A Political Theory of the University – some thoughts on a paper by Morgan White

Tonight’s PESGB seminar at the IoE is going to feature Morgan White talking about a political theory of the university. I read his paper (which I’m not sure is publicly available yet) and had some thoughts…

White argues that democracy is ‘always already in crisis’. Sure, it requires ongoing deliberation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s always been in ‘crisis’. Most of the philosophers I’ve been enjoying recently (Gellner, Gadamer, Watts) demonstrate how any expectations we might have of reaching a settled, safe state are illogical.  Nothing certain but death and taxes, etc…

The refrain throughout the last century is that democratic politics are populist, corrupted and technocratic. I’d agree with that, but I think we need to be more specific than saying our democratic systems are not keeping pace with social change… that’s so vague it’s almost meaningless. One thing that seems obvious to me is that, while Media, Marketing and PR are activities that have embraced technological advancement, the machinations of political decision-making are stuck in the dark ages; like the Houses of Parliament buildings themselves – ancient, outdated and unfit-for-purpose. This means that whoever already has power can easily retain and increase their power, because the technologies they have to hand can easily outwit and undermine our aging democratic system. Parliamentary and voting systems remain largely unchanged from a time before we before we had specialised ‘psephologists’ and the capacity to develop intricate statistical modelling programmes to gauge public opinion and voting intention. Offshore media moguls, operating with the primary aim of retaining their paying readership, have formed mutually beneficial alliances with the politically powerful. It is difficult to see how the common man can possibly fight such a beast.

White often mentions the increasing complexity of society. Society – particularly in terms of our political leanings – does not seem to be getting more complex to me; it seems to be becoming black and white… and strangely evenly split! 50-50 Trump-Clinton, 50-50 Leave-Remain (approaching 50-50 graduates-non-graduates by the way… coincidence?). We have us and them, two different tribes, finding one another increasingly offensive and resorting to voluntary segregation in echo chambers. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes that our split political leanings are explained by his five-foundations theory of moral psychology; right-wing, conservative politics and rhetoric are designed to appeal to those who value the moral foundations of loyalty, sanctity and authority, and hold a proportional interpretation of the moral foundation of fairness; i.e. they believe that those who put the most in should get the most out. Left wing, liberal politics appeal to those who value the moral foundations of care (for the vulnerable) and a redistributive interpretation of fairness (with the aim of addressing pernicious inequalities). When viewed like this, viewpoints often described (and pejoratively so) as ‘populist’ seem less mysterious. But not many people think about moral foundations in these terms, and social media makes it easier and more acceptable to express our views and segregate ourselves. News media plays on our moral foundations (and natural, groupist tendency to righteous indignation) to maintain their readership and continue to make money. That’s what’s happening here. So we do have different literacies that talk past each other, and increasingly so. I agree with White that democratic literacy is needed, with a particular emphasis on the power and workings of the media and the other mechanisms that preserve social privilege. But – crucially – we also need to emphasise what *is* simple and what we have in common (e.g. having beliefs that are founded in morals and emotion) – rather than stressing complexity and difference.

I don’t agree that we’ve lost our political imagination; a lot of people are very excited right now about what’s happening in the UK and the US, and everyone has an opinion on it. Social media *may* seem like a cacophony or a void but it does function as quite a democratic system; popular, divisive and insightful views rise to the top through crowdsourced promotion; I’ve fallen out of favour with Twitter over the last decade, but it may be the last genuinely democratic platform we have left.

I’m glad White picked up on Bauman’s liquid modernity as a source of ontological uncertainty and narcissism. I wonder though whether the more prescient problem is not our ontological uncertainty but our unreasonable expectations of ontological certainty (see first para above).

White says we need better media and better politicians. Agreed, but the two are inextricably linked. I don’t agree that it’s concern with our self-image that puts good people off politics. I rather think it is a justified sense that the public *do* care about image, and the media moguls *will* tear that image apart in order to sell their papers, so no-one will actually take us or our ideas seriously, and in becoming a laughing stock we will probably end up making the situation even worse. 

Regarding market values, these also relate back to Haidt’s moral foundations theory. The moral foundation of proportional fairness is very much dependent on a belief that humans *do* have free will, and an assumption of equality of opportunity. It relates to the concept of ‘work ethic’, a preference for competition over collaboration, and a theory of human motivation that leans towards extrinsic over intrinsic reward. I’m not sure why White doesn’t think the public is a market. It’s totally a market. Isn’t it?

Given my thesis topic, I was particularly interested in his point about academics turning away from the democratic horizon (because it’s too big a topic, and we’re being forced into putting out small, manageable research outputs… also because of risks to career progression). White argues that metrics like the REF are steering us into the wrong sort of self-seeking (back to the theory of human motivation)… well, yes. That’s how the metrics act on us. But we still have a choice (see Gonzales 2015 for some examples).

Likewise, turning the power on and connecting to the cacophany of information overload is still, I believe, a conscious choice (we are not yet to my knowledge living an episode of Black Mirror). Resisting, and carefully selecting who to read and listen to can, I think, be a political act, particularly given recent overlaps between politics and celebrity. And perhaps if we don’t we will one day lose the option to do so.

White’s writing on the public sphere – particularly that relating to the workings of ancient Greek society, were interesting and puzzling. I get the Kantian principle of publicity (rational-critical public debate that bridges politics and morality) – I liked Conflict of the Faculties. But then White brings in a different kind of publicity – the modern-day, promotional sort. Promotional publicity is a decidedly one-way form of communication, so I’m not sure what the connection is between this and Kantian publicity. Sure, a ‘public’ university in the Kantian sense would prioritise rational-critical discourse, but this is arguably a separate issue to the marketisation of higher education, and I wouldn’t place a lack of rational-critical discourse top of a list of problems with universities. So, this is an interesting conundrum. The paragraph on public attitudes (p11) makes the link between the two concepts more coherent, but I’m still not sure about it.

So, is – as Chris Calhoun thinks – our ‘vibrant public sphere’ under threat? In some ways, maybe, but we could just be looking at the past through rose-coloured specs. Vibrant, Kantian publicity is flourishing in places with innovative courses and approaches (MA Fashion Futures at LCF springs to mind) that aim to subvert current norms and practices, rethink entire industries, and produce graduates with the attitudes and attributes to reshape the world rather than slavishly reproducing it.

There is some metric-bashing in White’s paper that is a bit band-wagony and lacks critique. I’m not sure about the implication that high satisfaction ratings on the NSS are just another statistic to use in marketing. They *can be* a reliable account of sorts. The stories behind the lower scores can be surprising (or just plain confounding), but a 100% satisfaction rating is difficult to argue with. Same goes for the stuff on managerialism; yes, we need to retain academic freedom BUT we’re still human beings and many of us benefit from a little management and a little extrinsic motivation. Duke Maskell’s personal account of the rise of managerialism and professionalism in a transitioning post-92 university (in The New Idea of a University, 2002) gives a well-balanced perspective.

At the end of his paper, White asks how the educator’s authority is affected if the student’s expectation is that the course will help them to get a career. I think that’s a conversation that educators and students need to have – and ideally on an individual basis; why are they here? What do they want to get out of this? They are, after all, paying. So what are they paying for, and why? If you’re going to shell out a load of cash, you should really have engaged with a cost-benefit analysis. Not many undergraduates (in fact, hardly any university teachers in my experience) know that the full cost of their higher education to the state is more than double the amount of the loan they are taking out. On the other hand, they should also be aware that increased taxation on higher earnings over the course of their lifetime would cover the full cost of their degree – on average three times over. Financially, it’s a complex picture, but if they’re bright enough to do A-levels it shouldn’t pose them a problem.

Ultimately, I would argue that it’s not those who go to university who need a political education the most. Yes, the marketisation of higher education may promote individualism and self-interest, but individualism and self-interest were doing pretty well already. The current generation of university students have been completely shafted, and as far as I can see they remain remarkably public-spirited.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Supervision #1

I had my first formal supervision meeting a couple of weeks ago, and then got sucked into a maelstrom of new students. I just about found the time to print flyers and posters and send some feelers out for participants, which I’m really pleased about as I really needed to get recruitment underway. I know that once I’ve actually got conversations booked in then things will start ticking over.e-flyer

The supervision meeting was motivating; short and energetic, with a good blend of challenge and constructive suggestion. it was great to re-engage with everything after my brief foray into tabloid journalism over the Christmas break, which I’m hoping will pay off my overdraft so I have one less thing to worry about this year.

We went over my research question and proposal, and I shared a new version of my schedule, which I know is rather ambitious, but I like a challenge and it does allow for a couple of months’ slippage somewhere along the line:


I got some more reading suggestions from the team; I’ve since ordered Jon Nixon’s Interpretive Pedagogies, which I flicked through the other day – it looks good. I also downloaded a paper on Paul Ricoeur’s concept of Testimony (one of Ian’s suggestions).

I’m going to reinstate the reading schedule I used in years 1 & 2 to plan my reading and ensure I don’t slip behind. While I’m going to continue attending the London PESGB seminars regularly (I need a bit of fun in my life), I did a little reality check and decided not to continue with the London School of Philosophy classes on Kant and Religion & Politics; I can use those hours more strategically given my ambitious schedule, and there are particular areas of reading I want to prioritise. I’ve already done a lot of reading on the aims and purpose of higher education but the books have continued to fall through my letterbox. The main foundation of the first iteration of my literature review will – I think – relate conversation as a phenomenon with the emergent nature of the university phenomenon itself. My aim is to link up conversation and dialogue with learning, education and change.

My plan of action to move forward with the literature review includes for starters:

  • Reviewing past reading & notes on the idea of the university and speed-reading the texts on the shelf that I didn’t get to before – Jon Nixon, also Bill Readings, Chris Newfield, Barnett’s Future University.
  • Arranging conversations with John White and Ron Barnett on the aims of higher education.
  • Finish Haidt’s Righteous Mind and relate to Sacks’ Dignity of Difference – the two texts complement one another well.
  • Speed-read Gadamer in Conversation and relate to prior reading.

So, I’ll be spending more time on the Number 55 bus with my earplugs…

I’m also going to get together with Paul Wickens from Brookes, who just happens to be an expert in Conversation Analysis – quite the stroke of luck! My plan is to have a short ‘test’ conversation with a friend about the aims of higher education, have a first go at transcribing with CA markup and then going through it with Paul. I realised my feasibility study transcript won’t be of much use in practicing CA as we were so agreeable with one another, while I have a philosophy of education friend in mind who can and will argue about anything. So that’s my CA training sorted.

<Supervision record 12.01.17>

Posted in Supervision notes, Thesis | Leave a comment

The myth of the autonomous teenager

White, J. 1997. Philosophy and the aims of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp7-17.

I got a bit low constructing a response to this paper, because it was published in the same year I went to university and it got me thinking about my own undergraduate experience. I don’t want to depress anyone unnecessarily (especially not on Blue Monday), so I promise not to dwell on that bit.

John White gave a paper last week at the IoE on the place of love in education, and I figured that now that we’re mates and everything (I’m going to use his first name from now on to prove it) I should read this one, and then I can talk with him about it over a beer. It’s highly relevant to my thesis as it questions the role of philosophy in determining the aims of higher education.

I used to have clear ideas about what higher education *should* be; I felt that the entire education system – including higher education – should provide a steer towards sustainability; subverting the neoliberal, consumerist agenda rather than supporting it (I’m a personal fan of Barnett’s utopian ecological university). Now, of course, I realise that this a personal preference based on my own moral philosophy; the values and idea of the good life I have attached myself to. It transpires that I would have more of a philosophical leg to stand on if I advocated that universities should be focused on serving God. Hence my thesis…

I’m going to put the critique of Barnett’s argument for emancipatory aims of higher education to one side for now, as John’s own arguments seem sound but I really want to take a look at what Barnett said first hand (and also Paul Standish’s review of The Idea of the University). I was under the impression that Barnett fully acknowledged higher education’s surfeit of aims. In his 1988 paper Does Higher Education have Aims he even argues that ‘talk of aims in relation to higher education is in several senses inappropriate and misleading’ (p239).

What I want to respond to today is John’s argument against philosophising on the aims of higher education, on the grounds that, while children do and must have aims imposed on them, HE students are ‘autonomous persons’ who decide for themselves what their goals are. Many years before before students actually became protected by consumer law and universities were formally classified as ‘traders/sellers/suppliers’, he writes of ‘consumer sovereignty’ – of aims that reflect the different goals students have in mind. Interestingly, having said here that ‘all but the oldest children are typically too ignorant and… immature to know what is best for them, educationally speaking’ (p12), the paper John gave at the IoE this week supported an extension of learner autonomy to compulsory schooling, with a taster curriculum that allows pupils to develop their own interests. I’d like to ask him more about this with reference to his views about aims in higher education. It feels to me that a general move towards developing and supporting learner autonomy brings together some big ideas – including emancipation.

I am deeply uneasy about these assertions of the autonomy of (primarily) 18-year-olds. I can think of many ways – implicit and explicit – in which the state, the business community and academics can and do impose aims on students (fee loans, internships, graduate attributes, assessment criteria). Families can be a huge influence on the goals of these so-called ‘autonomous persons’, particularly if they are offering cash or freebies. I went for a swim halfway through reading John’s paper, and overheard two mothers in the shower strategising about their children’s university education. One was putting £25 a month aside (I did the maths… disappointing). The other was wondering whether her son would be up for moving to live with his grandfather in Norway at 14 in order to do the IBacc and get a (free) place at a Norwegian university.

As promised, I won’t depress you with my own story, other than to say that parental influence deeply influenced my university choices and my actions and experience as a student (on the bright side, it was probably my deep need for parental approval that kept me going). This won’t have been everyone’s experience, and that was 20 years ago. It would be nice to think that as students *are* being saddled with huge amounts of personal debt when they apply to university, they are at least making that decision autonomously. But I doubt it. If I’m right, does that mean we can reopen the philosophical debate on the aims of higher education? Actually, thinking about it, I rather feel that we should stop encouraging teenagers to go to university. 

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Gadamer and solidarity

After Truth and Method, Gadamer shifted from writing about tradition to solidarity. Both concepts relate to deep-seated agreements about the way things are or should be, but solidarity bears an element of forward-thinking, of future aspirations with a basis of ethical and/or political values. This turn presumably helped Gadamer to address criticisms that the ideas in Truth and Method were focused on the past and lacked relevance to the future.

Gadamer held a clear belief in the idea of moral progress, which he described as an extension of inclusivity; an emphasis of similarity over difference. We often think of left-wingers as more inclusive than right-wing thinkers; of having a broader definition of ‘us’, but I found myself thinking yet again about that time I went to the Conservative party conference to talk with delegates and get to know about their lives and values. I found them surprisingly willing to talk with me, and I *did* feel that they wanted to find common ground, which was an interesting contrast to the them-and-us mentality I experienced while among the protesters. A similar pattern was found in a study by the Public Religion Research Institute in the US that looked at following and unfollowing on social media – liberals were much more likely to unfollow those with different views, and did so faster. It’s a very interesting conundrum that has been chewed over a thousand times in the press since the EU referendum and the US presidential election; made even more complex by the suggestion that the ‘winning’ voters are being manipulated and lied to by the powerful. Jonathan Haidt writes about these phenomena in this book The Righteous Mind, as does Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes. Haidt theorises that moral judgement plays a role in helping us to form communities. We may like to think that morals are just about justice and equality, but authority, sanctity and loyalty not only come into play, but often matter more.

On first reading, Gadamer’s ideas about moral progress seemed to contrast sharply with another philosopher I’ve been reading for fun recently; Peter Sjöstedt-H, who writes about metaphysics and meta-ethics in the context of psychedelic phenomenology. Sjöstedt-H attempts to dismantle any idea of a universal morality, arguing that morality is more akin to fashion than technology, and that in the absence of a God/creator, humans have no prescribed purpose, therefore our characteristics and behaviours cannot be described as supportive (‘good’) or undermining (‘bad’) of any such purpose. He challenges egalitarianism, contractarianism and utilitarianism, giving examples of individuals and cultures that value valour and adventure over peace and stability. Like Gadamer, Sjöstedt-H links morality to power, but he focuses on how moral prescriptions (what we ‘ought’ to do) merely express a desire for one to change the behaviour of another (the authoritarial aspect of prescriptive morality discussed by Haidt).

But what links the two authors is that Gadamer’s moral progress relates to descriptive rather than prescriptive morality. Towards the end of his long career Gadamer became preoccupied with what, like Zeldin, he saw as a major defect in public life; our tendency to emphasise the different and disputed. Our political system is set up for confrontation as a default; our historical education and entertainment media focus on conflict. Like Hogan, he asks questions about specialisation and its tendency to drive us apart, claiming that instrumental reason seeks a control of language and the world that would be impossible to realise.

I’ll close with a passage from Misgeld & Nicholson’s (1992) book Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry and History, as I feel it encapsulates what I’m trying to achieve with my EdD thesis:

I am convinced that even in a highly bureaucratized, thoroughly organized and thoroughly specialized society, it is possible to strengthen existing solidarities. Our public life appears to me to be defective in to far as there is too much emphasis upon the different and disputed, upon that which is contested or in doubt. What we truly have in common and what unites us thus remains, so to speak, without a voice. Probably we are harvesting the fruits of a long training in the perception of differences and in the sensibility demanded by it. Our historical education aims in this direction, our political habits permit confrontations and the bellicose attitude to become commonplace. In my view we could only gain by contemplating the deep solidarities underlying all norms of human life.

Hans-Georg Gadamer in Misgeld & Nicholson 1992, p.192

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gadamer, Kafka and interpretation

gadamerLawn, C. 2006. Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, New York.

Gadamer was a traditionalist. He didn’t like the way the dominant scientific method focuses on the future and forgets about the past. He believed that knowledge is interpretation, and that the hermeneutic circle can and does apply to everything, with layers and layers of parts and wholes (of which we are always a part), influencing one another and causing meaning to be constantly shifting.

Gadamer built on the work of Schleiermacher but claimed to disagree with him on certain things; he felt that Schleiermacher did not emphasise the universal application of hermeneutics, and put undue emphasis on the psychological or empathetic aspect of interpretation; where one seeks to get inside the mind of the author – to come to know the author better than the author themselves – in order to more interpret their words more accurately. Gadamer felt that this emphasis subordinates the text itself, and the power of language itself to disclose truth. Did he simply mean that our words often communicate more than, or something other than, we intended to express? That would make sense. Gadamer also felt that the emphasis on the biography and psychology of the author subordinates that of the interpreter; he was in favour of interpretation that is dialogic and interactive; a collective divinatory act.

Chris Lawn, whose writings on Gadamer I’m reading, having tried Truth and Method and felt truly and thoroughly perplexed, feels that the difference between the grammatical and the psychological is not as emphatic as Gadamer claims it to be. Psychological features, after all, are made manifest through language; we find the psychological trace through the text. But when we conceive a ‘text’, where are the boundaries around it? For example, my friend Richard recently got me to read Kafka’s The Trial. There was a lot I liked about The Trial (not least that it taught me a lot about Richard and the way he experiences the world), but something I found particularly enlightening was the note at the back that explained Kafka’s dying wish that all copies of The Trial be burned, as he did not feel the work was significant or otherwise worthy of merit. Now, I would include such information – particularly as the publisher chose to print it within that edition of the book itself – as part of the text that added something to my interpretation of it. It would appear that Kafka did not even intend me to read The Trial; let alone to read it and to know that he felt it wasn’t worthy of merit. But I can still take all this information and make what I want from it. It seems a little unethical, and at odds with Gadamer’s vision of congenial, dialogic divination, but we all know that if writing is the vocation you choose, then this goes with the territory. It’s like trying to take down your own tweets, or courting media attention and then complaining about lack of privacy.

Incidentally, it was interesting to discuss The Trial with Richard and to compare our interpretations of it. They overlapped a lot; obviously it helped that I knew a little about Richard and that he felt this book was highly significant to him, but there was one key point of departure between our interpretations. Near the end of the book, the beleaguered lead character is told a parable by a clergyman; a story of a man who finds a door that leads to Truth. The door is open, but guarded by a doorkeeper, who doesn’t let the man through. The man stays with the doorkeeper, trying to persuade him to let him in, and remains there until he grows old and dies. At the moment of death, the doorkeeper closes the door. My interpretation of the parable was that it illustrated the insanity – and the paradox – of an obsession with truth; why spend our lives doggedly and pointlessly trying to get at it, when we could choose to walk away, out into the sunshine, and go skiing, or dancing, or learn to surf? Crucially, what paltry, half-assed, incomprehensible truth can possibly lie beyond that door if we’ve spent the only life we have sat on a stool next to it?

This was not how Richard had interpreted it; I rather think he quite admired the man’s determination, and shared his intrigue about what lay beyond the door of Truth. Which just goes to show how important our own biographies and psychologies as interpreters are in finding meaning in texts.

The relevance of all this to my thesis project is because I’m going to be exploring, interrogating and interpreting other people’s views about the purpose of universities. In seeking to be an equal partner in conversation with my participants I am explicitly and intentionally stepping within the hermeneutic circle; I make no pretensions of being a detached, objective observer. My interpretation of the conversation and its implications will be deeply influenced by my own position and biographical context.

This approach also has potentially weird and wonderful implications for my chosen method of Conversation Analysis. CA was devised for the analysis of naturally-occurring speech, and the speech I’m going to be capturing is not going to be wholly natural; also, half of it is going to come from me. I managed to stumble across one of the tutors at Brookes on Tuesday who happens to be a bit of a CA expert and I need to pick his brains about this… Perhaps it would be best to simply get the conversations done as soon as possible, before I get too familiar with the CA technique… otherwise the knowledge of what I’m going to be looking for is likely to influence what I say and how I say it?!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On pure experience

In an assignment I wrote recently on psychedelic experience and education, I cited Huxley’s (1954, p47) call for us to learn ‘to look at the world directly’ rather than through the ‘half-opaque medium of concepts’, and also Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols [language, calculation], with the world itself’.

A friend/colleague very generously provided me with some comments (after I’d submitted it), and I am really enjoying exploring his suggestions. Against the above, he wrote the following:

‘You’ll know that John McDowell argues that it is impossible to look at the world directly, if by that you mean to have unconceptualised experiences. See his Mind and World. He bases his argument on Sellar’s idea of the ‘Myth of the Given’.

I didn’t know of John McDowell, and I haven’t got myself a copy of Mind and World (yet), but I did come across a really nice review by Wayne Christensen of a book by Joseph K Schear on ‘The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate’. While McDowell argues that everything we perceive is pervaded by conceptualisation – a view I didn’t think I agreed with at all – at least his definition of conceptual understanding is not restricted to that which can be coded in language. Christensen cites the example of an individual who perceives a shade of colour for which there is no name, but can retain the experience in memory and refer to it in their mental processes. This is a rather simple example, compared to some things I’ve perceived that couldn’t possibly be recounted, and also, annoyingly, evade capture by the memory (I may only recall, for example, that I perceived something of great significance while fetching a teabag from the cupboard above the kettle, and it was wonderful and reassuring and I wanted so badly to write it down but I couldn’t). The example of the nameless colour brings to mind Philip K Dick’s ‘pink light’ in Valis. It also reminds me of an embarrassing moment I had one Christmas with a boyfriend’s family; being asked to describe a china tea set to his sister, who had been blind since birth. How should I explain ‘gold’? or ‘green?’ Should I even try? Since then, I’ve googled ‘how to describe a colour to a blind person’ and realised that she was probably testing me. Ha.

I came across Hubert Dreyfus and his five stages of expertise before when I was writing a book review of Transformative Learning & Identity. I recall liking his suggestion that the most proficient, most expert practitioners actually think less about what they are doing, not more. It seemed to counter Schön’s dogma of the reflective practitioner, which I’d found irritating. It does depend on what one means by ‘thinking’ though – as Wittgenstein noted, there are many different kinds of thought. I’m willing to bet that there is plenty of brain activity involved in what Dreyfus called ‘absorbed coping’. Charles Limb’s brain scanning of musical improv artists may be a case in point (although I don’t know for certain if his research subjects would have claimed a lack of conscious awareness of what they were doing). If the brain *is* indeed highly active during the highest levels of competent practice, can we claim it to be non-cognitive? Perhaps it is sometimes the case that the more expert we are, the less we are aware of our thinking, hmm? Christensen argues that our conceptual self-awareness is often inaccurate, citing a study that found professional batsmen do not, in fact, keep their eye on the ball (as they thought they were doing).

I looked up Barbara Montero after reading Christensen’s review and I love her perspective. She has digested a lot of thinking from across the disciplines about cognitive activity and expert performance, and built a strong case that expert action can be ‘richly minded’. A ballerina herself, she argues that ‘autopilot’ performances are dull for both the dancer and the audience. It makes sense to me that different kinds of skills demand or benefit from different kinds and degrees of absorption when performed at an elite level, and that this may even vary significantly between individuals. There is more than one method of skinning a cat, and there is more than one method for producing a note-perfect performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor.

The awareness and conceptualisation of thought is such an interesting topic; its study has been shown to benefit from interdisciplinary approaches including phenomenology, neuroimaging, eye movement tracking, etc. These same approaches have been utilised in the study of psychedelic experience. Both areas of research flirt with the boundaries of what can be articulated, and that is what is so intriguing and exciting about them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On economics

Lurking behind my thesis topic of the purpose of universities in society are questions about how society is organised; i.e. how we put our various resources to use and to what ends. My interest in these questions has directed me towards texts about economics, some of which – e.g. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference – I started reading without realising economics was a big part of what it was about. When we talk of difference in and between classes, cultures and civilisations, we mean differences in our values and priorities, which influence how we allocate and use resources.

I suppose what really bugs me – and what is motivating me to do my thesis project – is the extent of disagreement about the means to which we work towards our end of universal prosperity. In his 2016 report for CUSP on consumer capitalism, Jackson defines prosperity in terms of its social and psychological dimensions as well as its material ones. This would include the respect of peers, the contribution of useful work, a feeling of belonging, and a sense of security in the face of uncertainty.

That all makes sense to me. But does everyone feel the same? And how difficult is it to remember that ‘meaningful participation in the life of society’ is what we actually want, when we’re bombarded with conflicting messages by people and companies who seek to manipulate us for their own financial gain? We are adapted for selfishness as well as altruism; some of us more than others, it would seem.

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Island’, in which Aldous Huxley imagines a utopian society where, among other innovative practices, pre-school children are tested for certain tendencies and educated appropriately. For example, those with a tendency to seek power over others are taught awareness and sensitivity, and given physically strenuous tasks that ‘satisfy their craving for domination’. I wonder how such a scheme would go down in modern Britain; would it be spun as labeling, differential treatment, and a compromise to our individual freedoms (bad), or early intervention and prevention-over-cure (good)? We already have national schemes for the identification of sporting potential (including mental attributes), but it’s not compulsory to take up the resulting opportunities, and it is probably less troubling for an individual to be identified as a future athlete than a future megalomanic.

While I did recently encounter an advert for a couple of PhD studentships in what sounds like a similar area of activity, I expect the idea to languish in the realm of fantasy as we slip further under the control of Huxley’s ‘Peter Pans’ and ‘Muscle Men’. But let’s move on…

Economics – how we put our resources to use – is a field of study that is constantly in flux as we discover new resources or applications, learn how finite they are, and what the effects and opportunity costs are of using them, among other things.

As well as being constantly in flux, economics is highly contested. Even if there is a broad consensus on the utilitarian view that we seek the greatest prosperity for the greatest number, and even if we agree on what prosperity looks like, the limits and boundaries we conceive around this principle are fluid. Are we concerned only with the prosperity of our own nation, or humanity as a whole? What about future generations? Other species, even? It is tempting to focus only on the here and now; indeed, to do otherwise demands more knowledge from us than we have. Maybe this is why sustainability debates can get so heated; no-one really knows what they are talking about; the absence of a scientific explanation for the end of the last ice age, for example, is convenient for those who believe that climate change is independent of the activities of man.

Jackson points out that the financial economy exists in the service of human prosperity. Why are they so often conflated? One reason for this may be that that GDP is perceived as easier to measure than happiness. I’m highly skeptical of this view; not only does the World Happiness Report seem to be going strong as a comprehensive measure of social and psychological prosperity, it also appears that GDP includes consumer spending and business investment; both highly dependent on debt that – in the UK – is literally created by banks. According to Jackson (2016), 95% of the money in the UK is created in this way; when banks agree loans. When ‘real’ money is subsequently ‘made’ and paid back to the bank, then all good; the cash comes into its promised existence. If it isn’t then the balance sheets become very fragile; a state of affairs that apparently led to the financial crash of 2008. Is it the case that our position (5th, I believe) on the GDP-per-capita league table is down to high levels of lending? If so, I’m not impressed.

Another reason why money is conflated with prosperity may be its ubiquitousness; money is the currency through which we are most commonly remunerated for our work and with which we obtain goods and services; an exchange that can become rather circular. I saw the Dalai Lama on a rainy Sunday morning at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, where he shared the following gem:

‘Man sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.’

He didn’t attribute it as such, but this happens to be word-for-word identical to a 2001 poem by James J Lachard called An Interview with God, itself reminiscent of the 1975 Eagles song Take It To The Limit:

‘You can spend all your time making money.
You can spend all your love making time.’ 

Many believe that industrialisation improved living standards across the board, and over the longer term this could be argued to be so. But Jackson (2016) agrees with Marx (1867), that industrialisation and capitalism has contributed to the concentration of financial wealth in the hands of the few. Polyani (1944) also noted how the emerging capitalist economy had ‘disembedded’ economic activities from social relations, leading to a loss of accountability in economic relationships; a point that was more recently taken up by Sacks (2002).

I attended a book launch in September for Rethinking Capitalism (Mazzucato & Jacobs 2016), which takes a similar line to Will Hutton’s (2015) How Good We Can Be. Both take a well-reasoned approach that is framed independently of beliefs about human motivation and purpose. Hutton is big on addressing national inequality but not so vocal on global issues and the environment. I rather suspect this is because he doesn’t want to risk being written off as a hand-knitted lefty or enemy of progress, rather than because he doesn’t care. While Hutton, Mazzucato and Jacobs are definitively pro-growth and Jackson is not, all of them provide excellent ideas for ways in which things could be better – far too many to summarise here, but none of it is rocket science. They all constitute a call for action – but to whom?

Even more interesting than the contents of Rethinking Capitalism was the make-up of the discussion panel at the launch. Joining Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs were Wendy Carlin, an economics professor at UCL, and a chap called Richard Davies, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers at the Treasury. What I found intriguing (and also, not surprising) was that Davies, with his position of great influence, didn’t seem to agree with anything in the book. Despite the editors citing powerful examples like Huawei and Eriksson reinvesting all profits, the direct investments of the German State Bank into green technology and transport R&D, and the golden days of NASA when the top rate of tax was 90%, Davies believes that the economy can be left largely to market forces and that competition (rather than state support) drives innovation. 

Essentially, if the advisor to the Chancellor doesn’t agree with you, then the prognosis for your ideas is possibly not good. I could have suggested this during the questions at the end but instead chose to ask the panel why they thought growth was so important. I wasn’t satisfied by Davies’ response that we get better (i.e. more effective/efficient) at what we do year on year. I lean towards Jackson’s (2016) view that productivity gains and increased automation justify us working fewer hours (as Keynes himself suggested in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren), and shifting to areas of activity that are inherently labour-intensive and sustainable such as care, craft and culture. I suggested as much to Davies but he dismissed it, claiming that humans are ‘naturally competitive’. Certainly many of us are. If only we could catch them early and perform some sort of intervention…

*with 91% of growth going to the top 1%, according to Mazzucato & Jacobs (2016).


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Some notes on knowledge disciplines and God

Back in March I wrote about Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Fox and the Hedgehog, where he proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). In his book ‘Curious’, Ian Leslie proposes that as individuals we benefit from nurturing both ways of being; to be a ‘foxhog’ who develops a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. 

As a field of study, higher education draws heavily on the disciplines of economics, politics and philosophy. I have set out to read in these areas assuming breadth, but I increasingly feel that economics and philosophy in particular are fundamental to my specialism. I no longer feel that I’m going off on a tangent by reading Piketty or (trying to read) Nietzsche. It all relates and connects, often explicitly so. In the last month I have seen the same references (e.g. Adam Smith, John Locke, Karl Polanyi) cropping up in pretty much all my reading matter – from Rabbi Sacks’ Dignity of Difference to Tim Jackson’s working paper for CUSP, and a new book on economics (Rethinking Capitalism – Jacobs and Mazzucato 2016) that I attended the launch for last month.

As news came in yesterday of Finland mandating the introduction of transdisciplinary, topic-based teaching for all school-age pupils, I coincidentally found myself reading a lovely paper by David Jardine and Kim Grant (2011). It captures an email exchange prompted by a classroom discussion about the industrial model – the breakdown of things into detached parts – influencing schooling from the early 20th century (Ken Robinson also talks about this in his TED talk on schools killing creativity).

Jardine and Grant’s conversation draws on literature ranging from Gadamer and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Calvin and Hobbes (yes really) in exploring Jardine’s question: ‘What about our knowledge of the world? What (if any) good is it?’. This is a key angle on the debate about the purpose of higher education, and I was reminded of Paul Standish’s paper on the ‘given’ in educational research, as the value of knowledge is so rarely questioned in everyday life.

During the conversation, Grant refers to Parker Palmer, writer of much lauded self-help books for teachers such as The Courage to Teach (1998), in which he describes the vital need that teachers have ‘to investigate connections between our subjects, our students, and our souls that help make us whole again and again.’ (p.120). Grant writes of her realisation that ‘we have broken things apart…in order to better grasp them and pin them down long enough to teach about them.’, claiming ‘…it does strike me as ironic because my passion in teaching has always been about showing the connections.’ She also ponders whether all ‘great things [are] filled with sufficient grace’, and whether/how ‘different ones of us attuned to different fields of grace’, citing how, while maths leaves her ‘cold’ despite having had great teachers, she loves to study history.

Grant describes how the study of cells may fulfil a biologist and the study of musical theory may enliven the writer of symphonies, and proposes the disciplines are different ‘worlds’ through which ‘God’ reveals himself, quoting Aslan at the close of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: ‘[in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’

Grant, K, and Jardine, D. 2011. “We Need a Saviour“: An Irreconciling Conversation about Curriculum. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 7.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Some notes about Ludwig Wittgenstein

ludwig_wittgensteinI’ve resolved to brush up on my knowledge of a few key philosophers. Today I’ve been reading more about Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy, inspired by Ian Ground’s PESGB lecture last week and also because I felt his thoughts about language are potentially relevant to my thesis.

Like me, Ludwig Wittgenstein grew up in a house full of pianos and depressive siblings, doubted his effectiveness as a teacher, hated office parties and liked working with his hands. Other things we have in common are a love of Schubert and cooking, techno-skepticism, and disdain for the press. I think we would have got on pretty well.

Originally a student of maths and engineering, Wittgenstein’s interest in logic and structure evolved into a passion for the limits of language and meaning. An analytic philosopher, he describes philosophy as the logical clarification of thoughts. A thought cannot be shown, so we have to use representation; as musical notation and the grooves on a record are representations of music that have homologous form with it, but are not the music itself.

Here are some basic Wittgensteinian ideas that I think I’ve grasped:

  • Logic deals with information in its purest form, i.e. free of emotion.
  • Thoughts can be logical without being true.
  • Tautology and contradiction are not propositions; they are not proposing anything and mean nothing. But they are important as they demonstrate the nature of logic.
  • Not everything is explainable.
  • Logical necessity is the only kind of necessity.
  • Causality is superstition.
  • We cannot describe the limits of language (as we are limited by language!)
  • Different uses of a word share a resemblance. The strength of a word as a symbol is a product of its multiple different uses.
  • We can only ever make inferences about another’s inner world.
  • There is no difference between the content of experience of wishing and intending; the difference is in the way they are articulated.

At first I thought the implication of that final point was that we could articulate our wishes as intentions and change the world, but I really don’t think that’s what Wittgenstein was driving at. He wasn’t known for his optimism.

In the years following the publication of his main work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (literally a ‘handling’/discussion of logic and philosophy) other philosophers prompted him to question some of his original principles, including the one that all propositions must have logical form (we can debate whether certain propositional hand gestures have logical form, for example).

Wittgenstein came to agree with the Ancient Greeks’ idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy; a way of developing thoughts that are ‘at peace’, by challenging the habits of thought and taken-for-granted forms of everyday speech that are entwined with the way we live. (see p85 quote.) One suggestion he made was that we should do away with all attempts to explain and stick to description; this reminded me again of the ‘pathic’ writing activity David had us do in Year 1; the treatment of a critical incident though a descriptive, pre-reflective account.

Wittgenstein felt that the job of philosophy is to defend our intelligence against bewitchment by language. He highlighted how thought appears simple until we reflect on it and realise that it is not one kind of activity; there are many, many different sorts of thinking. It occurred to me reading Wittgenstein’s ideas about thought that the perceived effort we experience in thinking ‘hard’ is due to things other than the thinking about the problem; ‘stress’ or ‘overthinking’, perhaps the pressure to look like we’re thinking. Maybe they actually get in the way of the thinking? Wittgenstein says that thought is not an inner process that occurs in our heads. It is our thought, but we do not transfer it from one person to another. I may express the thought, and you may hear it, but you do not need to have the thought yourself in order to understand.

Another interesting point Wittgenstein makes about language is that it is dependent on non-linguistic features; for example to respond appropriately to a joke requires a sense of humour. It also helps to have familiarity with the person telling the joke.

I now totally get what Ian Ground was saying in his PESGB lecture about the relevance of Wittgensteinian thought to a consideration of animal consciousness. Wittgenstein supports what I wrote in my last post about human life being bound in language; we can’t step out of language; we can’t even describe its limits. Mathematics, like language, mirrors our form of life. If we saw and perceived objects differently, we would have a different mathematics.

I do, however, believe certain activities can provide us with a hint – a glimpse – of what lies outside. This upcoming online course by Stanislav Grof looks absolutely intriguing. If it’s free, I’ll do it.

Now, a lot of people who click on that link will probably denounce it as irrational, corny new-age delusion (as apparently many of Roy Bhaskar’s fans did when he published From East to West). But Wittgenstein points out that we seek satisfactions of different kinds, which do not necessarily contradict one another; for example Darwin’s account of evolution and the account of creation in Genesis. If we assume that magic is trying to achieve the same ends as science, we will look down upon it. But magic does not seek causal explanations; it is a language of gestures that brings different satisfactions (this is what Wittgenstein means by ‘the spirit in which one acts’; he means the satisfactions that we seek). Whereas a lot of philosophers seek the identification of founding principles, it is said that Wittgenstein’s theme of language games makes his philosophy more rhizomatic.

It struck me again, reading about Wittgenstein, what can be achieved by bright individuals when they are freed from the necessity to make a living. Wittgenstein came from an incredibly wealthy family. Not a happy one, it seems (all three of his brothers committed suicide… incidentally, he did argue against the existence of happiness as a state of mind). Ultimately, having chosen to walk away from the family fortune and carve his own individual path through life, it’s clear he was under no illusion that money equates to wealth. One key argument in favour of universal basic income if that is we are released from our wage-slavery we can follow our passions, develop our own particular talents, and do and achieve truly great things for humanity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Animal consciousness revisited

I’ve started going along to the PESGB’s Wednesday lectures. Oral comprehension is something I’m trying to get better at (I don’t know whether it’s an attention problem or a processing problem, probably both), but the chats in the bar afterward are a suitable reward, so I’ve resolved to make a habit of it.

Last week the PESGB had Ian Ground along to talk to us about non-human consciousness. The essence of his paper was along similar lines to a blog post I wrote in my first term of the EdD, which I am rather proud of, looking back. I feel like I was more prolific, more eloquent and more confident back then. Maybe it’s nothing to get depressed about – I suspect it’s largely because I was less likely to see one thing as being connected to everything else; a position that makes it bloody hard to encapsulate your response to something in a blog post.

Truth be told, I’ve revisited old blog posts a lot more then I’ve written new ones in the past year. I’ve found my earlier posts to be indispensable in building my research proposal and ethics application, and I need to continue capturing my thoughts as I go, or they’ll get forgotten. Someone tweeted Hugh Kearn’s ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students’ earlier today. Kearns writes: ‘The words you write might never make it into your final thesis, but they will be the grandparents of the ones that do.’ Everyone says how important it is to keep writing, and I know this to be true. So this is me, back at the keyboard, writing about what makes us human…

(‘but what has this to do with your thesis?’, I hear you cry. Possibly nothing, possibly everything. We’ll see.)

Ian opened his paper by reminding us that ‘philosophical and scientific inquiry into the nature of mind has generally proceeded as if we humans were the only minded species.’ We are obsessed with our own minds – on personal, cultural/societal and species levels – but spend comparably little energy considering other kinds of mind. Ian feels that Wittgenstein’s philosophical framework allows us more flexibility in this sense (I don’t know much about that, but I’ve just ordered a book on it).

The most important point I took away from Ian’s lecture was that language is the crucial difference between humans and other animals, and it is the way our language constrains our thinking that makes it difficult for us to conceptualise non-human minds. This is along the same lines as what I thought three years ago:

For me, what makes us distinctly human (from a human perspective, of course) is not so much about free will as about language. Essentially, this paper [Buchanan 1998] is about investigating matters of free will and choice among our fellow human beings. Having a common means of communication – language – enables us to investigate matters of free will and choice more deeply than we would be able to with, say, a tree frog. So, we can go beyond observing and counting in order to make predictions, and start eliciting narratives that make explicit what is going on for people and enable us to develop a deeper understanding of the situation – and its significance. Other animals – and plants too – have their own means of communicating with one another, but it makes perfect sense that the greater the commonality in our communication, the more nuanced and delicate our awareness can become. This idea has been touched upon in readings for both units so far; in terms of what it is possible to know, and in terms of academic (and other) discourse(s).
November 24, 2013

But there was more in Ian’s paper that was of interest, some of which resonated with my recent writing on entheogens (psychedelic plant medicines) and the window they provide into other states of consciousness. In the Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes at length about the inadequacy of language for representing the full spectrum of our experience. In the discussion after Ian’s lecture, Richard Marshall argued that thought without language does exist – a position that Ian seemed skeptical about, despite having quoted John Searle on the unnaturalness of language. I wholeheartedly agreed with Richard (on this point only). Just because we can’t put something – an action, an experience, a view – into words, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and isn’t important. In fact, I feel the opposite may be true – we place too much importance, perhaps, on the things that can be put into words. This is apparent when one considers how we assess university teaching; through written, reflective accounts of it. Even when assessment incorporates observation of the act of teaching (notably absent from the highest accolade of the National Teaching Fellowship), the observation only acquires validity in being formatted into a written report.

Through his experience with mescaline, Huxley learned how psychedelics confront us with the ineffable. Many psychonauts have experienced a frustrated desire to translate these experiences into words, as if they have no meaning or permanence otherwise. Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a remarkably successful attempt at translation, but I’m not sure how intelligible it would be to someone who hadn’t had a similar experience. In his final work of fiction – The Island – Huxley weaves the entheogenic experience into an account of an imagined utopian civilisation. In explaining the role of sacred plant medicines in social life, a central character in the novel challenges his guest’s assumptions, explaining that the brain transmits rather than produces consciousness. I think this idea is highly relevant to a consideration of the consciousness of non-human animals.

An explanatory anecdote: My two-year-old cocker spaniel is very beautiful and relatively well-behaved, but I struggle to understand his behaviour at times. Over the last few months he developed what I experienced as an annoying habit of stealing another dog’s ball (or a child’s toy, or someone’s sock), refusing to drop it on command and running in the other direction when I tried to chase him. For me, this wasn’t funny – I often found it embarrassing and stressful.

I have found, like others, that microdosing with entheogens loosens the ‘human’ and/or linguistic constraints on my thinking. The first time Indy’s ball-stealing coincided with a microdosing day, I had a flash of understanding – I knew what the ‘game’ was in his mind; i.e. what he ‘wanted’ me to do and what would lead to him dropping the ball. I’ll try to explain what I did. Rather than running towards him, I sprinted – very fast – around him in a long, wide arc, projecting a feeling of joyous playfulness. His eyes lit up. He scuttered a little to one side, and then to the other. He hunched his shoulders and stuck his neck out. I opened my arms wide, and advanced towards him with my feet wide too, making a wall with my body and my mind (I don’t know how else to describe this). And he dropped the ball and sat back on his haunches!

I feel that this example resonates with Huxley’s position (supported by modern neuroimaging studies) that psychedelics open up the brain to areas that are usually silent, allowing thoughts and sensations to be transmitted that reach beyond everyday human experience and language and in that sense are less exclusively human; more animalistic.

Another connection with entheogens arose in what Ian said about humans drawing a distinction between ourselves and the world, and his suggestion that animal consciousness may not include such a distinction. Much has been written about the ego-dissolving effects of certain plant medicines, and it has been suggested that realising that we are part of the world rather than separate from it, is a higher way of thinking (Huxley declines to use the word ‘enlightened’ as others, e.g. Tim Leary, have done).

In my 2013 blog post I picked up on the concept of free will – as a potential defining characteristic of humanity – and argued that our capacity for making moral choices (if that is what we are doing) is a characteristic that has presumably, along with our other characteristics, evolved over time, and the commonality of convergent evolution suggests that we are unlikely to be the only beings with this characteristic.

In From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (2002), Roy Bhaskar posits that man is essentially God, and to gain our freedom we must realise this; that we are God, and we are already absolutely free. Being God is not as easy as it sounds; it also entails taking a stance of unconditional love for ourselves, other beings and the environment we inhabit; a state of ‘non-judgemental observation combined with engaged (but unattached) activity in the world’ (p.xi). Bhaskar implies, I think, that our godliness in this respect – our capacity for making moral choices – is what sets us apart from other animals.

While Kant (in the Critique of Practical Reason, 1788) argues that it is impossible to prove that we have free will, Sacks (in The Dignity of Difference, 2002) argues that we have to assume we do, as it would be intolerable to have no sense of responsibility for how our lives turn out.  The debate seems to hinge on whether free will, or lack of it, is the illusion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Some reflections on writing an autoethnography about psychedelic experience

I’ve been enjoying Leon Anderson’s 2006 paper on analytic autoethnography, plus half a dozen responses to it, followed by his concluding remarks. The entire exchange is published in a single issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Vol 35 (4), pp.373-465)

In his opening article (pp.373-395), Anderson traces the history of ‘protoautoethnographic’ research by realist ethnographers, documenting a heightening of self-reflexivity, a blurring of genres and an increased focus on emotion in social science research. He compares these developments with those of the postmodern/poststructuralist tradition championed by Ellis and Bochner, and their form of ‘evocative’ or ‘emotional’ autoethnography. In effect he presents the ancestry of autoethnography as converging from two branches; one from cultural anthropologists who turned their skills on their own cultures, and the other arising from a descriptive literary approach and a rejection of realist and analytic assumptions.

At first, I thought my own sympathies definitely lay with Anderson’s view of autoethnography as ‘explicit and reflexive self-observation’, which seemed to describe exactly what I have been attempting to do on my blog for the last few years. Denzin’s (1997, p228) description of an ‘epistemology of emotion, moving the reader to feel the feelings of the other’ does not sit as comfortably with me.

But, out of all of the pieces, I thought Ellis and Bochner’s (pp.429-449) was the cleverest; the ‘good cop – bad cop’ dialogue suggesting a range of reactions, one being that a conventional analytical framing violates the value and integrity of evocative autoethnography. However fictionalised (and charming) the view Ellis and Bochner gave me into their lives, I found their response the most truthful, and therefore the most persuasive. In his original paper Anderson acknowledges the postmodern skepticism of the generalisability of knowledge. If we accept that all writing is a construction, the type of autoethnography Ellis and Bochner write, which ‘acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011) is very honest, whereas more traditional forms of academic writing are perhaps less so.

What surprised me the most in the set of papers was Leon Anderson’s concluding piece (pp.450-465). It seems to have been Denzin’s response (pp.419-428) that upset him the most, but Ellis and Bochner clearly got to him as well. Despite Carolyn Ellis explicitly stating: ‘I haven’t felt attacked by his paper’ (p445), I think Anderson feels that they have painted his piece as an attack on the value of evocative authoethnography, its validity as a methodology and the integrity of its epistemological origins. Maybe he feels that the use of Art as ‘bad cop’ in their response is a sneaky trick – a means of maintaining one’s innocence while sticking in the knife – and to an extent I would agree. The use of the word ‘autopsy’ is obviously inflammatory, Bochner’s defence of it is obtuse, and Ellis’ acquiescence – given that the role of her ‘character’ in the story is a conciliatory one – does not ring true. Perhaps Anderson feels that in fictionalising their argument, Ellis and Bochner have given themselves an unfair advantage.

In any case, Anderson’s defensive response paints the whole exchange as more of a bun-fight than I think it actually was, and demonstrates a weakness of the ‘traditional argumentative’ or ‘one-two punch’ style of argument that Ellis worked so hard to avoid; his final word, especially when juxtaposed with Ellis and Bochner’s dialogue, carries a hint of facade; I feel that he is ‘trying to be more than what he is’ (Rogers 1967, p175).

So… what did this exchange make me reflect on, thinking about my own autoethnography?

On my relative comfort with the genre
On reading Burnier’s response (pp.410-418), I realised that I’m actually quite comfortable blending my personal and scholarly stories – I’ve been doing it all along on here. In fact, I’m so committed to this as a means of personal and educational development that I teach my students to do it and have even used it to assess their learning.

In Anderson’s comeback he proposes that ‘all ethnographic writing should have evocative aspirations’ (p459). I wonder at my ability to write evocatively. In my own autoethnography I have tried to capture and communicate my experience in the form of epiphanic fragments. David had us do a ‘Pathic Writing’ activity in the first year of the EdD where we wrote about a memory of a significant event; simply recalling it and how we felt, without analysing it. That was an interesting thing to do, and, in the long run, very valuable. The non-analysis stimulated a kind of slow-burn reflection; every time I returned to it I had to ask myself afresh ‘how do I feel about this?’. I’ve tried to use the same technique in my autoethnography, keeping the analysis out of the fragments themselves.

On my ‘white, masculine, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied perspective’
I can see where Ellis and Bochner are coming from with this one, about those who ‘advocate and insist on canonical forms of doing and writing research’. I am constantly, openly questioning myself and my motives. This blog, for example, is pretty far from a canonical form of research. Considering the topic of my autoethnography, it should be noted that openness to other ideas and perspectives is a mindset that psychedelics have been shown to promote. Recent research in this area ranges from the psychological study by MacLean, Johnson and Griffiths (2011) on psilocybin and the personality domain of openness, to the neuroscientific work by Muthukumaraswamy et al. (2013) on cortical desynchronisation. The results of studies like these correspond with the reported psychedelic experience, including not only an enhanced openness to one’s own experience, or ‘mindfulness’, but also the sense of being part of a collective consciousness.

On the existence and nature of truth
I recognised my own ambitions in Anderson’s call to make inferences beyond the data – to ‘transcend’ the data. I feel I naturally lean towards the analytic; I like to abstract and explain. What does this say about my epistemological standpoint? I guess it supports the idea that, despite my numerous psychedelic experiences, I am a realist – I believe the truth is out there. We can’t expect to know it completely but we can at least have fun trying, using a range of tools and approaches.

On the meaning of life
You might find it odd that I see truth-seeking as ‘fun’, rather than some kind of moral duty. I’m a curious person, and I’m increasingly feeling that it’s our moral duty to have a nice time. I recently discovered the works of Alan Watts, who presents a worldview that is primarily playful:

‘We thought of life by analogy as a journey… which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.’

The above quote is from a lecture titled ‘The Human Game’. Watts’ audio archives are vast and insufficiently labelled and the full reference has so far eluded me. Another Watts quote that has resonated with me recently is from his 1971 talk ‘A Conversation With Myself’:

‘You’re only making a mess by trying to put things straight. You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and no wonder you’re in trouble.’

Over the last twelve months my reading and thinking have taken me through a shift, from someone who waves banners to someone who asks, listens and thinks. This has affected the way I view my doctorate as a whole and my thesis project in particular. It’s a hard circle to square; taking on the responsibility of furthering human knowledge and believing in my heart that we’re just here to enjoy ourselves. But… perhaps knowledge doesn’t need to focus on straightening out the wiggles. What about simply illuminating their beautiful wiggliness?

On reaching beyond self-experience
psych reading
Like Anderson, I also see myself as a relative newcomer to the culture I am ‘studying’ (psychedelic culture). That’s one reason why I do feel the need to bring voices other than my own into my autoethnography; there is plenty of literature and thought out there that warrants me reaching beyond self-experience. I don’t want to write one of those ‘pseudo-scientific personal reflections’ that Sessa (2012, p7) finds so dull, but maybe this is inevitable. I’m certainly keen to avoid what Atkinson describes in his response to Anderson’s paper as the ethnographer becoming ‘more memorable than the ethnography’ (p402). Some might feel that writing openly about my personal experience with psychedelic drugs is professionally risky. My aim is not to gain infamy but to present a perspective that I believe is both important and unfamiliar to many.

On risking one’s academic and professional reputation
The first time I attended a talk by Professor David Nutt, a fellow member of the audience asked him what we, the people, could do to assist the cause for sensible, evidence-based drugs policies (e.g. legal classification based on relative harm). Nutt said something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

‘Well, you all look to me like intelligent, successful people. One very important thing young professionals like you can do is start to be more open about your own drug use. The general public needs to realise that most people who take drugs do so for pleasure and are not addicts.’

This exchange affected me deeply. I also think it was relatively easy for me to take his advice on board, having only started taking drugs in my mid-30s, for what I consider to be the ‘right’ reasons; i.e. pleasure and personal development rather than rebellion and peer pressure. Nutt has always argued that we need to understand the personal value of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) in order to identify appropriate actions to reduce harm. He was involved in initiating the Net Pleasure Index – part of the 2013 Global Drug Survey – which explores the balance of positive and negative experience for users of different drugs. When ranked by net positive effect, MDMA comes out top, followed by LSD and psilocybin, which have the lowest perceived negative effects. Alcohol and tobacco come last.

To my mind, there is nothing shameful about consciously choosing to engage in educated psychological exploration. It is an unfortunate peculiarity that LSD and psilocybin are illegal, given the range of risky, dangerous and downright harmful activities that we are all free to engage in any time. For example, how many people have avoided injury while training for a marathon? Is it even possible to run for 26 miles on tarmac without causing any damage to the muscles, the tendons, the soles of the feet? No, it is not. And yet, as a society we applaud those who do so. We hold them up as paragons of virtue, we actively encourage them to harm themselves. I have never understood the link between charity giving and long-distance running. Why would I give money to encourage something to do something genuinely harmful? I can see the rationale in sponsoring someone to stop smoking, or to join a choir to improve their mental health, but to run for miles and miles on tarmac… no.

This quote in Denzin’s response to Anderson accords perfectly with my motivation for writing about psychedelic experience:

‘Ethnography is a not an innocent practice. Our research practices are performative, pedagogical, and political. Through our writing and our talk, we enact the worlds we study. These performances are messy and pedagogical. They instruct our readers about this world and how we see it. The pedagogical is always moral and political; by enacting a way of seeing and being, it challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other.’ (p422)

On reading this, I realised the critical pedagogic role of my own autoethnography, my aim being to disrupt cultural understandings and ultimately contribute towards a more just society. The legal status and social taboo around the use of psychedelic substances is something I care deeply about. Sewell’s (2006) article on personal motivation for and the ‘realities’ of psychedelic research indicates that many academics and students feel the same way. As Anderson argues in his concluding response; ‘caring and theorising are not mutually exclusive’ (p462).


Denzin, N. K. 1997. Interpretive ethnography: ethnographic practices for the twenty-first century. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., and Bochner, A, P. 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research. 12 (1), Article 10. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095 [Accessed: August 2016].

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W. and Griffiths, R. R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25 (11) pp.1453-61

Muthukumaraswamy, S.D., Carhart-Harris, R.L., Moran, R.J., Brookes, M.J., Williams, T.M., Errtizoe, D., Sessa, B., Papadopoulos, A., Bolstridge, M., Singh, K.D., Feilding, A., Friston, K.J., Nutt, D.J. 2012. Broadband cortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (38), pp.15171-83

Rogers, C. R. 1967. On Becoming A Person. Constable.

Sessa, B. 2012. The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. London: Muswell Hill.

Sewell, 2006. So You Want to be a Psychedelic Researcher? The Entheogen Review. 15 (2), pp.42-48. Available at: https://erowid.org/psychoactives/research/research_psychedelic_article1.pd [Accessed: August 2016].

Watts, A. ND. The Human Game. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8h-_MF0Gx4 [Accessed: August 2016]

Watts, A. 1971. A Conversation With Myself. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aufuwMiKmE [Accessed: August 2016]


Posted in IDR | Leave a comment

Writing the PhD Journey – the need for balance?

Stanley, P. 2013. Writing the PhD Journey(s): An Autoethnography of Zine-writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 44 (2) pp143-168

While I find autoethnographies absorbing, I tend to react to them in a not entirely positive way. It’s not that I don’t think they have academic legitimacy – I do. I like the honesty of autoethnography; the foregrounded acknowledgement that memory is flawed and experience is subjective renders the genre more trustworthy to me, not less. What irks me is the angst. While Stanley feels there is a dearth of writing on the emotional and personal experience of doing a doctorate (compared to the more common focus on learning journeys and professional/academic identity), I feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of it, and it all tends towards the negative. At least Stanley apologises for painting her PhD as ‘a type of purgatory’.

But… my own autoethnography is currently underway and there are some useful methodological pointers here for me. In blending reflective, personal writings with critical analysis, Stanley has taken a approach that draws on both the evocative and the analytic ends of the dichotomy presented by Anderson in his 2006 paper (notes on which will follow).

I am taking a similar hybrid approach in my own autoethnography (on psychedelic drugs and doctoral study), using memories from my own lived experiences in conjunction with other literature to generate theoretical arguments. I am calling my documented memories ‘epiphanic fragments’ in a nod to David Aldridge’s 2013 article on educational epiphanies. I liked Stanley’s call for ‘textual playfulness and experimentation’ (p148), though I wouldn’t describe her or my approach as particularly experimental – compared to some pieces I’ve read recently.

It is interesting, this focus on doctoral study and how it intersects with life. One could say, this is life. In life we challenge ourselves. We encounter things; ideas, perspectives, that are strange to us. We place ourselves in new environments and encounter new problems that disclose aspects of the self and previously unseen connections between the elements of our lives. Sometimes we embrace the challenges we set ourselves, and sometimes we get scared and avoid them. Life is an identity metamorphosis.

I find metaphors most telling at their breaking point. What is the difference between a true, geographical journey, and the metaphorical doctoral journey? One is that when our embrace of the doctoral challenge happens to loosen, we find ourselves surrounded by a range of comforting alternatives (the sofa, Facebook, the contents of the fridge). Compare this to the task of purchasing a train berth from Goa to Kochi. I found this task challenging in so many ways (if you know anything about me, and if you’ve ever travelled by train in India, you will understand why), but I did it because it was the only way of getting home. When we consider that a similar driving force enabled Aron Ralston to cut off his own arm in Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004), we understand that it is not the doctorate itself that is causing us difficulties; it is the presence of alternatives that seem more rewarding in the short-term.

Procrastination was not an obvious cause of Stanley’s angst; she completed her thesis in good time and claims to have maintained 16 hour daily writing marathons (N.B. this doesn’t sound very sensible). But stress-eating comes from the same place; the need to comfort ourselves when anxious. A very wise person gave me some very simple advice for those moments when I am tempted to look down the Facehole, or make yet another cup of tea: Take a deep, slow breath. Hold it in. Let it out slowly. It works.

Essentially, I don’t want to read about how difficult it is to do a doctorate; and I don’t think it’s always helpful to frame the experience in those terms. I think it manufactures angst. Maybe I am in what Rogers (1967, p132) would describe as a ‘fixed’ state; failing to recognise my feelings and personal meanings, and unwilling to communicate the self (incidentally, a lot of the patients Rogers quotes in ‘On Becoming a Person’ are graduate students; and their accounts in my view summarise quite effectively the negative emotions doctoral candidates experience). Maybe I just think we have a responsibility to ourselves and our readers to present a more balanced view. 

I’ll close with the words of Mary Schmich, immortalised in the Baz Luhrman song ‘Sunscreen’:

“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.”

Aldridge, D. 2013. Three Epiphanic Fragments: Education and the essay in memory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46 (5).
Ralston, A. 2005. Between a Rock and  a Hard Place. Simon & Schuster, UK.
Rogers, C. 1967. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Robinson, UK.
Schmich, M. 1997. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. Chicago tribune, 1 June.

Posted in IDR | Leave a comment

The ‘Truth’ about LSD? Drugs and personal/educational development

A google search for ‘drugs and education’ offers a fair snapshot of the dominant discourse, which generally focuses on drugs and educational failure (delinquency), or educational programmes that promote abstinence. Luke study
I am currently writing an autoethnography that proposes and explores a connection between psychedelic experience and personal educational development. While there is literature aplenty on the role of psychedelics in psychiatric therapy (an area of research that is currently enjoying a renaissance), research explicitly exploring non-clinical applications (e.g. creativity and problem-solving) is less common, with only a steady trickle of studies and papers emerging since the 1960s. A new study is due to start in the UK in January (see right), with the call for participation directed at psychedelic-naïve academics (although I consider myself relatively naïve, I’m pretty sure I won’t meet the requirements, sadly).

Last summer, on stumbling across an online account of ‘The Truth about LSD’ (http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/lsd.html), I felt the need to write a response to it, which – along with a lot of my writing – I have kept private until now. I have since read published descriptions of the psychedelic experience (Huxley 1954, Sessa 2012) that accord with my own while being much more eloquent and scientifically better informed, and there are entire community websites devoted to sharing and comparing the psychedelic experience. Those familiar with this body of literature will probably find my account – my ‘truth’ – both dull and naïve. Those who aren’t may find it outrageous. I think that’s interesting in itself 😉

NB I wrote this before I considered any connection between my experiences with LSD and my doctoral studies. My autoethnography will consider more explicitly the educational aspects and influences of my experience.

The Truth about LSD?

“The effects of LSD are unpredictable. They depend on the amount taken, the person’s mood and personality, and the surroundings in which the drug is used. It is a roll of the dice—a racing, distorted high or a severe, paranoid low.”

I have found LSD to be highly predictable in its effects. The intensity depends on the dose, which can vary. I have taken LSD in both microdot and paper form, and my most intense trip resulted from a microdot, which was unexpected but by no means unwelcome. I have never experienced paranoia; at times I have felt concerned that I have not been able to sustain normal social interaction and therefore that others weren’t enjoying my company as much as they might otherwise, but this is probably a reasonable assessment of the situation. I have learned when is not an appropriate situation to be tripping (when entertaining people at your own home, for example, especially if preparing food), and in what situations it is most enjoyable (when social responsibility, demand and expectation are lowest; e.g. on a day off, in the park, with one’s closest friends).

“Normally, the first effects of LSD are experienced thirty to ninety minutes after taking the drug. Often, the pupils become dilated. The body temperature can become higher or lower, while the blood pressure and heart rate either increase or decrease. Sweating or chills are not uncommon. LSD users often experience loss of appetite, sleeplessness, dry mouth and tremors.”

I have noticed dilation of the pupils, but generally no noticeable effect on body temperature and heart rate, particularly when compared with the effects of MDMA, which I often find a little unpleasant (and I suspect are largely down to impurities in the drug). On MDMA I can feel my heart racing, my hands and sometimes a shaking or twitching of the lower jaw or eyeballs  (a condition called nystagmus). The only significant physiological side effect I experience from LSD is a significant increase in the speed of digestive transit, which I have learned to counteract with a dose or two of loperamide (immodium). This is not a common response among my friends, but I do tend to have quite a reactive gut 😉

I love my food. I often experience a loss of appetite on LSD, but tend to ignore it and eat anyway. Not even the classic MDMA dry mouth will stop me eating; I simply opt for something wet and tasty. Food generally tastes even better on acid; my last meal on LSD was a box of gooey, salty sweet potato fries with gravy and melted cheese, and it was utterly delightful. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

“Visual changes are among the more common effects—the user can become fixated on the intensity of certain colors.”

This is a key aspect of the LSD high. Colours are more intense and I am able to see more detail; on a sunny day I can see the dust particles moving around people, which I find incredibly beautiful and unexpectedly uplifting. I think my emotional response to something so seemingly simple is very interesting; we rarely perceive the impact we have on the world around us and I find being confronted with it somehow reassuring. It gives me a strong sense of the social world being part of the natural world rather than separate from it.

My interpretation of the visual effects of LSD are not as hallucinations in the dominant sense (i.e that I am seeing things that are not real), but as an opening of the sensory channels to include details that would normally be filtered out. It’s presumably not in our interest as a species to be aware of this much detail all the time; it is rather distracting!

Incidentally, an etymological search for the word ‘hallucination’ suggests that it arose in the mid 17th century (in the sense ‘be deceived, have illusions’) via the Latin hallucinari- ‘ to go astray in thought’, from the Greek alussein ‘be uneasy or distraught’.

I commonly experience an opening of the other senses too; my hearing becomes sharper and more detailed; I may be able to hear with extreme clarity the conversations around me, for example, even during a loud music performance (and how banal those conversations seem!). During more intense trips I have experienced synaesthesia; for example touching or seeing a metal object and sensing a metallic taste in the mouth.

“Extreme changes in mood, anywhere from a spaced-out “bliss” to intense terror, are also experienced. The worst part is that the LSD user is unable to tell which sensations are created by the drug and which are part of reality. Some LSD users experience an intense bliss they mistake for “enlightenment.”

This is completely counter to my own experience, which I would describe as typically blissful, often chilled out, frequently hysterically funny and always entertaining. When I am not being hilarious myself, I often like to sit in contented silence and reflect on the sensations that the drug has created, and on the nature of reality. I get a great deal of pleasure from this activity. ‘Enlightenment’ is certainly a word I have entertained on these occasions. I like to make a careful mental note of certain ‘epiphanies’ I encounter, and to return to them in the days following the trip.  

“Not only do they disassociate from their usual activities in life, but they also feel the urge to keep taking more of the drug in order to re-experience the same sensation.”

A normal dose of LSD lasts from 8-12 hours. This is usually plenty long enough for me, especially if the trip is more intense. On a less intense trip, and if the night is still young, I may take an extra half a tab as the effects from the first begin to fade.

Disassociation from normal activities is, for me, very much the point of taking the drug in the first place. Some believe the word ‘trip’ references the tryptamine group of chemicals (of which LSD is one), but the more common understanding is as a metaphor; when we take a trip (e.g. to the beach, or a National Trust property) we take a break from our day-to-day routines.

“…Others experience severe, terrifying thoughts and feelings, fear of losing control, fear of insanity and death, and despair while using LSD. Once it starts, there is often no stopping a “bad trip,” which can go on for up to twelve hours. In fact, some people never recover from an acid-induced psychosis.”

At the onset of more intense trips I have sometimes experienced a feeling that could be described as apprehension. Typically I have felt free to interpret this sensation positively; for example as an opportunity to develop my ability to cope with a perceived loss of control. This fluidity of interpretation of sensations; the agency to register them as positive rather than negative, has been a noteworthy aspect of my own psychedelic experience. I always take a benzodiazapine (e.g. Valium or Zoplicone) in order to sleep after a trip, and on subsequent nights to prevent night terrors, tapering off within a week.

“Taken in a large enough dose, LSD produces delusions and visual hallucinations. The user’s sense of time and self changes. Sizes and shapes of objects become distorted, as do movements, colors and sounds. Even one’s sense of touch and the normal bodily sensations turn into something strange and bizarre. Sensations may seem to “cross over,” giving the user the feeling of hearing colors and seeing sounds. These changes can be frightening and can cause panic.”

I have never felt panicked or frightened on LSD. I enjoy feeling my brain working differently.

“The ability to make sensible judgments and see common dangers is impaired. An LSD user might try to step out a window to get a “closer look” at the ground. He might consider it fun to admire the sunset, blissfully unaware that he is standing in the middle of a busy intersection.”

I have never felt concerned about changes in judgement while on LSD; I feel more sensitive to context and situation, not less, particularly the social context.

“Many LSD users experience flashbacks, or a recurrence of the LSD trip, often without warning, long after taking LSD.”

I wouldn’t call them ‘flashbacks’ – that suggests an abrupt regression of some kind. I have enjoyed retaining heightened sensory ability and fluidity of mind in the weeks following a trip. Colours remain a little more intense, the trees on a sunny day retain a hint of stunning detail, and my mind feels a little sharper. If I go for a long, fast run the day after a trip, these effects become temporarily very marked. I assume this must be because there is a small amount of the drug left in my body and the vigorous exercise triggers its release into the bloodstream.

“Bad trips and flashbacks are only part of the risks of LSD use. LSD users may manifest relatively long-lasting psychoses or severe depression.”

I do often feel a little unfocused for a few days after a trip. This is surely to be expected, as the drug closes down key day-to-day neural pathways. It’s not a side-effect – it *is* the effect! It’s not particularly useful when one has work to do, but it’s what one signs up for. I certainly don’t ever feel low after LSD like I often do 2-3 days after taking MDMA, and I believe LSD has been a positive influence on my general mental health.

“Because LSD accumulates in the body, users develop a tolerance for the drug. In other words, some repeat users have to take it in increasingly higher doses to achieve a “high.” This increases the physical effects and also the risk of a bad trip that could cause psychosis.”

Crumbs… who takes LSD all the time? When would you get any work done? I probably take it no more than once a month in the summer, sometimes for 2-3 days in a row if I’m at a nice festival and the weather is consistently good. I do have friends who take it more often, and I would be happy to indulge more often, but I also like getting things done…

Lindsay Jordan
Summer 2015

Posted in IDR | Leave a comment

Some notes on the EdD Colloquium

EdDOn Saturday 1 July, delegates from EdD programmes across the UK and beyond came to Oxford Brookes to present and discuss work in progress, and hear from keynote speakers on the theme of Academic Voices. Dr Felicity Fletcher-Campbell from the Open University opened the day with a session on thesis writing, reconceptualising the thesis as a process rather than a product. Many delegates found that this session renewed their enthusiasm for their thesis (and in a timely manner, with the summer stretching ahead of us).

I mainly attended sessions in the Higher Education strand and found them each of them interesting and relevant, if not to my own thesis then certainly to my professional practice. Early summer can be a stressful time for EdD students; those of us in the taught phase are often juggling the end of our students’ academic year with EdD assignment submissions. Simply coming together to share stories of our teaching and research was cheering. I arrived tired and stressed but left invigorated, having been reminded how privileged we all are to have these opportunities to think and read and learn.

For example, Mike Drayson from St Mary’s University Twickenham has been exploring feedback as a social process; i.e. the ways in which students experience feedback as a relational pedagogic practice. This reminded me how crucial dialogic feedback is to the learning process and prompted me to reflect on losing my EdD focus last winter, leaving me with too much to do this summer and squeezing important dialogic processes in my own teaching practice such as second marking and reporting back on unit evaluations. Part of professional practice is regular self-evaluation; how we respond to external and internal pressures and whether this is commensurate with our own values. Speaking of which…

…Joanna Williams’ afternoon keynote argued for the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking and claimed that that knowledge is being jettisoned in favour of skills and values, whose place in education is under question. I wondered if Joanna would mention the EU referendum, which she has written about recently, and indeed she did, pointing out that we have a growing gulf between academics and teachers on one hand, and the general public on the other. She challenged the political homogeneity of academia, suggesting that an often explicit culture of conformity is preventing debate from taking place, and questioning the notion of an ‘institutional perspective’. Reminding us that truth emerges from ideas being shared, tested and challenged, she claimed that in removing political diversity we put up barriers to knowledge. I was reminded here of Freire’s argument that in order for the oppressed to be liberated, their oppressors also need liberation; perhaps from perceptions of intellectual or moral superiority that shield fragile egos but preclude genuinely curious engagement with the other’s viewpoint. Social media will continue to become a series of echo-chambers if either side resorts to irrelevant or invalid criticisms, and even cheap insults (it is this prospect that is the motivation for my own EdD thesis).

Joanna proceeded to describe how the idea of the University as a place dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth has been replaced a more instrumental view (for example, in 2003 the Labour Education Secretary Charles Clarke described the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as ‘a bit dodgy’), and asked why universities have allowed knowledge to be reframed as an economy. The reason as I see it is that collectivism has been all but killed off. Institutions – and people – comply with the neoliberal agenda because they have slowly but surely become part of it. Many authors have argued that the sector is already grossly inflated. Knowing that we are surplus to requirements strips away the security of identity and purpose that enables us (institutions and individuals) to have our own principles and stick to them.

I soon regretted describing Academic Freedom as a ‘value’ in higher education when introducing Joanna Williams’ keynote, as it was clear that she wouldn’t have described it as such. She did concede that the pursuit of knowledge could be framed as a value, but (although social mobility was mentioned) it is clear that she would not even give social justice or environmental sustainability a free pass. It is an interesting argument that was strongly voiced and many delegates found it persuasive.

Whoever takes on the role of 2017 colloquium factotum needs to ensure all presenters have a good number of delegates to present to (on reflection four parallel strands was perhaps one too many), and those applying to present may benefit from advice on demonstrating wider relevance in their titles and abstracts. That having been noted, the day appears to have been a logistical and an educational success that was enjoyed by all. I would like to extend my personal thanks to all the presenters, chairs and delegates, and I hope to see you all next year!

Posted in EdD General | Leave a comment

Maskell and Robinson – on HE, money, and professionalisation

new ideaMaskell, D, and Robinson, I. 2002. The New Idea of a University. Imprint Academic.

I loved this book. Ian Robinson and Duke Maskell are both (ex?) professors of English Literature (specialising in Chaucer and Austen respectively), and their book is a strange mix of the radical and the conservative. I particularly like the explanation they present on p68 for how we came to see education for making us rich rather than wise; that the new belief didn’t oppose the old, but supplanted it by merging with it.

I rather thought that the whole thing is an example of what Stefan Collini, another English professor-turned-HE-commentator, would describe as misty-eyed reminiscing about a fictitious golden age of education. Still, I felt it had a lot to say, not all of which I agreed with.

Robinson focuses on dissecting the meaninglessness of the management-speak creeping into universities. This has plenty of comic potential, but is difficult to do without sounding pompous. I preferred the chapters penned by Maskell, who explains his vision for UK Higher Education with reference to the characters in Pride and Prejudice.

Writing in the penultimate chapter about his experience teaching in the 70s at what is now the University of Northumbria, Maskell believes that the very deliberate professionalisation of himself and his colleagues did not make his students better educated. All the interventions he described sounded highly positive to me, i.e. they would have been sure to contribute to a less traumatic student experience. It sounded like the rougher corners of the teachers’ characters were rounded off a bit, and the students who were really struggling were better supported; that the unexceptional students (i.e. all of them) were not left to flounder and fail. Maskell stops short of stating the blindingly obvious – that an 2:1 in English from the University of Cambridge does not mean the same thing as a 2:1 in English from a polytechnic or ex-polytechnic, because of course it is supposed to mean the same thing; that is what the QAA is supposed to ensure. To suggest otherwise would be… treason?

I grew up very much aware of the difference between Oxbridge and other universities, my father having attended Oxford and both my siblings completing their degrees at Cambridge. I was also aware from a young age of the differences between private and state schooling. My father taught in a state secondary while my mother tutored children with dyslexia in both state and fee-paying schools; I recall tagging along one day, sitting in on the lessons with girls in bottle green blazers and straw boaters, and being surprised that the activities we were doing didn’t seem particularly challenging. My mother was vocal about us ‘not needing’ to go to private schools because we were ‘so bright anyway’ (little wonder she/we never had any friends). We had ballet and piano lessons with children who went to local independent schools. My brother was once encouraged to apply for a scholarship to Winchester College; this opportunity was turned down; I think he felt that while his outstanding intelligence was a problem for him socially at the local comprehensive, it was also all he had going for him, and the prospect of having no such identity at Winchester scared him (perhaps he was on to something; I don’t know what happened at Cambridge but he scraped through with a Pass degree and made no friends there that I know of). Then of course there was my experience of doing a secondary PGCE in my 20’s, working in a number of different state schools and considering bailing out to the independent sector.

All this added up to my perception that what the general public meant by ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools was more about the children who went there and their external educational influences (i.e. their familial aspirations) than about the internal influence of the school itself. Roger Marples, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at the PESGB conference, gave a paper on private schooling that explained how parents who purchase private education seek to promote the competitive advantage associated with the ‘positional benefits’ of education, and in doing so unavoidably damage the interests of those denied access to it.

The parallels with university are obvious; when many people refer to a ‘good’ university they are alluding to to the aspirations and future (financial) success of those who attend it. The entire arena of quality and standards is plagued with circular and downright perverse arguments that wouldn’t exist in a more equal society. This is something I found myself reflecting upon at the PESGB conference, during Chris Martin’s session Should the Public Pay for Higher Education? Chris argued that those who are ‘above a notional equality threshold’ (i.e. those whose parents have money) should contribute directly to the financial cost of their education, while others should have their education funded by the state; much the way that maintenance grants used to work (no-one talks about those anymore – are they completely off the table now?)

Maskell and Robinson on the other hand – in their final chapter – differentiate between education and training, stating that the former should be paid for by the state, while the financial cost of training should be met by those who benefit financially (i.e. employers and employees). I am very much in favour of this idea, but the mechanisms of employer contribution need to be emphasised, otherwise it just becomes an easy excuse for shifting the cost onto students. Higher corporation tax is one means. Apprenticeship and sponsorship are others. I think all are needed.

Of course, there would be no rationale for students to pay for any kind of education or training if we all earned the same. This is an extreme example, but also a useful thought experiment. Why should one person earn more than another? I asked Chris Martin this over conference drinks and he thought that it provided motivation for us to ‘work hard’.

I don’t agree. I think it motivates us to make particular choices in our lives, and privilege means having a lot more choice (and sometimes, perhaps, a sense of entitlement that justifies ethically questionable choices). Danny Dorling gives a much more detailed and well-reasoned argument in his book Injustice, which emphasises the role of private schooling and elite education in sustaining inequality.

We all like to pretend that we work hard. But what *is* hard work? Is it work that is physically demanding? Cognitively demanding? Emotionally demanding (perhaps because of the sacrifice it demands of other areas of life)? I think it can be any of these. If we could quantify and sum the physical, cognitive and emotional effort required of a job, would we find it correlated with its financial reward? I would eat my hat if it did.

(N.B. a while ago Brendan bought Alain de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I want to read it. De Botton is also known to write well on aspiration and opportunity, although he supposedly has a tendency to state the obvious.)

Perhaps when Chris said ‘hard work’ he meant it more in a preparatory sense; that undertaking a BA in business studies and an MBA is quantitatively more demanding than working in a supermarket after you leave school, and the more tolerable job one gets at the end of it is one’s reward. Cognitively, studying is arguably more demanding, but working in a supermarket has obvious emotional demands (e.g. boredom, lack of autonomy, no windows) that are difficult to put a positive spin on; that is why those who have the choice generally choose to avoid this particular kind of ‘hard work’. The principle we have in our society of disproportionately rewarding cognitive effort over other kinds is illogical. It also makes perfect sense when we consider who makes the rules.

Many of the initiatives at Northumbria that Maskell describes make sense to me as someone who runs professional development courses for teachers. It is clear that things needed to be done to improve the experience of Maskell’s students. The question is; would it have been possible to improve the experience without lowering standards? I think it could have been, but it seems that there was no drive to do so. This is a shame, because it essentially supports the neoliberalist argument for performativity in higher education.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

More on this thing we call Curiosity

On the PyRP unit we have been given various things to study on the subject of Curiosity – the Shulman and Schmitt & Lahroodi articles I wrote about earlier, and the following piece by Donald Schön:

Schön, D. A. 1992. The Theory of Enquiry: Dewey’s Legacy to Education. Curriculum Inquiry 22: 2. pp120-137

We were invited to answer the following questions:

  • What does curiosity mean to the writers?
  • What does curiosity mean to you? What are you curious about in your study? Why are you curious about it?
  • How does Schmitt & Lahroodi’s view of curiosity relate to Schön & Shulman’s view of inquiry?

What does curiosity mean to Schmitt & Lahroodi? Well… they make a clear distinction between intellectual curiosity and other (lower?) forms of it, and they describe curiosity as ‘motivationally original’. For example, I may be very keen to know where on the next train the bike carriage is situated, but this is driven by practical necessity, and perhaps therefore not ‘motivationally original’. I may also wonder why this information is so hard to get hold of, which at first does seem like an example of motivationally original curiosity. However, if I interrogate my sense of wonder I realise that my desired outcome in uncovering the flaws in the system would be to highlight how they could be fixed, so that from then on I (and everyone else) *will* know where the bike carriage is.

I’m struggling to think of an example of curiosity that is clearly original in its motivation. To me there has to be a point beyond curiosity itself; why am I bothered? If there’s no practical reason to be bothered about it, I tend not to be. Take for example my friend Ian. One of Ian’s quirks is that he refuses to reveal to anyone how old he his. I’m not remotely curious about how old he is, because it doesn’t matter (it’s fairly obvious that he’s a similar age to me). I was curious about why he is so cagey about it, because – as John L. Locke (1999) points out – you need to understand someone’s fears and desires in order to know whether you can trust them.

A lot of our friends do seem to be curious about Ian’s chronological age. And if you ask them why, they focus on the trust issue; they have heard Ian’s take on why he keeps it a secret, but they don’t understand it. This retards and frustrates the process of learning to trust him, and they want to be able to do this, because despite his idiosyncracies (clearly the pot calling the kettle black here, I get it), he is a really nice guy. So, while their apparent desire to know his age manifests itself outwardly as curiosity, I’m not sure it is curiosity at all.

I guess my point is that as far as I can see there is always a point (to curiosity), and that disciplined, intellectual curiosity usually demands that we are explicit about its aims and significance, as opposed to lower forms – ‘what does soil taste like?’ ‘what happens if I push this button?’ – where we don’t have to be. Actually, I wonder whether there is an element of ‘how will people react if I eat soil/push this button’… which is a more interesting question, I think.

I wrote about the Shulman piece earlier – it was my favourite of the three.

There was something about the Schön article that made me not want to write about it at first. Having found The Reflective Practitioner off-puttingly smug, I initially found Schön’s more individualist perspective irritating when juxtaposed with Shulman’s perspective of research as collective endeavour. Schön’s talk of professional confidence and enjoyment, abandonment and alienation seemed rather irrelevant to me at the time of reading. However, coming back to it having looked again at Dewey and also digested some more literature on educational research, the idea of the university, and philosophy more generally, I think there is much more useful stuff in here than I first thought, especially when considering my own research project, my motivations for doing it and what it might mean for others. When I made my original notes on the three articles (and on the movie Erin Brockovich, which we were also asked to watch) I focused on the dichotomy between individualist and collectivist motivations for enquiry, and there is another (shorter) post on that still to come.

I did some of my own reading around the subject of curiosity too. Last term I randomly went along to a free creative thinking masterclass run by local semi-social enterprise Reluctantly Brave (whose watchword is ‘considerate capitalism’?!), and it turned out to be very good. I expected it to be more participatory than it was, but the speakers were interesting and inspiring and there was enough authenticity and originality in there to balance out the cliches. I went away with a packed page of notes and some reading suggestions, one of which was Ian Leslie’s book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.

Leslie’s educational philosophy has similarities with a lot of the things I’ve been reading recently on (specifically against) value in the humanities (e.g. Hogan, Collini, Maskell & Robinson), many of which make a strong case for the intrinsic value of education. Presumably in in attempt to shift more copies, Leslie’s publisher opts for the blurb: ‘curious people tend to be smarter, more creative and more successful…’, which places the book in a more neoliberal frame than perhaps Leslie was going for. The debate about ‘how to describe the relevance of the humanities to a culture we in the humanities are (and must be) critical of’ (a comment by user 12094478 in response to a rather interesting article on how a technologist transformed his career by way of a PhD in philosophy) continues to rage…

The big thing I took away from reading Curious was the idea of the ‘Foxhog’. The long-running classification of people into ‘foxes’ and ‘hedgehogs’ is attributed to a fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus: ‘a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing’. In Isaiah Berlin’s essay the Fox and the Hedgehog, Berlin proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). My understanding is that the key issue for Berlin – though he never intended the essay to be taken very seriously – was one of self-awareness and acceptance; if you are by nature a fox, but strive to be a hedgehog (he uses the example of Tolstoy), then this will cause you significant distress.

Leslie doesn’t go down this route. He proposes that in order to be ‘highly successful’ (whatever that means), we need to nurture both ways of being; to develop a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. This mode of being can be envisaged as a capital ‘T’, signifying breadth combined with depth.

This way of thinking has had a significant influence on my studies this term; I have branched out from the specific literature on the Idea of the University and read some more general books on philosophy (and on relationships, and psychedelic experience… but that’s another story). Some of it is non-academic literature that I can’t imagine citing in my thesis, but that’s the point. It enables me to take a broader view of what I’m doing, and to see connections I didn’t see before. Some of it is a lot more heavy-going – I gave up on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and still haven’t opened MacIntyre’s After Virtue. But not understanding something, beyond being interesting in itself, certainly doesn’t kill my curiosity – it sustains it.

Posted in PyRP, Thesis | 2 Comments

Getting better at talking to people

(Notes from qualitative data analysis workshop 12.03.16)

In Graham’s session on qualitative data analysis we discussed the value of preliminary or ‘primary’ analysis of the data, beginning early in the process of data gathering (i.e. during/after the first interview), with the following benefits:

  • You can check you’re getting what you want
  • You can check that you are being consistent in your approach
  • You can see if additional or different forms of data would be helpful – e.g. would a photo, video be useful? A diagram, etc.
  • You can start to gauge how long analysis is going to take.
  • You can see what can be discarded/not collected.

Primary analysis can take place during interview transcription, compiling fieldnotes or assembling documents. Notes might include significant/surprising things and key points, contradictions and inconsistencies (between people, places, expectations), common/emergent themes and relationships with existing literature – comparisons, contrasts with other findings, etc; am I finding similar ideas or radically different? If the latter, is it because I’m doing it wrong, or because I’m making a fresh contribution? It’s a good idea to start summarising data visually even in the primary stages; e.g. on charts, figures, tables, maps, spider diagrams, etc.

Given that the primary method in my current thesis plan will be interviewing, I started thinking about respondent validation and when then should happen. I wondered if I should share my analysis with the people I interview as well as the transcript. I guess I won’t know until I start the analysis, but I worry I’ll misinterpret what people tell me. Graham assured us that while they should be ‘honest to the data’, the connections we make will and should be our own, and we should just validate at the transcript stage. I’m still not sure though; I like the idea of a more dialogic approach; an ongoing conversation – and I think it would be appropriate to what I’m investigating (NB David Scott writes about the relative merits of democratic and autocratic approaches to respondent validation in Chapter 3 of Understanding Educational Research).

We’ve been advised that if we do a pilot and it is close to what we end up doing, it’s fine to include that data with the rest. I seem to recall that isn’t the case for our feasibility studies though (which I should probably get on with, right?) – they only have M-level ethics clearance and I think are only to inform the development of the research proposal. I am thinking I probably need to do another feasibility study given the changes in my project; one that involves at least one interview.

Once all the data is in, secondary analysis will identify categories and themes. The aim is often to generate exclusive categories – e.g. ‘truths’, ‘feelings’ and ‘experiences’ – see the ‘constant comparison’ approach. Different category formulations may need to be tried out and exclusive categories may not be possible, for various reasons (we may be questioned in our viva about our choice of codes).

Responses may be multilayered – some respondents might answer in a single layer, others might tell you other, additional things in response to that question – to explain or clarify that answer (N.B. Ethnographers may dispute the need to impose an order on the data and try to experience a more holistic picture).

Obviously we don’t have to code up all the data we collect; just that which is considered relevant and important (codes are labels or phrases given to a particular aspect or theme in the text). The thought of using Nvivo to code data doesn’t excite me – I’d like to have a wall of post-its, string and other artefacts, like a crime room.

Analysis tips:

  • Read, underline sections, make marginal notes.
  • Re-read to identify patterns. Highlight quotes that are important/illustrative.
  • Look at repetitions and relationships between data (may mean new codes have to be created, existing codes may need to be merged or removed).
  • What is important about the links between data/codes…? Are codes related/paired? E.g. when people talk about money/fees, what else are they talking about?
  • Note how well the material fits the coded themes.
  • Review the results, looking for overlap & redundancy.

A couple of examples:

Descriptive typologies – for example in Alison Shreeve’s thesis; ‘Dropping in’ etc. Assemble the best examples and describe the common features that characterise the group. This might be relevant for my thesis – ‘ways of conceiving the university’? It might depend what the exact purpose of the study is, and I’m not entirely sure about that yet.

Grounded theory – often uses two rounds of sampling. Firstly a homogenous sample is analysed – a range of people with a similar experience. Then a theory is developed and proposed, and a second heterogenous sample – where individuals have had a range of experiences – is used to confirm or disconfirm tenets of the theory.

So – if I wanted to generate a theory about the influence of PG Certs on conceptions of the university, I might do a homogenous sample first of PG Cert graduates, and then a wider sample from across the university teaching population? Hmm. I’m not sure I’ve got this right… it sounds like an upside-down kind of experimental methodology. I need to look it up in one of my lovely research methods books.

We did an interesting activity near the end of the session where we coded an interview transcript (on teens and drug use) and then saw how the researcher coded up the responses. This exposed differences in coding approaches. I felt the researcher had made certain assumptions in interpreting the responses that I didn’t share (e.g. ‘adult negative stance’). They also focused on themes I thought weren’t interesting (c.f. Davis 1971), and hadn’t highlighted the thing I *did* find interesting.

This was a useful session that gave me a modicum of enthusiasm for actually collecting some data (boy do I need some enthusiasm), and helped me to develop my thesis proposal a little further. My proposal is now leaning towards an ethnographic study of our conceptions and imaginations of the university and where they come from. I am thinking about a series of conversational interviews that take place beyond the physical space of the university (e.g. while walking the dog in the park). This will give me the opportunity to draw on all the literature I find the most interesting – the literature on conversation (Zeldin), empathy (Krznaric), ideal speech situations and undistorted communication (Habermas), language and textuality (Usher)… etc etc. And if by the end of this whole thing I decide that academia is not for me, at least I will have got better at talking to people, right?

Posted in ARM, Thesis | Leave a comment

Epistemological assumptions – Usher and Scott

UERThis threatened to be rather dry reading, but I’m getting some good stuff out of it. Maybe I’m growing up.

The key point Robin Usher makes in Chapters 1 and 2 is that research is a social practice; there is no Archimedian vantage point (or ‘God’s eye view’) from which we can observe reality. Reading between the lines I wonder if he believes in the existence of an objective reality at all (I think I still do).

Usher compares the epistemological assumptions underlying three different research traditions; positivist/empiricist, interpretivist, and critical theory. He then goes on to discuss a postmodern approach to research, which can’t be called a ‘tradition’ for reasons that are pretty obvious.

The ultimate aim of a positivist approach to research is to predict and control. There is a common assumption that the social world has order, reason and patterns, very much like the natural world, and things don’t happen randomly or arbitrarily. Usher questions this assumption of social order, and suggests that attempts to generalise, predict and control it will ultimately fail. I agree with him, although I’d contend that the natural world can be random and arbitrary too (c.f. quantum physics; meiosis; mutation). Hallucinogens are a pretty useful tool for revealing the fiction of orders, patterns and perceptions, including – dare I say it – the false dichotomy of the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ worlds. So is viewing the earth from space, apparently, according to pretty much everyone who’s ever been there.

As I understand it, this is where critical realism has something to offer; first the reassurance that there is an objective reality (although we may not be able to ‘know’ it), and second the critical realist take on structure and agency. The world has structure (observable patterns and regularities), but also agents that act within and on the structure. The structure of the social world is apparent in the reasons we have for our behaviours. David Scott moves on to talk about this in Chapter 3, and I find it by far the most sensible way of describing the world. More on that later.

Back in the first year, we had to write an essay where we identified our own epistemological standpoint. I found this very difficult. Each time I sat down to write I felt differently, often leaning in multiple directions at once, certainly not seeing the different traditions as wholly exclusive or contradictory.

For example, I feel that my thesis proposal follows an interpretivist paradigm, but my ultimate desire (surely) is to change the world for the better, which should nudge me towards Critical Theory. Perhaps I believe that our subjective interpretations of the world are a good deal of the world, or at least that they are easier to change than the objective world, so they constitute a ‘quick win’ when it comes to achieving some kind of liberation. This perspective would make sense, given the years of work I did using REBT to overcome depression (REBT is built on the Socratic principle of emotions arising from beliefs).

Now I’ve written that, I see how this perspective has underpinned my intentions and actions as a teacher. I openly aim to help my students become happier in their jobs despite the performative context in which we currently work. I loved Leslie Gonzales’ paper in BER-J last year – Faculty agency in striving university contexts – a story of academics not letting the bastards grind them down.

Some might call this a cop-out. In quietly finding our own sense of purpose, are we sticking it to the man, or colluding with him? In my case – my job exists to ‘raise standards’ of university teaching, after all – it is a very fine line. Are freedom, justice and democracy objective or subjective truths, or both? If someone is able to change their beliefs so that they feel more free, more empowered… is that good? I think so. It’s not like I’m encouraging my students to think that things are ok. I think we’re all pretty clear that things are objectively bad, and getting worse, but we’re not going to let it get us down or stop us from affirming and trying to live our own values and purpose (is this a Stoic perspective?).

I don’t think the critical theorist Jurgen Habermas would be impressed; he posits that the raising of consciousness is not sufficient; that we need to understand the causes of powerlessness and act to change our conditions (p23). I like to think that what I do serves in some small way to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them, but maybe it is simply enabling them to become more content with their enslavement. Perhaps I am exhibiting the same oppressive tendency that drove my first boss to hand out copies of ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ before firing us… I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this dilemma before with reference to the promotion of educational technologies, and the ‘enhancement of teaching’ generally.

I had some more thoughts on reading these early chapters about conditions for dialogue and reflexivity & textuality, which have particular relevance to my thesis proposal. I’ll return to them later.

Posted in PyRP, Thesis | 2 Comments

PyRP – 13 February notes

Some things to consider while I’m reengaging with the research methods literature (aided by matcha green tea and the No55 bus):

  1. What is driving me to do the research. What is driving my desire to know? (is it my sense of social responsibility?)
  2. What is my particular take on ideas like curiosity, etc.? (I have a blog post drafted on this that I’ll post presently)
  3. What’s my take on epistemology – the way we acquire knowledge? How am I going to accumulate and make a contribution to knowledge? Consider:
    1. Rationalism (reason) versus empiricism (perception) – Wellington 2000
    2. How can knowledge be acquired and how can it be communicated to other human beings? Manion & Cohen & Morrison 2011
    3. What distinguishes different kinds of knowledge claims? Scott & Usher
  4. What’s my take on ontology (what ‘is‘)? Consider:
    1. Differing beliefs in the nature of reality – Wellington 2000
    2. The very nature or essence of the social phenomena being investigated – Cohen Manion & Morrison 2011
    3. What exists, what is the nature of the worlds, what is reality? Scott & Usher

I could probably do with revisiting my first year assignment on this to see what I thought back then and how my thinking has developed, particularly given my thesis topic (how educators can contribute to an imagination of the University).

I’m struggling to maintain excitement about my thesis… to be honest I’m not sure how excited I was about it from the start. Do I need to be excited about it? Maybe not. Maybe I just need to believe in it. At the moment I just want to carry on reading about it but I suppose that’s not the point of doing a doctorate. *sulks*

Posted in PyRP, Thesis | Leave a comment

The good life?

I’ve not written much over midwinter, mainly because anything I write at this time of year sounds so morose and apathetic that people start to worry about me. But Spring is coming so here I am.

I’ve been reading quite a few books, on topics from curiosity (Ian Leslie) and communication (John L Locke), to values (Nietzsche, urrgh) and the Good Life (Robertson, Evans). Also, plenty of stuff on the Idea of the University (Collini, Maskell & Robinson). I want to blog about all of these as they’ve all affected me quite deeply. Ironically, a lot of it – and not just the deeper philosophical stuff either – suggests that I (and, in fact, the world) would be better off if I spent my time reading classic fiction and deepening my friendships rather than learning about research methods.

Hence Scott & Morrison, Scott & Usher, Cohen et al and dear old Crotty are still in the bookcase, their covers pristine, their pages unsullied.



Posted in EdD General, Thesis | Leave a comment