Friday, 8 May 2015

How might we orient students towards Critical Inquiry?

One of the results of the rampant marketisation of HE has been a kind of "qualification inflation" as individuals have sought to distinguish themselves from each other: as the market drives everyone to acquire a degree, a degree or even a masters becomes less meaningful as a mark of distinction (unless it is from an elite institution). So what's next? It seems that PhD is the qualification that everyone is reaching for - often irrespective of a burning desire or capacity to produce original work.

Educationally, PhD presents some interesting opportunities. It remains largely open and unregulated. Whilst undergraduate qualifications have become increasingly tied-up in the bureaucracy and quasi-legalism of learning outcomes, modules and assignments, PhD is (technically) a blank canvas. That means there are opportunities for teachers to explore things with their students which they are unable to do at other levels: it is the space for inquiry which is so sadly lacking from education beyond kindergarten.

However, PhD does require the defence of an approach to a problem, and deep intellectual engagement with outcomes. In all sciences, it requires criticality. In the social sciences, criticality entails politics and ethics. It is in criticality that the real challenges for supervisors lies.

Criticality is about questioning assumptions; often questioning the things that were drummed into you from school onwards - all the things that you had been conditioned to accept as true. An education system that rewards compliance with official doctrine is not a good preparation for critical inquiry at PhD level. If habits have been established in the student in the past which suppressed doubt and misgiving in the face of the power of the institution (or teachers) and the desire to pass the course, these habits can be very hard to shake even at PhD level. Fear rules and critical inquiry is compromised. Worse still is that in current employment practices in Universities, academics themselves are increasingly rewarded for game-playing (publications, citations, peer review) meaning that they too may find radical critical inquiry a challenge to established habits. The nightmare situation is of a frightened academic supervising a frightened PhD student, with a frightened external examiner. Is this situation the student may even pass, but fear is passed on and knowledge is fundamentally lost within the system.

My personal approach to this has been to hold to a kind of mantra that I should always aim to learn more from my students than I attempt to get them to learn from me. It's a way of saying that it is the relationship between students and teachers which is the most important thing, not any particular items of knowledge. Perhaps by becoming open to being taught by my students, I am modelling what it is to be open to critiquing my own ideas: students seem to learn from that (as I did from the best of my teachers in University). This is the critical behaviour that one would want to see in students - an openness to be challenged, a continual engagement and reassessment of the problems of one's discipline.

The mantra is basically "model criticality". When students have been used to teachers who tell them facts, and that those facts are the things they should regurgitate in order to pass, the idea of a supervisor listening carefully to what they (the students) know can be surprising. Better still if these interactions are captured in forms where the interactions can be replayed. The capture of the intersubjectivity of these kinds of encounters is one of the great benefits of modern technology (much more significant than MOOCs, I think)

This is not to say that having guides in the form of textbooks or interesting methodologies is not important. Supervisors are usually a step ahead (or ought to be) because they have trodden the territory of their students before them. Most books on methodology are pretty dreadful and encourage a kind of 'textbook-rewriting' in the thesis which I have seen too often. There are one or two exceptions, amongst which I think Peter Clough's book ("A student's guide to methodology") is excellent. His mantra is also "be critical". By contrast an uncritical approach to methodology can result in methodology being seen as a crank to turn in order to process data into research findings. I've seen far too many ungrounded "Grounded Theory" implementations which proceed like this which leave so many deep questions unasked (not necessarily a criticism of Grounded Theory per se, but certainly a criticism of its unchallenged application which smacks of research Guru-ism)

Methodology will always be hopelessly dry if it is divorced from the things that matter to the student in their inquiry. I don't think good original work can emerge from a situation where the student isn't passionately committed to their inquiry. The problem of course is that students begin their studies thinking (or perhaps, wishing) they are passionately committed, only to change their mind later on. What results is a "losing of the thread" and with it a loss of determination and will. This is why modelling criticality is so important. The supervisor's advantage is that they might have a bit more staying power and more technique for dealing with difficult topics. The real benefit of this is that they can use it to drill into the roots of the student's own passion and learn more about their students. Powerful questions and careful listening to the students answers by the supervisor can be a fruitful path to an enriching experience for both.

Defending a thesis is a frightening prospect: although students tend to be terrified of writing 80,000 words, it is really the least of their problems (when they worry about the writing rather than the defence, the writing is often not very good!) It is hard to defend things that really don't matter to you. Critical inquiry is about discovering and giving voice to the things that matter. Inevitably this means that the topic, the method, the analysis and the conclusions have an internal coherence and give voice to the student's personal identify. I suspect that only by revealing the workings and origin of our own academic identities can this transformation in others be achieved. 

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