What do activism and power look like?

Title slide for our AARE 2018 symposium

I have been thinking about a question from the audience during the AARE symposium I chaired and presented in yesterday. The symposium abstract (below) outlined the notion of flipping the education system as a thread connecting the five papers presented.

The education system, in Australia and around the world, has governments and policymakers at its apex, making decisions disconnected from those at the nadir: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. The individuals and groups that wield influence on education policy and practice operate bureaucratically are physically removed from schools. They construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact on teacher agency. This education policy environment was evident in the recent Gonski 2.0 report with its focus on PISA, NAPLAN, and rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ failing generations of Australians. A focus on numbers and rankings contribute to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and a culture of performativity.

This symposium shares perspectives around the notion of ‘flipping’ the education system in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling at the margins, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often side-lined in education discourse and education policy. This collection of diverse papers together makes a compelling case for change in education policy and practice by tackling: elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders; teachers’ perceptions of commercialisation in Australian schools; discourses that silence Indigenous voices in education; authentic engagement between teachers and Indigenous families and communities; and empowering educators to reclaim narratives of schooling.

During the symposium’s question time, an audience member suggested that if we were going to really ‘flip the system’ in education that there would need to be some sort of (Foucauldian) rupture, a traumatic breaking apart of the system in order to rebuild it. He told us that as presenters we were (too) measured and polite in our arguments, something he didn’t see as necessarily able to flip a system. Where was the rupturing, the eruption, the kapow of revolution?

I have wondered before about activism and the forms it takes. Who can be an activist? Is it only those with secure, late-career jobs? Can the early career teacher or researcher really challenge the system in which they work when that can put them at risk of unemployment or further precarity and uncertainty? Does an activist have to look, act and speak a certain way? Can an activist use the apparatuses of power in order to undermine that power, or does she need different tools?

donning the FEAS power dressing blazer

I also wonder what power looks like. This week at the AARE conference, I took part in the Feminist Educators Against Sexism (FEAS) power dressing project, which you can read more about here. Above are two photos a colleague took of me while I was wearing the FEAS symbolic power dressing blazer. In the first, I am laughing as I prepare for the photo, and in the second I am attempting a ‘power pose’. I like the first photo better. I love the symbolism and the gallery of images of the FEAS power dressing project, which show the range of ways women can appear powerful. What I am questioning here is my own discomfort with performing power in a way that might not be authentic. I wish I had worn my favourite red lipstick and laughed at the camera (although I did manage a sardonic raised eyebrow). Power doesn’t have to be a Rosie the Riveter bicep curl or a ferocious snarl. It doesn’t have to be loud, enraged or serious. It can be quiet, comfortable or joyful. Powerful women can and do smile, and enjoy the way they dress and the way they look, as well as their contributions to work and life.

my FEAS power dressing photo (credit: Linda Knight)

In the Flip the (education) System movement—explored in a variety of ways in yesterday’s symposium and in our new book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education—we believe that teaching, leading, researching and writing are political acts. In education, we are all activists. But activism does not have to be violent or deafening. Many of the arguments in the book and in yesterday’s symposium are measured and polite, as our audience member pointed out. Our intention is that a greater range of voices be invited to and heard at the decision making tables of bureaucracy and policymaking in education. In order to be invited in, we need to engage with system level decision makers in considered and convincing ways. We can do that with words and research, not just with placards and protests.

Our book chapters provide examples of resistance that is logical and beautifully articulated. In their chapter, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that international large scale assessments like PISA should not be dismissed. They have a place in the education landscape, but that teachers can be part of engaging with them in order to inform education systems. “Who,” the authors ask, “has better vantage point from which to shape the public debate about quality education than the educators who are constantly striving to deliver it in our schools?” (p. 62).

In her chapter, Rebecca Cody invites school leaders to abandon binary thinking that leads to schools embracing either performative accountabilities, or principles of holistic education. She argues that school leaders can and should ride both these ‘wild horses’ simultaneously.

Melitta Hogarth calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “be more vocal and ‘stand on toes’”, to “unite in our concerns for our children’s futures, demanding a position at the table” (p. 113), but acknowledges the difficulties and complexities inherent in such a call.

These chapters reflect the point made by Nicole Mockler and Susan Groundwater-Smith in their new book, Questioning the language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming language, in which they suggest that it might not be fruitful to argue against concepts such as quality, standards and improvement, but that we can resist and reclaim the way these are used in education. We can focus on growth, collaboration, and professionalism, for instance, rather than using accountabilities as a stick with which to beat teachers and schools.

So, I have reflected on our audience member’s question about the need for a rupture in the system, in order to flip it, liquefy it, and democratise it. We speakers and writers are hyper aware that we are using the structures and language of the powerful in order to speak into this space. Book chapters written in fairly formal English and referencing academic texts could be seen to perpetuate the very system we are attempting to challenge. But we can work to change the system from the inside out.

Foucault, who was mentioned by our questioner, noted that there are occasional radical ruptures, but that more often there are smaller forces or moments of resistance. Those of us within the system can agitate in ways that are dramatic and fierce, but also be in ways that are eloquent and subtle. Revolution and power can come in the form of micro rebellions and the snowballing of a collective voice that is revolutionary in its strength in numbers, in its logic, and in its unwavering persistence to nudge the system towards positive change.

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Doctoral supervision: From the PhD Panopticon to circle of awesome

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? ~ Michel Foulcault, Discipline and Punish

chapel by @debsnet

circular chapel with spire

This week, Module 2 of the How to Survive the PhD MOOC asked us to take a photo of something in our daily lives which harks back to the history of the doctorate, and comment on it, perhaps considering the remnants of history on our own doctoral experience.

Although not medieval or at a university, I was immediately drawn to the chapel of the school at which I work. It has two elements which might be seen to allude to the history of the doctorate.

The chapel has a large spire atop it, which appears as a sharp white spike, piercing the blue sky. The spire speaks of the monastic traditions of the PhD, which was originally based on an understanding of the Bible. Whenever I’m sitting in this chapel, I’m aware of the presence of that spire, which looks like a kind of direct line to God, awaiting a lightning bolt of inspiration or knowledge, or carrying prayers to the heavens.

The circular form of the building is the other feature which has me thinking about my experience of the PhD. Could it represent an ideal cycle of PhD completion or be an Orwellian metaphor of authority, surveillance and control?

On the one hand, the symbol of the circle might help us to think of the PhD journey as a complete, unified process. Although most candidates do not experience a seamless journey, they might feel at the end of their doctoral studies that the cycle or circle is complete (not, hopefully, like they have ‘come full circle’, but that they have tied up the ends of a long process).

A circle often also suggests infinity, and certainly the PhD process can feel like it is never-ending. Just as one PhD milestone is completed, there are already more laid out before the candidate.

circle by @debsnet

In a less positive view of the circular building, I am reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Michel Foucault’s Panopticism. The Panopticon was a circular prison building with a central watchman’s tower, perfect for surveillance and control. The prisoners were separated from each other by concrete walls, and yet potentially under constant surveillance from the eye of the watchman. The watchtower emanated bright light, so that at any time each prisoner was unsure if or when they were being watched. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a symbol of power through the knowledge and observation of the watchman, and the disempowerment of the imprisoned and the watched who were robbed of knowledge.

I wonder how traditional vs. non-traditional views of the doctorate might relate to the Panopticon. Often PhD researchers are isolated, like Panopticon prisoners in their cells. They are watched over in varied ways and to differing degrees. Some may feel like they are unaware of the knowledge of the watchman, those in the academy who know what a PhD is, and what a PhD researcher should be doing; the watchtower is knowledge from which the candidate is excluded. Some might feel as though they are working away in their cells beneath the eye of no-one, abandoned by beacons of power to toil alone, un-watched and un-helped. Perhaps some research students would like more constant watching and checking in by their supervisors. Some are watched over generously by kindly supervisors who are far from the invisible authority in the blindingly-lit tower.

Despite Foucault’s observation that the idea of constant surveillance could help with self-governing behaviours – that people who think they are being watched develop agency and self-discipline – I would hope that the modern PhD experience feels very little like being invisibly surveyed by those in authority, where the candidate is power-less and the academe is power-full. PhD candidates should not be seen as a population which needs to be under the control of powers that be. Doctoral researchers should be capable of independent research and provided with supervisory support.

In my own experience of supervision, I have found that the supervisory relationship slides along a continuum as it changes over time. At first I felt very much like the enthusiastic apprentice to the knowledgeable masters. Never was I, however, expected to emulate the masters. The PhD is about creation of new knowledge, not emulation of old knowledge. In my Fine Art study we copied the Old Masters so as to understand how they did their work, but then took this knowledge and bent or broke rules to generate new ways of creating, producing or knowing. Research, like art, is conversation in which layers of meaning are added.

At some point along the way I felt as though I became a peer or collaborator in my supervision meetings, with some of my own expertise to offer, although my supervisors are still the experts in PhD completion and peer review processes. I became the expert on my own work. Finding my own voice and owning my contribution was an important step in developing my researcher identity.

I still feel sometimes as though I am working behind soundproof concrete walls, alone in the PhD studio (it has not been a cell for me). Yet connections with tweeters, bloggers, and now the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC online community, have helped me feel more connected to others experiencing the doctorate from their various vantage points. My circle has become more campfire-Kumbaya and less panoptic Orwellian control.