Merry Christmas from all of us at ESRI. See you in 2013!
As part of our engagement with the impact agenda at ESRI, I hosted a ‘bag lunch’ to explore how different ways of communicating research might enable researchers to communicate their findings more effectively and influence positive social change. My feeling is that articles and books are fine enough for developing and sharing ideas but as they are, largely if not exclusively, written and read by academics and not the people we are seeking to communicate with then we can really expect them to be taking much notice.
I’m increasingly interested in projects that go beyond traditional methods (e.g., journals and books) to communicating ideas, especially those that create a more experiential or otherwise more engaging strategy. Examples of such approaches are Thomas Thwaites’ ‘Toaster Project’ where he made a toaster from scratch, the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, Natalie Jeremijenko’s ‘no park’, and the Inspired2Greatness project I developed with Heather Piper.
These projects present new ways of communicating and doing research but more importantly they employ an open and dynamic approach to knowledge communication, one that provokes and inspires as much as it informs. They are playful and/or purposive, and do not presume that everyone shares the same cultural values of academia that prioritise reasoned and referenced, rational discourse. In the case of the Social Science Centre, the argument for the managerialisation of higher education is developed by creating an alternative something academic critique cannot do.
Whether these sorts of projects can or should be developed for all or most research is another matter. I’ve been struggling to think of examples where such an approach would not be possible but it seems to be only limited by a person’s creative powers, and mine at this point in the year are somewhat diminished. This does however raise the issue of how far from the core skills of academics these projects require, from web development to art practice, to succeed in a highly competitive media environment. Yet, as was pointed out in the discussion, increasingly academics are expected to develop impact strategies when applying for funding.
Rather than academics dabbling amateurishly it may be better for research centres to bring in people with the relevant skills, knowledge and relationships. Geoff Bright suggested he would like to explore this area by establishing a laboratory to bring together academia with critical arts practice to create academic-art hybrid projects. There is however no reason to limit the engagement to art and artists. We could have a residency programme where ESRI invites activists and designers to help develop more effective ways of engaging with the world beyond the academy. Watch this space for developments.
If we were to map the categories for Top Trumps educational researcher edition we might pick: books read (0-10), knowledge (0-10), theory wielding (0-10), publications (0-10), unmanageability of eyebrows (0-10), and neoliberal bashing (0-10). Against all of which I would’ve scored pretty unfavourably while listening to Sarah Dyke present her PhD research, last week at ESRI (read about it here). Listening to the dense and terrifyingly unfamiliar stream of theories, concepts and ideas I felt myself to be a mental husk, unable to formulate a thought or even to think ill of the market. Being an academic is about having read a lot, knowing a lot, and understanding a lot so when words and theorists don’t make sense, it can be a little uncomfortable.
Sarah applies Deleuze, Butler, Massumi and others to understand and re-imagine anorexia nervosa or, as she seeks to re-label it, a ‘problematic relationship with feeding the body’. This switch seems to be illustrative of the form and potential of this approach, and frustratingly what makes it so difficult to engage with.
As I understand it, the foundation of post-structuralism is to redefine social relationships using new words to enable new ways of thinking about things and so new social relationships. So, for example, ‘essences’ become ‘events’ and this is something to do with ‘jets of singularities’,
To reverse Platonism is first and foremost to remove essences and to substitute events in their place, as jets of singularities. A double battle has the objective to thwart all dogmatic confusion between event and essence, and also every empiricist confusion between event and accident (Deleuze, 2004, 64).
I’ll admit that when I heard this I didn’t, and still don’t, know to what ‘Platonism’ refers. So my thought process while reading this was, “To reverse Platonism”… what the hell did Plato do again? Never mind, carry on, hope it’s not important, “is first and foremost” Plato? Plato? Plato? Plato? “as jets of singularities…” And so on.
So I missed most of Sarah’s theorising yet it is readily apparent that she has done some interesting and important work. She explained how the existing discourses related to anorexia, and the relationships and encounters they engender, make it problematic for a man or woman who tries to seek medical help. Someone may ‘know’ they a problematic relationship to food and try to access medical help but they may be told they are not light enough to meet the medical criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. (This may be, of course, that this particular medical categorisation is not meant to define what something is rather it rations care.)
There were also interesting insights into how people chose or are chosen to do or be something. How what once seemed to a person a desirable and glamorous way of living turns out instead to be miserable, dangerous and a waste of precious time. Beyond the focus on anorexia there are many more applications for Sarah’s research, from drugs and violence to disengagement and apathy.
Sarah identifies ‘counter-actualisations’ – different ways of understanding the fixity of identity, recovery, what it means to be something – as a way to help people find a path back or forward to happier times.
Discussing possible applications of post-structuralist thought, to help people live healthier lives, raises the thorny issue of its inaccessibility. If the potential of a post-structural account is that it provides a new language, grammar, set of ideas, about anorexia then does this mean that someone struggling with his or her relationship with food must immerse themself in post-structural thought, much like Freudian analysis requires? Is it a talking/ reading cure? I’d hope not because this would limit such insights and help to the initiates of some incredibly dense and challenging books.
The method of post-structuralism is to re-imagine what are everyday or common sense ways of looking at the world yet by definition most people will use common sense and everyday words so the challenge is for researchers to precipitate a shift as to which ones are used and what they mean. So one way forward might be for Sarah to work with counsellors, doctors and those with a problematic relationship to food to translate this work from post-structural language into everyday ideas, metaphors, stories and all the various forms that help people ‘counter-actualise’ or try and be a little better or different.
To boil my research down to its bare bones, it might be said to be about movements of choice, choosing and being chosen or interpellated (Butler, 1997) through embodied activities and intervals – rather than as the effects of singular causes. My work draws on the Deleuzian event and theories of affect, including ideas taken from Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough and Theresa Brennan to rethink ‘eating disorder’ in terms of what I have conceptualised as ‘a difficult relationship to feeding the body’.
The robust, muscular, feminist and queer politics of Butler’s work (1990, 1993, 1997) set in motion, as they worked on, and through me what I would notice and forage for in Deleuze. In turn, through Deleuzian ideas, I would reconsider turning as an activity and process, rather than as limited to psychic life alone. Through Butler, and Deleuze, rather than choosing or being chosen I consider the nuance of desire and the way in which bodies collude with demanding categories and flows of affective life in ways which exceed thoughtfulness alone.
While my work is interested in the abstract, the interest is by virtue of its capacity to work differently with what is presumed concrete about matter. The way it can open up possibilities which are foreclosed through an emphasis on ‘the actual’ or what can be seen in vision alone. Although the theoretical influences which flow into and out of my work are away from the fixity of common sense, my thinking has always been towards how those with a difficult relationship to feeding the body may have more liveable lives.
One of the implications of working with the event is the political hopefulness I see in a) finding a conceptual space of annunciation which can accommodate nuanced embodied experience and potential; and b) the idea of counter actualisation which I use to trouble dogmatic medical notions of ‘recovery’. As such, one of the questions I am presently engaging with is how counteractualisation, which Deleuze refers to as our greatest freedom, could be considered as a means to open possibilities of ‘doing’ for those with difficult relationships to feeding the body. How movement, rather than fixity, can develop democratic possibilities of living differently or making sense differently as opposed to thinking only through short term, high cost, invasive treatment programmes.
Dr. Rachel Holmes has created a video entitled ‘Theory’, as part of our ‘Relationships with Theory’ series,
For a little variety this week the word cloud was generated from the profiles of all of ESRI’s professors, using Tagexdo.
Last week, David Laws, Minister for Education, attacked teachers and careers educators for creating a culture of ‘depressingly low expectations’ and holding back disadvantaged children by discouraging them from ‘aiming for the stars’. Laws argued that the flatlining of ‘social mobility’ (highlighted by Alan Milburn’s recent report) was not simply the result of poverty but a lack of ambition among teachers which led young people to only consider local employers and ‘lower status’ careers:
Even in my own constituency, Yeovil, which would not be regarded as one of the deprivation blackspots of the country, most young people would regard going into investment banking as almost leaving the country, because it’s a different world… They will often be encouraged to think it is beyond them…. there are too many young people who think that the two or three big employers in their local town are the limit of their aspiration.
Laws is not a lone voice here. Only a few weeks ago, Michael Gove spoke at the Conservative Party Conference about a ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations among teachers which was failing to address the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.
Scholarship in the sociology of education has critically engaged with the ways in which discourses of ‘aspiration’ circulate across government policy and how these constitute particular kinds of pupil – and parent – subjects. This research, including my own work with Heather and elsewhere with Sumi Hollingworth – has problematised asocial discourses of ‘low aspirations’. As I have previously argued on this blog, such individualising discourses negate the wider economic structures within which aspirations can be realised. While aspirations discourse has been characterised by a long-standing focus on the ‘deficiencies’ of parents and pupils, recent statements made by Laws and Gove indicate, I think, a new shift whereby teachers become a new subject of blame for educational inequalities. Indeed, teachers are increasingly charged with raising the aspirations of young people through various practices and initiatives. But what does this work of encouraging pupils to ‘reach for the stars’ involve? What interpersonal dynamics are at play in ‘raising aspirations’? And how might attending to these help us critique and trouble the prevailing narrative of the Coalition’s education policy? Laws’ recent comments provoke engagement with these very questions.
Laws warns that some teachers in state schools are discouraging their pupils from applying to Oxbridge and other ‘elite’ universities, telling them that these are ‘not places for them’. Earlier this year, the Sutton Trust released results of a national survey of teachers in state schools in which over half surveyed said they would not encourage their brightest pupils to aim for Oxbridge. While politicians and other commentators used this as evidence of a failure within the teaching profession, ATL general secretary Mary Bousted proposed an alternative narrative:
Teachers might have some very legitimate concerns about whether an academically gifted pupil would fit in and thrive in Oxford or Cambridge. I was in a Cambridge college last week and it oozed wealth and privilege. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable there, so how would somebody feel if it was totally alien to their upbringing? It would be preferable if teachers did feel more comfortable about recommending Oxbridge… But we have to ask questions about why they don’t and I don’t think it is because they are unambitious for their pupils.
Bousted’s words echo those of a working-class teacher I recently interviewed from a secondary school in a former industrialised town in the West Midlands, characterised by mass unemployment and multiple deprivation. This teacher was responsible for various initiatives and schemes at the school oriented to supporting young people’s aspirations and transitions into work and higher education. This included selecting two pupils in the school to take part in the government’s new DUX award scheme which allows ‘bright’ pupils to visit ‘top’ Russell Group universities for a day. The teachers explained to me why he did not select his most disadvantaged pupils for such a scheme:
With those pupils you have to start small … If I took them for a day out to Oxbridge, they would feel lost …by the institution, the type of people there, the place, the culture … It’s a culture shock and it’s too big a leap, from one extreme to another… These one off visits don’t work. It raises them [the pupils] for a few hours and then they’re back to where they were before. You take them to the top then take them back down to the bottom and that’s it … there isn’t the support they need there. For these [working-class] pupils it’s about building the scaffolding, providing the building blocks [and] helping their aspirations to grow organically. You have to do it carefully.
Interestingly, the DUX scheme received similar criticism in Milburn’s report on access to higher education for being largely ‘tokenistic’ (2012: 38). This teacher’s reading of the DUX awards reveals not a ‘hopeless lack of ambition’ for working-class pupils. Rather it suggests an astute, considered and compassionate understanding of what it means for working-class kids to move into ‘top’ higher education institutions, where ‘mobility’ into such elite spaces is often accompanied by unsettling feelings, including inadequacy, shame and guilt (see the suggestions for further reading below). This can result in a preference among working-class pupils for institutions with a more ‘diverse’ student population, such as post-92 universities.
Laws’ claim that young people are being discouraged from thinking about being in ‘a different world’ neglects what encountering, and existing in, this ‘different world’ might feel like. There are immense psychic, social and emotional costs involved in ‘aspiring’, when ‘successful futures’ are framed in narrow terms of entry to elite spaces of Oxbridge and professional careers which might necessitate becoming ‘someone else’. As Bousted suggests, many teachers are acutely aware of this, and such deep understanding demands respect rather than derision.
Furthermore, focusing only on young people’s aspirations for elite institutions – and teachers role in fostering these – neglects the systematic forms of exclusion that operate in the admissions practices at such institutions. For example, Vikki Boliver’s (2011) analysis of UCAS applications and admissions data reveals how the underrepresentation of pupils from state schools in prestigious universities is not simply because they are less likely to apply to these universities, but also because they are less likely to be admitted when they do apply.
Penny Jane Burke and Jackie McManus’ (2011) qualitative research into admissions interviews for elite arts institutions reveals why this may be the case, illuminating the ways in which selection practices privilege dominant forms of cultural and social capital held by the middle class. Research also shows that similar practices of exclusion (and self-exclusion) are found in relation to young people’s aspirations for, and entry to, ‘top professions’ – the kinds of bright, shiny spaces Laws thinks young people should be aiming for. In my own work, I illuminate how, for working-class young people, entering predominantly middle-class professions such as the creative industries can be accompanied by feelings of lack and mis-fit, where they experience these places as ‘not for people like me’.
Finally, Laws’ denigration of young people’s ‘limited’ aspirations for locally available jobs is problematic: as Sumi Hollingworth and I have argued elsewhere, in celebrating young people’s ‘mobility’ for and through work, aspiration policy discourse privileges a very particular flexible, cosmopolitan, middle-class subject and negates the emotional ties and sense of belonging that bind working-class young people to place in ways that shape their futures.
Instead of blaming teachers, there is an urgent need to think critically about the role of teachers in shaping the imagined and real futures of their pupils, and what might be missed out of this dominant discourse of ‘low expectations’.
This post was taken from the CelebYouth blog for the project, ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University between September 2012 and April 2014 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.