Becker, Barnett, and ‘building networks of mutual help’

Howard Becker’s How to Start and Finish Your Thesis (2007) is a nice easy read. I should probably start every month with it! A piece of sage advice that I’ve been following is to actively build ‘networks of mutual help’ (p175)

I’m really happy to include Ron Barnett in those networks, and I went to see him last Wednesday. It was fun – and slightly weird – to get the train out to the suburbs and take my tea in a proper cup with a chocolate hobnob. I gave Ron the lowdown on my job and my future plans, and on my thesis. We talked about the particularly pernicious systems of evaluation we have now in UK Higher Education, and the subsequent pressures on institutions and individuals. He told me about the case of Professor Grimm at Imperial College, who tragically killed himself under pressure to raise three times his salary in research funding. Having acknowledged that times are hard, we then steered the conversation into a happier place.

I was drawn Ron’s series of books about the future of the university because of their pragmatism and cautious optimism. During our chat Ron stressed that sometimes the walls do fall and systems of domination can crumble (citing the end of Apartheid and the fall of the Berlin wall). He pointed out that universities are still transforming students in an amazing way, and inspiring people are striving to make universities more open and more radical. Ron feels that we have a responsibility to be realistically cheerful. He believes that if we look carefully enough we can discern nuggets of possibility; I guess he is interested in my thesis because it takes up this particular quest. He gave me some useful advice which I will summarise here:

Take a global perspective when exploring the literature on higher education policy and governance – there is much to be learned from higher education systems in other countries, which often vary greatly from our own.

This is a valid point and I can see how having a better grasp on other countries’ HE systems has the potential to add depth to my conversations with participants. I have Patrick Blessinger’s recent book on this – Democratizing Higher Education – so will revisit it. It’s a bit dry, but rich in information.

Don’t be afraid to critique Gadamer’s view of ‘horizons’. Horizons are not internal to ourselves; they are imposed on us by global and national forces and we become unwitting carriers of ideology. Our horizons are not fixed either; objects on the horizon may approach or recede.

Ron felt that this particular line of critique had legs and that I might even try to knock out a paper reconstructing the idea of horizons – for art education, in higher education, or whatever. I explained to him that there is some tension between situating my work explicitly within art education and aiming for wider relevance, particularly considering I may not be working within art education forever (although I’m very happy where I am!). That tension is probably going to cause me some issues in the next few months; it might be worth dealing with it soonish – perhaps just a blog post to start with?

I wondered at this point of our conversation about the translation; whether the German word for ‘horizon’ bears exactly the same meaning. On googling, I found that the Germans have two words that translate into English as ‘horizon’ – horizont and gesichtskreis. Horizont has the exact same meaning as our word horizon. Gesichtskreis also means ‘horizon’, but is more commonly used to mean field of vision, or outlook. So, I wondered whether Gadamer was using gesichtskreis. But according to Eberhard (in The Middle Voice in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 2004, p79) he did use horizont… he also uses gesichtskreis – to explain the use of horizont. Germans are funny (I am one quarter German so I’m allowed to say that, I think).

We finished off our conversation with some practical tips about writing and structure. Ron suggested aiming for a book-like structure, with eight chapters of around 6000 words each, in 2-3 parts. He advises keeping to two or three paragraphs per page to retain optimum grip on the reader. He felt that two of the chapters could explore the concept of horizons; one in terms of the wider context and background of higher education, and one on conversation and dialogue. That approach would fit with what I’m reading and, as I ponder on it more, I think I like the framing. Then Ron went into fantasy land by suggesting I draft a chapter every month… but of course he’s right – if I want to have my draft together in a year’s time, that’s what I need to do! Two things I can do right now include writing a 200 word outline (like the one in Becker, p53) – to ‘lay out the map of the trip the reader will be taken on’, and drawing up a contents page. A quick flick through Becker’s How to Start and Finish Your Thesis reminded that while there is no right way to write your thesis, the most important thing is just to get started with the drafting. It’s not going to be right at first, and the redrafting is going to take plenty of time. I think I’ll try Becker’s freewriting technique before the outline – just spew all my ideas down and see what’s there and how they fit together (or not).

I’m very conscious that I said I would have a first draft of a literature review ready by the end of April (ok, let’s say the start of May), so some micro-planning and calendar work is in order here. If I assume that this will constitute two chapters – one on the idea of the university and the other on conversation and ideological conflict – that’s 1000 words a week, from now. So I’m going to commit to that.

Becker summarises Stinchcombe’s six uses of the literature, including sourcing fundamental ideas (which should be clear before I start writing), locating solidarity between people in a field, exemplifying of well-organised and aesthetically pleasing work, and identifying yourself with a particular group or tribe. I’ve got so much on the reading pile at the moment and I probably need to stop buying books for now if at all possible, and split up my book-wading with a few articles. Maybe some empirical work similar to mine? I’ll put some feelers out.

Becker’s main advice regarding the use of literature is to say something new while connecting what I say to what’s already been said. I’ve picked a good topic in this respect I think – the Idea of the University is a topic that people have enjoyed talking about for years, and one that is constantly in flux, and particularly so at the moment. ‘Use the literature, don’t let it use you’, is a great mantra.

Actually – Becker’s example of the Waller quote about the original conflict of desires between teacher and pupil also piqued my interest. Is there an original conflict of desire between the student and the university? Both want to survive; for the student this means their happiness and future prosperity. But for the university these ‘ends’ of the students’ – through NSS and DLHE – may not be shared as ends but perhaps viewed as simply means to achieve survival and preservation of the organisation as it is (staff roles, working practices, etc). That might be an important insight.

I like Becker’s analogy of making a piece of furniture and leaving spaces for the bits you know you can get ready-made – drawer handles, turned legs, etc – ideas you can quote and summarise. It’s still a table you made despite some of the parts having been prefabricated.

I also think his point is important about paying too much attention to the literature and allowing it to deform the argument you want to make – ‘what you want to say has a certain logic that flows from the chain of choices you made as you did the work’. I think this is relevant to me as I suspect I am seeking a different kind of answer to the dominant approach to interrogating the idea of the university. My argument will make sense on its own terms, not if I try to fit it into the terms of the dominant approach. I *will* be somewhat at a disadvantage; my approach may seem strange and unreasonable – so I will need to explain why I haven’t asked those questions and got those answers.

So… next steps:

  • Purchase book rest for desk (Done! Arrives tomorrow)
  • Freewrite fundamental ideas
  • Draft outline
  • Draft contents page
  • Literature-focused chapters: Assemble ‘prefabricated parts’ and check for gaps
  • 1000 words by 5 March!
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2 Responses to Becker, Barnett, and ‘building networks of mutual help’

  1. Dave A says:

    Okay, three things.

    1. If you’re doing etymology and close reading (great!), don’t forget that what is translated as ‘fusion of horizons’ is in Gadamer the rather wonderful compound horizontverschmelzung. The ‘movement’ his ontology needs is there in the German. You also need to look at the idea of the tradition as well as a horizon. It’s not well understood.

    2. I don’t think that Gadamer is as naïve about ideology as many critics suggest. I think this comes from not reading closely enough, to be honest. Barnet can be forgiven for this as even Habermas gets this wrong in my view. Gadamer knows about ideology. What he won’t do, commendably, is build into his phenomenology some kind of protection from ideological distortion. Ontological theories can’t insulate you from that- whatever Habermas thinks – that is the job of the critical interpreter, who always works within a horizon. It’s part of the event of understanding. Material circumstances, psychoanalytic perspectives, whatever – that’s all within a horizon. (Gadamer writes specifically to Habermas here – of course, the tradition, what else is it but material?) But the horizon can expand. There’s no question of escaping, or of needing to.

    3. I imagine you aren’t much interested but my RE book deals with the horizon/ ideology question in detail (chapter 3). I’ll mail you a pdf. I also found very useful this book by Alan How:

    You’re going to need an Interlibrary loan I reckon…

  2. Dave A says:

    Oops Barnett, sorry Ron – autocorrect

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