Thursday, 19 January 2012

Reflections on teaching practice

I take my teaching responsibilities very seriously. So far my experience of students here has been absolutely fantastic - they're bright as buttons, enthusiastic and really enjoyable to teach (you can tell I'm early career, can't you?!). I've been doing things like making videos on study skills for my students and the like.

As an early-career lecturer I have to complete the Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCap) which I started last semester. I had to submit two pieces of work for it and I had the marks back on my first and I passed. So I thought I'd put it up here, in case someone was interested in it.

To reflect on my reflections on my reflections (go up my own arse?) I know this is very ropey. I really don't have the time to devote to PGCap that I would like, so I did what I could do to pass - just like my students, really. I've edited out names and three of the appendices for ethical reasons.

Occupy Heriot-Watt? Reflective commentary on developing your teaching practice
In this commentary I want to reflect particularly on one incident that occurred to me this semester – attending voice skills and presentation skills training at the University of Edinburgh (taken because of reflections on my microteach [appendix 4]) – along with the appendices to this reflection. I shall bring these together to problematise and get at the very idea of “teaching practice” and learning (Fry, Ketteridge et al., 2009) and what it means to me. Specifically, I will reflect on teaching as performance within a broader discourse of modern higher education and the bio-politics of teaching and learning.

Teaching experience
So far my teaching at Heriot-Watt has been limited. However, I have experience as a learner on the programme on which I am teaching, MSc Urban and Regional Planning. On my first day as an academic in January 2011 I was given two course outlines and told I had to produce teaching materials for both courses by the following January and that the courses were to be delivered as independent distance learning. I have prepared the vast majority of this material and also prepared and delivered two lectures on associated subjects (governance) to MSc Engineering students. I have also successfully supervised one MSc student in their dissertation, nearly completed the distance supervision of another MSc student and am currently supervising two undergraduate students through their dissertations. As well as these direct teaching responsibilities, I have also been a mentor to undergraduate students, supported a cohort of students on the new MSc programme I lead and helped with a collaborative project with the Edinburgh College of Art at the beginning of semester 1, 2011.

In turning to reflect on this experience I was struck by the insights of Haggis (2009) and Ashwin (2008) on the lack of critical perspectives to teaching and learning in research on higher education. In my reflective blog entry (28 October 2011; Appendix 1) I could not help but focus on the latent power within the classroom setting and how the very act of being a “pupil” in a PGCap class led me to act very differently. In the rest of the course we focused on how to get students to move towards “deeper” learning, yet when we are in the position of learners were are as strategic and shallow in our engagement as we decry of our students. In my observation of a peer (appendix 2) one of the problems they had to deal with was classroom behaviour, specifically talking. In my feedback to my colleague my immediate comment was that, firstly it was something I dreaded in my own teaching as it was difficult to deal with and secondly I suggested that they might want to consider the tactics of secondary school teachers, or highlighting the poor behaviour, to get the students to be quiet. This response utterly failed to bring in the insights from my own reflections on my own behaviour in a PGCap class. In this light this behaviour can almost be expected and responding as a secondary school teacher would probably reinforce the role of pupil in classroom. Furthering Foucauldian insights, what is actually required in this situation is to disrupt the power relations of the classroom, either through reinforcing a governmentality through tools such as learning contracts, or more radical alternatives, such as unstructured curricula and student-led learning and teaching.

What does this mean for my teaching and learning? What does it mean for teaching and learning more generally? The main comments from my microteach (appendix 4) were that I spoke to quickly and when I got flustered I hummed and hawed and lost my place. It because of this, and from feedback from conference presentations, that  I jumped at the opportunity to take part in training on voice and presentation skills led by an actor at the University of Edinburgh. This highlighted the performative nature of public speaking, which for me includes lecturing and teaching. It let me into skills in holding my voice back and speaking slowly and clearly, emphasising points in what feels like an overly dramatic fashion, and using the dramatic pause to great effect. I used these in my first two lectures on governance for the MSc engineering courses and appendix 3 provides the feedback from my peer on this.  The implicit idea of teaching as performance was also in my mind when I was judging other’s performances during the microteach and when I was observing my peer.

When viewed in this way, the criticism of some that the focus on teaching and learning is too competitive, gains traction (Trowler, 2001). We can suggest teaching becomes like the X Factor, where we’re all trying to perform better to capture the student’s attention. The modern managerial discourses of higher education support this view. The focus comes to be on the student experience; rather than learning being a process of exploration it becomes something the students experience, like a Hollywood blockbuster. To use employ a lazy cliché, the medium becomes the message. The dangers of this are apparent in the feedback from my microteach and peer observation.
In my microteach I used a rhetorical device employed by Michael Sandel a Harvard Professor, great orator in the Platonic tradition, and 2008 BBC Reith Lecturer – this was working the class through the thought experiment the “switch problem” and the “footbridge problem”, to which there is no solution (Sandel, 2009). Having used this in the microteach and now in class I recognise its use as an interactive lecturing tool; it easily breaks down the barrier of the invisible proscenium arch that can stop students interacting. It also highlights the contingency of our knowledge in a pragmatic, rather than a relativistic way, but I am left with a feeling of: what does it actually offer the students in terms of knowledge. This problem of delivery over content is even more evident in my peer observation where my observer rightly notes that I should have spent more time trying to get the students to apply their knowledge of water resources management to the very theoretical context I was providing on theories of power.

This could be dismissed as simply the prioritisation of delivery over content, but it does seem to be more generally symptomatic of the broader discourses of higher education (Trowler, 2001) where we compete for students and then have to compete for their attention. Looking back on my teaching philosophy statement this is a discourse I do seem to have internalised: “I want students to sit-up and be alert in lectures they’re enjoying; or at least not yawn too much… To do this in my teaching practice I will: In lecturing – use an active lecturing style”; as have others in my PGCap cohort: “[i]f the teaching is delivered in an effective and appropriate manner, then the learning from the student perspective can be enhanced, successful and interactive”; “the best teachers were the individuals that appeared to be enjoying what they were doing, made a subject matter interesting and were able to captivate the students even with a rather boring topic”; “It is quite important that both students and I enjoy what I am teaching and what they are learning”. Is good teaching thus just a good performance? Are my colleagues who get poor student feedback just struggling to compete with X Factor contestants?

Although I, and arguably we, seem to have internalised this discourse, looking through our teaching philosophy statements demonstrates a similar tendency to that found by Trowler (2001). We have internalised this discourse but it is not constitutive of us, we hold onto other, prior discourses, as suggested by McNay in his analysis of the changing cultures of universities from collegiums to enterprise (McNay, 1995). For example, a very swift content analysis shows that across the statements words or phrases with the stem “crit-“ (i.e. critical thinking, critical analysis) appear 15 times and we want students to have a depth to their learning which really is not reflected by a discourse of performance and enjoyment: “In assessments – to use a range of assessment techniques…to develop deeper understanding of topic areas” (myself);  “I aim to help students … understand each aspect in depth”; “I want students to think conceptually, to explore patterns and relationships between concepts”. We also strive for our students to gain independence in their learning, which again is not captured by a discourse of performance and passivity: “My role as a teacher is to provide a nurturing learning environment” (myself); “One of the main goals is to ensure that students are … motivated to learn”; one of the cohort even asserts that these are basic learning skills developed by primary school teachers: “it is interesting to see how primary school teachers keep their children’s interest alive…Encouraging independent study whilst also giving them practice”.

It seems that, in Foucauldian terms, we are actively resisting the managerial discourse of higher education as we ethically believe it to be somehow wrong (McHoul and Grace, 1995). We do believe in deeper learning as this is what we have all experienced. We realise there is a link between a good performance in teaching and positive learning experiences but realise that this isn’t necessarily the most important thing. Students sometimes might have to have a bad or difficult learning experience to achieve the outcomes that the institution desires to see in them. Michel Foucault was challenged in an interview in 1978 as to the nihilistic ends to which his philosophy led; that is was very good critique but then did not offer a way forward for the social workers in the audience. He responded by arguing: “my project is precisely to bring it about that they “no longer know what to do,” so that the acts, gestures, discourses that up until then had seemed to go without saying become problematic, difficult, dangerous” and that critique is “a challenge directed at what is” (Foucault, [1980] 2003: 256). This is certainly true in this reflection. I’m left with a sense that to produce truly deep, empowering and liberating learning we may have to implement something like edupunk, “working in opposition to ‘the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market’” (Cunnane, 2011); occupying higher education with a radical dialogue and discourse as protestors are currently trying to occupy the places of global capitalism in their flimsy tent.

On my reflexive blog I rejected Foucault’s insights for the same reason I reject his work in my broader researcher, and for the same reason the social workers rejected his arguments – their inherent nihilism (Barnett, Clarke et al., 2008). Instead, I prefer the insights of Habermas and treating us as communicative actors (Finlayson, 2005). Habermas’ broader project of critical theory also offers us an analysis to the problematic discourses of modern higher education, above. Habermas suggested that when the public sphere of modernity first emerged in the eighteenth century it was “perfect” – people had equal access to it, it explored concepts of the lifeworld (of everyday experience) and it was not corrupted by the System of capitalist exploitation and technocratic, rationalist thought (zweckrationalitat) (Bernstein, 1985; Habermas, 1989; Cook, 2005). This is the world of Immanuel Kant, teaching at Königsberg and supported by Frederick the Great of Prussia. As the System has developed it has corrupted this public sphere; so in this case the discourse of competition and student experience in higher education has detracted from the higher ideal of deep, independent learning. Unlike Foucault’s nihilism, Habermas sees the public sphere as always present and a force to rail against the System and keep the Lifeworld flourishing (Bernstein, 1985; Cook, 2005). If we accept this, then I can save my teaching a philosophy statement from itself and recognise what is positive about it, namely:
  • the focus on dialogue in teaching and using this to create a public sphere that can challenge discourses and allow students to develop themselves and for me to be honest and open;
  • the focus on deeper learning and enabling students to be communicative actors themselves and critically analyse and understand the world around them;
  • the focus on the practical and experiential and linking the scientism of the System (i.e. what I teach) with the lived experience of students.
A key challenge is to deliver this dialogic description of learning through new technologies and distance learning. Whether this can be achieved through new information technologies is something I want to explore both through my research and my teaching. To end, rather tellingly, although Kant was lecturing during the first flourishing of the enlightenment (or Aufklarung as he knew it) and the rise of the public sphere, when he lectured in Königsberg he left a bucket at the door and students threw in as much money as they thought the lecture was worth as they left. In terms of student feedback, you could not get better; and in terms of my place and my teaching within broader socio-economic structures, I don’t think much has changed in two centuries.

Ashwin, P. (2008). "Accounting for structure and agency in "close-up" research on teaching, learning and assessment in higher education." International Journal of Educational Research 47(3): 151-158.

Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. and Malpass, A. (2008). "The elusive subjects of Neo-Liberalism." Cultural Studies 22(5): 624-653.

Bernstein, R. (1985). Introduction. Habermas and Modernity. Bernstein, R. (Ed.). Cambridge, Polity Press: 1-32.

Cook, D. (2005). "The sundered totality of system and lifeworld." Historical Materialism 13(4): 55-78.

Cunnane, S. (2011). "DIY, says 'edupunk' star. Distortion and sell-out, say critics." Times Higher Education(17-12 November 2011): 20-21.

Finlayson, J. G. (2005). Habermas: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. ([1980] 2003). Questions of Method. The Essential Foucault. Rabinow, P. and Rose, N. Eds.). London, The New Press: 246-258.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. (2009). Understanding student learning. A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice. Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. Eds.: 8-26.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Oxford, Polity Press.

Haggis, T. (2009). "What have we been thinking of? A critical overview of 40 years of student learning research in higher education." Studies in Higher Education 34(4): 377-390.

McHoul, A. and Grace, W. (1995). A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject. London, The UCL Press.

McNay, I. (1995). From collegial academy to corporate enterprise: the changing cultures in universities. The Changing University? Schuler, T. (Ed.). Buckingham, The Open University Press.

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? London, Allen Lane.

Trowler, P. (2001). "Captured by the Discourse? The Socially Constitutive Power of New Higher Education Discourse in the UK." Organization 8(2): 183-201.

Appendix 1 – Critical Incident Blog

The classroom is a powerful place. The serried ranks of tables all facing the whiteboard and projection screen create the social experience of learning – sitting, trying to maintain attention and drifting off quite often and trying not to let the lecturer see. The critical incident for me was the first PGCap class in Course one where the power-full nature of the classroom became blindingly apparent.

I’d say virtually all the class, myself included, didn’t want to be there. We were there because successfully completing probation depended on it and in the present job market that’s quite an incentive. I went into the class knowing I was now a teacher; an adult. As such I didn’t have to behave like I did as an undergraduate. I wanted to resist the teaching space and have an adult relationship with it. By resisting the power of the space I fell back into another role framed by the classroom – the naughty child. I whispered and giggled with my colleagues while the lecturers were talking. I even rolled my eyes when other members of the class didn’t get things I’d already noticed by flicking, bored and aimless, through the course folder – just like I spent my school years doing. I noticed my colleagues falling into their taught roles: the belligerent swot; the giggle girl; the attentive swot; the jock, jotting down every word so they pass the exam with minimal effort later in semester when their sports team takes precedence.

What does this mean for my teaching? Is the classroom a space of Foucauldian governmentality that needs to be continually resisted to subvert its power? (Foucault, 1977; Cruikshank, 1999; Foucault, [1978] 2003; [1982] 2003) I don’t think so. This leads to the nihilism of the secondary school classroom where all the pupils turns their desks around to face the back of the class before the hated supply teacher arrives. The classroom is socially constructed within the wider tradition of the university and our education system (Berger & Luckman, 1967). In our teaching practices we recreate these traditions every time we stand in front of class. If the traditions are meeting resistance then we need to reflect and change those traditions and it is incumbent on us to go a large part of this. In the increasingly international classroom this is going to become even harder work. Not everyone has enjoyed the liberal education that the UK classroom offers.

So in our teaching practice we are continually socially constructing the classroom and the learning of our students, trying to reach a shared horizon of understanding between everyone in the classroom. Reflecting on my critical incident as the boy misbehaving at the back of the classroom makes me realise what a laudable, but ultimately unachievable, aim that is. Myself and my students come to the classroom loaded with prior tradition, knowledge and experience. It will probably take a semester to get over the fact that I’m not just “a teacher” but a fellow human as well. If I manage that I can feel quite proud. And then I will probably never see the students in the classroom again.

Berger, P. and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London, Allen Lane.

Cruikshank, B. (1999). The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects. London, Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Foucault, M. ([1978] 2003). Governmentality. The Essential Foucault. P. Rabinow and N. Rose. London, The New Press: 229-245.

Foucault, M. ([1982] 2003). The subject and power. The Essential Foucault. P. Rabinow and N. Rose. London, The New Press: 126-144.


  1. And here is the comments from the instructor:
    A really thoughtful and engaging reflection – the one thing I wonder is if shifting your perspective from the performance of individual lectures to the curriculum as a whole would give you a way of reconceptualising the process of student learning - focusing on the student journey through the curriculum – the role of assessment, etc. If you think about your own learning on the PGCAP it is facilitated by the process of being signed up to the PGCAP, but has only a limited amount to do with the lectures and ‘what the teacher does’, and much more to do with the activities and reflections that you have engaged in.

  2. Slightly off the topic of what you're addressing, but... I'm just glad to see a university requiring its lecturers to study teaching at some level.
    One of the criticisms of the UK university system that I had as an undergraduate was the number of lecturers I had who clearly wanted to teach, but were simply very bad at it... (those who see the teaching as a nuisance, a distraction that they just have to get through, are another matter!)
    This was over a decade ago, of course, so maybe things have changed.

  3. Great blog post (as ever).

    On the details I would argue that many of those writing within the Foucauldian paradigm would not see it as inherently nihilistic but I can understand your broader position on this.

    More generally I think there is an important question which remains unanswered: what is the purpose of HEI's?

    You make the point that there is a risk that the medium becomes the message. With more commercialisation of HE and of society in general I think there is likely to be a growing interest in, what I have heard described as, 'edu-tainment'.

    Does this move us away from the traditional role of HE - the creation of knowledge? And does it matter?

  4. Ian - very good points indeed. It's something I cover in my second assignment for this course which I will also blog as soon as I get my result back! I found this issue of Social Anthropology very enlightening:

    Simon - agreed - why I'm glad I'm doing the course!

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