Imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy? No kidding.

This post began as a reflection on why the term ‘imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’ isn’t funny. I attended a conference session on gender violence and inequality in universities in which the term got a good laugh. It was nearly inaudible amidst the noise of sexual assaults and harassment on high school and university campuses, the complicity of institutional management in silencing gender critique, persistent racism–sexism in the academy, gendered precarity and inequalities in pay, and institutionalised and legitimised patriarchy throughout the educational system. There have been advances. Earlier this year, campaigners in the UK (including high school students Jessy McCabe and June Eric-Udorie) overturned a government proposal to remove feminism from the A-level curriculum – although with many reports on the campaign emphasising the inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxeburg and Ayn Rand, it remains to ask #whyismycurriculumwhite.

But one report of this campaign from January of this year caught my eye just after I returned home. Continue reading “Imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy? No kidding.”

Practices of possibility in neoliberal social systems

2015–16 Independent Social Research Foundation
Mid-Career Fellowship

Following is a brief summary of the research I will be undertaking this year. To read the full version of the proposal, visit the ISRF website. Check back here for developments, links to the project website (forthcoming) and ways to get involved!

The thesis to be interrogated in this project is that theoretical and practical resources for democratising contemporary social institutions – for a ‘politics of possibility’ – exist in everyday thinking and practice, but that we need interdisciplinary methods of philosophical, sociological and critical-practical research in order to disclose them. This project develops an interdisciplinary methodology of practical philosophy that is designed to deepen understandings of how particular forms of power and powerlessness in neoliberal institutions foreclose possibility, and to identify practices through which they can be challenged and transformed. While we now have a good understanding of how neoliberal rationality is learned in institutions, this has not been matched by philosophically credible studies of the limits and possibilities of how it may also contribute to the formation of alternative forms of reason. Most conceptual studies of neoliberal rationality are therefore separated from the strategies and struggles of professionals and activists to generate new possibilities for action in everyday life.

This project will bridge these bodies of work by examining how different articulations of neoliberal rationality create and inhibit specific forms of possibility. It grew out of a concern that social science, critical philosophy and action research are often more successful at diagnosing the ‘crisis of hope’ in contemporary society than enabling active responses to it, particularly amongst people who work in key socialising institutions. It develops work by critical theorists who attribute the contraction of human and environmental possibility to the expansion of neoliberal and technological rationalities throughout everyday life, and who argue this structurally forecloses spaces for political agency. This research also builds on a rich tradition of educational research which suggests that critical pedagogies can be possibility-enabling practices, but rarely explores what possibility actually is or focuses on how specific practices generate specific kinds of possibility within particular neoliberal contexts. The research will produce an integrated philosophical and empirical picture of how possibilities ‘contract’ in neoliberal society and evaluate the effects of this knowledge-in-use in its application in different institutional contexts. It brings philosophical concept development, empirical sociological research, and methods of participatory action research together into an integrated study which is designed not only to produce new knowledge in each dimension, but to understand the knowledges that we use to connect them in practice.

This project challenges the segregation between philosophies of possibility, theories of political rationality and everyday practice in neoliberal institutions order to address two ‘real-world’ problems. One is that educators working in neoliberal institutions who are not academics or activists have little access to philosophically and empirically robust knowledge about how possibilities for critical agency are foreclosed and enabled in this context. The second real-world problem is that while theories of power, powerlessness and empowerment in neoliberal systems are shaped largely by academic social scientists, many lack insight into (or experiences of struggling with) how this conceptual work is confirmed, mediated by, or challenged in practice. This project therefore does not so much challenge incumbent critical theories and political practices as seek to heal their broken relationships, and to strengthen the potential of their cross-fertilisation for enabling praxis. Its methodology unites the conceptual rigour of critical philosophy with the empirical texture of qualitative methods and the emergent, practice-oriented methods of action research to create practical-critical knowledge about the ‘contraction’ and ‘expansion’ of possibility in neoliberal institutions. My hope is that this act will contribute to the construction of what Ernst Bloch once called an ‘architecture of hope’ which can substantively challenge the hegemony of hopelessness in neoliberalised social institutions today.

New book – The Education of Radical Democracy

Amsler - Education of Radical DemocracyI am delighted to annouce the publication of my new book, The Education of Radical Democracy. It explores why I think radical democracy is so necessary, difficult, and possible today – and why it is vital that we understand it as an educative activity. The book draws on critical social theory and critical pedagogy to illustrate what enables and sustains work for radical democratization, and considers how we can begin such work in everyday life.

“‘The most fundamental lessons that are required for humanization today, as we are reminded by those with long experiences of counter-hegemonic and radically democratic struggle in other places and times, cannot be learned through study alone. Methods for cultivating a radically democratic and militantly optimistic relationship with ourselves, other people, time and space, possibility and the future do not pre-exist our development of these methods for our own situation. As Ernst Bloch argued, ‘man [and woman] . . . is repeatedly transformed in his [or her] work and by it. [S]/he repeatedly stands ahead on frontiers which are no longer such because s/he perceives them, s/he ventures beyond them’ (1995, p. 246). Frontier politics, which is the politics of possibility, is an inherently educative praxis. In a moment where the Front is itself so politicized, certain kinds of practices become particularly important – practices that clarify work on emerging and not-yet possibilities; that visualize and make audible latent tendencies; that intensify and magnify the ‘uncertain, flickering, and often weak lights’ which are dismissed as ephemeral but which may in fact foreshine real possibility; that open up spaces for people to practise critical thinking and being together; that attend to the social and emotional discomforts of radically democratic, counter-cultural and systemically oppositional practice, and to the transformation of individualized fear into common courage; that connect the dots of both foreclosure and possibility in order to construct maps of the apparatuses of hopelessness and models of the architectures of hope. And, in a moment where even these practices are out of reach, other kinds of education – in the ontology of the unfinished and the becoming; in the skills of democratic receptivity; in habits of co-operation, in processes of prefiguration; in the arts of anticipation; and in methods for incorporating these into the political work of constructing material and social conditions for such activities – become critical as well.’

Surveying satisfaction: the politics of dread and desire

Last week, a number of members of my PGCE course struck up discussion about the history and politics of UK the National Student Survey. I thought about preparing a handout with some references on the theme. And then I decided to stop pretending like I think that is sufficient for opening up possibilities for actually talking about things, or pretending that I want to perform sort of neutral arbitration of information. My references are still below. If you’d wisely like to make up your own mind through a more balanced review of the debate, the HEA’s ‘Annotated bibliography of key resources’ on the NSS is a good place to start.

If only I had the time to write another piece on the violence of ranking in education, I would love to think through the NSS in a serious way. We all should have been doing this for some time, of course. For while the NSS feels like a permanent part of the inevitable dailyness of university of life, it has, in a very short time, become an extraordinarily powerful technology which enables the marketisation, metricisation and governing of knowledge, and disciplining of academic labour and pedagogical possibility (see Kelly and Burrows 2011). It is, of course, one of many. Roger Burrows has depressingly suggested that ‘it would be quite easy to generate a list of over 100 different nested measures to which each individual academic in the UK is now (potentially) subject’ (2011). So why bother thinking about the NSS, when we are pressed to worry about the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF), citation indexes, TRAC-ing and FEC-ing, quantified workload models, cereal-box-style ‘Key Information Sets’ and all the rest?

I see no reason not to think about anything, particularly something as unstable and contested as the NSS. There are many arguments, and many of these worth considering, that the exercise is a ‘force for good’, in so far as one of its possible purposes is to give students an opportunity to intervene in some minute and not personally beneficial way in decision-making processes in which they otherwise have no say at all. The National Union of Students supports the survey wholeheartedly, particularly as a strategic resource of material for course representatives serving on university committees — which, given its social and economic power, it certainly is. Methodological flaws of the NSS notwithstanding, the desire for student empowerment in universities is obvious.

I have three concerns about the NSS, presented here in order of degree.

One is that it is believed by sociologists to be methodologically flawed in construct validity and for the purposes of comparing institutions — which is now the main purpose for which it is used to inform student ‘choice’. John Holmwood, current president of the British Sociological Association, has argued very bluntly that universities, as institutions of higher learning and scholarship, should ‘know better’ than to allow or propogate its use in this way. Indeed, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England,

‘The design of the NSS means that there are limitations on its use for comparative purposes … In particular, its validity in comparing results from different subject areas is very restricted, as is its use in drawing conclusions about different aspects of the student experience. One issue to be borne in mind is that, in most cases, the differences between whole institutions are so small as to be statistically and practically insignificant.’

No self-respecting social researcher would allow her data to be applied so far beyond its limitations. I’ll bet no university that is paying attention would even allow it, for fear of legal reprisal and reputational damage. The question is, why do we allow it, and why do the institutions that appear to pride themselves so much on ethical practices and excellence, embrace it?

The second concern is that the NSS is a complex mechanism, whose ambiguous politics are obscured in its representation as a form of student empowerment and an economic necessity. As with many metricised instruments of measurement used in the management of institutions today, the NSS is simultaneously a mechanism for individual student ‘choice’ (although I argue an illusory one) and a mechanism for marketisation, institutional control and individual discipline. I would venture to say that most academics who teach in the present circumstances understand that a poor NSS score can easily provoke knee-jerk demands to ‘do something’ to fix student ‘experiences’, with the expectation that a ‘reform’ will follow whether it is pedagogically sound and humanly sustainable or not. In the most competitive institutions, lecturers are threatened, coerced and disciplined on the basis of such scores. The NSS, in the context of its usage, is at least in one sense a quintessential technology of neoliberal power.

My third and deepest concern is that the NSS is a tragic rip-off for university students, and for meaningful and transformative higher learning. So much time, money, brain-power and energy pumped into a basic, quantitative, generalised survey of one’s entire university ‘experience’ — and one that students complete only when they are about to finish their studies. So much enthusiasm put into encouraging students to be ‘satisfied’ and to participate in the reproduction of a system whose benefits are decidedly unclear and whose damages in ranking institutions are becoming clearer. Students deserve to be more genuinely involved in shaping their educational experiences, in their learning, in determining the nature and politics of the universities they are members of. We, society, need them to be involved in this way. Some of us, as teachers, long for such a scholarly community. If people don’t join the university believing that they should consume it, we certainly try hard to teach them this lesson by the time they leave. Students deserve to make real choices in and for their lives — the kind that C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse once wrote of — the kind that is not choosing between whatever options you are presented with, but creating your own range of possibilities with others and then choosing together between them. We are encouraged to demand that students complete the National Student Survey, and discouraged from suggesting that they might have some serious control within our classrooms and the university itself. We are assured that it is for our own ‘survival’ in the new ‘HE landscape’. What a depressing philosophy of education, not to mention of competitive survivalist politics.

I like to think about other ways of organising student ‘engagement’. When the concept of student research and knowledge production is taken seriously, exciting things do happen (journals, public scholarship, exhibitions, films). If the NSS can’t communicate or expand this sort of activity, what forms of communication might? What are effective and appropriate forms for assessing the state of, and encouraging the growth of, good higher education for all? I’d like to take the items from the NSS (for example) and reread them through the lens of Michael Fielding’s work. I’d like to work with students to imagine some alternative way of having a presence in the university. What great projects these could be. But I’d also like to discuss it with students…

Further reading

Buckley, A. (2012) ‘Unlocking KIS’, WonkHE, 27 September. Online here.

Cheng, J. H. S. (2010) Methodological Issues of Using the NSS to Rank UK Universities. Thesis submitted to the University of Oxford for the degree of D.Phil., online here.

Cheng, J. H. and Marsh (2010)  ‘National Student Survey: are differences between universities and courses reliable and meaningful?’ Oxford Review of Education, 36(6): 693-712. Abstract here.

Fielding, A., Dunleavy, P. and Langan, M. (2010), ‘Interpreting context to the UK’s National Student (Satisfaction) Survey data for science subjects’, Journal of Further and Higher Education 34 (3): 347-368. Abstract here.

Higher Education Academy (2012) ‘The NSS: Annotated bibliography of key resources’. Online here.

Holmwood, J. (2011) ‘Code of practice needed to prevent degree course mis-selling’, Research Blogs, 7 Februrary. Online here.