Oui!Learn and PartnershipPreamble
At a meeting of the RAISE* Special Interest Group for Partnership, held at the University of Westminster on 30 January 2019, the topic of ‘Power dynamics in student staff partnership’ was discussed. From the Oui!Learn perspective, the following issues were submitted for debate, arranged around the four questions put to the panellists at the meeting: on the context of thinking about partnership; on the main issues around power in student-staff partnership; strategies to address power relations in student-staff partnerships; and resources for thinking about partnership.
*RAISE is an acronym for Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement
Context 1: World as learning environment
A number of conditions or presuppositions need to be stated at the outset. First, it is assumed that the entire world, beyond the confines of formal educational organisations and institutions, is a learning environment. It could be argued that the appropriate kind of learning for this domain, that of doxa, is paideia or general education. This realm of general education was, in Ancient Greece, contrasted with that of episteme, or specialist education. However, modern, ‘global’, ‘worldly’ education (education in the world, education by the world, education about the world) is not simply the training of the aristocrat for his role in the polis, the political order. It affects us all, and inculcates us with affect, for the world, for each other, differentially and to differing degrees, such that we perform a perpetual learning, unlearning and re-learning of the world as the world.
Second, it is assumed that the world is not simply the domain of doxa, but also that of para-doxa, or rather paradox. This is because the doxic world is pervaded by ‘designs’ of different kinds and scales, from engineering design to graphic design. These designs encode and embody episteme, forms of specialist and scientific knowledge. This pervasiveness of design extends to the land, in a world of landscape, in which and against which areas of ‘wilderness’ are in retreat, even to the soil and to the bio-semiosis of the human body. The ‘world’ is, in a sense, thoroughly constructed, ‘artificial’ or ‘designed’. It is both ‘natural’, in as far as it is given to us, and ‘cultural’, in as far as it is constructed by us. We are unable to ascertain where we begin and the world ends, and vice versa. The knowledge required in this world, as already noted, is para-doxical, requiring both paideia, to enact the order of the world, a polis which is no longer limited by a location (and which raises the question of the limits of the political and the bio-political), and episteme, to engage with the workings of the world, a mode of inter-action within a set of open systems or networks.
A particular emphasis for Oui!Learn within the formal learning environment, then, is upon how the ‘designed’ world (already) ‘teaches’ us how to live, now that designed artefacts, technologies, organisations, institutions and environments wholly encompass us. This broad parameter (the world as learning environment) enables the formal learning environment to be defined as a specific, differential kind of learning environment, with specific fields of relationships, fractally or diffractionally re-inscribing the wider socio-political dynamics of the world as learning environment. The formal learning environment re-articulates, or engages critically with, the ‘teaching’ that takes place in the designed world, perhaps effecting some un-learning. Paideia and episteme reciprocally re-work each other to extend the intricacy and the reach of the open system/network.
Higher education, then, even if it seeks to limit its domain to epistemic or specialist knowledge cannot ignore the ‘paideutic’ (paideia and its pedagogies) which is woven through it and which it continues to transform.
In the context of the formal learning environment, the particular pedagogic question explored obliquely is: how do we teach designers how to ‘teach’ through their designs (now that ‘design thinking’ is pervasive)?; or, rather, how do we let designers learn how to teach through their designs (their designs being conceived, in part, as practical pedagogical ‘instruments’ and ‘contexts’ or ‘frames’)?.
Context 2. Thinking about partnership from the perspective of the Library
Operating from the library as an academic liaison librarian in the University of Westminster is already off-setting oneself from the conventional centre of pedagogy, the teacher-student relationship and its implicit power relationship. The librarian-teacher role differs from the teacher-student role, particularly if that role is defined in terms of ‘academic liaison’, as it is in Westminster, rather than as ‘subject librarian’. The latter designation places the librarian in the role of ‘subject expert’ and implicitly figure of authority and a kind of conventional instructor, teacher or didact.
The potential value of being based in the library is that it is already potentially a place of partnership. Kelly Miller (2018), for example, makes this case explicitly. She emphasises that the ‘library’, as a place of learning, is one of partnership and scholarly community. As such, it provides human connection, creative expression and inner quiet and coherence. It is a place where students are not being judged nor assessed; a place that provides a sense of belonging to a wider learning community and to centuries-long scholarly conversation.
The library-based pedagogic relation is capable of redressing some of the power dynamics which adhere to the teacher-centred pedagogic relation in as far as that teacher-centred pedagogic relation still articulates traces of a one-way, top-down transmission process in the context of higher education’s historic roles in, firstly, reproducing and training (national or imperial) governmental and business elites; and, secondly, assimilating the non-elite to the dominant (national or imperial) culture so that they can negotiate a role for themselves within that dominant culture, for example, as a middle-class professional, such as an architect or designer, or a bureaucratic professional, such as a civil servant.
However, for this potential of the academic library to be fully realised, it would require a shift from a transactional service philosophy to one based on partnership, as discussed by Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018).
So while the library has potential, it is not quite there yet in terms of developing fully a partnership model. Certainly, this is the case in the UK. Nor can this development be achieved in isolation from the organisation within which the library sits. The library would have to be recognised as one niche or habitat within an overall learning ecology constituted by the university.
This would mean acknowledging and admitting the historic values of the library relating to intellectual empowerment; openness and sharing, to publicness and civicness; to curation and preservation (of work, meaning-structures, symbol structures, symbol contexts); and to providing a platform in terms of public space and also digital commons.
While this provides a valuable starting point, the library and the university still need to accommodate changes in the domains of of internationalisation or globalisation and technologisation. The nation-state, the dominant form of the 20th century, can no longer be simply assumed as the horizon of elite learning and cultural assimilation, for example. Nor can the constant change in digital and telecommunication technologies be ignored, as they progressively reshape the overall learning environment, the university as a formal learning environment and the learning niches within the university, including the library.
Context 3. Main issues around power in pedagogic relationships
The main issues around power in pedagogic relationships relate to the previously mentioned contexts, roles and trends:
Training of elites (governmental, business, technical, academic)
Assimilation to dominant cultures
Although assumptions about the nation-state as the educational horizon and the one-world Euro-centric world cannot simply be removed, as they form a necessary historical background, they can be put in question, as they are in the ‘decolonising the curriculum movement’. This questioning opens up the field of power relations embedded fractally in the pedagogic relation or diffracted through the pedagogic relation to discussion.
The politics of pedagogy becomes an explicit topic which interweaves the power dynamics in, for example,
Social class identities and relations
Cultural class identities and relations
Regional (intra-national) identities and relations
Gender identities and relations
Ethnic identities and relations
Religious identities and relations
Intergenerational identities and relations
Sexual orientational identities and relations
In the above, ’identities’ are understood as being a process of ‘identifying as’ and ‘identifying with’ in repeated performative enactments of those identifications. Since higher education is no longer a simple case of transmission and assimilation, partnerships become more important, because it is an as-yet-non-existent common world that is being constructed and created, indeed, ‘designed’. One is not being inducted into an already existing order of identities and communities.
We are, in a sense, through the pedagogic relation, involved in re-designing the world and, in the process, re-designing ourselves. This requires a different kind of pedagogy and a different kind of curriculum to those which assume transmission and assimilation. One approach to this is ‘intersectional pedagogy’ (Case, 2017).
Elizabeth Cole (2017) suggests that Case offers a model of intersectional pedagogy that works at three levels. It gives sustained attention to oppression, without shying away from recognition of privilege and power. It makes visible the erasures of single-axis analyses. Finally, it connects consistently the theoretical construct of intersectionality with the goals of social justice that motivate it.
Case, taking her lead from Grzanka (2017), argues that to translate intersectional theory into pedagogical practice is a professional and ethical responsibility.
Similarly to Case, Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez (2018: 115) also propose a tripartite schema. As they explain,
“By combining Black feminist intersectionality and decoloniality, [Vazquez’s] team elaborated a framework to assess to what extent the practices of knowing at the university are conducive to actively promote or suppress diversity across the colonial divide. The framework has three core elements: the pedagogies of positionality, the pedagogies of relationality and the pedagogies of transition. This framework also helped to underscore the decolonial deficit of the university, as it provided concrete forms to understand how epistemic practices can be decolonised.”
As Icaza and Vazquez note, the conjunction of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘decoloniality’ brings together the tradition of Black feminism and the tradition of the Latin-American Modernity/coloniality network.
This framework also permits non-normative voices within the university to be heard. By non-normative voices, Vazquez’s team meant “students of colour, non-heterosexual, first- and second-generation immigrants, refugees, non-bodily able people, and those from poor or marginalised neighbourhoods…” (Icaza and Vazquez, 2018: 114). Icaza and Vazquez (2018: 115) define the process of ‘normalisation’ through ‘normativity’ as “enforcing Western epistemologies and subjectivities as the norm.”
Context 4. Strategies to address power relations in student-staff partnerships
One strategy for developing this new kind of pedagogy and curriculum is to consider the whole process from the perspective of design. This is not simply ‘design thinking’ as problem solving but design as creatively enacting a different world, a world in which one is implicated and entangled.
This starts from the question of what kind of world is it that the staff and students wish to create and how disciplinary knowledge and expertise operates in that world.
It requires thinking about how the canonical curriculum came into existence; how adequate it is to the understandings of the staff and the students’d experiences; and how it may need to be altered through partnership to address the issues of the contemporary world.
It requires also different learning commitments and different kinds of ‘contractual’ relationships between those deemed staff and those deemed students, who, in fact, share the same world, but one in which they have different starting points and different understandings.
The aim is to create a new common understanding, which does not exclude disagreement or expertise, but does not simply conform to a pre-existent curricular order, with its ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions and commitments.
Context 5. Resources for developing partnership
The traditional literature on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) needs to be supplemented, it is argued, with a range of other lines of inquiry, such as the following.
The literature focusing specifically on the pedagogic relationship as asymmetrical but not unequal
The literature on caritas, or care, but not under the horizon of onto-theology (religion or metaphysics)
The literature on the politics of friendship and on philia (critically rearticulating the image of ‘brotherhood’ that underlies that tradition)
The related literature on democracy (Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, Agamben, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau and Mouffe, et al.) and the possibility and impossibility of achieving democracy
The literature around post-humanism, where the human is neither central nor exceptional, but is part of the ecological condition of the planet, and a phenomenon that may now be problematic and not just for itself
The literature on ontological design (e.g. Willis, 2006). and the politics of ontology (e.g. Stengers, 2018)
The literature on the ‘worldhood university’ (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2018), focusing on higher education strategies and frameworks that integrate more traditional forms of higher education curriculum with moral and political awareness, social agency, and economic consciousness,
Nørgård and Bengtsen provide examples of the proposed ‘worldhood university’. One is the ‘Connected Curriculum’ initiative at the Institute of Education, University College London (Fung 2017) which strives to merge different disciplinary, professional, social, political and economic realities and contexts.
Another example is Aarhus University, which is aiming to create a future campus where living labs, sustainability, student-staff partnerships and engagements with the public are interconnected.
The reason for including all of these different literatures is because there is a need to question all of the hierarchies and their implicit and explicit power relations which are assumed to be ‘natural’ or ‘essential or ‘necessary’ within the curriculum and in the pedagogic relation.
They are needed to move towards a more performative understanding of how the world is designed, created, constructed, sustained and reproduced in the educational frame and through the pedagogic relation.
References and further reading
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Case, K.A. (2017). Toward an intersectional pedagogy model: engaged learning for social justice. In K. A. Case, ed., Intersectional pedagogy: complicating identity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Cole, E. R. (2017). Teaching intersectionality for our times. In K. A. Case, ed., Intersectional pedagogy: complicating identity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Fung, D. (2017). A connected curriculum for higher education. London: UCL Press.
Grzanka, P. R. (2017). Undoing the psychology of gender: intersectional feminism and social science pedagogy. In K. A. Case, ed., Intersectional pedagogy: complicating identity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
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