Tag Archives: Neoliberalism

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.

 

 

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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).

wolf_sheeps_clothing_barlow

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)