Academic developers should be critical in the culture wars

As moral panics engulf the higher education sector, Lee-Ann Sequeira argues that academics and academic developers should contest and critique both the policies and practice being implemented.

Lee-Ann Sequeira is an Academic Developer at the LSE

Gavin Williamson’s free speech proposals have pretty much everyone on both sides of the issue denouncing it. But as with many issues and debates today, there is not much appreciation of the facts, history, context, evidence, or even the terminology.

As an academic (or educational) developer – a role that has become increasingly important in higher education, especially as a result of the pandemic – I provide advice to staff and work with them to develop their teaching.

The past year has seen my profession work flat out to enable our institutions to move swiftly online and provide continuity of education for students. That may now be how my role is viewed institutionally in the sector – but some of us academic developers, have a different notion.

We see ourselves occupying liminal spaces – caught up in the cross-currents of research v. education, the centre (institution) v. the departments or faculties, staff v. students, consumerist education culture v. the purpose of higher education.

Our professional identities are often in flux as we try to reconcile the different demands being made of us. Our official role as purveyors of academic development and our ability to navigate contested spaces uniquely equip us to address this moral panic, which is what it is.

Teaching the free speech debate

I teach a module – Contemporary Issues in Teaching and Learning, on the Postgraduate Certificate for Higher Education at my institution – where we recently discussed the free speech debate currently playing out in higher education. As would be expected of a higher education programme, we read academic papers, more mainstream journals, and recent podcasts and blogposts.

We engaged with a variety of viewpoints – from free speech campaigners in the UK as well as international scholars whose livelihoods are under threat. What struck me about our session, in contrast to the polarised media reports on the issue, is the importance of reasoned debate on the topic. This doesn’t mean that we need to check our passion and beliefs at the door, but that we need to engage with an open mind and intellectual courage and humility which are avowedly the values of academe.

In the session, we started with a thought experiment that served to highlight how our thinking and understanding and that of our students is shaped. It also reset the dynamic in the room. We discussed how fraught current discourse is and attempted to sift through logical fallacies, cognitive biases, evidence, interests and agendas, theory, history, and context. We uncovered blind spots – when constructive disagreement is about tolerance for some and respect for others, and when “safe space” is shorthand for “I should not be expected to justify my viewpoint.”

When we uncovered biases during the session, they were not always acknowledged explicitly. We didn’t spend enough time discussing how modern discourse is increasingly mediated by networks and algorithms and how this has informed our understanding. We didn’t explore sufficiently the perverse incentives that encourage academics and students to hew to safe topics and sanctioned debate.

But the point of critical academic development courses and sessions is not to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the issues, nor to evangelise – but to expose academics to different ways of perceiving the education system and higher education more generally.

Today I’m on a course

Postgraduate higher education certificate programmes have unfortunately become an institutional tool mandated by the powers-that-be to upskill academics. There are frameworks that build in knowledge and values, but they are easily reduced to a diagram and a checkbox. Aping the trend in the sector, the danger is that learning and assessment on these programmes have become largely instrumental exercises in performativity.

So it is therefore important for us as academic developers, in our growing numbers, not to be just the Master’s tools, but to disturb and disrupt – to engage in a spirit of productive discomfort. Discussing issues such as the impending free speech legislation is not going to be a comfortable discussion if we deviate from the government-issued playbook.

There are risks associated with it, and for academic developers such as myself who are not afforded the basic protections of academic freedom, those on limited-term contracts, and others in precarious situations, it is an undeniably difficult decision. But let’s look at the evidence.

According to the Office for Students a mere 0.09% of requests for events with external speakers were rejected in 2017-18. That’s 53 event requests rejected out of 62,094 requests. The King’s College survey shows that an overwhelming 81% of students value freedom of expression, with 51% of students surveyed indicating they feel there is a greater threat to freedom of expression in wider society than in their universities.

But we must also consider the subjective experiences of academics who have been silenced, resorted to self-censorship, been intimidated, or had their careers ended. Francesca Minerva, a bioethicist, who co-published a paper on the ethics of infanticide, wrote tellingly about the hate she and her co-author endured for years. Arif Ahmed, a philosopher, cites the discrimination faced by gender-critical staff and students and welcomes Williamson’s statement on free speech, while questioning the imposition of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism on universities by the government.

This has all the ingredients of a difficult discussion – it’s a controversial, emotive topic, laden with rhetoric, and our understanding of the issues is still evolving. Not surprisingly, there’s not much appetite to lead or facilitate these kinds of discussions. But the other options lead to us being dictated to by the powers-that-be resulting in university staff having to comply with a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion that assuages the risk-averse culture prevalent in universities today.

The government and higher education institutions have both shown us that they will pursue the agenda that fits their interests even if it results in conflicts on the ground as highlighted by universities implementing the Prevent duty on campus, while attempting to create a sense of belonging among its students.

Future strategies

As in the Contemporary Issues session I teach, I propose two strategies for my fellow-academic developers’ consideration.

To borrow from Stephen Ball, let’s begin by considering the notion of value, not values. If we eschew (or even de-prioritise) a largely instrumental approach driven by the Teaching Excellence Framework and glowing student evaluations for a more political and politicised approach, we can position ourselves to practise pedagogical citizenship.

Through the programmes we run and the advice we offer to our colleagues, we must avoid becoming complicit in the cultivation and celebration of the “good” academic or model teacher who jumps on the issue-of-the-day bandwagon at the appropriate time, spouting platitudes and conforming to the safe, sanctioned standards of excellence.

In his book, The Enquiring University: Compliance and Contestation in Higher Education, Stephen Rowland explains how the work of academic developers is often about the “craft of teaching” and that it needs to become more critical and enquiry-based if it is to remain relevant.

In several academic development sessions I have attended (and journal articles that I have read), there appears to be a tendency to allow questionable assumptions or flawed conclusions to go unchecked or unchallenged. It is important to identify, name, justify, challenge, and critique claims and comments during the development sessions we run in order to cultivate a tradition of analytical rigour in practice and scholarship, particularly in a developing field like ours.

Catherine Manathunga describes how “notions of pedagogy have been bleached of their complexity and richness as power relations between learners, teachers and knowledge … and reduced to narrow, technical ‘professional rules for practice.”

What passes for critical reflection on several academic development programmes (and sometimes even in journal articles) is too often glorified navel-gazing with a nod to the key theorists and redemption/conversion stories that hit the right celebratory notes. We need to be precise in our definitions and rigorous and nuanced in our explanations, and expect the same of our student colleagues.

So in terms of the free speech furore, a good starting point is teaching and appreciating the difference between free speech, free expression, open enquiry, and academic freedom, and how easy it is to elide those distinctions and how problematic that can be.

But we know all this. There is a small, but significant, clutch of academic developers engaged in producing critical, rigorously analytical scholarship that addresses these issues and proposes solutions; so why isn’t this the norm in our practice and the research we produce?

Gert Biesta says that we do not pay sufficient attention to the “‘of what” and the “for what” of the learning.” Perhaps if as academic developers, we changed our approach from campus cheerleader, change agent, or compliant co-worker to true critical friend, we might be able to help cultivate in the university colleagues who attend our classes and workshops, a healthy scepticism, intellectual humility, and the appetite to interrogate, defend, and contest education theory, practice, and policy.

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