The evasiveness of conversation as educational research

Bojesen’s description of conversation as educational research captures the way I had begun to think about the empirical aspect of my thesis. However, having just assessed thirty of my own students’ small-scale pedagogic research projects, I confess to occasionally feeling discomfited by their loose, non-scientific approaches to research. Why? References to postmodern and poststructuralist theory were in abundance, and I don’t doubt the creative, ultra-interpretivist methods they used were aligned with their epistemology. But when one is in assessment mode, faced with a range of grade band descriptors, it becomes apparent that it is difficult to fail with these methods (or anti-methods, if you like). One of the bonuses of taking a poststructuralist stance is that no-one can tell you you’re doing it wrong; in rejecting structure one also evades structures of measurement. During these assessments, I found myself irked by this evasiveness, while simultaneously impressed with their cunning.

Bojesen’s case for conversation as research is clear but contentious, relying as it does on an alternative definition of research as ‘movement of thought’. Such a definition does not presume stable conceptions of the subject, knowledge and the human, and the developmental focus is on thought itself rather than on the individual subject(s). I find Bojesen’s turn to be of interest as I had begun to consider the obvious outcome of this thesis project to be my own self-development. As the course leader of a professional qualification course for university teachers, I could see a clear case for the practical productivity and institutional usefulness of me having deep conversations with people with very different experiences of the university and perspectives on its purpose. But Bojesen maintains that his article describes ‘the experience of educational research that is not intended to produce knowledge or form a subject’. Is there sufficient intellectual ammunition here to support going beyond such instrumental reasoning for my methodology and return to the less explicable hunch behind the project; that conversation, like education, is an end in itself? Indeed, Bojesen points out (as does Duke Maskell in his 2002 analysis of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship in Pride and Prejudice), that conversation is education. I had a sense, in the planning stage, of the research conversations as developmental events; not necessarily for myself, and not necessarily for those I was in conversation with, rather as events within a universal, transpersonal movement of thought. It is notable that Bojesen refers to the experience of research in this instance – rather than, say, an approach to it. I believe in doing so he is implying that a conversation is only conceptualizable as research in this way from within the realm of subjective experience. Beyond that realm – for example in naturalistic conversation analysis – one falls back into scientific processes of observation and interpretation.

There is a difficulty in applying Bojesen’s perspective to a doctoral thesis. In treating conversation as research that will meet the criteria for the award of a doctorate; in explicitly showing that new knowledge has been produced, it would seem one has to resort to some extent to scientific means of documentation and analysis. Bojesen notes that the ‘findings’ of such research may seem banal or insignificant. Banal or insignificant findings are surely insufficient for the award of a doctorate, or indeed for publication. I think I know what Bojesen would say here; that there is still room for his conception of conversation could not and should not replace dominant conceptions of educational research, it merely serves to ‘unsettle their foundations’ and liberate other possibilities. I wonder, though, how unsettled or unsettling a successful doctoral thesis can logically be, as an initiation into the practice and discipline of research?

Bojesen has also written about the education of consciousness, with reference to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Here, his commitment to ‘a philosophy of education that is descriptive rather than prescriptive’ is made explicit. His claim is that new educational knowledge can take the form of reflections on what happens, rather than normative conclusions:

“[Woolf’s] exposition of the education of consciousness can itself be a resource for educators, and her insight into the complex relation between dispositions, consciousness and the external world, allows her readers access to incidences of experience ordinarily hidden from them. To learn about the education of consciousness in The Waves might be to become better equipped for understanding our own education, and the task of teaching those for whom this education is also occurring.”

Through this article, Bojesen argues that education has less of a shaping effect than philosophers of education would believe. Such a belief would correspond with his preference for description over prescription.

On reading Bojesen’s paper on conversation as educational research, I wasn’t completely convinced by what I perceived as an argument that the value of conversation lies in its uselessness. Granted, I had indeed conceived my own research conversations as part of a wider movement of thought, but I felt that they had, and had to have, a clear directional purpose that aligned with, for example, Gadamer’s call for world peace and Zeldin’s discovery of the ‘hidden pleasures of life’. In an exchange on twitter, Bojesen said: ‘I don’t think this prohibits constructive/productive engagement (broadly conceived) with conversation, as a mode of relation unconcerned with reaching consensus or developing an individual or argument.’ Does this water down his own argument? In a descriptive rather than prescriptive context, it stands that an argument would not be as strong in the philosophical sense, as description does not necessarily have to push back against anything. As Etienne Wenger did with his apprenticeship model of learning, Bojesen is merely describing something that we do. Interestingly, Bojesen does claim to be pushing back against something in this article; the stifling of educational experience and research possibilities by ‘the relentless imposition of scientific method’. At the same time, he claims that his work does not prohibit such methods. I feel that Standish and Biesta push back more persuasively against the imposition of scientific method. In arguing against the need for consensus, it is the idea of persuasiveness that Bojesen is pushing against as well. On that basis, his argument seems to evade attack. All I can attack it for is its evasiveness!

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