The conditions for difference and disruption to catalyse ethical obligation in HE

The discussion of this blog, and the basis for what I am proposing here, does not come from my current institutional context in the UK/ EU. It comes from my experiences of working with staff in both formal courses in academic development and Higher Education Studies (HES), and in informal consultation and research collaborations related specifically to staff development, at both historically white and black institutions in South Africa. I presented it at a conference in Scotland, having written about it in previous publications and in my teaching.

Debates in terms of inclusion and diversity in South Africa extend from grappling with HE’s role, purposes, equity process, and larger negotiations of the curriculum, in terms of decolonisation, Afric/kanisation, and, as a so called developing context, pressures to perform or rather ‘deliver’ for the global knowledge economy.

So, it is fair to say that this argument for ethical obligation was borne from problematizing the dominant institutional discourses of assimilation and multiculturalism that were most prevalent in those mostly conservative cultures. However, as I work on developing a programme in HES from Belfast to international locations, I continue to grapple with creating such enabling conditions, and hope you too may find aspects of this presentation of relevance.

This discussion is concerned with the significance of institutional cultures and structures which are weighed down by the legacy of troubled histories, memories, inequalities and norms – and the ways in which the participants within such institutions (particularly those staff who may act to change the grey matter of those cultures) are actively enabled to disrupt that which they have inherited and better inform that which may be envisaged. As many have argued for a long time, whilst there may be ongoing changes to ethical norms in research and the relation of professional communities of practice to HE, despite political, social or historical imperatives to effect change in practice, too easily, educational actors unconsciously and unwittingly reflect, reproduce or even recreate the norms of society, rather than recreate them. Recognising that HE is a part of the Culture Industry, staff development programmes are ideally placed – within the centre but to the side – to be disruptive, particularly when they not exclusively on academic teachers (in a way that might decontextualize and ahistorisize learning from the rest of the business of HE), but rather be inclusive of those in the many of roles of institutions, particularly as we learn how to challenge macro-and micro-aggressions from administration through to pedagogy, harness and expand formal and informal learning spaces within and beyond academia, to democratise hierarchies, and to truly prioritise curiosity, growth and transformation as lifelong engagements. . For some, particularly for those socially located on the margins due to their race, economic grouping, gender, disabilities, this may be about creating spaces for them to articulate their experiences of the politics of belonging or to come to voice about alternative ways of knowing; for others who have been socially validated and privileged by previous systems of power, it may be about fundamentally questioning the significance of the machinations of domination which they, unwittingly or not, reproduce.

There is sometimes a presumption that agents can do this if there is change to the demographics of an institution – such ‘numerical access’ has proved to be one small faltering step towards a multipronged solution needed for the deeply fractured space of HE in a case such as South Africa, which not only has the apartheid past of segregating individuals according to race, and differentiating institutional purposes, but also the colonialist and imperialist de-legitimation of knowledges. However, as has been noted by Critical RaceTheorists in US higher education, most often such adjustments do not substantively alter systems of inequality as they do not rupture the mechanisms of domination on which education is often built and continues to further. There are too many strong traditions that feed into what is powerful for individual agents to really think, reconsider, experiment and if need be to fight unsupported. Similarly, without certain structures and deliberate interventions changes may come – but the risk to individuals is high, and status quo is too powerful a force. So staff development must recognise its limitations not to be used as the solution when it is really one part of a larger multipronged approach….

At the heart of this issue, is how the agent is constructed in HE, and here I am talking about the person as an intellectual in the politics of representation and difference. The question persists, how can one struggle against traditions, structures and discourses which construct the ‘intellectual’, ‘teacher’, ‘the administration’, ‘manager’, ‘student’, ‘consumer’ in particular ways?

Our hierarchies can be productively disrupted for a duration of time by using ethical obligation as a central principle. This is underpinned, unsurprisingly, by a social justice agenda which is informed by the critical tradition of adult education. The concept of critical spaces, for the agent to engage with historical imperatives for transformation, is not new to the university. Nor is the problem of hegemonic teaching specifically isolated to context of dramatic inequality. The possibilities for higher education to act as ‘critic and conscience of society’ has, for some time, been seen as integral to critical citizenry. Gramsci and Satre envisaged the intellectual’s responsibility as going beyond the self, as an obligation to speak for or on behalf of a wider group, cause or ideal. Of course, this universalist view has been challenged by a number of thinkers who problematise the politics of such representation, point to the incommensurability of perspectives, and emphasise differences within and between groups.

I have found a most compelling ‘way through’ for higher education in Jacques Derrida’s notion of the ethical self-other relationship as neither/nor, and I keep coming back to it. Against the primary thrust of the Western philosophical tradition to reduce, absorb, or appropriate what is taken to be ‘the Other’ to ‘the Same’ – he drew from Emmanuel Levinas’s interest in the radically asymmetrical relation between the I and the Other as defying reduction to reciprocal equality. The powerful metaphor of this ethical relation is the ‘face-to-face’ encounter where the self is subject to the other without knowing what will result – coming into oneself cannot be done in isolation, but rather with or in relation to others. The positioning of ‘coming to subjectivity’ as about self-other relations, forces us to be responsive,  responsible and take a position, with obligation shaping our being-in-the-world.

Derrida saw this enabling a shift from the will and quest for knowledge and truth – the ‘logic’ behind cultural, political and socio-economic imperialism and colonisation – even the ‘logic’ of the critical tradition of adult education, where in locating a fixed permanent centre, there is most often subordination and violence. To open up this space, Derrida deconstructs the ‘either/or’ binary of self or other, either an absolutely stable foundation and fixed point, or intellectual and moral chaos. Of most value is his point that yes, we cannot not demarcating boundaries, but rather that there is no boundary-fixing that cannot itself be questioned. Ethical-political choices require one to acknowledge aspects of un-decidability and doubt. I would argue that it is this grappling with the messiness of ethical obligation, that enables disruptive spaces to work productively.

By using staff development to bring together different spaces which occur from beyond to within and across the academy, conditions are created for interaction, exchange, fluidity, and the discovery of alternate relationships between individuals, practices, ideas and their significance. The critical emphasis takes this a step further, in that development-as-learning is not only about making confirmations and strengthening connections to one’s traditions, or coming to voice, but also about curiosity and opening to challenge.

Bringing these spaces into proximity, in reference to certain tools for decentring, is towards disrupting individual perspectivism. So whilst spaces to reflect in- of- and outside- of action, in the different roles of teacher, researcher, leader, student, administrator in HE, has its place, they can be largely solipsistic and stagnant. Bringing different spaces into proximity enables more liminal zones of transgressive thinking and transgressive practices where identities and roles come up against each other, are re-negotiated – to bring to bear the gaps, counterpressures and counternarratives – pointing to the conditions and mechanisms which constrain and enable substantive transformation.

That is not to say that reflective spaces do not have worth. Recognising lived experience in HE, which in the main largely delegitimises such sources of knowledge from the more dispassionate abstract and generalizable kind, can be revolutionary for individuals, for pedagogic practices, for disciplinary conventions, and ways of getting some to think of their positioning. It certainly, can encourage insider research, action research and a more responsive manner in which to approach one’s roles. It may also help those who are feeling fractured in academic spaces, to find a sense of whole or coherence in the different aspects of what they do – or if that is not possible (is it ever really?) than to think about how their agency is constrained due to certain factors, and to ponder which battles to pick.

But if we acknowledge that it was a certain capital of privilege that got each person to where they are, and that that capital was one which will continue to be valued by the system if not disrupted, it requires the individual to go beyond their own perspectivism and self-interest. So many programmes include what was initially perhaps naively called safe spaces …

What is helpful here is to bring to the fore the distinction between the representation of difference (multiculturalism; or the numbers game institutions play around representing diversity or equity in percentages) and the politics of difference – pointing to the later shifts the discussion considerably. So spaces to engage cannot be totally safe, though they can have agreed upon principles, and they must allow for challenge – not just different perspectives sitting alongside eachother in an ideal bubbled world that does not recognise how they are politically situated outside of that bubble. Yes, on the very basest of levels, participants thinking ‘wow my ideas conflict with his/hers?’ ‘Wow my experience is so differen’t. It is the why? of this – and the shift to considering the significance of why to the larger politics of identity and power within HE that really has the most potential to lead to a reconsideration of how the personal relates to the political, how one’s self, one’s role and one’s knowledge claims relate to larger discourses of community, belonging and legitimation.

The importance of ‘safe (enough) spaces’ in staff development is undisputed – to enable an environment that counters risk-aversion, that points to lessons learnt from failures, that fosters counter-narratives and creative solutions to problems – though in changing institutional cultures, the nature of such learning spaces should involve a balance between safety and discomfort, to become safe(enough) critical spaces. Criticality involves both the capacity and the opportunity to question, reframe and make visible. The ‘will to criticality’ within such spaces can be enabled through principles of solidarity, hospitality, safety, and the re-distribution of power (Mann 2001). While issues of difference are most often sublimated in hegemonic learning environments, here the attempt is to foreground and utilise difference as a critical pedagogical tool – to opens the focus on the self, which may maintain homogeneous reflections, to critical readings enabled through the inclusion of heterological ‘little narratives’ of the participants’ peers. Classmates act as their colleagues’ ‘critical friends’, offering differing viewpoints and constructive criticism of each other’s ideas and practice, by drawing on their own arguments and experience – having their back while they negotiate the messiness of changing practices and attitudes, and risk experiments in their practices.

While such incommensurability is central for disruption to the politics of belonging and recognition of the politics of difference, it is also one which enables connections and collaboration. The formal structures of writing, producing artefacts and conducting collaborate outputs, creates possibilities for bridging difference by enabling voice, through reflection and very importantly the common language of HE discourse. In such ways, a learning community in which participants negotiate their own and each other’s perspectives anew, is created.

So wider than these participants within their context becomes a negotiation of how these meanings or rather interpretations relate to those in larger discourses – in the scholastic communities within other contexts, different ontologies, epistemologies, disciplinary boundaries… from empirical studies to philosophical framing. The HES lens offers an off-centre multidisciplinary perspective which allows participants to explore what they may at first think of as marginal issues, detours and departures from their everyday ways of being. Such a transgressive jolt creates distance from their core assumptions, but also from the habitus of institutional cultures. Taken in isolation, HES texts which are dominant and powerful, as we know, threaten to position what they offer as ahistorical & separate from value and power – a sort of generalised cannon of ‘best practice’ or ‘global excellence’ in higher education.

  • The situatedness of contextual experience allows for a more critical conception.
  • Readings of the participants’ practice enables them to consider how valuable theory is as a foundation for practice, and how critical reconsiderations can help them align their espoused theories with their practice, and question the assumptions of their theories-in-use.

Evaluation focused on the reciprocity between theory and practice, intentionality and interpretation; developer aims and participant experiences – becomes central to informing the referential tools (what may be called a philosophy of the academic project or higher education).

When it comes to de-centring, it is crucial to have referential frameworks from which to analyse, examine and understand experience. Without such tools, participants may flounder and the process become debilitating. If floating without well-conceived referential tools, which are based in a critical discourse-interest, such engagement may not work to productively decenter the individual narrative (as an echo stuck in the dichotomy of reproducing or being marginal to that dominant), nor question generalizable ideas. The disruption created by holding up such frames of reference for the other’s consideration can create a break from assumptions of that viewpoint to allow for fundamental learning. The triangulation of personal experience and meanings, alongside the meanings of engaged others and in HE studies, is where the confines of individual perspectivism can be critically disrupted.

Here the concept of the individual’s ‘philosophy’ has been most helpful for myself and my colleagues. Opportunities for this framework to be articulated and re-constructed by participants are offered from the first day of a formal course course to the day of the summative submission of their portfolio; from the first few months of being employed through to tenure and promotion and awards. The ‘philosophy’ incorporates the participant’s analysis of his/her global, national and disciplinary or professional context, and how these constitute and are constituted by him/her; his/her perspectives on ‘the academic project’; and how these are informed by knowledge within and beyond his/her discipline or professional practice, and higher education studies. Such a framework allows for ‘re-view’ as “exploring how and why we theorise experience and critically examining the influence on experience of contexts, cultures and discourses in the past and for the future” (Usher, Bryant & Johnston 1996:119). Engagement with the referential framework of the HE philosophy creates a space in which participants can experience how to be ‘cultural producers’ in the sense of not only being able to read texts critically, but also produce critical texts. This enables them to move between discursive spaces, theoretically and practically.Blog1 pic

Frames of reference should operate across these different spaces to enable perspectives or interpretations of difference, from the individual, his/her community in context and society, to the larger community of scholars – to enable participants to be openly ideological in a way which considers the power dynamics of legitimacy. The positioning of difference in the sense of the ethical obligation provides a possible way through, not around, this problematic. When it is neither same nor different, it is not as easy to generalise conclusions, accept opinions or theories as ‘given’ to confirm one’s own position, nor to reject them outright when not clearly appropriate. When the emphasis is shifted from discrimination to discernment, from justifying towards trying to comprehend how knowledge claims are made, the political value of recognising how meaning is constructed or deferred in difference, emerges. The comfort of stasis and boundary-fixing is shifted to one of exploration and curiosity, crucial elements for transformative learning, with a fundamentally ethical impetus. The spaces opened by such questions allow participants to critique and reshape their representations, histories, and experiences, which may in turn help to practice their/ our responsibility.


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