Writing what I like

Sutupa Biswas, ‘Housewives with Steak-Knives’ imperialism, anger and love

I’d like to think that a book consisting of about 150 pages could be read in an afternoon, or at least a few days. But the Beautiful Risk is not a quick read. And in reading it I am reminded of what reading is like. I wrestle with this text. I have to stop frequently to check I understand the language Biesta uses. After a short while, I read something else (a pallet cleanser) and then return a few days later.

Some things – ideas – need time to settle. They need time to sit uncomfortable on your cognitive map until – without realising it,  without you self-consciously doing anything, they seem to take shape and fit into place. Often, in my experience, this happens when writing. Idea takes shape when I write, but not always.

In summary, Biesta’s chapter on Communication is a slow and not always comfortable read. It requires repetition. This is not because he uses deliberately obscure language but is because I struggle to get to grips with key concepts in philosophy that I do not use on a daily basis. But this is normal. Developing expertise implies a willingness to remain uncomfortably at the edge of your own capability.

To try out a summary in a few sentences: In a chapter that sees Biesta ‘in discussion’ with Dewey and Derrida, he outlines a philosophy of communicative action which implies common understanding as an outcome of human cooperation. We learn from the practices within which we participant. More than this, participative learning generates a particular sort of learning. Learning that leads to the transformation of ideas, emotions and understanding leading to a shared outlook through participation in an activity. Given that communications always open, undetermined, generative ad creative – there is always a risk that things might not go the way we planned. Derrida enters the conversation at the point where Dewey’s philosophical framework becomes problematic. Having identified the circumstances within which transformative learning becomes possible, there is a danger that the theory becomes a template, losing its open generative potential. Deconstruction – the impossibility of deconstruction – precludes this possibility.

‘…the point of deconstruction is an affirmation of what is wholly other, of what is unforeseeable from the present. It is, as Derrida puts it, an affirmation of an otherness that is always to come, as an event, that as ‘an event, exceeds calculation, rules, programmes, intimations’. In this sense it is not simply an affirmation of who or what is other, but  rather the otherness of who or what is other.’ (Biesta 2013, p.38)

I’m not sure how this new understanding will shape what I do next – I am developing a research project about ‘The Role of Standards in Professional Life’. I suspect what will happen is what usually happens, while writing and struggling to shape an idea, develop an argument,  built a connection or distinction, it’ll become evident precisely where and how this idea fits. Or perhaps what’s wrong with it.

But that’s not entirely the point. Amidst an increasingly performative culture in HE, what counts is what can be counted. Little value is placed on anything else. This culture superimposes academic game playing on what would otherwise be an academic career. There is something slightly uncomfortable about all of this. There are too many lines of digression to explore and explain. What matters though is while the culture in HE sets up its own hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion,  conferring value and status and here, replicating otherness there, evaluating the same piece of work as one star when written by you, three start when written by me, the rest of us, do our jobs. We research, we write and we publish.

  • The bit that counts is published in the high impact journal.
  • The bit that matters is published elsewhere.

After all, who wants a career in performative cynicism and game playing?

I have resolved this dilemma. Last year’s publishing was about what mattered, this year it’s all about what counts.

The bits that matter will still be written and published (I write what I like) because:

Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.  [There is] a multiplicity of points of resistance: these play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations. These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.

In discussion with: 

Biesta, G. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Paradigm.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990) 95-6;

Reflections on the pedagogic soul


In my early years of teaching adult literacies, I made a Frierean pact. A pact that has required me to relinquish all hope of liberalism. So lost am I that I can see nothing to gain from a discussion which weighs up the possibilities of an education that is in some way neutral, balanced or objective. On this point I agree with Dr Henry Tam.

I think it misleading to suggest that neutrality is an acceptable counterbalance to bias; or that a continuum ending in honesty, in authenticity, in solidarity offsets betrayal.

Post 16 Teachers have ethical obligations that not only define the way they work – for many – they underpin their reasons for wanting to teach. Their professional modus vivendi is based on an ethical project.  The erstwhile LLUK professional standards provide some indication of what this project might be. Soon to be abandoned, the standards are encoded within the Further Education, Post Graduate Certificate in Education learning outcomes. Trainees are required to:

  • explore and evaluate potential connections between learning and the wider social, political and economic contexts;
  • or evaluate the complexity of the interaction between learning, learner and context.

There are several ways in which these outcomes might be interpreted. Whatever inflection is placed upon them, inviting a student to explore connections – assumes that those connections exist and are worthy of exploration. The same is true with the invitation to evaluate complex interconnections. The economic imperative – which usually subsumes all other purposes for education – is tempered here. It is neatly contained between the social and the political. What these outcomes also suggest, implicitly at least – is a situated pedagogy. A pedagogy that is deeply contextual, spatial and critical: a critical pedagogy of place (Gruenewald 2003).

Developing a critical pedagogy of place means challenging each other to read the texts of our own lives and to ask constantly what needs to be transformed and what needs to be conserved.

This doesn’t imply an introspective, self-referenced reflexive professionalism: it is rather an outcome that insists on the personal and the professional as political projects.

We’re used to analyzing this with regards to students.  But, what might it imply for teachers?

Post 16 Education relies on the willingness of teachers to work unpaid. In my experience teaching is intensely hard work. It requires diligence, creativity and determination. I have recently undertaken a series of interviews for a small-scale, minimally funded, collaborative research project: ‘Portraits of Authenticity’. Our enquiry is based on wanting to find out more about how recently qualified Post 16 Teachers are faring in the workplace. With colleagues from the University Centre Doncaster, University Centre Grimsby and Bishop Burton College – we have spoken with teachers who are determined to support their students as much as they possibly can; typically they echo the insistence  that ‘Nothing will prevent me from doing good job’ (Hillier 2007). All struggle with paperwork, wondering whether ‘Not doing all the paper work for my students’ makes them a bad teacher. They comply – albeit reluctantly – with audit requirements, translating the learning goals their students struggle to articulate into industrialised SMART targets.

All of this is very familiar. The trouble is, I wonder at what point do we question the what and why of our own behaviour. Teachers and teacher educators are to some extent complicit in this exploitation; we willingly give our surplus labour to the corporation.   It is not unusual for programme teams to operate with two instead of three members of staff while the corporation saves money by delaying the appointment of a vacant post. They accept a workload model that allows forty-five minutes for what is actually a two-hour job simply because there seems to be little other choice.

Trainees and teacher educators explore and evaluate the connections between learning, learner and context. But how far do we develop an explicitly politicized curriculum that elaborates upon the domains of power that envelop our selves and our trainees. And what frames of reference support this.  I’d like to think that this kind of analysis might reasonably take the form a critical ontology of ourselves.

A critical ontology that explores:

  • the domain of truth: through which we are constituted as objects and subjects of knowledge;
  • the domain of power:  in which we are constituted as subjects acting on others and acted upon by others;
  • the domain of ethics or ‘individual conduct’: through which we constitute ourselves as particular types of subjects.

(Foucault, 1984/1988)