Relationships with Theory – Prof. Tony Brown

An ongoing focus of discussion at ESRI is our relationship with theory. How do we choose a theory or theories? Do theories choose us? Are our decisions made on a pragmatic basis according to which theories have the greatest explanatory utility or have the most persuasive evidential basis? Or are our decisions laden with social and cultural values about the purpose we seek through our research or the type of researcher we aspire to be?  If we prefer elegant and expansive theories or parsimonious theories, does our choice of theory illuminate aspects of our personality? Thus we are running a series of posts on ‘Relationships with Theory’ to describe why academics at ESRI have made particular theoretical choices in their research.

The first account is provided by Prof. Tony Brown:

My work is typically theoretical but I let bits of empirical reality creep in through “fictional constructions”, as Derrida would call them. That is reality can be processed through fictional constructions.  Derrida’s example focused on TV reports of war. Ricoeur draws many parallels between the constructions of fictional and historical narratives and refuses to draw a hard and fast line between them. Whether we are talking about Jacques Lacan or John Maynard Keynes or Jane Austen, stories of how things are distanced from the realities that they seek to depict. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that the stories fail in any sense since a direct imprint of reality would not be possible. We are only able to offer alternative ways of looking. Lacan’s work for example is premised on examining the relationships between individuals and the symbolically defined universe. A reconfiguration of the past redefines the present and opens the possibility of alternative futures. But we are still talking about the same life as it were but a life transformed through our modified attempt to apprehend reality through the symbolic apparatus available to us. A theory can’t stand still in depicting life and life can’t stand still to wait for theory. Yet acting as if theory can stand still, or as if life could stand still, have been common attributes of theory production. But those very temporal displacements, the very failures of fit, alert us to the disparity between life and theory such that we can learn to fail better. I have proposed a new sales pitch for MMU: “the university where you can learn to fail better”.


Student as Producer

For universities nothing is more important than being a research-led institution where excellent teaching ensures a high-quality student experience and thus securing its position in a highly competitive marketplace.  These imperatives are delineated and measured and universities are ranked accordingly, offering a student the choice on where she should spend £27,000 in tuition fees.  Thus research, teaching and students are central to universities but how these are understood and engaged with both in policy and universities is through the logics and dynamics of consumer choice, competition, and managerialism.

Many academics yearn for an alternative based perhaps on a nostalgic or idealistic understanding of what a university was or could be but for now we seem stuck with what we have, or are we? 

On Wednesday Professor Mike Neary from the University of Lincoln and the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, came to ESRI to give us a glimpse of what an alternative might look like in his talk Student as Producer.

Mike inhabits an interesting space as Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln where he is part of the re-imagining of the university in neoliberal times while also being a founder-member of the Social Science Centre, a cooperative higher-education experience that presents a radical alternative to mainstream universities.

The Student as Producer initiative, at the University of Lincoln, seeks to realign the purposes and values of academia with the routine practices of a university.  The Student as Producer initiative challenges staff and students to enter into a dialogue about curriculum development and institutional change.  In doing so the aim is to re-connect the university with the liberal-humanistic project that originated with Humboldt University of Berlin in 1810 but also re-imagine the modern university in relation to current social movements such as Occupy.

A central theme of the talk was how to negotiate between the demands of the modern higher education sector, which is overwhelmed by managerialism, and the attempt to develop an alternative that engages with the crises in higher education and wider society. The boundary between radical project and corporate-inspired marketing at times seem blurred where developing something innovative and engaging can be re-interpreted and used as branding or marketing.  Navigating these dilemmas involved a pragmatic process of following theory, researching, inspiring, challenging and working with colleagues but also acknowledging when and where to compromise and work within the system.  These were the messy realities of taking action, in refusing to get bogged down in impossibility but building what is possible in a realistic way.

We would like to thank Mike for taking the time to come to ESRI and we look forward to hearing more about this important work.

James Duggan

Ow’s about that then!? – reflections on the Savile scandal

The revelations around the apparent career of sexual abuse conducted by Jimmy Savile (involving children, young people, the physically and mentally ill – just about anyone in a power-subordinate position) are horrifying. They’ll prompt widespread institutional and personal soul searching, public apologies and perhaps prosecutions if conspiracy or culpability can be proved. They also touch on issues covered by recent ESRI-based research on the unintended negative consequences of mainstream approaches to child protection and safeguarding, in teaching, childcare and sports coaching (read more about the project here). Mainstream approaches start from the premise that all adults are potential abusers, all children are vulnerable victims, and the result is that intergenerational contact becomes seen as toxic and dangerous rather than positive and nurturing.

The typical safeguarding practices imposed today (eg universal vetting, proscriptive guidelines and regulations) would have done little to prevent Savile’s celebrity career of abuse. There seems to have been nothing official on file, and he did what he did because he wanted to, and he could. What these revelations show is the importance of individual judgement and courage in recognising and responding to abuse; bureaucratic systems are no substitute for people doing the right thing. Indeed if anything, bureaucratic systems make this less likely by giving a false sense of security and interrupting the ordinary routines of adult-child interaction through which we learn how to recognise good and bad intent.

I never understood how someone who seemed to lack human warmth and kept his own persona impenetrable was constructed as a national treasure. Although current media accounts tend to start from the assumption that ‘everyone thought he was marvellous’, I wonder if this is true, and suspect many people outside the bubbles in which the abuse occurred registered something darker and unknowable. Without the media-halo, had that person offered to look after our children, how many of us would have agreed? Personal judgement and integrity remains the best safeguard against the abuser – especially when the abuser is powerful.

Heather Piper

‘Doing’ monstrosity: Two conferences, four minutes of free improv and the death of ‘data’

Forgive me for coming over all Deleuzian, but I want to try to follow a line of flight that escapes when I thread two recent conferences and a free improvised music gig into the same thought string. I’ll blame Rachel’s superb post (see the video below) if I must, because the imaginative risk that she takes there inspires the link that I want to make. The link is monstrosity, but anyway…

The first conference, Contested Democracy, was at the Institut du Monde Anglophone at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, during 20-22 Sept. The second, The Riots: One year on, was a week later at London South Bank University. The bit of free improvised music was a video clip of a performance by two improvising musicians, Mick Beck and Phil Marks, which I brought as my contribution to the data discussion convened by Maggie.

Both conferences were exploring how the academy might respond to recent events – the occupy movement, the riots – that have expanded the conventional boundaries of protest and the political. Specifically, they welcomed cross-disciplinary contributions. In response, I put papers to both in collaboration with two colleagues who are outside my own ‘official’ field of education and social research but are linked to my work as an improviser (watch this video if you want to know what I get up to when I’m ‘out’). My collaborators were Gary Anderson, a performance artist based at Liverpool Hope (instigator of The Free University of Liverpool) and Gill Whiteley at the School of Art at Loughborough (see her website ‘bricolagekitchen‘).

Our papers – on monstrous practices of dissent – tried to work with the idea of the monstrous (both riots and occupations have been described negatively as ‘monstrosities’ in media coverage) but from a Deleuzian perspective.  According to Deleuze, “State Philosophy”, as he called it, might, when approached from ‘behind’ (in Deleuze’s notorious formulation) give birth to positively ‘monstrous’ progeny in the radical form of non-representational ‘nomad thought’. Our papers worked methodologically, therefore, out of a space between social science (ethnography, certainly) and art practice that Rachel’s work also seems to inhabit. Indeed, I’d argue that Rachel’s blog post is a superb example of the critical power of monstrosity that we were trying to conjure (I hope that’s flattering Rachel?)

Now, free improvised music (not often easy on the ear, it has to be said) works in the same way, too. It, similarly, tries to come up behind the orthodoxy of ‘Sate Philosophy’ in music with the aim of liberating a kind of nomadic monstrosity. And in that – whatever one thinks of it aesthetically – it resonates with how some of us are trying to ‘do’ research non-representationally.

And that is what, in sub-Deleuzian mode, I was trying hard not to explain – but rather to show – at Maggie’s data session.

Geoff Bright

Transitioning the body and soul – from primary to secondary school

I was at my son’s first ‘high school’ parents evening last night.  After talking to his tutor and the experience of supporting him in his first few months I wanted to share a couple of things that I’ve been thinking about, related to my own research on school ethos (see Bragg and Manchester, 2011).

There is a total disregard for the ‘body’ (and soul) at his new high school.  They start school at 8.20am, groggy eyed and unable to face breakfast he trudges out of the house at 7.55 (soon it will be incredibly dark as well as cold as he goes), with a huge backpack full of an often soggy PE kit, books and various homework sheets that may or may not be due in that day but he carries in case he’s forgotten something.  He has to wear a shirt, tie and blazer so opts not to wear a coat even when it’s raining as it would involve having to carry the blazer and there is no room in the bag for that.  On arrival at school there is little time to go to the toilet and in fact he has to wait for two hours before he can do so as toilets are locked and only opened up at break and lunchtime.  At least they provide snacks for them at break time which is lucky as lunchtime only lasts for 30 minutes and older students push the smaller ones out of the queue so they have few lunch options and no time to eat it anyway.  The only alternative to eating at lunchtime is to congregate in the year 7 ‘quad’ a small outside area which you are not allowed to leave once you enter.

Our research suggested that schools should consider the 3 C’s of school ethos – considerate, convivial and capacious.  Thinking about my son’s experience in relation to our research it appears that his new school is not considerate of his bodily or soulful needs, he doesn’t feel cared for or considered in this new environment.  Nor is there any opportunity for convivial behaviours – a chance to chat to and meet new friends, or to make connections with others (teachers or other students) outside of the structures of the timetable.  What’s more the locked toilets and short lunchtimes, justified as ‘anti bullying measures’ rather serve to suggest to young people that they are not to be trusted to look after each other and co-exist in relations of care.  In such a space it would seem that opportunities for the school to work in capacious ways – offering young people range and room for manoeuvre in the school and in their learning, being flexible and valuing different kinds of responses, ‘holding’ difficult emotions which are often evoked in learning – seem unlikely to happen.

I overheard another parent at the parents evening last night saying to a friend that it felt like her son was no longer seen as a person but rather ‘a piece of data’- now that could spawn a whole other blog post…

Helen Manchester