things in the making

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Employing the masters’ ideas not to explain them – which is a way to embalm them unchanged and unchangeable – but to make something (else) of them. (Ellsworth 2005)

I recently wrote a paper about teachers engaging in online discussion about professionalism. The paper, savaged by one journal, was substantially rewritten and sent to another. I might have sent the re-written version to the original journal but their review was so unkind that I had to check and recheck the decision to reconcile the invitation to revise and resubmit with the harshness of the comments. I appreciate that the better the version sent for review, the better the feedback. The original was sent too early. It was a draft full of errors. With a little more time and care these were ironed out.

One reason why a paper might be rejected by a journal is because it is not ready to be  sent for review. It contains errors that trip up and antagonise the reader.

But then, when I complete something I feel a surge of overwhelming enthusiasm and accomplishment. In my excitement, I want to send it out, to get someone to read and comment. Sending it to a journal for review is a celebration. The unpleasant feedback made me think again about my approach. I sent the re-written paper to a different journal for review because, on reflection, what they publish seemed more sympathetic to what and how I write. The feedback was the same: revise (substantially) and resubmit. The editor used the word ‘salvageable’ in his response. Salvageable, diplomatic indication of just how much work the much improved draft needed. But the comments were kind and constructive. It was not just that the feedback provided by the second journal included one critical reader who found my approach to locating rather than defining professionalism ‘refreshing’. Nor was it that the slightly less effusive critical reader thought my use of spatial theory to discuss professionalism was ‘fine’.   The comments made sense. I didn’t, while reading, flinch and check the apparent inconsistency between the tone of the comments and the overall decision. I could see and feel how the suggested revisions made the paper more focussed, more sharply argued and more credible.

In the review provided by the first journal, I found it hard to make sense of several points of feedback. I didn’t agree with them. One comment particularly bothered me.

I referred to a paper written in 1989 by Elizabeth Ellsworth. ‘Why doesn’t this feel empowering?’ changed my understanding of critical pedagogy. In this pivotal essay Ellsworth conceptualises a series of ‘repressive myths’.  She challenges the critical pedagogues assumption that power (as a reified thing) exists in a definable place, a specific somewhere, a certain “power loci” from which it is projected, and that “we” must fight against or suffer the looming consequences.  Her analysis disturbs and destabilises the idea of ’empowerment’, and with it – much of my sense of myself as an adult literacy teacher. Her argument was like drinking a glass of ice-cold water, or having one thrown in my face. I was compelled to re-write my Freirean inspired professional biography. But her significance is more than personal. Ellsworth continues to write, and her sensational pedagogies continue to inspire.  Her thinking contributes towards a changed direction in critical pedagogy, as noted by others (Savage 2010). The specific essay I referred to has, according to Google Scholar, been cited a few thousand times. It has been republished on more than one occasion in different anthologies. It is an important essay.

How then do I respond to a reviewer who asks why I have referenced her work –  implying her insight as unworthy of citation? How in my revision do I justify her inclusion? And why should I need to? It may be that I have included her because she supports my argument; it may also be that my argument has been developed in part because of my reading – and weighing up the significance of – her work.

Another point of critique also caught my imagination. The comment was valid but I had no immediate answer. I argue that in online spaces teachers may reveal aspects of how they construct their professional selves indirectly while talking about something else. I argue that there is ‘real work’ underlying these seemingly trivial social interactions. But what do I mean by ‘real work’? It took some time to clarify. Arendt (1958) has framed it nicely for me. She distinguishes three modalities of active life: labour, work and action. Work has to do with: the ways in which human beings actively transform their environment and through this create a world that is characterised by durability. This is the work that these teachers do when discussing aspects of professionalism in online spaces. They dramatise the contradictions between professional aspiration and policy embodiment. This is more than understanding.  They use virtual spaces to create an embodied sensation of making-sense. These are lived-in, experiential spaces for their learning selves (Ellsworth 2005:1). This self does not determine, but emerges from their ongoing attempts to reconcile contradictory demands and possibilities.

Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Biesta, Gert (2014 Making Pedagogy Public: for the public, of the public, or in the interest of publicness?  Ch 2 in Burdick, J, Sandin, J. and O’Malley, M. Problematising Public Pedagogy

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297–324.

Ellsworth, E. (2005). Places of learning: Media, architecture, pedagogy. Oxon: Routledge.

Savage, G. C. (2010). Problematizing “public pedagogy” in educational research. Ch 11 in Sandlin, J,. Schults, B and Burdick, J. Handbook of public pedagogy, 103-115.

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)