Challenges to situating the artist-student within interpretation

I was honoured to be invited to interact with academics at UAL’s Teaching Platform Series in February 2018. I chose to speak about why I think situating the artist-student is important for assessment in the creative arts, and to highlight how recognizing the challenges is the point of the issue. This post relates to that talk.

While my interests seem diverse – the evaluation of academic staff and its impact on the transformation of HE; assessment in the creative arts – they are both about interpretative frameworks and the power, problematics and possibilities involved in disentangling them. Ultimately both, in the name of safeguarding quality or of measurement, can have an incredible impact to what they effect, to knowledge creation, criticality and challenge, to artmaking and creativity.  But assessment is also about interpretation, experience, engagement with the artefact, with ourselves within the process of making and learning. It remains, true to artmaking, not about finding the solutions of A- and B+, but problematising evaluation and whose authority and interests are served by such judgements being made.

It is well acknowledged that there are a range of interpretative approaches at play when reading, evaluating and critiquing art. What has not been extensively explored, except in psychology around creative genius and other individualistic atomistic approaches, is the impact of criticism on the creativity of the artist – on their artmaking processes, on their practice, on their sense of self. Art theory gives us very little ‘in’ here. And for the most part, even the words ‘creativity’ ‘authenticity’ are passe.

We rely on traditions of art education, from the workshop; guild; salon… to more recent influences of ed dev discourses – teaching and learning – which while very helpful in emphasizing praxis, power, transparency etc, still battle and sometimes compete with our own experiential knowledge as artists – fellow practitioners from the community of practice – of what ‘counts’. We wrestle with these virwpoints, in addition to how art/ design/ criticism act as a discipline jn the academcy or art school, and how make these into criteria or indicators that sit confortably with our roles as artists, researchers, academics, human beings.

Do we let students into this messiness? Can we? Should we?

These quotes, excerpts from students’ narratives, give us a sense of the effects when they do not comprehend the complexity. This is Tessa who admitted to an impoverished capacity for critical reflection of her processes and artefacts:

 But one thing that I never quite figured out, is when someone says ‘yes’ to a work, when they think it’s great and it’s going really well. What I still haven’t figured out is – Why?

And Leonore who, as with many other students, bought into a discourse and idea that art is assessed subjectively, rather than recognizing that frameworks may be relative or localized but that subjectivity in aesthetic judgement doesn’t lie at the level of individual idiosyncrasy but with selection of tradition(s) within which judgements are contextualised.

Art marking is subjective, I really do think it is. But if you want to be an artist, you go to Art School, and get marks. And, yes I think that’s why, you don’t really know. You’re trying to say something with an artwork and – whether or not the lecturers think that it works or not – chances are you actually don’t really know because it may not be out in the public or, I’m not sure, it’s very hard.

Joe was one of the extreme cases who experiences made him ffundamentally question the legitimacy of the academy – which while not a bad thing in itself – in his case, and many others, led to dismissing the value of informed interpretation all together.

After 3 years of listening to dribble from hippy art students try to give meaning to their senseless paint splatter, I now realise it is pointless to attempt to describe what is good art and what is rubbish. In the same way one can’t say for fact what is beautiful and what is ugly. As a result of its subjective nature there is no right or wrong. Ending up with a bubble of people that feel an incessant need to question the idea surrounded by the reality that the vast majority of the population accept their beliefs on the matter through mass media and subconscious advertising. 

Like no other discipline, the creative arts enables students to think, feel and be in the problematic and creative liminal spaces of the academy and in life; of theory and practice; of ideals vs realities. And this is one of the few assessment traditions where interpretations are made in an oral, public nature. I see situating the artist-student as a way in which the problematic of interpretation becomes an educational opportunity – rather than about schooling. It is not, to be clear, about student satisfaction. Nor about studentship. It is also not a pretence of a utopian world where authorship is returned to the artist student to determine the meaning or reading of their work.

Interpret Framework image

Let me explain by showing u some of my research. This image above relates to the analytical framework I developed to map the interpretative approaches used in assessment – from the sources we reference and focus on – to the nature of the interpretation itself whether referring to external sources or factors from what was presented in the assessment submission (such as the students’ biography, the subject matter etcetera), or only what was included (from artists statement to back up material to the art object itself), to how those aspects operated or figured in different contexts, spaces etcetera and a concern for their effects.

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What I’d like to point out is not what we know from published research and our own experiences – that expectations of our roles in assessment contexts, summative formative etcetera often differ between individuals (as indicated in the slide above) nor that, despite our best attempts at transparent criteria and shared understandings, we differ in what we give value to in our assessments.   Nor what the mapping below shows – that there are factors from outside the current institutional cultures (such as education, our own intentionality as artists of our own works; or as audiences of contemporary art) that influence our approaches to teaching- such as in these two individuals cases, rather it is that the artist is not situated within interpretative approaches. I found that consistently. Actual intentionality is not utilised as a valued reference point for summative assessment discussions.

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Instead supervisors, who students presume know and are invested in the development of their authorship and critical faculties act as mediators between different interests. How does it manifest? While, the majority of staff when acting as assessors use reader-responses or connoisseurs – adopting anti-intentionalist approaches in practice regardless of the person/process/product espoused approach of the art school. And when acting as supervisors? They overwhelmingly act as value maximisers (best reading for that group is propounded); they practice hypothetical intentionality (using licence to re-present aspects of works to suit the current milieu of the assessors).

While all this was going on… What did students, across the geopolitical contexts and different curricula really want? What did they value, over and above the value ascribed by marks and social validation of supervisors they admired/ respected as fellow artists?

Nominal Authenticity – that is, how the work relates to their actual intentionality as the artist; their strategy for how it is read/ experienced/ received/ operates: what they want it to do. In my research I found that while students’ desires and intentionality were not recognized as valid in summative assessments, as authors of their work, they were highly valued by these students, over and above all else in fact. Students expected – and utilised in their own self-assessment of the success of their work after their submission shows – their nominal authenticity. Ie what they wanted the work to do – to achieve – did it work? Was it successful?

In my research, this was not found to be a dominant feature of interpretation by art critics, nor that made by assessors in creative arts ed. Overwhelmingly, despite learning processes which may acknowledge and even show bits of the person, the learning and artmaking process, and the product, interpretations which carried the most weight were anti-intentionalist. Is that disturbing? Perhaps not for u, but students were devastated by the prospect that it would not. Listen to Yusuf’s concerns:.

Do I then go for that because I’ve been told by the tutors? Or do I want to make a piece of work because I want to make it and I want to make this out of this? That was my question. Do I make it work for me or for the grades?

His experience of feeling torn between making strategic or meaningful choices mirrored that of a number of students, in addition to Joe, although they were awarded vastly different grades (Yusuf was awarded a distinction whilst Joe barely passed).

 When I do this for the course, I feel like a tit if I done it ‘cause… I don’t know why I done it, I’m just doing it, just tick the box.

 Producing artworks for a system of exchange in which this student did not believe, created harsh self-judgment, leading him to judge the work, and eventually over repeated experiences, himself as inauthentic. Fran’s story was one of continual indecision, leading her to depend on her assessors rather than develop her own critical skills. 

I live in this constant state of ‘Should I be doing what the tutors tell me just because they’ve told me?’ Or ‘should I be doing what I think is right?’. And like every decision is like ‘have I done this ‘cause this is what I want to do?’ Or ‘because somebody else has told me that this is what I want to do?’.

Jade’s experience of indecision eventually led despair, when the goal of the educational endeavour was no longer what she desired – engagement with a subject and the development of her authorship – but rather became about negating that desire to please her assessors and get the necessary grades to pass.

Why emphasize this? Because that is the life long quest of a maker – such agency is a bit part of ‘the point’ of studies. Not determinism, but learning to be more cognisant of our effects in the world. I don’t think it is coincidental that a paradoxical finding has continually resurfaced in my research –  those students whose development meta-level thinking about interpretative approaches were actually those who in the main had experienced and were cognisant with some conflict with what they saw as ‘authentic’ aspects of their process. It has a major learning benefit. However, such meta-level thinking was more often unsupported by their teaching interactions and assessments.

The more surfaced the complexities of the interpretative process is, NOT the most simplified it is, the more chance ur student has of developing the critical skills and resilience necessary for navigating, comprehending, reworking/ thinking/ adapting/ choosing/ resisting as an artist in the world. The crit and panel assessment offers untapped wealth where we weigh debate, take on the voice of the diverse communities wrestling and jostling for attention at assessment.

Can a student’s nominal authenticity be the only criteria? No. Otherwise u r sitting at the level of what has been described as psychological-creativity rather than historic-creativity particularly, for post-graduate students. But hearing of, actively seeking, the reading of others better enables the student to decide the path – and to disagree with u (and others) about how such reception may impact on their process along the way.

And all readings equal? No. There are consequences to deciding to disagree. In academia, the assessors (their role and position), and the tradition of making to which they ascribe, perhaps also certain contemporary aesthetics, will impact on the value and overall judgement. Ask those students in the minority or whom come from artistic communities beyond the western influence or with legacies of exclusion, oppression and conflict, if you are in any doubt. Just as it is in other bounded spaces in the professional world. Here is where the harsh cold facts of power can and should be unpacked, if the student is to become conscious of how they play out later – what disadvantages them, which communities will find resonance with their work, how context, time place shift things. This emphasis (on what I call operative criticism) is perhaps most important for those choosing to truly challenge artistic practice.

And ultimately how meaning and significance of their work is shaped.

Because while I am concerned with power, I am also concerned that our separation of authorship from interpretation runs the risk of relinquishing the artist of responsibility. Developing a sense of wisdom, ethical wisdom, may not be a dominant concern in all art ed. Here I must admit my own leanings, that I am informed by a postcolonial anxiety around representation and how, without care and foresight, what we make and how we negotiate subjects, can have dire consequences. It is about our own positionality as image makers; the positionality of our educational traditions; but also about the text – how knowledge is created, represented, legitimised. Should we not do what we can to help students to develop the concern, resourcefulness, the openness to be assured enough to handle the uncertainty of the ways in which their text may operate in the world – because they have the skill and appetite to engage with interpretations?

So what are the challenges of situating the artist-student in assessment?

Perhaps, not the student. Perhaps the greatest challenge to this is ourselves. Adopting interpretative approaches from one space instead of another, we stop acknowledging that we MEDIATE discourse communities and their interests, and that we do this alongside the student as fellow potential maker and reader. We mis-represent the complexity, and mis-educate our future fellow artists. We go for surety. External referents as Certainties. Packaged and legitimated. I would say this is our greatest challenge. Ourselves.

Notes on networks, connections and ‘work’

In this past fortnight, I have been fortunate enough to be accepted as a member of a newly formed network and as an associate fellow of a prestigious research institute.

The network is newly formed, though the debates and concerns which have led to its formations are not. Universities have always been fraught spaces, with foundations on shifting sand. A disparate collection of individuals, nationalities, institutions and disciplines grouped together under the over-arching umbrella of ‘Critical University Studies‘ ,  this network is being steered by Alison Wood whose interest in intellectual labours of the past seems to have peeked her concerns for how the university(s) in the UK are being buffered about in the present. In late January, we had an engaging day of workshopping ideas about what the field as an object and subject might be. To my mind, there seemed acknowledgement of the tensions between our perspectives of dis/belief in the evolutionary possibilities of ‘the university’, with strong conviction that the critical project needed a pragmatic turn in the current political climate.

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Image above: Taken at the first engagement of the network, which is supported by a British Academy Rising Stars Engagement Award. If you would like to know more about the network, please contact Alison, who is seated second on the left of the front row. I am the more grey-haired person second to the right in the front row.

The institute is The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice which brings together seasoned and early researchers to grapple with the global challenge of ‘Peace, Security and Justice’. I applied to become an associate fellow, as I would like to facilitate fruitful connections between academics in various institutions in South Africa and those affiliated with this Global Research Institute. Legacy issues continue within the cultural institutions of higher education and critical arts education – traces of trauma, troubled knowledge and memory, a sense of injustice, persistent inequality, dynamics of de-legitimation and machinations of domination. Yet they are largely under-researched when it comes to Higher Education Studies, and from my lived experience, seem to have little currency within political rhetoric. Discourses of ‘transformation’ have rather been adopted, which mediate different interests. There is an urgency within higher education institutions in the country (which are currently beset by unrest and anxiety) to develop frameworks which reckon with historical responsibility in addition to facing pressing demands in the present, as there are facets within the current generation of students and academics actively seeking informed intellectual approaches.

Such connections were an integral part of my own desire to come to Belfast, to learn from the expertise here. Similarly, I hope to provide the participants, of the post-graduate courses I will be coordinating, such networking opportunities to explore similar areas of enquiry in diverse contexts across the globes, in the hopes of understanding complexities and nuance, and forging ways through to explore solutions. I feel extremely honoured to be provided both opportunities, and am anxious (as always) to get some fruitful work underway.

Questions of authorship to guide curriculum development of a Higher Education Studies course connecting international contexts

While I was working on how to respond to the possibilities of a Higher Education Studies course, that brings together the often disparate islands of teaching and learning, research, policy for agents across diverse international contexts, I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to present at the colleagial space of Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) conference,
Higher Education rising to the challenge: Balancing expectations of students, society and stakeholders’, in 2017.

I began the talk foregrounding my positionality and interest in decoloniality, and critical notions of authorship, agency, assessment and interpretation  – which I touch on elsewhere on this website – and about the attempt to work towards a course that would operate from Northern Ireland, with its marginal/ central positioning in Ireland/ the UK/ EU, and in particular the willingness of many academics here to engage with legacies of conflict in their research and teaching. I spoke about how I hoped this would offer fruitful spaces of exploration and critical work, to which I hoped to add from my own lived experiences and expertise from South African Higher Education Studies, to create conducive environments to connect with participants of such courses.

I also touched on my own historical melancholia and ethical doubt, where I see value in processes of redress, and equity on a grand scale, my concern about the complicity of education at the macro-level; balanced with hope for the potential of connection, growth, access, strength in the global South to challenge and transcend machinations of domination.

My concern? An approach of operative criticism when questioning: how can I take responsibility for the ways in which the text, authorship, and reception/ readership of such a course operates, and the significance for the influences and tensions of other authors, texts, and readers-assessors of this programme at micro-and macro-curriculum level?

While I am of course concerned with the external referents and politics of representation with the micro-level curriculum, attempting to ensure

  • it is heterogeneous, representative of varied perspectives, lived experiences, communities etc;
  • and that the work students do and our negotiations also refer and relate to their actual practice in HE, their biographies, aspirations; their students, philosophies of teaching and learning etc;
  • that the exchange between us relates to genres, conventions, other texts of HES, critical campus studies, educational development of staff and students, and other portfolios reports etc of engagement as appropriate to an HES course
  • and my own role as peer, assessors, supporters etc – those internal referents of the course specific to the discourses of this field;

The questions I discuss here at really at the level of concern with how these operate – how they figure – their significance.

Is the author, the proper noun of the institution, its geopolitical location in a developing/ed context? The academic as figure – agent, provocateur, labourer, public intellectual, academic activist, worker…? Is the text, about a curriculum-led orientation; the discourses its trades on and agenda it drives; the ways it operates and is co-opted beyond itself…..

I have framed four central questions of authorship to guide me as a wrangle and wrestle my way into forming, establishing a course which I believe may create ethical and pragmatically productive spaces for those within HEIs – to grow, learn, reflect yes, to research, challenge, transform, connect.

Before I go into these, it is important to explain why I turn to ‘authorship’ when it is an area considered passé in continental philosophy and contemporary ‘western’ criticism for some time, has provided a valid and poignant ethical reference point to challenge the ways in which the programme is being designed, coordinated and sustained. Politics of representation? Yes. Political correctness for its own sake? No. This is more about the crisis of legitimation in addition to the violence of delegitmation, and hopefully heralding a more conscious, critical space for such education.

The return or re-assertion of situating the author, as the actual author and as the figure of the author, has for some time been seen in those ‘margin’ to the mainstream – many feminist approaches, postcolonial émigré consciousness and exile-as-witness perspectives, and the more recent decolonising arguments in their varying emphasis. For those critical of neo-liberalist agendas, what is of value here is how these concepts, are co-opted and delegitimised by Capital, for instance.

I would argue that the ways in which these are constructed and positioned in helpful in dis-entangling influences and interests at macro- and micro-level of the curriculum.

Who is the author of a curriculum of HES offered from the EU/ UK/NI to various participants as readers in various international/ developing contexts?

What is the mediating text of the micro-level curriculum between them? How does it enable the authoring of their own curricula for their students?

Is the participant, academic staff or staff working with educational concerns at HEIs, positioned as co-author or co-constructors, or are they the texts being acted upon,  with their institutional interests authoring a curriculum to school them in their interests? Are the readers assessors, evaluators, ultimate legitimisers? Would they be the various institutional authorities, their QA mechanisms, or the global agenda of the north on the south once again?

Is the text of the course – Development? Individual career Advancement? Pedagogical Innovation? Epistemic access or heteronomical disruption? Are these at the level of the individual participant, for their students, for their institutions or their communities? Or for bums on seats?

The spectre of authorship – what history, inheritance, claim, origin, power and position has authority?

What is the sub-text of the course?

What are some of the tensions inherent to de/legitimising knowledge in Higher Education Studies?

  • Mastery of central topics / idea in disciplines (theories of learning for instance) or a discourse-interest of pertinent concerns?
  • Anxieties to establish a discipline – which referents give us credibility as a science? Theories ontological frameworks disciplinary traditions.
  • How do we learn from other practice-led spaces (if ED DeV is a central concern and the critical formation of HE practices and policies) such as the the arts – where practice and dynamism of the prof comm of practice is often subsumed by academic discourse and interests, of gatekeeping?
  • And when out participants do author texts, which qualifiers and referenents do we privedge over others (published literature in journals; which journals from which geopolitical locations; which disciplines;blogs; lived experience; student feedback; statistical significance or the diverse experiences; portfolios, reports, musing; observations of practice…
  • What knowledge is local? Indigenous? Eurocentric? How might the participants, as authors of their own texts, be enabled to negotiate this question of deligetimising knowledges in ways that creates opportunities for them to become open to praxis? Heteronomy? The positioning of knowledge?

But then how is that received by those wanting skills, increasing of capacity, benevolence for those less fortunate – a helping hand –  as part of development studies for developing contexts, or new lecturers to be quality assured rather than the research-productive old guard to be challenged in terms of their reproduction of conditions for exclusion and assimilation?

Are educational development courses aimed at or for ‘support’, delegitimised in similar ways to many working in this area as not academic, practice-based and professional… how then to have participants start at a level positioned as such, and move more expansively to HES as a field of study in which they are insiders, agents, contributors?

Policing, development management – the same formative and summative purposes at play in assessment and evaluation of courses, play out here too.

I added teacher intentionality and student experience here to indicate the tensions at micro-level within the course – my own critical orientation and objectives for connecting those across the global South, learning from peers, connecting us across borders; seeing development as not individual but challenging of mechanisms… and the participants desires, expectations, perceptions, interests, aims, processed, institutional contexts = and the ways these feed into how development is positioned..

This all points to the possibilities of agency – my concern – in co-constructing the curricula. But is this naïve? Many would argue that the ‘market’ for such a course is not just the academics but their institutions and national agencies, or funders, all with agendas which constrain/ enable such agency and its relation to co-construction. Even my agency to co-construct…

‘What about the UK professional framework?’ ‘The HEA?’ ’Market intelligence?’….

And how much of that relates to ethical responsibility in terms of global challenges, such as equality, digital capability, sustainable development?

And the more thorny issue – for whom, what and how is research in Higher Education Studies? Whose interests does such research serve?

[Note about the images selected from my slides: I had a bit of fun challenging myself to have the entire presentation fit into my old business cards, which has recently been ‘retired’ for new institutional branding. A playful tribute to the urban legend of Max Ernst fitting an entire exhibition in a match box]


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.