Studying in higher education usually involves taking courses in research skills: for example, students learn how to use research methods, how to write academic texts, and how to take account of research ethics. However, quite often students question the relevance of research courses and criticise that there are too many of them.
In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education, we used the concept of research skills to discuss this dilemma especially in teacher education. Nowadays, the skills talk has evaded higher education, and why not show students what kind of skills they learn when attending research courses. We also used a concept by Crina Damsa and her colleagues, epistemic agency, which points out to an active and productive relationship towards knowledge. Learning in research courses must develop the students’ sense of agency to give them tools to use research skills in their life, work and further studies.
In teacher education, research skills are not straightforward. Teachers’ work is practical and not everybody thinks that research skills are necessary for teaching children. However, in Finland comprehensive school teachers study five years in the university, and major in educational sciences. Research skills have been seen as important for students to be able to rise above the immediacy of the classroom. Thus, the Finnish model of emphasising student teachers’ own research has aroused interest worldwide.
In our study, we examined the varieties in how epistemic agency arose when Finnish student teachers wrote about using research skills in their practice period. We found four dimensions in which research skills helped the students to orient themselves towards knowledge:
Research courses matter because the world we live in is increasingly knowledge intensive. Knowledge development is also required from all professionals. In higher education, more attention should be paid to how the students’ relationship towards knowledge develops. In teacher education, this is important because future teachers should be able to promote the children’s epistemic agency, too. The first step in fostering epistemic agency is paying attention to what relationships towards knowledge look like.
We challenge all teachers in higher education to highlight the significance of research courses by considering the students’ epistemic agency. Is the point that the student will learn to reflect oneself as a professional? Or is it that the student will be able to observe one’s surroundings more clearly, as for example the teacher observes the classroom? Or is the point that the student will be able to get more out of what has been written about the field? Or is it the outside world with fake news and ‘alternative facts’ that needs a critical and active relationship towards knowledge? According to our study, all of these are relevant for the students, and others may arise in the future. Making the significance of research courses more visible could help the students to see the beauty of learning to create new knowledge in their field.
Mirva Heikkilä (University of Turku), Hege Hermansen (University of Oslo), Tuike Iiskala, Mirjamaija Mikkilä-Erdmann and Anu Warinowski (all University of Turku)
The swift transition to online and remote learning in universities across the globe in 2020 has brought to the fore the question of what it means, and looks like, to do teaching. Technology enhanced pedagogies are often seen by faculties as a panacea to augment learners’ satisfaction with their university experience. Within this context, and the broader field of education, flipped learning has been popularised as a progressive pedagogy appropriate for the twenty-first century. But not all students agree. What does the nature of student resistance to flipped learning reveal about implicit understandings of what it means, and looks like, to do teaching? I drill down into this question in my new article in Teaching in Higher Education.
Flipped learning is enticing. I was drawn to the potential of increased tuition time to be spent on face-to-face scaffolded learning activities. I anticipated that my students, who were all training to be teachers, would embrace the opportunity to trial what was for them, a new pedagogical approach. I was wrong. The flipped learning trial was met with resistance – in fact, vociferous resistance.
As I analysed data from the study and also reflected on my engagement with students during the delivery of the flipped course, a ubiquitous refrain emerged. Students drew persistent attention to an absence. In absenting from the traditional stand and deliver tutorial presence, I had denied my students access to the sage on the stage. My students indicated fear of missing out on critical information, discomfort of engaging in core content in asynchronous environments and resentment of what they understood as my absence in the tutorial (i.e. I was no longer sage on the stage but a guide to the side).
In an end of course evaluation, students commented on the disconnect between the flipped learning pedagogy they were required to engage in as ‘students’, and their ‘real world’ experience in schools as a pre-service teacher. Their comments suggested that flipped learning pedagogy was not real teaching. And it was this belief about what constitutes real, or observable and lived teaching practice that raised a really fascinating question about what it means and looks like to do teaching in the twenty-first century.
Whilst many studies acknowledge instances of resistance to flipped learning, there has been little attempt to theorise reasons for this resistance. In an age where teachers and academics utilise technology to demonstrate innovation and currency in teaching practice, understanding why some examples of technology enhanced pedagogy may be met with resistance is important for the development of best practice in educational contexts.
I argue that resistance to flipped learning can be better understood as an affirmation of the belief that teaching is a physical embodied act, with teaching referring to both expert knowledge transfer as well as knowledge application. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is the lens through which the argument is made, not only because Butler’s theory speaks to embodied acts, but because the theory speaks to socially regulated understandings of how to perform specialised roles and the consequences for transgressing from the acceptable mode(s) of performance.
Butler’s conceptualisation of performativity – that is, the social action(s) that iteratively construct knowledge and perception of the named thing – provides a useful framework to articulate how the activity of teaching can be understood as an enacted socially constructed discourse that is both iterative and that exists external to the individual. I argue that the definition of teacher or teaching, is not found in a singular act but in the socially constructed – and contextually bounded – reiteration of the recognised activity of, for example, lecturing (i.e. stand and deliver knowledge transfer). Furthermore, the power of the act (of face-to-face lecturing), to signify the activity (of teaching), is cultivated by the number of times that act is invoked.
Flipped learning pedagogies invoke the concept of teacher whilst simultaneously refusing to perform in characteristic type (e.g. flipped learning suppresses teacher in the mode of lecturer). Understanding what resistance to flipped learning can reveal about (perceptions of) what effective teaching looks like is crucial to educational institutions as they innovate and adapt to changing teaching environments.
Kim Wilson (Macquarie University)
‘Value for Money’ (VFM) has become a core narrative of the UK government’s approach to higher education. The concept is as elusive as it is contestable, but love it or hate it, stakeholders are increasingly forced to negotiate its impacts on the academic environment. We first became focused on this as an area of research in the light of Hepi – Advance HE Student Academic Experience Surveys that suggested consistently poor outcomes in relation to student perceptions of having received VFM. This did not tally particularly well with our own experience, or indeed, with the outcomes of the National Student Survey, and for these reasons alone we considered the concept to merit further investigation.
In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education, we outline the findings of a two-year exploratory study into the perceptions of both students and lecturers, considering VFM in its broader context of an increasingly marketized and instrumentalised academic milieu. The study was qualitative in nature, exploring lived experience, through the narrative accounts of academic staff and students who bestride the front-line interface between provision and recipience of higher education services. It sought to compare their views on the meaning of VFM and on the impact of policy reform on higher education.
The research was undertaken in a social sciences department at a university in northern England between 2017 and 2019. Study participants comprised eight lecturers, each employed in the department for several years and eight undergraduates in their second year of study. They were recruited from the same Faculty in order to generate a collective ‘story’ in addition to individual narratives.
The institution was identified as one of many that had been through a period of constant flux over the previous decade, as the university authorities had imposed a top-down, self-declared ‘change agenda’ in relation to both institutional structures and academic provision, in response to government guidance but also as a process of ‘streamlining’ services and maximising cost-effectiveness.
The following thematic areas were explored and developed:
• educational experiences, biographies and future interests; aims and expectations of HE;
Lecturers and students were as one in their concerns around academic fees, including: an increase in students suffering from stress and anxiety due to financial concerns; the adverse impacts on student health and academic performance of having to both study and work; the exclusionary impact of fees in relation to working class communities.
Students saw VFM in terms of having access to ‘the right’ physical resources (library, computers, printers, parking spaces, etc) together with the academic support and guidance that they were ‘paying for’. In addition, lifestyle factors, such as social and recreational experiences were considered part of the overall VFM package. Also included was the ‘excellent provision’ of ‘wider student support services’.
Whilst acknowledging the importance of providing VFM, lecturers felt that student expectations around ‘rights and entitlements’ had changed significantly, with a rise in those challenging grades and summative feedback. There had been an unwelcome growth in formal complaints from students who, ‘don’t think that they are getting what they have paid for’. They were also increasingly encountering ‘passive’ learners, more focused on employment prospects and ‘getting the qualification’, than they were on the joy of learning.
Whilst this is an exploratory study, it is an important piece of work in that the findings suggest that whilst both staff and students have accepted and embraced elements of VFM, nonetheless, both cohorts have significant concerns about the potentially negative outcomes of the current direction of travel. There is every reason to believe that the impact of Covid-19 on higher education experiences, will only serve to both magnify and exacerbate these tensions.
Linda Wilkinson and Mick Wilkinson (University of Sheffield)
Writing this blog post in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic causes each one of us to reflect on our past lives and what the future will bring. What will university teaching look like in the months and years to come? Paradoxically, the one thing we can be certain about is the uncertainty that we all face in higher education. In a way, this resonates with our new article in Teaching in Higher Education in which we explore the concept of vulnerability as a pedagogy of choice. Pedagogic vulnerability is a complex concept, liable to diverse interpretations and definitions which is what we explore in some depth.
Before we wrote our article we reflected on our long collaboration which started in 2010 and has seen us constantly discuss an alternative to the performance measures of teaching excellence that we were unhappy with. Our fundamental belief was that we should show our students that we are vulnerable, not invincible. At that time such an approach seemed quite risky. It still does. As a matter of fact, in the current higher education climate it is a high stakes activity to step outside the ‘performance model’ and dare to show authenticity as a fallible human being in the professional role of university teacher.
Our argument rests on the concept that vulnerability should be considered as one of the defining characteristics of a pedagogical strategy for teaching excellence. Pedagogic vulnerability, we suggest, reinforces the values of higher education that go beyond the metrics and the employability market, and seeks to engage students in deep transformative learning processes for a future that is uncertain and unknowable. As Barnett (2012, p.75) says:
‘Being for uncertainty does not especially know much about the world nor have at its disposal a raft of skills to deploy in and on the world. Being-for-uncertainty stands in certain kinds of relationship to the world. It is disposed in certain kinds of way. It is characterised therefore, by certain kinds of disposition. Among such dispositions are carefulness, humility, criticality, receptiveness, resilience, courage and stillness’.
In an attempt to understand more clearly the affordances that being vulnerable as a teacher has for enhancing student learning, we examined different conceptions of vulnerability in the literature. The daring to be vulnerable approach to teaching we present in our article offers an alternative perspective to the commonly perceived deficit model that identifies ‘vulnerability’ of university teachers as academic frailty (Kinchin et al., 2016). We have illustrated our approach by offering critical and reflective accounts of our lived experience of feeling and being vulnerable. In so doing we have allowed ourselves to be vulnerable to our readers.
We conclude our article by identifying five underpinning principles of advancing pedagogic vulnerability in university teaching that offer an approach to thinking differently about teaching in higher education and what teaching excellence can mean outside performance measures:
- Learning to be courageous in trying new teaching methods
- Learning to trust students and colleagues and displaying our own being as trustworthy to others
- Learning to be authentic in our teaching
- Learning to be more aware of ourselves and of others
- Learning to be reflective rather than reactive
These five principles are offered as a springboard for rethinking what it means to be an excellent teacher in our current uncertain times. We share them in the hope that colleagues will challenge, adapt and develop them to suit and enhance their own teaching practices and their students’ learning for an unknown future.
Daniela Mangione (Anglia Ruskin University) and Lin Norton (Liverpool Hope University)
COVID-19 hit during the process of revising my new article in Teaching in Higher Education. Although, being China-based, I found myself part of what were among the first universities to go online (of the ones that weren’t already), that early experience is now unremarkable as the rest of the world was forced to quickly ‘catch up’. Now, many of us are already being hurled into a second, uncertain semester together. My geographic displacement and serious health challenges have only made me more acutely aware of the ways in which we are all mentoring each other through this year in the face of its myriad challenges, in both new and not-so-new ways.
Works created and published so far in 2020, like Zadie Smith’s Intimations: Six Essays and the poetry collection, Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (edited by Alice Quinn), have mentored me in their own ways, influencing my own participation in collective writing projects about what COVID means for our own fields, for example, ‘Reimagining the new pedagogical possibilities for universities post-Covid-19’. Other books that happened to come out during COVID, like Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, have given me fresh and accessible language as well as a sense of legitimacy to continue to explore expansive relationships, including teaching/mentoring, with a simultaneous seriousness and lightness that feels necessary to be able to continue on in this year. In search of grounded creativity – or creative grounding – in this time of great uncertainty, I am inspired to draw on a wide range of emerging work across genres that both challenges me in this moment and also echoes my long-term commitments.
Rooted in the commitment to long-term teaching/mentoring in both formal and non-formal spaces as a project of social justice, my article’s themes can be understood as both constant and simultaneously adaptable to this moment. I think of all of us who have experienced job precarities and inequities, in places that had no formal institutional structures for teaching/mentoring before COVID, much less now, or in institutions that do have formal structures but who may not be served by them. Framings of timescapes and post-qualitative work that I explore in the article offer possibilities to both experiment and to also use what we already have (or have left) as we consider what teaching/mentoring looks like for us right now and how it fits into our daily lives. These re/negotiations must take shape very carefully given the collective and personal crises in which many of us find ourselves, our students, our families, and our communities, all broadly defined.
During what is still an ongoing quarantine, Jonathan, whose teaching/mentoring to me over two decades I explore in the article, continues to re/shape his engagement with, mentoring of, and mentoring by such groups as parents, students, teachers, social service providers, and community organizers. While two years may pass before we see each other again, we have remained committed to regular conversations, including about expansive teaching/mentoring as it is explored in my article.
Your work is both urgent and reflective of your long-term commitment to a wide range of social justice work, from very local to global. You always remain open to being mentored in these spaces and you also remain open to taking on new mentoring roles; because of these experiences, your pedagogies are deeply rooted yet constantly evolving. Considering all of the commitments that keep you going in this moment, I wanted to ask you, how (if at all) do any of the themes here or in the article resonate with your current work?
Frankly I find the concept of mentoring through timescapes to be a revelation. I wish I had been aware of timescapes as a signifier when an inmate in an adult literacy class I taught prior to COVID-19 asked me how on earth a retired professor ended up as a volunteer at the local jail (despite my evasiveness they figured out my profession pretty quickly). My response was that it felt to me that everything I had learned and experienced, both through academic training and a few of life’s brutally hard knocks, kind of sent me there. That roundabout response seems pretty close to the definition of timescapes, as I understand it, and I guess I was for them a kind of mentor.
Now that the pandemic has made that praxis at the jail impossible, timescape has shifted me considerably into a different kind of mentoring. I now work very part-time as a family support partner at a state agency that serves parents and/or guardians of youth with a psychiatric disability. These are families in rural Virginia (USA) who have little in the way of capital, financial or social, and who are at risk of being overwhelmed and broken by dysfunctional social systems. As a general rule I avoid sharing my academic pedigree with my families; if asked, I say that I am a retired teacher. People won’t be put off so easily, however; they want a story. After several months of weekly encounters – mostly by phone but sometimes in person wearing masks, a grandmother of one of my families asked what my previous career had been. I said I been a teacher in different schools for forty years, but she wanted to know where and I confessed that I had been a professor at William and Mary. “I knew it!” she replied. I asked her how she had come to suspect my trade and she said, “because you are a wise old owl.”
If there is indeed wisdom that I bring to this new praxis, it is my personal discovery that in these shifting timescapes the ability to listen deeply, maybe owl-like, is a pedagogical tool that is meaningful. I believe this is as true to work with struggling, desperate parents in rural Virginia as it was to the families and teachers in Barrio Camilo Ortega where Lauren and I taught and read aloud the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal and Claribel Alegría. What has made that personal discovery possible, however, is my ongoing and mutual teaching/mentoring relationship with Lauren, a space where we can speak our experiences and so learn to understand them.
Lauren Ila Misiaszek (Beijing Normal University) and Jonathan Arries
There is much discussion about employability in higher education. Surprisingly, the student perspective is often missing. There is also limited understanding of why some students are better than others are at developing their employability.
In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education, we asked 2,475 commencing university students in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine/health (STEMM) to share their thinking about self, career and employability. We were interested in how a student’s study path and vision of possible selves or a ‘meaningful’ life and work can foster careership or working life orientation. We explored the theme of time by applying Adam’s (1990, 2004) conceptualisation of ‘timescapes’, which can frame explorations of how conformity and institutional expectations of time might be a limiting or ‘other’ influence on student outcomes.
Dawn Bennett (Curtin University), Elizabeth Knight (Victoria University) and Kenton Bell (Univeristy of Wollongong)
I wrote my new article in Teaching in Higher Education before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protest movement that has followed. The global reach of the protest movement and the fact that even corporations such as McDonalds now embrace Black Lives Matter would have been unthinkable at the beginning of 2020.
At my university the administration issued a bold-sounding statement of its support for the movement, even repeating the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’. Yet one administrator affixing his name to the document participated in the university’s attempt to force me, in 2015, to revise my syllabus for a multicultural literature course, simply because right-wing media had objected to my phrase “deferring to the experiences of people of color”, and the university would rather satisfy the right-wingers than teachers and students of color.
Narrative scholars have studied differing temporalities for decades, and imaginative physics considers the idea of alternative and multiple temporalities. Such differences already exist in the classroom, when students and faculty come together from different racial backgrounds. Yet ‘school’ – by which I mean preschool through advanced education – operates on the single, dominant temporality of inherited white standards. The structure of higher education renders impossible the accommodation of the temporalities of people of color. While this does not necessarily mean that students and faculty of color will fail in universities, it does mean that they suffer a serious cultural and philosophical disadvantage.
My paper proposes to examine that disadvantage and to imagine a classroom in which students and faculty come together to negotiate a reconciliation of differing temporalities. While no reconciliation can satisfy everyone alike, as I hope to show in the scenarios I propose, still a challenge to the very notion of common standards might at least move everyone closer. Whites are a minority in the global population, and even in the United States they will become a minority in less than a quarter-century, and so ‘colored people’s time’ must be accommodated if our universities hope to serve people of color.
John Streamas (Washington State University)
“It was nice to have a focus on getting to know each other, where we were allowed to laugh and talk, rather than a focus on the end result.”
This is a quote from a student in an interdisciplinary group project course. This student explained to me that being allowed to laugh and talk was something that set this course apart from other courses where the focus often is on fulfilling all requirements and getting things done – that she normally does not have time to laugh and talk. It made me think why being allowed and having time to laugh and talk is perceived as a significant part of a course and what it means for learning experiences in higher education.
To explore the connection between time and learning experiences in higher education in more detail, I turned to the concept of ‘timescapes’ in my new article in Teaching in Higher Education. Timescapes offer an interesting conceptual approach that acknowledges the spatial and temporal features of experiences and social interactions by seeing time as multidimensional and taking time frame, temporality, timing, tempo, duration, sequence, and temporal modalities into consideration as deeply interconnected elements. Even though timescapes play such a pivotal role in students’ learning experiences, they have received little attention in higher education research. In particular, there is a need to consider timescapes in relation to pedagogical practices and to ask ourselves what pedagogical approaches can help students and educators to collaboratively reconsider and shape timescapes?
This inspired me to explore how students experience and reflect on timescapes, take a closer look at pedagogical approaches that provide opportunities for co-creating a course’s timescape amongst students and between students and teachers, and in which ways this co-creation can help to develop a counter narrative within the current neoliberal education landscape.
I explore these questions by drawing on individual reflective diaries, group reflections, and perspective dialogs from the context of the interdisciplinary group project course, ‘Environments for learning in higher education’. This course aims to create a space that allows the students and the teacher to express, explore, and negotiate their different perspectives on time and how they shape their learning experiences by building on ideas of dialog and liberation in higher education, contemplative education, as well as student partnership and the concept of ‘Student as Producer’.
Explicit discussions of assumptions, concepts, and terms within the group are key elements that provide opportunities for students to experience how their frames of reference influence their approaches, to see other students’ perspectives, and to question their own understanding of concepts and terminology. As Taylor (2017, p 235) points out: ‘What makes higher education spaces significant is that […] they still perhaps offer greater openness for the emergence of new ethical subjectivities, and greater spontaneity for co-constructing teaching and learning relationally through joint action’.
It is of utmost importance that educators together with students use the possibilities in higher education spaces to counteract neoliberal, domesticating, and technocratic threats to meaningful partnership. Students and educators need to co-create spaces that allow the development of alternative timescapes through dialog, challenge traditional roles and predictable paths of education, and re-establish principles and values of authenticity, reciprocity, being more, hope and responsibility in higher education.
Patric Wallin (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
We are looking to recruit two new Executive Editors to join our Executive Editorial Team in December 2020, for a period of five years. New editors will replace Professor Penny Jane Burke (University of Newcastle, Australia) and Professor Suellen Shay (University of Cape Town, South Africa), who will both be leaving the journal at that point in time after making outstanding contributions.
The role of Executive Editor
The journal is directed by an Executive Editorial team, which is presently constituted by the Editor and six Executive Editors. The operation of the journal is supported by a dedicated part-time administrator who directly works to the Editor, as well as by the regular operations of the publishers. Each Executive Editor is responsible for the following duties:
- Seeing through a case-load of articles that have been submitted to the journal, from initial decision on the suitability of papers submitted to the journal for inclusion in the peer review process, until the final decision on the inclusion of the article within the journal.
- Joining the meetings of the Executive Editorial team, either remotely or in person. (The pattern of meetings in the team is currently a meeting in July, a two-day annual meeting in early-mid December (residential, with possibility of remote attendance), and two exclusively virtual meetings. The meetings that occur with at least some of the team present in person are held in the UK, where the publishers, Taylor & Francis, are based. The annual residential particularly offers an occasion for the team to develop a collegial and critical approach to the running of the journal.
- Co-editing a special issue with a guest editor around once every two or three years (in place of some regular decision editing for the relevant period). The journal now looks to include two Special Issues in its copy each year.
- Taking forward a particular aspect of the overall profile or operation of the journal as part of the executive team (e.g. liaising with the Editorial Board, curating the blog, and so on).
The application process
Applications are welcomed from candidates based in any location across the world. An honorarium (currently £1,500) is paid to each Executive Editor (e.g. to support conference attendance, or other relevant academic activity or expenses). Nominations for these posts are welcome, although please note that nominations should be made in sufficient time in advance of the deadline indicated below for an approach to be made.
Applicants are welcome to contact any of the current Executive Editorial team to find out more about the new positions, although applicants should note that the application process is being led by Dr Peter Kahn (Editor) and Professor Suellen Shay (Executive Editor). The contact details for the Executive Editorial team are as follows:
- Editor: Peter Kahn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Executive Editors: Penny Jane Burke (email@example.com); Neil Harrison (firstname.lastname@example.org); Aneta Hayes (email@example.com); Kathy Luckett (firstname.lastname@example.org); Suellen Shay (email@example.com); Karen Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Applicants should send the following information by email to the journal’s administrator, Alison Stanton (email@example.com), by Thursday 17th September 2020:
- A copy of your current academic CV, which should include evidence of a track record that is appropriate to editorial work on a major international journal (including a full statement of relevant academic publications).
- A covering letter that outlines the reasons for your interest in the role, including a statement outlining specific ideas for how the journal might develop (e.g. in relation to strengthening its profile as a journal for criticaleducational studies, stimulating ongoing debate within and beyond the journal, maintaining and enhancing the quality of published articles, and so on.) We would note that the critical focus of the journal constitutes a key element of its contribution to research and practice.
Decisions on appointments will be made by the current Executive Editorial Team for the journal (subject to the endorsement of the publishers). It is expected that decisions on appointments will be made in October 2020.
About the journal
Teaching in higher education has become an internationally recognised field, which is more than ever open to multiple forms of contestation. However, the intellectual challenge which teaching presents has been inadequately acknowledged and theorised in higher education. The journal Teaching in Higher Education addresses this gap by publishing scholarly work that critically examines and interrogates the values and presuppositions underpinning teaching, introduces theoretical perspectives and insights drawn from different disciplinary and methodological frameworks, and considers how teaching and research can be brought into a closer relationship. It welcomes contributions that aim to develop sustained reflection, investigation and critique, and that critically identify new agendas for research.
The journal is currently ranked 77/263 in the field of Education & Educational Research, with the 2019 Impact Factor at 2.136 (Clarivate, 2019 Journal Citation Reports). It is a leading international peer reviewed journal in the sub-field of higher education. The journal benefits greatly from the contributions of its international editorial board, with members from around 18 countries globally.
In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education we return to the contested and contentious concept of teaching excellence. We suggest that a posthuman lens can offer openings for us to think differently about this dominant (and unpopular) higher education discourse. And we consider how we might move away from notions of excellence as a performative, measurable, concept towards a more affirmative, values-based, ethical approach.
This is quite a bold undertaking. Our ambitious aim was conceived after a discussion between the authors regarding the original article that inspired it: Alan Skelton’s ‘A “teaching excellence” for the times we live in’. Skelton’s original article was published in Teaching in Higher Education over ten years ago. We reflected on the significance of Skelton’s personal view of a values-based conception of teaching excellence, where Skelton argues that teaching excellence is about developing a personal philosophy of teaching, that it is a moral category, and that it involves the struggle to live out educational values in practice. However, we also considered how the constant change, risk and fluidity of higher education meant that it might be high time to revisit this conception of teaching via the lens of understanding the uncertain and disruptive times we live in today.
Of course, teaching excellence is still a pervasive concept – ubiquitous in policy documents and university mission statements and yet it has been widely critiqued, perceived as a short hand for neoliberal and damaging notions of accountability and marketisation. Thinking about the loaded and limiting hegemony of excellence, we also wanted to explore whether the concept was still relevant for our work as teachers in a contemporary higher education context. Additionally, we felt that the recent disruption to all of our lives as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic might also offer an interesting frame to revisit what it means to teach within contemporary higher education as universities rush to adapt their teaching provision to a changed environment, often referred to as ‘the new normal’.
At the same time, we discussed how posthuman concepts might offer an exciting new direction to re-theorise both the notions of teaching excellence and the teaching and learning landscape. We were interested in exploring whether there might be room for a more expansive perspective of teaching excellence, one which unsettles narratives of human exceptionalism and which surfaces the relationality and fluidity of learning and teaching. Posthuman theory is rich in new concepts for thinking and doing higher education research and practice, and yet it is still exists in the margins of higher education and is not commonly adopted as a theoretical frame. Here, we play with how teaching excellence might be usefully re-imagined using posthuman theories – theories that offer us entirely new words and resources for thinking about learning and teaching. For example, using the lens of Rosi Braidotti’s frame of affirmative ethics, Karen Barad’s notion of intra-action, and Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of the rhizome and becoming.
Ultimately, we suggest that both the broader notion of teaching excellence and Skelton’s own conception are still generative today. However, we contend that there is a need for both a greater understanding of the fluidity of teaching development, as well as of the teacher’s entanglement with the wider material learning environment. We consider a collaborative, relational, ethical approach, that recognises the role of the teacher as part of a wider whole and that prioritises the joyful and the affirmative within higher education. We hope that our article will continue the conversation initiated by Skelton about the utility of teaching excellence in higher education, and about the need to look beyond the limits of neoliberal discourses, and we advocate finding space for practising collaborative, affirmative and non-competitive ways of thinking and acting.
We realise that adopting a posthuman lens will offer a challenge to many readers who may not be familiar with this literature. But we offer this deliberately, to test lines of thought that may have become habitual over the years and to re-assess terms that have become blunt in their overuse. If the notion of teaching excellence is to have any impact on practice, it must remain fresh and thought-provoking. Our observations suggest that the term has become more of a sedative than a stimulus, and we hope that our re-imagining of teaching excellence in this article will provoke debate and critique and help to keep discussions about the quality of teaching firmly at the forefront of the higher education discourse.
Karen Gravett and Ian Kinchin (University of Surrey)