On failure

In my last post, I focused on an ongoing debate about obscurantism that is occurring in regards to academic writing. In it I said I wanted to talk about writing obscure work in regards to a specific paper and explain the thought process and why, ultimately I think it failed on its own terms. In 2013 I published in Studies in Philosophy of Education a paper (co-written with Ian Cook) called Mapping Teacher-Faces. The first point I would suggest is that this is a highly specialised journal, catering for a very specific readership. As the abstract suggests,

This paper uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of faciality to analyse the teacher’s face. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the teacher-face is a special type of face because it is an ‘overcoded’ face produced in specific landscapes.

Now this may appear pretty obscure stuff, and I do wince a little when I read that. Obviously in the paper  we define these terms, and apply them to what we see as a problem with much of our discourse about education, namely what do we mean by change, an implicit assumption in much of the school reform impetus that seems pretty ubiquitous in the contemporary moment.

The paper emerged from an empirical problem that arose from some research I was doing into NAPLAN, Australia’s literacy and numeracy tests. In a large survey of teachers that asked them about NAPLAN, focusing on positive and negatives, impacts on their teaching and school, there was a certain ‘regularity’ to the responses. Now, in terms of the responses they could be described as being roughly 80% negative about NAPLAN and 20% positive. This may or may not be surprising, at the time NAPLAN was very much in the news. However, with the exception of the 80/20 division, the responses were remarkably regular. How is it that a survey of almost 1,000 teachers records similarities, not just in terms of content (it may be expected that teachers like/dislike similar things) but in terms of phrasing, tone etc? Presumably experience is uniquely perceived, how is it that language becomes regulated in this case? The argument that we develop in the paper is that institutions, and the histories that saturate those institutions, act as a form of authority as to what is possible to be said.

I suppose I should say that I am deeply interested in what constitutes change, particularly within institutions. In other words, how do we ‘know’ change when we see it? What are the essential ingredients or characteristics that show that there has been a decisive rupture with what has occurred previously? Or what is new? Why should we desire this difference, presumably change is not inherently positive. I have been thinking about these questions since my UG Honours degree in History and Literature from UWA, where I spent years thinking about change and continuity in the context of history, and how often what we understand as the new can be thought of as a return of the old. My thesis was on fascism and Nazism, and its constitution as a new-old movement deeply rooted in mythologised notions of volk, blood, leadership.

EVRF1

But I digress.

My point was that defining ‘newness’ or ‘difference’ is not as easy as we think. I think this is a particular problem for education discourse, the appeal of ‘the new’ is seductive, and it is used in a variety of ways with one of the most obvious being a certain commodification – if you can convince people that something is new, it is much easier to sell. Often I think we don’t really want something new, rather we want something comfortably similar, and their may be good reasons for this.

For me, the most interesting philosopher of the new is Gilles Deleuze. In his book Difference and Repetition, a book Deleuze himself said is “full of academic elements, it’s heavy going”, Deleuze grappled with what he called simulacrum,  that is, those things that appear to be different/new but are really repetitions. In the end, his argument was that the only difference that is new, that is difference in itself, is thought. This has been something I’ve been thinking through for years.

There is much talk around in education these days about change, as a society we appear to have a fetish for innovation, and social media appears full of exhortations for teachers to change. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to this, but I often find myself asking what is really different in what is being proposed.

The implications for teachers are complex, as Graham Nuthall maintained. Teaching is inherently a rhythmic, traditional repetition of patterns and memories, passed down through experience.

One of the most significant things about culture is that it becomes so much a part of ourselves that we can no longer see it for what it is. The more familiar it is, the more it is like the air we breathe the harder it is for us to see it.

School teaching is like that. We all spend at least 10 of the most formative years of our life in school. We all become, through this common experience, experts in what it means to be a teacher and a student. As we often jokingly complain, everyone is an expert on schooling.

I have been involved in research on teaching and learning in classrooms for about 40 years, and it has taken that long for me to understand just how much of what we do in schools is a matter of cultural tradition…

But to get back to the paper, it was an attempt to think through why it is so difficult for teaching to change, to become different, rooted as it is in a normative expression of culture that continue to suggest that the teacher should do this, say this, act like this. It tried to theorise the limit points of disposition, of the extreme historical philosophies that could be held and still claimed to be doing teaching. It was enormously fun and challenging to write. It went through 6 reviewers, because each time there was a split decision, one reviewer loved it and one reviewer thought it was absolute pants. At the time I thought this was a sign that it was cutting edge, a testament to its innovation.

But ultimately, the paper has been a failure thus far because it has attracted little interest. I think there are three reasons possible for this:

  1. It is too obscure. Reading back through it now the paper seems a bit smugly convinced of its own cleverness, and as such fails the test of audience. No one really reads it because it is written for itself.
  2. I think good theoretical work is where ideas and contemporary problems meet such that a conceptual contribution can be made to debates. As I reflect on this now, I wonder how urgent the problem of the meeting of culture and teaching, the theorisation of difference and repetition, as subjectivity actually was. After all, as Deleuze said:

A theory is exactly like a box of tools… It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate… It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.

3. It just might not be very good.

Ultimately, it is probably a combination of all three of these. On the one hand, if I had my time again, I sometimes wonder if I’d write this paper differently. It would be well discussed and cited, and I could bask in the glow of an academic done good. Utility and all that. But I probably wouldn’t. Ultimately academic writing shouldn’t be about popularity, it served a necessary purpose in thinking through a problem. And we can never know how ideas will be taken up, which work resonates, and why. There is no controlling readership I guess. Ultimately, I learnt a lot from the writing of this paper, perhaps some thoughts on what not to do in the future.

On obscurantism

Recently I read this post Complexification facilitates obscurantist discourses and it got me thinking. Not about the obvious point that despite the charge of being obscure, the paper seemed to be well understood by the author, so it can’t really have been that obscure. Of course, what followed was a Twitter flame war – how could it not? And don’t get me wrong, I love a flame war as much as anyone. Sides are picked, DMs flow and teams meet outside the virtual bike racks for a turf war. Tweets fly thick and fast: riposte, parry, move in for the kill etc. And everyone else on twitter probably thinks those people clogging their feed are being massive dicks (I do wonder about that – does my perception ring true?)

What I am really interested in doing in this post is making an argument about purpose and audience, and to try to explain to a wider audience how academic publishing actually works, what the incentives are and why academics write the ways that they do. Of course, like most things I am sure that we can all improve, but I am more interested in challenging the idea that complexity is necessarily a bad thing, or the only thing, that academics engage in. As Pat Thomson said in this post we often assume that obscure journal articles are all that academics produce:

Don’t worry about the fact that there is a lot of other academic writing out there that is much more accessible and straightforward. Don’t worry that lots of academics now write for newspapers and blogs. Don’t worry that some of them even write for you. Just say “ivory tower” ,”real world” and “incomprehensible” a few times and no one will bother about how selective you’ve been in your choice of examples.

And before I begin this post, I need to make three things clear. First, I am not directly responding to the post lest I be accused of setting up strawmen. Rather I am thinking through it as one provocation amongst many regarding how academics write. Second, I know the authors of the article very well, but my intention is not to defend them, they are experienced academics and can take umbrage on their own account if they wish. Third, I’ve written much more obscure work than this myself (a point I will return to in my next post) and have wrestled with complexity and communication, and made various decisions about that in my academic career.

Now, I used to be a High School teacher of English and Literature amongst other things, I also taught History, PE and Woodwork at various times in WA (which is why I use the WA Syllabus, I understand it the best). When it came to teaching composition, the syllabus and I were pretty clear, purpose and audience are central considerations for assessing the quality of writing. For example, the WA K-10 English Syllabus states that in Year 1 students will:

Understand that the purposes texts serve shape their structure in predictable ways(ACELA1447)

As the syllabus goes on, increasing the complexity with which primary and high school students are meant to understand the ways that purpose influences both structure and language.

The same is true for audience. Once again, returning to WA K-10 English Syllabus, Year 2 students will:

Understand that spoken, visual and written forms of language are different modes of communication with different features and their use varies according to the audience, purpose, context and cultural background (ACELA1460)

and

Create short imaginative, informative and persuasive texts using growing knowledge of text structures and language features for familiar and some less familiar audiences, selecting print and multimodal elements appropriate to the audience and purpose (ACELY1671)

Once again, the syllabus neatly extends the application of these concepts, so that in Year 12 students will:

So, from this I would like to suggest that understanding purpose and audience is essential for the students that we teach, and that the same should be applied to academic texts. Further, what I do want to talk is the notion of purpose and audience from the perspective of an academic. And this is a conversation I have with Early Career Academics all the time these days as part of my job. For everything you write, there is a purpose and an audience, and this dictates how you approach the task of writing, where it is submitted for publication and how you phrase your contribution.

Purpose

While I don’t want to get bogged down in research genre here (ie research reviews, meta analyses, case studies etc), it is enough to claim that academic texts have different purposes. Some are written to report on research findings, and contribute to the known body of empirical research. There are lots of journals that cater for these kinds of articles. Some academic work is written to challenge our thinking. Often, this research is published in different journals. Sometimes, articles are written as thought experiments, where positions or theories are taken ‘out on the road’ so to speak, put to use.

Audience

Relatedly, there are different audiences that influence how we write. My sense is that this is one of the most poorly understood aspects of academic publishing, both within the academy and without it. Sometimes, academics write for each other, and even specifically for those whose interests are closely aligned. The purpose of this type of paper can be to advance a very specific knowledge set amongst a very specific readership. These tend to be published in academic journals that are highly specialised, with a readership that is also highly specialised. If we return to the paper that inspired this blog, I didn’t find it particularly hard to read, nor do I find words like dispositif difficult to understand, but I imagine that academics like me are the intended audience for a paper like this. This is true in all disciplines in my experience, and when this is not taken into account can make the research seem trivial, or even silly. I think this is an ungenerous tactic but not unusual, one thinks about the ways that Derrida’s work was trivialised at various stages.

On other occasions, academics write for a broader academic audience, and this is often published in multidisciplinary journals that have an eclectic audience representing multiple research orientations and theoretical traditions. These tend to be the journals that publish both qualitative and quantitative articles, disparate theoretical traditions alongside each other. Generally, but not always, these journals are less ‘jargony’ and can focus on the empirical moreso than the conceptual. Some of the biggest and most prestigious academic journals as measured by impact factors and rejection rates fit this explanation.

As well there are other journals that we call practitioner focused. These journals or periodicals tend to be written with much less focus on academic discourse and much more on pragmatic language and practical insight. Of course, it doesn’t mean that these articles reach different conclusions from articles written for academics, it just means that audience dictates that these are written differently. As well, there is the media work that academics do through outlets like The Conversation and blogs that are both important and require consideration of how best to communicate to lay audiences.

Now, I haven’t touched on books and book chapters, but needless to say that the same can be said here. Some books are meant for practitioners, some are highly specialised and intended for specialised audiences. Expecting one to be the other seems to be a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

Before I finish, I would like to make two points. First, I think that it is important that academics have a varied approach to publishing, to write journal articles that are for specialised audiences, to write for practitioners and the public. However, we mustn’t forget that universities run according to metrics, and those metrics do privilege certain forms of outputs. I sometimes get the sense that some are surprised that academics write journal articles. My response to that is that is what we are paid to do, and institutions tend to judge ‘quality’ very differently than the public. Second, I think we should acknowledge that some of the most important academic work in education is done via presentations to groups of practitioners. In my time I have presented to ‘expert’ teacher groups, principal associations, high level bureacrats and parents groups. I don’t mention Deleuze or the eternal return there, that is for sure! To conclude, I’d like to post a video of Bob Lingard recapping a presentation on equity to teachers and principals in NZ and I’ll leave it for you to judge whether he is an obscurantist or not.