arguments to establish truth or falsity. Feelings and desires, values, ideals, political and religious views, expressions of hopes and fears, cries of pain, articulations of problems of living: all these must be ruthlessly excluded from the intellectual domain of inquiry as having no relevance to the pursuit of knowledge

Maxwell proceeds to unpack this statement (from p.124 to 137), essentially arguing that the rationality we inherited since the Enlightenment has to be put to ‘good’ use; in other words, it has to further social improvement. This can best be done through a process of wisdom-inquiry in which wisdom is (p.137):

understood to be the capacity to realise what is of value in life, thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides.

[Clearly, this begs a whole load of other questions, namely ‘what is of value in life’ (ontology) and how to find out (epistemology), which is why, in my view, everybody should be brought up and educated to think philosophically so that at least we can articulate an account of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, even if ultimately we disagree with each other about what that account might be; but at least we would stand a better chance of understanding each other ….]








The Future University (Post V)

Chapter notes (V)

The picture emerging from these chapters (see Posts 1, 2, 3, and 4) is one that portrays the University as a historical cluster of contradictory traits that shatter any illusion of agreement as to what a university was or is or does or could be. As such, Kavanagh claims (p. 101);

If identity is an emerging property in a network of relationships, then the idea of the University is perhaps best understood through analysing its relationship with other institutions over time (101)

and (p.102):

A “foolish institution” means that it is always defined by its unique relationship with another institution

In liking the University to a Fool, Kavanagh has in mind the court jester figure common in medieval literatures, including the works of Shakespeare (King Lear), whose multiple identities (both friend to and critic of the Sovereign), ambiguities (both sexual and intellectual) and unclear allegiances (both dependent on and scornful of the Master) made him/her a figure to be wary of, to be both ridiculed and respected.


The Fool or Court Jester: a Master or a Slave?

Similarly, the medieval university was beholden to the Church but that loyalty soon proved to be conditional as the Church lost its power during the Enlightenment and the Reformation and as scientific or natural philosophy societies, such as the Royal Society, began to emerge. As such, the 19th century university began to question its allegiances. It became influenced by Kant’s intellectual authority and his claim that certain faculties -such as law, theology, and medicine – were imposed by others, whilst other faculties – such as philosophy and reason – could remain independent and free.

Accordingly, Kant argued the it was the duty of the State to protect such freedom.

Soon, however, as 19th century Europe also saw the rise of nation-states and industry, the State-as-guarantor-of-reason soon gave way to the Nation-as-guarantor-of-culture. This university became influenced by Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University which established the view that the pursuit of a university education should be ‘an end in itself’. This notion further evolved into the idea that the purpose of university should be for the betterment of humanity, not just for the betterment of the nation-state.

The Humboldtian German ideal remained anchored to this view, namely that of the university as a place of human betterment, research, and scholarship. This is the ideal that inspired the American universities of the late 1800s (see my posts relating to this starting with the first here).

However, ‘human betterment, research, and scholarship’ needed to be funded and undergraduate study provided that income; it also provided the human resources for civic society, ie the professions and industry, forming characters to work in law, medicine, and engineering.


Arlecchino: Servitore di Due Padroni (Commedia di Carlo Goldoni)

And then came the war(s). During this time, universities were also called upon to serve the war industry, thus becoming ‘fools’ to the Military Sovereign whilst simultaneously being influenced by the ideas of John Dewey who called for Justice and Emancipation to be the Sovereigns of Social Justice, guiding and shaping the university’s identity.

Fast forward to 2016, and it is easy to see how the current entrepreneurial university, favoured and nurtured by the UK (see the 2015 Green Paper), has evolved from these many competing, fuzzy, tense, confused and contradictory identities, settling now on the idea that a University has to train for a job like some kind of elite recruiting agency serving many communities, functions, and interest groups, behaving more like a multiversity than a university (p. 105).


Taking a break: which audience will the Fool play for next?

The university as Fool now starts to make sense. The Fool tells “stories that are embedded in a framework of norms and values that connect the moment into longer conversations over time and space” (p. 106-7). The Fool has audiences, in the plural (107):

First and primarily, the Fool speaks to his King, his Sovereign [i.e. his Paymaster]. Second, he also addresses other characters in the play [ie his Co-Actors]. Third, he has conversations essentially with himself, about his own position, and the Fool’s role in the world [ie Reflection]. Fourth, he routinely makes witty remarks about topical issues engaging the viewing audience of the time but which have nothing whatsoever to do with the play [ie Public Engagement?].

[my comments]

When viewed through the lens of the Fool, the idea of the ‘University’ comes to look like more of an oxymoron (ie trying to be and do a myriad of contradictory things).

But as Kavanagh reminds us (p.110):

oksúmōron actually means ‘pointedly foolish’.



A lecture on the past, present, and future of UK Higher Education

Crowd-sourcing ideas

Soonish, I will be giving a lecture on UK higher education to a large group of international students who come from Saudi Arabia, China, Iraq, Iran, France, Kuwait, Jordan, South Korea, Egypt, Brazil, Kazakstan, and more.

A lecture (Image from Wiki Commons)

A lecture (Image from Wiki Commons)

These students are mainly postgraduates, mostly in their mid-twenties, many have young children, and, generally, they have conditional EAP offers (English for Academic Purposes) to study Masters and PhDs in a range of disciplines, including: International Law, Chemistry, Philosophy, Nanotechnology, Immunology, Public Administration, Contemporary Chinese Studies, Business and Culture, Education, Theology, and Psychology.

I feel a great sense of responsibility.

With this post, I am therefore hoping to garner additional ideas, references, and suggestions from interested and experienced readers so that what I say to these young adults is not exclusively born of my experiences, understandings, and orientations.

Therefore, given the audience profile above, I am addressing this post to:

  • students (any discipline, secondary and tertiary, any nationality, age, social background): what would you want to know from a lecture on Higher Education in the UK (past, present, and future)?
  • academics, researchers, lecturers, professors: what would you want such a generation of students to know, knowing they could be on your Masters and PhD programmes?
  • parents: if your child were in the audience, what would you want them to know? And if you were in the audience, what would you want to know?
  • academic writing teachers, lecturers, researchers: what should I tell them about writing in the academy?
  • administrators, student services, international officers: what does a young, educated, international student need to know about your procedures and practices?

I’d love to hear from you either in the comments to this post, by tweet @serenissimaj or @EAPTutorJM, or by email: julia.molinari@nottingham.ac.uk

Depending on how this crowd-sourcing goes and on how the lecture turns out, I’ll write another post with an update, acknowledgements, slides, etc. I’ll also keep replies anonymous (if you want me to).

Imagining the University (a rant on the Green Paper)

The Entrepreneurial University: a Vision I do not Share

While these thoughts are still raw in my mind (and while my computer updates, backs up, and de-viruses), I need to voice some concerns about Higher Education in the UK.

Disclaimer: I am not involved in policy-making in any capacity. I am a university teacher and my research is on academic writing. This rant is linked to how I see government policies on higher education affecting the activities of Higher Education, including the impact of these policies on the social practice of academic writing (which is my specific interest)

In November 2015, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, UK government, published a Green Paper on the future of Universities. The report is called ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ and is foreworded by Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, aka brother of Boris Johnson, current Conservative Mayor of London (what qualifies Jo Johnson for this role, I don’t know).

Rant #1: despite this paper outlining government policy on Higher Education, the word ‘education’ does not actually feature in the document (certainly not in the first 30 pages I have scanned in some detail). However, the following words do feature with regular, repetitive frequency:  ‘teaching’, ‘research’, ‘business(es)’, ‘skills’, ‘value for money’, ‘providers’, ‘financial health’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘transferable work skills that business needs’, ‘what students are getting for their money’, ‘taxpayer’, ’employers’, ‘pipeline of graduates’, and so on.

This capitalist, factory-line, business-speak worries me because the underlying assumption of this document is that University is somewhere you get trained in order to develop the transferable skills you need to go into ‘business’.

But what of the people who graduate from University in order to work in Public Health, Social Services, the Civil Service, Politics, Education at all levels, Development, Charities, Research, Diplomacy …? Either this business model of a University will not provide THEM with the knowledge, understandings, sensitivities, civic and social loyalties, commitment to social justice, fairness and equalityattitudes and dispositions needed for these socially-oriented professions, OR the government is stealthily on a mission to privatise the entire public sector, too, so that graduates are indeed perfectly matched and programmed to a life dedicated to profit-making. I suspect the latter option is in the government plan.

It’s also mis-placed to believe that business doesn’t need the aptitudes I have italicised above: it does; in fact, businesses are going to need these aptitudes (not skills) even more as business increasingly takes on the role of the State in securing public goods such as our national health service and our education.

Rant #2: the Green Paper rightly recognises the need to value Teaching at University. This is in light of the historic bias towards Research, and I applaud  the need to value teaching. However, the way the Green Paper sets out to value Teaching is all wrong. In effect, it is segregating Teaching and Research even further, as Steve Fuller explains in this recent post. So, not only do the two vital fundamentals of a ‘higher’ education – Teaching-informed Research and Research-informed Teaching – get prised apart, it will become ever easier for teaching to be outsourced and sub-contracted to private providers.

Rant #3: the Green Paper wants the quality of a University to be decided by the students themselves through student surveys. That is like relying on a sick patient to judge the quality of care they are receiving: if I am in agony and in a foul temper as a result of this pain, and my doctor hands me a questionnaire asking me to comment on the quality of care I am receiving, what are the chances that a few expletives slip through my keyboard?! Similarly, if I get bad grades on my university work (as I did throughout my first year at uni, as it happens), how likely am I to praise the hand that beats me? Jonathan Wolf explains the flawed logic of relying on student surveys much better.

Rant #4: the UK government’s vision of Higher Education is as far away from the ideal of a Public Good as could possibly be. As Mary Warnock has said, ‘training’ should fall within the remit of a company’s R&D department and should not be the responsibility of a University whose purpose it is to think of future generations, not just the contingent, transient needs of present-day profits and financial targets.

I remain committed to a view of education that sees it as a public good that is accountable to government but not dictated to by government policy, as Mary Warnock, above, has argued. I am also a fan of Ron Barnett, whose 2013 book ‘Imagining the University’ (Routledge) calls for a new collective ‘imaginary’ of what University could be so that we move away from the current entrepreneurial and restricted vision of what we have now. Similarly, Tina Besely and Michael Peters (2013), have re-imagined the university for the 21st century, seeing it as a place of creativity, innovation, criticality, imagination, and possibilities where bigger and better things can happen compared to the mean short-sightedness of the vision outlined in the UK Green Paper.

And because I am keen to widen our concept of what academic writing is and what it can do, this entrepreneurial and corporate University does not sound to me like the sort of place where exploration, experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation can thrive.

Rant over (for now).