So I am about to jump into part two of the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which all freshly baked lecturers have to undertake. Here in the UK this thing is kind of a secret handshake to welcome you into the club of the initiated. It also provides you with the professional standard of becoming a member of the Higher Education Academy—a professional body one has to belong to when lecturing in Higher Education.
I decided to read the course-handbook and discovered that a part of the summative assessment is writing a reflective report. Yup, therein squawks the toad … reflective report as summative assessment seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise. On top of this I just read an article cautioning the impact performative professional frameworks have on identity negotiations of the professional. The author even went as far as introducing the metaphor of masks to demonstrate the various forms of engagement with reflective writing in Higher Education teaching. Granted the author referred to students and online learning environments, which comes with a whole lot of additional issues. However, the article made me seriously think about the last reflective exercise I had to undertake as part of the first stage of this certificate.
How to lie not to lie: Wear a Mask of Performative Professionalism
I pretended that I saw the light and value in undertaking an action research project the way we were restricted to utilise this approach within the frame of having to pass this secret handshake initiation into our profession as university teachers. The way we were able to apply this approach pretty much left us with completing the first part of the action research process but not really undertaking a whole circle. Additionally not matter how much a lecturer tries to level the playing field in terms of power relations to the students, there is no way the lecturer and the student can meet eye to eye (just to overuse metaphors a bit). Maybe if one would have known about this approach a year in advance, and habitually provided space for student agency over the learning AND the teaching process*, and established relationships of trust then, and only maybe then, would the ideal action research have been possible. For the idea of action research appears as an idealistic notion hardly to be implemented in its truest form in practice.
It’s not a total dismissal!
I am not saying there is no value in this form to thinking about ones teaching but I believe it would be more honest to say we are subscribing to research informed practice, reflective practice or even good practice (which used to be the standard in schools). I have a serious issue with being forced into utilising one approach—and one approach only—to pass this certificate; when in fact the purpose of this certificate should be the development of our professionalism and therefore also the ability to make an educated decision about the research (reflective) approach that would be most suitable for our practice.
Perform an Assessment versus Reality
Now I could not address my criticism, no matter how many journal articles I found that would support my argument, in the small reflective spiel we had to give in our last summative assignment. I was afraid, if I would admit to my utter disagreement with the approach to our assessment, I could fail the assignment. And I cannot afford to fail the assignment—you know secret handshake and all that. So I did what the author in the previously mentioned article instigated and used a mask. I used the mask of adhering to structural coercion of my professional ideas and opinions, I used the mask of box-ticking (Can I pretend I agree with the performative restriction to my practice?) and I wrote that I, indeed, found the approach of action research useful. Whilst in reality the feedback I got from my colleagues provided me with the most significant insights in terms of the effectiveness of my pedagogy. They had a stronger relationship of trust with the students, and where ‘one removed from the direct power disparity of providing feedback to your teacher’. Example: they have been told by the students how funny, and lovely I am and how interesting my teaching. No such feedback made it into my evaluation forms—some grudgingly admitted useful and very usefuls aside.
Knightess—without a horse but the sword of epistemology!
Non of the action research activities provided the students with much voice in terms of my pedagogy. Because the tell me what you think approach, is not what informs my pedagogy. My pedagogy is informed by my students. Their minute by minute feedback, their body language, their verbal reaction, their engagement in activities, their dozing off in a lecture, the improvement of their grades, the questions they ask me and the questions they don’t ask, the self-initiated activities, the control and ownership they take of their learning is the voice of my students. These incidents, looks, sighs, and laughters show me how to amend my pedagogy. Not a prescribed cycle, evaluation forms and the obligatory focus group.
Bottom line, this time I will have to write a whole reflective report and I am afraid I might just fail the paper.
Unless, I find a stronger mask to wear.
I could add feathers.
And some bling.
*This was the aim of the exercise to provide students with a voice in deciding over our pedagogy. Which in itself is not impossible yet difficult, because even the provision of agency to the students is part of our pedagogy. The agency is not an illusion, a good teacher learns as much from her or his students as they learn from them—this at least is my humanist assumption. You see where this goes: a never ending argumentation chain.**
**I summarize: It’s difficult.