Reading: Towards Sustainable Feedback

The way one teaches is inevitably coloured by one’s experiences as a student, and for me formal feedback was always enormously important. I pored over it, both for the obvious pleasure of compliments when a task was done well, but also to glean insights and advice for how I could improve in the future (I willingly admit I was, and still am, a nerd). When the feedback was cursory or ill thought out I found the experience disappointing and it made me less inclined to try as hard on future assignments for that teacher. I recognise that this isn’t the case for all students (or many at all) but this experience still influences the way I approach writing feedback. I want to explain and to some extent justify the grade that has been given, but I also want to provide advice and guidance where possible so that the student can continue to develop their course work, whether for their own benefit or for wider audiences.

As I result I tend to put more time and thought into it than is maybe sustainable for my practice as a teacher, particularly when it comes to marking smaller assignments or ones where there are many to get through. Conscious of this I have started to think about strategies that might make the delivery of feedback more effective and perhaps also more useful to my students. Ideas for this have come from a few sources, including colleagues at UAL and at other institutions, and from discussions with some of my students. For the benefit of this journal I am going to focus here on a paper by David Carless, Diane Salter, Min Yang and Joy Lam which proposes and advocates for a more sustainable feedback model based on research and interviews with award winning lecturers. While they conceive of sustainable in primarily in terms of a student’s lifelong learning, some elements of what they propose might I think also be adapted to make the feedback process more sustainable for tutors as well.

The piece opens by acknowledging the importance of feedback, with a critique of current feedback practice, and by repeating the often heard (although not universally accepted) mantra that students tend to value feedback less than teachers. Crucially they explain this as being less to do with the inherent usefulness of feedback, than with the way it is currently practiced in higher education. A particular issue they identify is the ‘finality of one-way written comments’ and also the lack of training and opportunities for students in how to use and act upon feedback. They also identify the swelling of higher education as a particular problem for tutors looking to provide suitably personalised student feedback. What the authors ultimately call for is not just the usual small scale tinkering with the feedback process, but a more thorough reconceptualization of what constitutes feedback.

For the authors, a key element of making feedback more sustainable is to make it less one way and more dialogic. They suggest that such an approach ‘can guide students on what is good performance by facilitating discussions of quality in relation to specific assignment tasks, and also support them in developing enhanced ownership of assessment processes.’ This is important, because it to some extent shifts the emphasis from the tutor to judge and deliver feedback, and moves some responsibility towards the student to self-regulate. A large part of how this happens rests in the way assessment is carried out, the authors suggest. The traditional single assessment point followed by feedback is likely to be less effective than a structure that allows an opportunity for an initial assessment and feedback, followed by time for changes and then a second assessment. They argue that ‘this development of self-regulative capacities is the essence of sustainable feedback.’

From this introduction the article then enters a review of the practices of a number of award winning teachers at the University of Hong Kong, the results of which were then subdivided into a series of categories for further analysis:  The themes addressed were two-stage assignments and their role in facilitating feedback, dialogic feedback through oral presentation tasks, the use of technology to facilitate feedback, and finally notion of student self-evaluation. For reasons of length I won’t get into analysing each of these categories in great detail, but will make a few observations for each. In terms of two stage assessment, several of those interviewed reflected on the positives of this approach. One pointed out how previously feedback could feel like ‘throwing a stone in the sea’ with little idea whether it was acted on. Another reflected on the heavy marking workload of dual submission points, but argued that it was worth it for the resultant learning benefits they saw in students. Peer review was mentioned as a potentially useful technique at the first stage of assessment, although there was also a recognition of the difficulties of motivating students to participate in peer feedback (an issue which might be addressed with recourse to peer mentoring techniques).

In terms of dialogic feedback, many of those surveyed employed oral presentation as a method of assessment. One tutor reported videotaping these presentations and then asking the students to effectively self-assess, reflecting on their own performance (by his own admission not an uncontroversial approach). Another reported using frequent, short presentations as an assessment tool, stating that it’s value also lay in building up public speaking skills which were key to the subject they taught. Moving on to technology supported feedback, this was quite widely used. One teacher advocated online feedback, with students given the opportunity to post drafts of assignment work and view and comment on those by other students. He characterised feedback as a scaffolding or support which tutors give to students, but also cautioned against students becoming over dependent on ongoing feedback and argued they should be asked to also find the answers themselves. Adding an example from my own experience, colleagues at Ravensbourne College have experimented with using recorded feedback for students. They have found this reduces the burden on tutors, and engages students better than written feedback.

The final section of the paper discusses examples of student self-evaluation. One informant suggests this is helpful because it reduces the amount of guidance provided by the teacher and pushes students to find answers themselves, achieving both the goal of equipping students with lifelong skills and reducing the burden on tutors. One example of this is the use of pre-assessment workshops, used as a way to help students evaluate their learning, the informant writes that ‘my strategy is that the same question has to be asked twice, so students can realize what they have learnt.’ Another informant emphasised the importance of ‘feedback in real time’ asking constant questions in classes as a way to assess student understanding and offer them opportunities to question in return. He also coins the idea of ‘provocative feedback’ intended to open a dialogue or discussion. These approaches, like any, can introduce tensions, the same informant writes that ‘initially, I would think that they are probably a bit disappointed because they expect the teacher to teach them. In the end, they value the fact that you respect what they brought to the class’.

Altogether this paper provides a number of ideas for how feedback might be more evenly distributed throughout the teaching process, to the potential benefit of both students and tutors. For students, such distributed and dialogic approaches offer more opportunities to understand feedback, incorporate it, and adapt their activities as they work. For tutors, it potentially opens up more sustainable models of feedback, which in various ways place more of the onus on students to self-evaluate and discuss feedback, reducing the burden on tutors to provide a stream of specific, dense information at the end point of grading and marking.

Reading: Communities of Practice

During the course of undertaking this PGCE it has become increasingly apparent to me that as learners and teachers we absorb certain orthodoxies without even noticing them, much less questioning them. One common one is the assumption that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching’ (Wenger). As a teacher, I have found this individualised approach that most of us start with becomes increasingly problematic when one is called upon to teach large groups, something which is increasingly the norm in higher education. Through a colleague, I was recently introduced to the concept of a community of practice, articulated by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, and later expanded by both authors separately in further books.

Lave and Wenger propose a model, where learning is the product of engagement in a community of individuals engaged in a shared activity or interests. They argue that such communities are fundamental to human activity, and as a result we are all engaged in a number of them (often indeed without realising it), in some cases participating as peripheral participants, in others as core members. Through our interactions within these communities and the things they are centred on (what Wegner terms the ‘domain’), we tune our behaviour and ideas, developing practices that relate to our area of interest. These shared practices, interests, vocabularies, and memories also serve over time to reinforce the sense of a community. As we engage and learn in a community we move from its’s periphery towards it’s centre, learning thus becomes a process of social participation as well as one of actually acquiring knowledge.

What seems key here is that because the community develops these practices collectively, the process of learning cannot be individualised in the way it is often understood to be in formal education. Measuring learning as an individual effort makes little sense when learning becomes the product of group interactions and relationships. This idea would seem to have some interesting parallels with other anti-hierarchical educational ideas, for example rhizomatic learning. However whereas the rhizomatic approach centres on a non-hierarchical approach to knowledge and the exchanges points between different forms of knowledge, communities of practice emphasise a sort of networked, integrated system of learning between individuals. As with rhizomatic learning, communities of practice might be a trendy idea to bandy about, but to truly encourage them in a university setting would seem then to require a fundamental change to a number of things, particularly assessment which remains fixated on learning as an individual activity. While collaboration is increasingly a part of the university curriculum, it’s inclusion often seems mechanistic and continues to heavily emphasise the individual’s contribution to the collaboration (I speak with UAL’s collaborative unit in mind here) over the collaboration as a whole.

While we wait (perhaps indefinitely) for a fundamental reconsideration of the priorities behind higher education assessment, there still seem to be elements of Lave and Wenger’s concept that might be useful in the classroom. Two of these that seem obviously useful to me are first, the idea of learning as a group activity rather than one that takes place between individual students and the teacher, and secondly the goal of creating a communal bond in a learning group, a bond which centres on a set of shared practices, vocabularies, and memories. In terms of learning as a group activity, this seems to be increasingly the norm in classrooms, and to some extent Lave and Wenger are articulating an existing phenomenon rather than proposing a new one. The didactic, teacher led approach to education is increasingly unfashionable, frequently  replaced (at least in pedagogic rhetoric if not in practice) with student orientated approaches, comprising small group work, student led activities and so forth. Still it seems valuable to think about ways these different strategies might be joined together to create a more encompassing sense of group learning. By introducing the idea that we learn together as professionals (and I think the teachers willing participation in the process of learning is probably key here) a community of practice might also normalise the idea amongst a group of students that learning is very much an ongoing, peer to peer activity which continues throughout one’s professional life, rather than something which mostly ends after the three years of university.

Second, the idea of creating a bond or community through learning obviously seems useful in supporting the community of learning outlined above, but also in establishing the social relations between students which will help them to be effective learners and professionals after graduation. If one regards education for a vocational and largely freelancer practice like photojournalism as partly a process of socialisation, of preparing students with the social capital they need to navigate the professional industry and community they will graduate into, a community of practice might act as something of a microcosm of the industry outside the classroom. As well as reflecting the industry outside though, a community of practice is perhaps an opportunity to augment the priorities of that real-world community, by emphasising collaborative and peer to peer learning as ideals against the traditional individualism of the industry, perhaps we can start to subtly influence it as our students graduate into and bring with them practices which celebrate collaboration and the group more, and downplay individual ownership.

Communities of practice should not be treated uncritically, and as Lave and Wenger somewhat acknowledge there are situations where such a community of practice might incorporate unhelpful hierarchies and power relations which challenge or limit participation and learning. Particularly in a financially straightened and competitive industry like photojournalism, those at the centre may well see those at the periphery as challengers or rivals, not equals. Therefore, while the community of practice model might appear to replace the traditional approach of individualised and hierarchical learning, it’s centre-periphery model can reproduce similar tensions in the round. None the less this seems like a potentially useful model with elements which might be adapted, both for the benefit of learning in the formal classroom, and for a student’s lifelong learning afterwards.

Reading: Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn’s book Distrusting Educational Technology was introduced to us by Siobhan Clay in a recent session on inclusivity in the context of technology assisted learning. Her summary of some of the book’s arguments chimed with a few things I’ve already been thinking about here, in particularly the seldom unconsidered politics of these technologies, which tend to be heralded in uncritical, even evangelistic terms by their users. I’m currently thinking about making this issue the topic of investigation for the independent experiment I need to undertake for the technology enhanced learning unit and so reviewing Selwyn’s ideas in more depth seemed like a good starting point. His critique of these technologies is lengthy and intricate and so for the purposes of this post I’m just going briefly summarise the introduction, which gives a good overview of his rationale for critiquing these technologies, and the first chapter of the book which examines their ideological pinnings and the political reasons that these technologies appeal to some of the disparate groups that employ them.

In the introduction, Selwyn sets out an overview of the prevailing attitudes towards educational technology and offers a justification for a more involved critique of these technologies. He questions the deceptive simplicity of these platforms and is critical of the tendency towards unquestioning evangelism that is often encountered in this field, quoting Langdon Winner’s description of a ‘technological somnambulism’ that seems to pervade western society. Selwyn notes the lack of critical voices in the field of technology enhanced learning, writing that the tendency is towards only asking questions rooted in technical and procedural matters (i.e. an over emphasis on the how rather than why). More nuanced critiques tend to be rooted either in psycho-neurological concerns over the effects of these technologies on our minds and bodies, or in ideas about their moral tolerability. He argues we should in fact presume these technologies to be ideologically loaded and ‘to acknowledge the differences that persist throughout educational technology between those who produce and those who consume, those who are empowered and those who are exploited.’ He argues that as such they need ‘to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts’ and as a result also that technology enhanced learning is a field as beset with value preferences; ‘social imaginaries and ideological formations that present common (and often persuasive) understandings of how things ‘should be’ and ‘will be’.’ As if anticipating criticism in return for his critical stance, Selwyn also somewhat defensively makes a case for the importance of pessimism in this field, suggesting doing so is not simply being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but is a case of realism and an important part of breaking free from educationalist hype. He summarises this as ‘approaching educational technology from a position similar to Gramsci’s notion of being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

In the second chapter Selywn attempts to view educational technologies in light of the ideologies they support by offering a deliberately political analysis of education and technology in counterpoint to the ‘commonsensical’ discourse often used about them in educational circles. In doing so he also seeks to create a framework for identifying these ideological interests and their consequences. He starts with a discussion and definition of ideology, aptly starting with Marx and moving through to more contemporary analysis. Selwyn reviews the evolution of ideas about ideology to produce an eventual definition which could loosely be summarised as the idea that ideology seeks to decontest or naturalise the meanings of certain things in order to create a common consensus about them. One can, he suggests speak of a dominant ideology of technology assisted learning or teaching in general, which permits certain activities and frowns on others.

Next Selwyn proceeds to identify the dominant ideologies of our present moment and of the technologies that define our moment. Referencing Andrew Feenberg, Selwyn suggests technologies are often rightly seen seen as sites of struggle between competing ideologies, and this view of them should also extend to digital realm. Selwyn sees our contemporary moment as underpinned by several key ideologies. One is libertarianism, a basic trust in the moral and political primacy of the individual and in North American context particularly their pursuit of individual self-interest. Libertarian ideology is basically humanist Selwyn suggests, having at it’s core a basic trust in the good of people, but also often tips in other directions. Liberatian ideas are heavily connected also to ideas about the power of technology, and extend into the digital as ‘cyber-liberalism’. Selwyn argues that ‘digital technology offers a ready canvas for various strains of libertarian thinking to be imagined and (in part) operationalized – in particular the privileging of the sovereign user and the principles of self-responsibilization and self-determination.’ The internet as a largely unregulated sphere of activity, exists as an example of this.

Next Selwyn discusses neo-liberalism, essentially an extension and updating of libertarianism but with a particular emphasis on consumer choice, free markets and private interest above communal activity or the interests of the state. Under this system every area of life becomes potentially subject to reorganisation along the lines of market principles. While neo-liberialsm is arguably the dominant ideology of our age, Selwyn suggests it is important to see it ‘an unfinished project seeking to remould the world in its image.’ Finally Selwyn discusses what he terms the new economy, a less clearly defined ideology articulated as the changing form of capitalism over recent decades away from Fordist models of production towards modern flexible, information based economies, the products of which are often immaterial in nature. In this new economy profit is gained from the production of knowledge and information, which is produced through a globally networked capitalism with the computer as the steam engine of the modern age. In turn these technologies help to colonise ever more areas of life as profit generators, including interpersonal communication, a transformation suggests Selwyn (quoting Antonio Negri) from the ‘mass worker’ of the factory to the contemporary ‘social worker’. As a result of this ‘the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, ‘innovation’ and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as malleability of working practices’.

Next Selwyn argues we should see educational technology itself in terms of the ideologies that give rise to and promote it. In doing so he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult at first glance to see educational technology as entwined with any aspect of the dominant ideologies just described. Yet, as was noted earlier, one of the core characteristics of hegemony is the ability of dominant ideologies to permeate commonsensical understandings and meaning.’ Selwyn identifies five key ideologies within educational technology. The first, learner centered learning is maybe the most obviously pedagogical, and reflects that the origins of much interest in educational technologies is in a progressive ideal for education designed to better meet the needs of learners. He suggests that ‘this approach frames digital technology as a key means of providing learners with enhanced access to sources of knowledge and expertise that exist outside of their immediate environment.’ Equally it ties to aspirations for education to be dispersed, non-authoritarian and autonomous. In this sense educational technology is sometimes seen as a so-called ‘trojan mouse’ intended to introduce agendas and ideas into the institution which might be difficult in the traditional classroom (although Selwyn also questions the extent to which technology is really necessary to realize these subversive goals).

Next, the efficiencies of education, emphasises the importance of maximum effectiveness and efficiency in education over and above individual or collective empowerment. Seen through this prism educational technologies are more about the economics of education rather than the result for it’s users, with online teaching facilitating ‘efficient logistics of educational provision; the idea of technology contributing to the profitability and commoditization of education; and the idea of technology contributing to countries’ economic competitiveness and efficiency of labour and knowledge production.’ Selwyn suggests that amongst some groups there is a clear sense that technology can be the means to realise a largely corporate model of education planned along market lines and without state intervention. This is counter-balanced at the same time by the perception in other groups that technology can be the means to ever greater national economic competitiveness, reconfiguring workers mindsets towards a knowledge drive economy, and the exporting of education as a product overseas, in effect serving state goals rather than breaking free from them. Next, communitarianism and anti-establishment thinking also underpins some advocacy of educational technology. Selwyn highlights the origins of the computer industry in 1960’s Californian counter-culture and efforts to reposition the computer as a social rather than war machine, and argues this extends to the present in the form of contemporary counter-technology. This thinking most often manifests today in a communiatarian ideal of technology as a way of reimagining and reorganising society along the lines of mutual empathy, understanding and cooperation, an ideal partly played out in debates about net neutrality.

Somewhat related to this is the ideology of Anti-institutionalism, which might be seen as a more active process of sabotage against existing institutions and norms. Selwyn writes that ‘The key here is the perceived ability of digital technologies to support ‘self-organization’ within networks that is decentralized, distributed and bottom-up, therefore opposing the planned and controlled nature of institutional organization.’ He suggests these ideas have informed some contemporary strands of critical pedagogy, advocates of which sometimes view educational technologies as a potential means for revolutionary ends, breaking beyond the rigid structures of conventional schooling and education. ‘In these terms, digital technology is seen as a potential means of resisting the ‘banking model’ of accumulating ‘knowledge content’, and instead supporting open discussion, open debate, radical questioning, continuous experimentation and the sharing of knowledge.’ Lastly, techno fundamentalism, the enchantment with technology and technological progress, might seem a less obvious value but is still, Selwyn suggests, an important one. He writes that ‘the techno-fundamentalist mindset reflects an implicit belief that technology offers a means to substantially improve current forms of everyday life and social relations – including education.’ Part of this is what has been termed ‘computationalism’ or the idea that the world can be framed in terms of data, algorithms and Boolean logic. This perspective assumes digital technology has the means of expression to understand and ultimately resolve the world’s problems and to some extent reflects a deeply ingrained western belief in technology as progress, something which at times borders on a new religion.

Selwyn notes how interesting it is that educational technologies can comfortably incorporate such different, even contradictory ideologies reflecting the idea of these technologies as a contested space. Partly he suggests this might be explained by the fact that dominant ideologies need to attract and retain a wide array of groups, and these technologies may offer precisely that compromise in their flexibility of use. What is also common amongst these disparate groups is the view of educational technology as a means to improve or better education. He calls on educators to think critically about these issues through a series of six questions that end the chapter: These include to routinely question the ideological dimensions of educational technology, to ask what forms of engagement are promoted through these technologies, and which are marginalized or silenced. What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with these technologies. How they alter the relationship between individual and commons and public and private, and what are the emotional and human outcomes from their use. Lastly and maybe most importantly we should be aware of the continuities and discontinuities they create between new ways of teaching and learning, and the old.

Reading: Decolonising the Curriculum

In recent years a number of protests and movements around the world have drawn renewed attention to the idea of decolonising the university curriculum. In South Africa, protests have coalesced around a number of issues including representations of divisive colonial figures like Cecil Rhodes on University Campuses, as well as more systemic issues. Similar protests have taken place in the southern United States, and also to a lesser degree in the United Kingdom. Clearly to be effective this decolonisation must go beyond just challenging the celebration of divisive histories, and must extend into the classroom and curriculums that are being taught.

In a 2016 paper, Lesley le Grange of South Africa’s Stellenbosch University offers some ideas for how this might occur. While he writes in the very specific context of the South African university system with its history of colonialism and apartheid and it’s diverse ethnic and cultural makeup there is much which might be adopted and adapted into other systems. Le Grange opens by discussing the South African education system, particularly highlighting the very low retention rates of black students. He suggests these retention rates are linked not only to inadequacies in public schools (a widely recognised issue) but also to the environment of the university itself.. In his paper Le Grange sets out to discuss three areas. First what is meant by decolonisation and why the need to decolonise, secondly what is normally meant by curriculum and alternative ways of understanding this term, and finally, he discusses the actual process of decolonisation.

Le Grange opens by attempting to define what is meant by decolonisation by reviewing a number of models for this, mostly informed by post-colonial theory. These all essentially set out a gradual process of awakening, and mounting activism, challenging the entrenched priorities and inequalities inherited from the colonial era. Le Grange writes that ‘decolonisation is a necessary response to first and second generation colonialism, neo-colonialism and the recent (re)ascendency of neoliberalism’ and provides examples of how each of these stages have undermined indigenous culture and knowledge. While he is clearly writing in a very post-colonial context which might not be directly transferable to the United Kingdom, his statement is intriguing to me in it’s very direct connection between the legacy of colonialism and rise of global neoliberal capitalism. Le Grange is however also realistic about the challenges of the decolonisation, and critiques the suggestion inherent in this term of going backwards to a previous state, something he points out is neither desirable nor possible. Drawing on examples from New Zealand and Canada, he also notes that even relatively successful programs of decolonisation can have their pitfalls and weak points.

In the next section, le Grange turns to a discussion of curriculum. He critiques the lack of reflection on university curriculums (in comparison to say school level curriculums) and calls for a move away from a Taylorist, outcomes focused university curriculum. He offers a few alternative definitions and forms, including Ted Aoki’s call for teachers to consider the curriculum not just as a plan but as something which is lived by students. He also delves into the Latin origins of the term curriculum, from currere, meaning to run, and reflects on various interpretations of this including those by William Pinar, and later by Jason Wallin who propose multiple interpretations stemming from this adjective. Running (pun unintended) through this section is a sense of discontent with the rather linear and static way that curriculum is usually understood in higher education, and its inherent lack of flexibility or ability to incorporate the experiences and ideas of different students.

In the final section le Grange discusses approaches to actively decolonising the curriculum. Citing himself in the third person (something which even in academia I find slightly bizarre) le Grange argues an important starting point might be a move away from a Descartesian emphasis on knowledge and the individual and towards a more encompassing celebration of our connections to others and to the world. He writes that ‘A decolonised curriculum is evidenced by a shift in subjectivity from the arrogant ‘I’ (of Western individualism) to the humble ‘I’ – to the ‘I’ that is embedded, embodied, extended and enacted.’ From here he goes on to a critique of the foundations of many western disciplines, which he quotes Odora-Hoppers and Richards describing as ‘distant, antiseptic and removed from the experiences of the lived world [that] comes from recognising the pain, anger and anguish being experienced in society’. Le Grange suggests that as part of the proccess of decolonisation we may need to create new spaces that allow other modes of knowledge to co-exist alongside the western binary of empirical knowledge verification/falsification.

Le Grange is writing in a highly specific context, but his thoughts on how South African universities might decolonise are intriguing and clearly encourage thought about the extent to which practices in universities in the former colonising countries (like the United Kingdom) echo those in the former colonies. Many post-colonial thinkers, not least Stuart Hall, have reflected on the close binaries that exist between centre and periphery, coloniser and colonised. The impetus might be much clearer and more urgent in post-colonial countries to decolonise their higher education systems, which were so often clearly products and parts of colonialism. But when one considers that many older British universities also existed in a close symbiosis with empire, it is intriguing to ponder what a very direct emulating le Grange’s suggestions to the university system in the United Kingdom might look like.

Reading: Internationalisation

Our latest assigned reading for our Teaching and Learning unit was several sources looking at ‘internationalisation’ and the way higher education has come to be viewed as an export. We were given four sources and asked to read two of them and respond to three questions. I read three in the end, Vision 20:20: Forecasting International Student Mobility: A UK Perspective. Report by the British Council,  then a 2011 paper by Uwe Brandenburg and Hans De Wit and a 2011 article in the Guardian by Peter Scott. The questions we were asked to consider were; Firstly, if higher education is an export, what are we exporting? Secondly, what should we be exporting? And thirdly what does that second question assume about our aims/purposes (or those of higher education)?

First of all, if higher education is an export what are we exporting?

Considering the focus of the Vision 20:20 report there is actually surprisingly little about what exactly it is we are exporting through internationalisation. The report initially discusses the benefits of an international focus for UK institutions including improvements to their learning culture, the greater variety of courses that can be made available to home students, and obvious cash injection that overseas students provide. There is also interesting reflection on changing demographics of overseas students in the UK, from Greek students as the top group (27,000) in 1998 to Chinese students (32,000) in 2003, perhaps reflecting changing geopolitics and economics. The report is primarily concerned with how the UK higher education sector can maintain it’s overseas profile and mitigate risks and changes in the field, including the growth of transnational education (i.e. overseas teaching), new technologies (which the report says are yet to be fully exploited) and the changing aspirations of international students themselves. The report forecasts a few different scenarios for how these things will change, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic and also considers changes relating to particular issues like the UK’s relationship with Europe (clearly dating it, there is no discussion of Brexit). Beyond practical benefits however there is little discussion of what exactly it is we export through these practices and no critique of the practice of internationalisation itself.

By contrast in Brandenburg and De Wit’s paper they argue the explosion of internationalisation in universities has not kept pace with questioning of the ‘why and wherefore’ of these practices. They see distinct parallels with the notion of globalisation in the same time frame. It is argued that the two are in fact closely related, with internationalised higher education regarded as a globally tradeable commodity (somewhat echoing Collini’s ideas about a global multiversity). But just as globalisation was sometimes uncritically heralded as a means to prosperity, peace and international understanding by advocates in the post-Cold War era, for Brandenburg and De Wit there has been too much rhetoric about internationalisation from it’s acoyltes and not nearly enough cold scrutiny of the claims made for it. Brandenburg and De Wit also argue that internationalisation, far from being the progressive agenda it once was, has become part of the dogma of HE, and its proponents have gone from relative radicals to conservative defenders of tradition.

Writing in the Guardian, Scott argues that ‘Internationalisation is a clumsy word used to describe a wide range of activities, some of which we should be very proud of, and others best left in the shadows.’ Scott particularly objects to ‘managerial-bureaucratic initiatives to “internationalise” the university’ and argues that universities have always been international instituions (a claim one might question in light again of Collini’s argument that universities have always been in flux and that such generalisations are therefore unhelpful). Scott argues that we are less concerned with what we are exporting than our desire for cash ‘The bad aspects, sadly, are the mainstream drivers of internationalisation. First is the pressure to recruit international students, almost entirely because they can be charged higher fees.’ This includes uncritical relationships between the HE sector and countries and governments with poor human rights records, for example China. Scott’s message seems to be that what we are often doing through the rush to internationalise is exporting the message that we value money above principles.

Next, what should we be exporting?

As previously stated, the Vision 20:20 report seems more preoccupied with practicalities and perceptions than anything as ideological as this question implies. The report views internationalisation and higher education through the prism of a market, and in terms of adjustments to what we export it’s prime concern appears to be that universities appeal to this international market rather than meet an ideological informed notion of the purpose of international university education. Universities need to anticipate changing desires amongst international students and changing economic situations, not attempt to act as beacons for certain ideas about how the world, or education, ought to be.

Again in contrast Brandenburg and De Wit argue for a review of internationalisation practices and a move towards what they call a ‘post-internationalisation age’. For them this means moving away from the dogmatic, conservative practice of internationalisation which has developed in higher education, and replacing this with a new stance that views this practice as a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. This means critically asking why we internationalise and what benefits it really provides to students, staff and institutions. It also means reassessing the value of different forms of international exchange, and acknowledging that some practices and programs are more useful than others.

Turning to Scott, he advocates internationalisation’s ‘potential to transform the lives of international students; its role in sustaining, and growing, science and scholarship through vigorous academic exchanges; and its potential to build social and economic capacity’. However he also makes the point that some of these things occur more or less easily in the current climate, writing that ‘the first of these will always endure. But the second nowadays often seems a contingent effect of other, less wholesome, objectives; while the third, I fear, is dwindling into insignificance.’ Echoing his earlier comments on human rights, Scott also seems to view internationalisation as a way to export a certain ideological agenda, but also fundamentally sees universities as a national endeavour, ‘founded and funded with national purposes in mind’ who should have their core priorities focused on their home countries.

Lastly, what does the prior question assume about our aims and purposes for higher education?

The Vision 20:20 report basically presents a market led view of higher education. I am reading between the lines somewhat when I summarise it this way, but the report could be seen to be arguing that changes should only be made to mitigate risks and maximise profit, not in order to have any sort of ideological influence in the world (which might after all make the former aims harder). Analysis for example of the changing numbers of undergraduates and post-graduates have nothing to do with the question of why and when people choose to study, but rather the report argues are ‘important for a number of reasons, including decisions regarding allocation of international marketing resources, as well as influencing how an institution or country perceives or would like to perceive itself internationally’ [p.25]. This is interesting given the British Council’s origins and history, although clearly though even such an apolitical stance on higher education is itself political, and ties in neatly with criticisms made by the paper of the next two authors.

Brandenburg and De Wit clearly see internationalisation as a concept which carries as much problematic baggage as it’s more politically unpopular partner, globalisation. They call for a movement away from the concept, arguing that ‘what we need are people who understand and define their role within a global community, transcending the national borders, and embracing the concepts of sustainability—equity of rights and access, advancement of education and research, and much more.’ While they call for is familiar, and echoed by many advocates of internationalisation what is telling is their view that the dogmas and ideologies this practice brings with it in fact end up standing in the way of a great deal of the things they are supposed to enable.

Finally turning to Scott again, the view that universities might be used as a form of ideological soft power, or a carrot to engage states towards better human rights records is an interesting one. As the LSE relationship with the Gadaffi regime indicates, these relationships can also become a public relations fig leaf for unpleasant regimes, and can enable and train people who may ultimately return to support and maintain those same regimes. In either case this view makes certain assumptions about culture and knowledge as a component of propaganda, rather recalling the view of initiatives like the BBC and particularly the World Service during the twentieth century, or the purpose of the education system in the context of the British empire, as a tool to educate a foreign ruling caste in a particular set of ‘British’ values. One could argue this is no less problematic than the pretence of apoliticism one finds in the Vision 20:20 report. In all Scott seems conflicted between on the one hand a view of universities as a national utility, and therefore which should have a national focus, and on the other hand viewing them as a form of soft power for influencing other countries.

Reading: What are Universities For?


As Stefan Collini notes in the introduction to What Are Universities For? attempting to define these institutions might seem superficially simple but quickly becomes complex and political. Universities combine a staggering array of facilities and abilities, and fulfil a huge number of functions. In some respects they are progressive, far seeing institutions, in other respects they are conservative and incorporate practices firmly rooted in their distant past. In tracing these contours and attempting to answer the title question, Collini is neither nostalgic for a lost past nor entirely negative about the future (although I think he clearly sets out his views on the current direction of higher education, for example the neoliberalisation of universities). The result is an engaging primer on the current educational landscape and a compelling argument for the importance of universities in a time of immense change. What Are Universities For? is broken into two sections, of which the first half really felt the most relevant and so I’ll primarily discuss that here. The second part appear to be reprints of earlier essays on higher education and at least from a skim read these chapters felt less relevant than those that preceded them.

In the first chapter Collini discusses the university in light of globalisation and the rapid expansion of the university model. In doing this he begins already to question the virtue of trying to define universities, institutions which may need to differ greatly with geography. He also notes the tendency to attempt to define university’s in relation to other organisations and institutions, and points out that while they might sometimes overlap with the activities of other organisations they will rarely operate in the same way. Collini cites the similarities and differences between university research and that of the private sector research labs as an example of this divergence. The second chapter is a short overview of recent university history, with Collini observing the tendency for contemporary commentators and politicians to view higher education as having lapsed from a former glory and being in desperate need of return to that state. As well as charting the evolution of the modern university, from the University of Bologna to the English polytechnics via Humboltd’s University of Berlin, Collini effectively demonstrates that universities have undergone such rapid change in the last century or so that it’s difficult to speak of any era when it was a stable institution on which today’s institutions might be desirably modelled.

Next, Collini revisits John Henry Newman’s 1852 book The Idea of a University. Newman, a priest instrumental in founding the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that a university’s focus should be on its students and that education should be broad in subject and liberal in atmosphere. These ideas have been highly influential, but for Collini their influence and repetition is itself problematic, evidence that thinking about higher education practice can become bound unquestioningly to a canon consisting of thinkers and texts which sometimes predate the foundation of modern universities by a considerable time. Collini while admitting he is not impervious to the book’s charms, offers a critique of Newman, attempting to strip away the class and gender assumptions of Newman’s era. Chapter four continues some of the threads begun in the previous chapter, of the supposed distinction between useful and useless subjects of study. Some of Newman’s arguments would seem to suggest that if education is to be more than a process of simply credentialing people for future jobs then no such distinction between useful and useless is really possible at all. Collini continues this idea, discussing the public misunderstanding of the form (much less purpose) of the humanities and the common pressure for these subjects to make themselves less esoteric and more accessible (while in doing so paradoxically often opening themselves indeed to the inverse criticism of being lightweight subjects). His conclusion in defence of the humanities, that it is really ‘an end in itself’ [p.85], feels rather weak even though I agree with his view that these subjects are as much about learning to understand others and live your life as they are about more practical or emplotable skills.

For the final chapter in this first section Collini summarises some of the previous points and makes a case for universities as a public good in spite of their ‘semi-marketized, employment orientated’ [p.87] condition today. Collini argues for the importance of defending universities from their sceptics, but also warns any attempt to justify something is bound to look rather defensive, and that therefore the ways that universities are defended must be carefully considered. Equally in the urge to defend universities we may end up inaccurately defining them to satisfy their critics, in effect making matters worse by giving people an unrealistic sense of what universities are for. Collini in the end seems to suggest that a good strategy is to challenge the terms of the question, particularly the tendency to measure university value in economic terms, and to view economic output as an end in itself. If, he argues, the purpose of a strong economy is that it allows us to do the things that matter, then we need to be clearer about what these things are, and perhaps the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake is one of them. All in all Collini’s book makes for insightful and informed reading on the evolution of university’s into their present state and attitudes both within and without about what these diverse institutions might be for. While I sometimes sense he falls into his own trap of feeling under pressure to overly defend universities to a sceptical audience, and while he also writes inevitably from a very specific political standpoint, What Are Universities For? is a thoughtful and at times quite beautifully argued case for higher education as economic stimulus, social good, and end in itself.

Reading: Lucky Jim


Alongside reading the mandated texts for my PG Cert and writing up thoughts on them here, I’m also noting down my responses to any other volumes that I’ve happened to read along the way that have in some way proved illuminating on the subject of teaching or universities. The first of these was Michel Focault’s 1975 tract Discipline and Punish, and the latest is Kingsley Amis’s 1954 book Lucky Jim. Often cited as one of the first examples of the campus genre, the novel follows the exploits of the eponymous James Dixon, a young unenthusiastic medieval history lecturer working at an unnamed university in the midlands. The book follows his struggles as he is caught between the demands of his students, superiors, his own inadequacies as a teacher and the general chaos of his personal life. I enjoyed the novel when I first read it when I was a history undergraduate at a somewhat similar university. On a second reading it struck even more of a chord, I suppose partially because I now find myself in a professional position while not exactly comparable to Dixons, still not also not entirely removed from it either.

Lucky Jim was written and is set at a very particular time, in the early stages of the expansion of the university sector that followed in the wake of the Second World War. In this sense you could view it almost as a historical novel, a work of fiction written about and to some extent from within an era and place of some interest. This historic moment of expansion is evident in various subtle ways throughout the novel, for example in Dixon’s recruitment (in background he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a traditional lecturer, a fact which results in much self-doubt through the novel). It’s also evidenced in the character of Dixon’s students. One of them, Michie, is a decorated former tank commander in the war, who has returned to university as a mature student. Michie equally irritates and terrifies Dixon because of his superior military record, his apparent surfeit of historcal knowledge and his constant badgering of Dixon to reveal details of a course curriculum which the latter has yet to write. Dixon fears that Michie will unintentionally reveal his inadequacies to the other students and to his colleagues, an example of imposter syndrome which while deserved in Dixon’s case will be familiar to many rather more competent teachers.

The novel is also feels rather contemporary in its characterization of the internal politics and priorities of British universities. Much of the plot is taken up with Dixon’s increasingly desperate attempts to curry favour with his head of department, Professor Welch, a man who is in equal turns forgetful and pedantic. As a result Dixon’s machinations to impress Walsh are invariably either ignored or grossly misfire, with the fallout from them often bringing him into conflict with other academics, most of whom Dixon maintains a barely concealed contempt for. Dixon is also under pressure throughout the story to produce what would today be termed ‘research outputs’. The novel culminates in his disastrous delivery of lecture on ‘merrie england’ to assembled staff and students, a lecture which rapidly descends into a public lambasting of everything that Dixon dislikes about the university and his colleagues. This pressure to produce will seem terribly contemporary to some academics.

Lucky Jim is of course an exaggerated satire of English university education at a very particular moment in the twentieth century. However like all good satire it is also rooted in a decent amount of fact, inspired at least partially by Amis’s own experiences as a university lecturer and to a greater extent by the experiences of his friend Phillip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at a number of universities including University College Leicester and is often cited as the inspiration for Dixon. The novel is a constant reminder that universities often end up being as much about personalities and politics (particularly the failings of these things) as they do the question of good education or original research, and also that whatever else happens it’s always useful to approach this world with a large reserve of humour.

Reading: Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Art & Design

Photograph by Paul Bland, an African-American GI who documented his experiences in Europe during the Second World War.
Photograph by Paul Bland, an African-American GI who documented his experiences in Europe during the Second World War. (National Museum of American History)

Documentary photography represents something of a paradox. As a subject which is about reflecting the world in all its complexity, the introduction of a wider range of viewpoints and ideas into the curriculum and the encouragement of a diverse student body treated equally can only be beneficial for a course, and for the field more widely. Yet the canon of ‘great photographers’ has and continues to overemphasise a small group of predominantly white, male photographers. Perhaps partly because of that the exterior view of the discipline also often seems to be that it is one with a restrictive membership. It’s ironic in the sense that while photographers of other colours, races, genders and classes might be less well represented in the histories of the field, my experience has been that they are not necessarily less present in the practice of it (the issues around photography and gender are interesting example of this, see Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton for some coverage of this).

The two pieces of set reading for this tutorial touch on many of these issues in relation to contemporary higher education, highlight arguments and approaches for ‘liberating the curriculum’ from these tendencies, encouraging a diverse student body, and equality of treatment. The two texts are Liberation, Equality, and Diversity in the Curriculum, by the National Union of Students (2011) and Retention and attainment in the disciplines: Art and Design by Finnigan and Richards (2016). The first piece defines and outlines liberation, equality and diversity in the classroom, identifying issues and strategies to make courses and curriculums better achieve these three distinct aims. The second piece specifically addresses retention and how a student’s background and the way curricula and courses are designed and carried out might make those students more or less prone to withdrawal from a course or low attainment. In particular, it provides a series of case studies of staff development programs intended to equip staff with the skills to identify and address these problems in their courses. Some of the ideas outlined in the two pieces are familiar ones, others less so, and I thought I would reflect on a few of them.

The idea of ‘liberating the curriculum’ is one I like very much. As an undergraduate studying history, the area of study I found most exciting was not that of a specific period, often dominated by a particular historical perspective, but that of historiography, in effect the history of history. In this field a multitude of competing voices came together to argue over the essential problem, succinctly summarised by E.H Carr in the title of his 1961 book What is History? In historiography north-American empiricist voices collided with African post-colonialist narratives and European micro-histories in the most fascinating debates over the discipline’s form and function. This multitude of differing voices and viewpoints is something I have sometimes tried to replicate in my own classes, albeit in more modest ways. When giving introductory lectures on the subject area to new students I try to pick examples which represent a diversity of definitions, viewpoints, experiences, as much as including examples which provide the traditional definitions or repeats the traditional canon of ‘great’ documentary photographers. Inevitably though teachers also teach to their subject knowledge, and the more I try to do this the more I realise the limits of what I know beyond the familiar canon..

From liberation to equality, another issue raised is how different forms of learning, assessment and feedback benefit or weaken the learning experience of different students. This is again something I’ve had to think about in classes, albeit in quite specific, narrow ways. I know for example that a significant number of my students (and at LCC generally) have degrees of dyslexia, and coming from a family with a history of that condition I think I am somewhat aware of teaching strategies which might help (or hinder) these students. But in respect of other conditions I know relatively little and tend to adapt on the fly to new students and new disabilities, researching and adapting as I go, not always with total success. However this approach has the downside that it relies on knowledge of the disabilities represented in the class, whether because they are visible or the student discloses them, and clearly there are many situations where neither of these will be the case. Another area discussed, alternative assessment and feedback possibilities is something I’ve thought less about, although it has come up in discussion with colleagues at work and at other institutions. When it does though it has tended to be less in relation to diversity than in terms of approaches which might be more clearly articulated to students at the start of units, and more transparent, and less onerous and stressful for students and staff at the point of assessment.

Turning to solutions, the idea of a course diversity audit, whether carried out by people internal or external to it, sounds useful. It’s easy to get swept up in the complexities of formulating and planning lessons (much less carrying them out) and to lose sight of subtleties which an external observer might be able to more easily and objectively identify and propose solutions to. That said, a lecturer’s willingness to accept solutions depends on an individual’s teaching style and willingness to adapt to these suggestions. In this regard I think the NUS report is right in making the point that staff themselves need to want to address these issues, and in the end these sorts of changes will hinge on that will, and the extent to which staff see fostering this sort of inclusiveness as part of their mission as educators, not as something foisted on them from outside. For some teachers (I think myself included) the latter is pre-existing, and it is seen, to borrow from bell hooks, as part of the political agenda that lies behind the desire to teach. For others who have a more old fashioned or mechanistic view of teaching that will maybe not be the case. Of the two solutions suggested in the NUS report, the idea that it be introduced by linking it to employee appraisal is one solution to that, although I wonder if that route is just as likely to generate resentment. Alternatively highlighting the positive effect, it can have on students and the learning environment more generally and offering the frameworks to learn more about these areas through things like staff development would seem a less forceful approach but perhaps ultimately a more productive one.

Reading: Teaching to Transgress

bell hooks

Much like the writing of her pedagogic mentor Paolo Freire, bell hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress is concerned with how, at it’s best, education can be an empowering and inspiring processes, and how equally when conducted in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons it can be an oppressive and depressing experience for students and teachers alike. Combining Freire’s critical pedagogy with feminist and post-colonial theory, and drawing on hook’s own experiences as both student and teacher, Teaching to Transgress identifies some of the reason that classrooms and lessons inspire or don’t, and offers something of a toolkit of ideas and inspiration to counter some of these problems.

In the introduction hooks sets out her own experiences of being taught, recounting how during her early years at a segregated American school she was educated by black female teachers for whom teaching was itself a political act against the white male hegemony of the southern United States. The efforts of these teachers meant that school was for hooks a space where she was able to transgress the expectations she faced at home and in wider society, and consequently it became ‘a place of pleasure, ecstasy and danger’ [p.3]. However, following the desegregation of southern schools she increasingly encountered teachers, predominantly white, for whom education was functional rather than political, and who looked on her as a precocious black student not with encouragement, but with suspicion. She recounts how this continued at college, where she was taught by professors who seemed to have little interest in teaching and who in some cases were manifestly unequipped for the task. Entering the class room as a teacher herself, hooks responded to these experiences, and her encounters with the ideas of Freire and feminist pedagogy to deploy her own approach to teaching. She covers a huge amount of territory in the two hundred or so pages of this book, and so I will just briefly summarise a few of her ideas here that seem particularly cogent to my own experiences and aims as a teacher.

Throughout the text hooks challenges a variety of common assumptions about what makes for good or bad teaching. She challenges the denigration of the teaching profession, not least from within academia where teaching is sadly sometimes seen as subsidiary to or a distraction from the real business of academic research or artistic practice. This seems vitally important, if teachers are to teach effectively they need to enjoy and own the process in much the same way we often encourage students to enjoy learning and own the knowledge that results. Hooks also questions the invariably unspoken but prevailing wisdom that teachers who are geniuses in the classroom are those who are necessarily damaged in other areas of their life, whether emotionally damaged, hard drinking, sexually inappropriate, or something else, and argues for a shift away from this towards self-actualisation and wholeness as a pre-requisite for good teaching. She argues against the need for teachers to be dictators in the classroom, and the value of an openness with students which many lecturers might feel uneasy about (one chapter indeed analyses the erotic and sexual dynamics of teaching). hook’s mantra that ‘In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.’ [p.21] is one I have often repeated to students myself, albeit formulated in different ways.

hooks challenges in other ways, for example suggesting that practices and ideas often viewed with scepticism by teachers or students can be vital to the energy of a classroom and the value of learning. Two seemingly diametrically opposed examples which I will discuss briefly are fun and theory. For hooks, fun, excitement even, must be an important element of teaching, even if that runs counter to traditional thinking that often views fun as disruptive. For hooks excitement about ideas was not necessarily enough to generate an exciting environment, it must also come from the relationships within the group. She views it as important to get away from the relatively narrow relationship between students and teacher, and for tutors to both know students and what motivates them and for students to know each other. Institutionally the success or failure of a classroom environment is usually seen as the responsibility of the teacher, but hooks argues that everyone in the room plays a part in this process and teachers also have to be realistic about what they can achieve with a given group, recounting a class she found immensely hard to motivate as an example.

While fun might sometimes be viewed with doubt by teachers, theory is often viewed sceptically by photography practitioners including some students when they enter the classroom. While some students engage with questions of ethics, representation or interpretation vigorously, the urge to ask what the point of this all is can sometimes to be on the lips of others, a question I often feel is as important to vocalise and discuss as the topics that have given rise to it. Drawing on feminist theory hooks argues that theory isn’t inherently ‘liberatory or revolutionary’ [p.61] but can become those things when we ask it to be. It can as easily be oppressive, entrenching forms of power and privilege, and ‘often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place’ [p.62] or which may become ‘a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice that most seeks to create a gap between theory and practice’ [p.64]. As well as calling out the inappropriate use of theory, hooks also calls for an emphasis on personal experience as the basis for theory, and inversely, an integration of theory into everyday life and action, an echoing of Freire’s ideas about the importance of praxis in teaching and learning.

In short hooks covers an immense array of ground which I feel I’ve hardly begun to summarise here. The experiences and anecdotes are often highly personal and in some respects specific to a US system but regardless there is much here of relevance to my own experiences and aspirations as a teacher and a documentary practitioner. In particular hooks’s belief that teaching can conjoin with the other elements of practice, and her assertion that teaching ‘has been essential to my development as an intellectual, as a teacher /professor because the heart of this approach to learning is critical thinking’ [p.202]. hooks is candid about the reality that engaged pedagogy is not a solution to all of the problems that face teachers and students, indeed within universities these approaches can sometimes create new problems even as they help to resolve old ones. Still the overarching mood of her book is one of hopeful optimism and as she concludes, ‘the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility’ [p.207]

Reading: Discipline and Punish

Michel Foucault

While Discipline and Punish isn’t actually on the reading list for my PG Cert, I returned to it recently as part of my research for something else and as I read it occurred that it would be a useful text to summarise and reflect on briefly in terms of teaching and the classroom. Michel Foucault’s writing on power, health and sexuality has been profoundly influential in the social sciences and arts, to the paradoxic extent that the ideas of thinker whose career was largely predicated on critiquing how modes of thought are made possible, become entrenched, and close down the possibility for other forms of thought, has become, frankly, deeply entrenched themselves. Discipline and Punish is probably one of his best-known texts, in part because it’s relative accessibility but also because of its implications for how we view the modern world, in particular many of its pastoral practices, from incarceration, to healthcare, to schooling.

In the book Foucault charts the evolution of disciplinary practices from the early modern to modern eras. He begins with the very physical and public coercion of the early modern state (opening the book with an excruciating account of the last execution to occur in France for the crime of attempted regicide) before leaping forward to more modern and comparatively humane methods of treatment and punishment following the French revolution. What is significant in this is Foucault’s assertion that what initially appears to be a progressive evolution in the way discipline is created is actually the exchange of one means of oppression for another. Where previously control was exerted through physical restraint and overt violence, he suggests in the modern era these restraints are increasingly internalised instead, with the mere threat of punishment (now carried out away from public view) being enough in many cases to enforce normative or ‘proper’ behaviour in targeted groups like criminal and the mentally ill. Alongside the direct incarceration of marginalised groups, behaviour is incalculated into mainstream populations as well through similar but even more covert means, resulting in a new discipline of biopower, the micromanagement of living things.

This tendency becomes evident in the new architecture of the modern state, in factories, hospitals and of course schools, and is most clearly exemplified for Foucault in Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. This was conceived by Bentham as a prison building which would create in its occupants the sensation that could be under scrutiny at any time, and thereby enforcing inner restraint. Bentham’s idea was never realised in his lifetime, and Foucault’s re-employment of it (as he later acknowledged) was somewhat idealistic in terms of the mechanics of how such a building would work in practice, but his articulation of panopticonism has been influential on a wide range of fields from photography theory to surveillance studies. Despite the emergence of a school of post-panoptic thinking in surveillance studies, the legacy of the Panopticon persists ironically even in an era when increasingly automated surveillance technologies make the reality of total observation as practical as the illusion of it, an example if one were needed of Foucault’s relative unassailability as a thinker even after time and change have started to erode the applicability of some of his ideas.

Still the model of the Panopticon remains relevant in many spheres, not least as one to consider in relation to the spatial arrangements of the classroom. In their layouts schools and universities typically still invariably follow an arrangement which dates back to Bentham’s era (and earlier), of a teacher speaking with or without visual prompts in front of rows of forward facing students. This model affords visibility of the teacher to the students, but also inversely creates a panoptic effect that makes it easy for the teacher to see all activity in the room (something students frequently seem unaware of until they occupy the position of the teacher). Besides the benefits of this arrangement for students to observe and teachers to survey, this structure would also seem to create an innate hierarchy or distance between on the one hand the teacher or lecturer and the medium of information (projection, whiteboard, demonstration) and on the other the students who are receiving the information. Viewed in light of Freire’s ideas about the importance of unity between students and staff, the effect of this hierarchy or distance is interesting to consider.

What Foucault’s ideas also push me to ask is what happens when the traditional spatial characteristics of the classroom are altered and experimented with. There are interesting precedents for this in other structures with similar semi-panoptic qualities, for example in a small number of churches, as in Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, pews face inward along the aisle not towards the front, with parishioners facing parishioners thereby creating a very different dynamic to other churches which face the altar and priest. A very different example, following the Second World War the court room at Nuremberg was extensively remodelled in anticipation of the war crimes trials that would take place there. As part of the process the judges seat at the front of the court was moved to make space for a large screen on which would be projected evidence of the crimes of those on trial. These examples and the different dynamics they achieved were the result of accident as much as design, but along with Foucault’s ideas about space and power they lead me to wonder what results might be achieved by altering the space of the classroom. How does it change the relationships between participants, and engagement with ideas, when teachers for example speak from the back rather than the front, or when students face each other?

Another final question for me to consider is how all of this relates to the non-space of online teaching, where students and teachers are brought together in a dematerialised virtual classroom, in my case the Blackboard platform, while simultaneously occupying disparate real world spaces, often separated by thousands of miles. This type of teaching experience clearly evaporates some of the dynamics and hierarchies of the physical class room’s layout and architecture, but to what extent does it replace old divisions and hierarchies with new ones? Do questions of international geography and network neutrality start to play greater roles than question of local space arrangement, with issues of distance and borders introducing issues of latency and potentially also sensitivities in terms of what is shown and discussed that are quite different to those that might exist when a class occupy the same physical space? Again these are questions to which I don’t yet have any answers but would like to explore further.