Value, time and technology in educational institutions

I will be presenting this at WSU in Sydney on the 14th of November (I better write it soon).

Institutions have always had a reciprocal relationship with an ordered, regulated experience of time. This point was underscored by the British historian E.P. Thompson who argued that the shift from “task orientation” to “timed labour” that occurred in industrialised society such that “time is now currency: it is not passed but spent” (Thompson, 1967, p.61). In their analysis of Thompson’s argument, Glennie and Thrift (1996, p. 277) summarise Thompson’s thesis as arguing changes in time-discipline “involved much broader cultural changes” than simply work conditions. In other words, the extension of time becomes an intension a “the imposition and eventual internalization of a specific ‘time orientation’ to labour and life” (Glennie & Thrift, 1996, p. 277). Thompson (1967, p.84) went on to argue that this was especially true of the school, it became a place where “time-thrift” could be internalised as an aspect of (largely) Protestant virtue. However, Glennie and Thrift (1996, p. 278) go onto argue that there is an historical specificity to Thompson’s argument that the period in which he wrote was the high point of the “synchronization of societies”. More recent accounts of the politics of time stress what may be termed desynchronization, or social time “as intrinsically manifold; as multiple and heterogeneous; as a discontinuous process” (Glennie & Thrift, 1996, p. 278).

This paper consists of 3 key arguments:

  1. That time and education are co-constitutive and there have been numerous examples of time and/or education being altered due to shifting emphases in these relations. In particular, all value is essentially temporal, there is no value outside of its location within broader social, political and cultural determinations.
  2. Further, that there is a relationship between value (what is valued, how it is valued and why it is valued) and perceptions of time itself, as the German sociologist Hartmunt Rosa (2010; 2009) has shown.
  3. That technological change is impacting on institutional education in a number of ways, not least of which through a reconfiguration of value.



Glennie, P., & Thrift, N. (1996). Reworking EP Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’. Time & Society, 5 (3), 275-299.

Rosa, H. (2010). High-speed society: Social acceleration, power, and modernity. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Rosa, H. (2009). Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronised High-Speed Society. In H. Rosa, & W. Scheuerman, High-speed society: Social acceleration, power, and modernity (pp. 77-112). Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Thompson, E. P. (1967). Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism. Past & Present, 38, 56-97.


Beyond Public Education

This is a paper I gave with Sam Sellar (now at Manchester Metropolitan University) at AARE in Perth in 2015. It’s… well… a somewhat controversial line.

Beyond public education

Sam Sellar and Greg Thompson


Privatisation is one of the biggest issues currently facing education globally. The entry of new non-state actors into education policy making and service provision has been enabled by state restructuring. The state has become an enabler of network governance with private companies, NGOs and philanthropic actors. One response to this changing politics has been the mobilisation of Education International and teachers’ unions in response to the global education industry seeking to maximise economic opportunities opened up by state restructuring and technological changes that create new opportunities to profit from data work in education. What is being contested here is the ideal of public education in the face of political and technological challenges to its integrity. In this paper, we draw on the work of Deleuze and Guattari to problematise these new relations between thought/learning, public education, technological change and privatisation.

For Deleuze, thinking or learning does not occur through recognition; it requires disruptions of perceptual and cognitive schema. Something must force us to think and thought is a deterritorialising force. In their collaborative writing, Deleuze and Guattari developed a theory of the relation between capitalism and State formations that attributes a deterritorialising function to capitalism and a reterritorializing function to the state and the family. Each of these institutions, which can be considered primary sites of education in capitalist societies, provide a model for thought and desire that captures learning in pre-existing territories. In contrast, the deterritorialising force of thought and capital raises interesting questions concerning possible affinities here. Moreover, as an anti-Platonist, Deleuze does not recognise transcendental forms and thus provides no conceptual grounds for conceiving of an ideal ‘public’ against which the privatisation of education can be opposed. Deleuze is also critical of actually-existing-democracy due to its consensualism and its alliance with essentialist groundings of human rights. But, Deleuze and Guattari are also strongly critical of the commercialisation of education and of conceptual work by the advertising industry. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s seven axioms of capital as outlined in A Thousand Plateaus presents us with interesting problematisations of the relations between learning, democracy, public education and privatisation that unsettle the coordinates that usually structure debates about these issues. The paper will develop a theoretical argument concerning these problems through readings of key texts on public education in the Deweyan/progressive tradition of educational scholarship.


Our paper seeks to unsettle a particular problematisation: public versus private schooling. In this respect, our paper may have been more appropriately titled, Beyond public versus private schooling. Specifically, we are interested in asking what it is about public schooling that should be affirmed; put differently, what is it about public education which is important? This is a very significant question, particularly given our current times where the project of State-owned education, usually conceived as a public good, is on the cusp of change effected by forces both within and without the State. We will propose that the answer to the question about what should be affirmed is no longer a matter of which organization funds a school or school system, or the principles of access that govern that school or system, rather what matters most in our contemporary times will be the relationship between thought (understood as the move beyond thought “as a model the process of recognition – in other words, a common sense or employment of all the faculties on a supposed same object” to become “as involving encounters which escape all recognition; or as confronting its true enemies, which are quite different from thought; or as attaining that which tears thought from its natural torpor and notorious bad will, and forces us to think” Difference and Repetition p.xvi), commercial organisations (understood as edu-businesses, new policy actors and networks) and the State (which is entering into new partnerships with edu-business and instantiating new policy networks that in and of themselves are trapped in the traditional image of thought).

In other words, our thinking about public education has poorly prepared us to work against its commercialisation because the logics that have sustained public education are being deployed in new ways by commercial interests to effect change. In this, we use Ball and Youdell’s (2008) distinction between the privatisation of education and privatisation in education, defining the latter as ‘the opening up of public education services to private sector participation (usually) on a for-profit basis and using the private sector to design, manage or deliver aspects of public education’ (p. X). Our focus here will be on privatisation in education, or the reconfiguration of public education that has occurred with the restructuring of the state and new opportunities for edu-businesses “symbolic of new and complex forms of governance, characterised by the formation of new policy networks and communities of expertise, new transnational policy discourses and new knowledge flows” (Thompson, Savage & Lingard, 2016, p.1). However, the language of privatisation can be confusing because it can be understood to include the provision of education by any non-government organisation, from the Catholic Church to Microsoft. We will prefer the term commercialisation, and the notion of commercialisation in education, in order to sharpen the focus on for-profit modes of education.

In particular, we draw on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to open up the problem of commercialisation in education. Public education has become a placeholder for a variety of progressive arguments about liberal democracy, social democracy and a specific version of egalitarianism. These definitions of public education tend to focus on its importance for democracy; that is, a belief that inclusive access necessarily strengthens the demos. Within these powerful logics of sense, critiques tend to focus on commercialisation as containing threats to democracy: for example Harvey’s (2005) term the ‘accumulation by dispossession’. This accumulation of dispossession occurs in two ways, first when any public good is turned to private profit (commercialisation), and second when a few profit from unequal provision of what ought to be an equally available public good (elite schooling). However, as we have stated above, the problem with this line of thinking is that it is precisely the values of equity, quality and inclusivity that are central to the claims of commercialisation. One thinks here, for example, of Pearson’s for-profit schools in Africa. In searching for new ways to think through this problem, we turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s line of critique that does not begin with values (e.g. democracy). The problem with thinking public education through its apparent or ideal values is that this becomes a circular argument, what is valued is what is taught and what is taught, is what is valued. Thus, the commonly held argument that public education is a democratic good elides the fact that it serves a particular economic structure that it replicates through the values that are inscribed. In other words, if the highest value of thought is to create a new way of thinking, when public education remains a mask for modes of capitalist individuation and cognition, we remove a possibility of thinking otherwise and indeed perpetuate the logics that commercialisation requires to reconfigure public education.

Our presentation will be divided into three main parts. I will begin by providing a brief outline of commercialisation in education and why this constitutes the most pressing challenge to public education today. I will then draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s final collaborative book, What is philosophy?, to consider their argument as to how commercialisation affects the conditions for thought; that is, the relation between commercialisation and the limitation of the concept. Greg will then consider the relation between thought and the State; a relation that is analysed at length in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. We will conclude by problematizing the prevailing understanding of public education as a moral endeavour: it is not a matter of public versus private but rather rethinking public education as pedagogic practice rather than concern with funding.

Commercialisation and computerisation: A brief history of teaching machines

If we are posing commercialisation as central to the problem of public education, then we must begin by asking: When did public school systems first invite commercialisation? And what was the problem for which commercialisation was presented as a solution?

The commercialisation of education has a long history. An early example would be the provision of text books by private publishers. Commercialisation has only become a pressing and highly politicised issue recently because it has intensified greatly and changed in nature due to the computerisation of teaching and assessment. We are seeing the creation and spread of teaching machines that dramatically affect education policy and practice, however, teaching machines have a long history in schooling.

The earliest patent of an educational invention was registered in 1809 for a method of teaching reading. By 1936, there were nearly 700 devices patented for educational uses (see Mellan, 1936). Yet only a few of these meet the criteria specified in the earlier definition. Most fall short on one or more dimensions. For example, George Altman’s apparatus for teaching arithmetic, patented in 1897, was self-controlling, provided a means for the learner to respond, and provided feedback about the correctness of the response. (Benjamin, 1988, p.704)

Furthermore, banks and other commercial organisations have long sponsored education programs as a means to build brand loyalty and capture consumers (e.g. Dolomites). And the introduction of computers into schools, as with many other institutions, production systems and areas of everyday life, created new opportunities for commercial interests in public education following the Second World War. Apple introduced computers into schools in the 1970s and others followed, leading to schools having to make a choice between operating systems from the 1980s onwards. The point is that there is nothing new about commercial interest in public education. However, it appears that there is an intensification of the surplus value that can be extracted through public education, and the scale of mobilisation to extract that surplus value is changing the public education assemblage, the purpose of this assemblage and the various de- and re-territorialisations effected.

For example, companies such as Pearson are reworking their business models to move from a focus on publishing to a focus on measuring learning outcomes, analysing education data and developing adaptive learning programs? Edu-business are also now actively opening for-profit schools, English language centres and proliferating the provision of other assessment services. We are seeing a shift from selling education inputs (textbooks) to using expertise/technology to measure performance, personalise learning and shape policy debates. Furthermore, in these reconfigure public education assemblages, profit can become the reason for public education as evidenced by charter, and free schools in various contexts.

Teachers’ unions around the world, led by Educational International, are now acting in a concerted way to oppose and resist these new modes of commercialisation. Opportunities for, and the profitability of, commercialisation in education are speeding up dramatically with the computerisation of learning. But there is another more complex answer that can be drawn from the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Deleuze and Guattari: Commercialising the concept

Critics of commercialisation, such as teachers unions, argue that it undermines the quality and equity of educational outcomes for students. Arguments tend to focus on: (a) the reconfiguration of the purposes of education; (b) unequal patterns of access to education based on capacity to pay; and (c) worsening outcomes for those who cannot access premium services and products. But there are challenges for this position, for example the provision of for-profit education in circumstances where public education is not available. If FPE could provide better educational outcomes for students that would not have access to education otherwise, then arguments about equity and equality become difficult to sustain. While arguments about the purpose of education may retain their force in these cases, arguments concerning the relation between profit and equity may lose their traction.

Critiques of commercialisation tend to focus on the social relations of education (purposes and access), but do not directly address the question of how commercialisation affects thought and learning. It is unclear in the position above whether commercialisation remains suspect if it was accessible to all (subsidization) and produced excellent outcomes. The problem with basing arguments against the commercialisation of education on a notion of the public good or questions of access is that it cedes the ground on intellectual rigor. If commercial organisations can demonstrate better learning outcomes from their products and services, or that these products and services can be provided in a way that contributes to the public good, then proponents of public education are placed in the position of appearing to defend their own interests (jobs, salaries, conditions) rather than the importance of learning and thought as a collective project.

Deleuze and Guattari provide a different conceptualisation of this problem (that privatisation of commercialisation is and, rather than focusing on the practice of education, that the problem is money rather than learning). In other words, the question is not who funds or profits from education but rather whether the practice of education of education can intensify thought, and result in substantive learning. This problematisation does not begin from a moral position, but rather an argument concerning the relation between capital, understood in this context as marketing, advertising, professional training etc and the concept. In the Introduction to What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) provide a brief history of the concept, from its origin in Greek philosophy to recent challenges to philosophy from the human sciences that seek to transform concepts into the collective representations of different peoples. The most recent period in this history is singled out by Deleuze and Guattari for sharp critique:

Finally, the most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design, and advertising, all the disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: “This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men!” … Marketing has preserved the idea of a certain relationship between the concept and the event. But here the concept has become the set of product displays … and the event has become the exhibition that sets up various displays and the “exchange of ideas” it is supposed to promote.

What is central here for Deleuze and Guattari is that commercial training focused on the communicating information, which they see as an ‘absolute disaster for thought whatever its benefits might be, of course, from the viewpoint of universal capitalism’ (p. 12). Deleuze and Guattari juxtapose communication with creation: a conception of pedagogy as a violent and unpredictable process of learning as the production of concepts and subjects (see Biesta 2006). Of course, this mode of pedagogy simply cannot be packaged up as a standardised educational service.

The question that emerges here is: How does commercialisation affect the conditions of possibility for thought? For Deleuze and Guattari the commercialised relation between the concept and the event is an impoverished one. What is of utmost importance is raising thought to its highest creative power. We can see the importance of this emphasis in Frederic Jameson’s observation that it has become more difficult to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. From this perspective, the creative force of thought is both jeopardised by, and is perhaps the only remedy to, the banal communication of information for profit.

Deleuze was very critical of information and communication, or at least communication based on common sense. To explain and justify this critical position, it is necessary to briefly rehearse the central claims of Deleuze’s ontology. Like many of his contemporaries, Deleuze can be understood as a philosopher of difference for whom being is understood as becoming in a world of pure immanence. For Deleuze, the world is an immanent or ‘flat’ multiplicity of series in which there are no original models, in which another essential, secret world is not to be found behind appearances or simulacra. The question of models and copies thus occupies an important position in Deleuze’s ontology. Deleuze (1994) argues that the formal and moral distinction between models and copies that is dramatized in Plato subordinates difference to identity. Our debates about public schooling conceal a specific genesis of each public school as a ‘fallen’ copy of the ideal form. Each public school it is supposed, both as a concrete entity that ‘works’ and as a trope for political debates, in some way borrows legitimacy from its simulation of the idealised form. In this, the public school is [insert quote here about de jure].

Thus, the public school borrows much of its authorisations, and indeed signifying systems from a perceived relationship to an ideal public school. This ideal public school is an aspirant; it contains all that is ‘good’ and ‘desirable’ about education itself. Of course, this only works if we ignore the devastating critiques of the public school (remembering that they were not talking about private education) advanced by Foucault etc. The good and desirable are insigned in many ways, in the articulation of the school as the key institution of liberal democracy (forgetting that much of the theory that defenders of public education work with is revolutionary in nature, wanting to disrupt liberal democracy), in its virtue as an inclusive institution, in its egalitarianism, ignoring the fact, of course, that in a classed system where schools serve communities vastly different in terms of material resources, this appears to be a context dependent claim.

However, as Deleuze reminds us, the Platonism inherent in this articulation is flawed, both in that the recourse to an ideal form is a non-sense, and in that misunderstanding of the temporal, it falls victim to repetition, affirmative change is not possible while we see the public school as descended from, and in lineage to, an ideal form. This extends the critique of commercialisation from questions of purpose and access to questions of whether what is accessed can even by substantively considered ‘learning’. However, Deleuze and Guattari are also critical of the State, arguing that it provides a model of thought that also inhibits learning in the strong sense of this term. Does public education, the provision of education by the State, provide a creative alternative to the communication of commercial training? 

Deleuze and Guattari: Thought and the state model 

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari advance a theorisation that one of the reasons that capitalism is so effective, so successful, so ubiquitous, is the way that it organises, produces and encourages thinking and centres of thinking that are essentially repetition. In particular, this is affected first, through the relation between the State and the image of thinking that ‘passes’, is acceptable and second, through the ways that this dogmatic image provides a surface for various capitalist (and often schizophrenic) schizzes. Thus, public education has essentially become State education, a dogmatic image of thinking about both ‘the public’ and ‘education’ that is becoming colonised by a specific desire to commercialise because that dogmatic vision stresses a specific moral vision. However, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, capitalism (or commercialisation in this context) is essentially axiomatic:

Not only, as Hegel said, does every State imply “the essential moments of its existence as a State,” but there is a unique moment, in the sense of a coupling of forces, and this moment of the State is capture, bond, knot, nexum, magical capture. Must we speak of a second pole, which would operate instead by pact and contract? Is this not instead that other force, with capture as the unique moment of coupling? For the two forces are the overcoding of coded flows, and the treatment of decoded flows. The contract is a juridical expression of the second aspect: it appears as the proceeding of subjectification, the outcome of which is subjection. (…)The extreme perversion of the contract, reinstating the purest of knots. The knot, bond, capture, thus travel a long history: first, the objective, imperial collective bond; then all of the forms of subjective personal bonds; finally, the Subject that binds itself, and in so doing renews the most magical operation… The State is assuredly not the locus of liberty, nor the agent of a forced servitude or war capture. (…) There is a machinic enslavement, about which it could be said in each case that it presupposes itself, that it appears as preaccomplished; this machinic enslavement is no more “voluntary” than it is “forced”. (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 460)

One of the reasons that public education is becoming commercialised is because of the project of public education itself! The challenge then, if we decide that public education must be defended, is to push public education to become ‘ambulant’, that is, as institutions that rediscover the movement of the metallurgist, neither of the space of the nomad nor of the striation of the State. And this is the challenge, if we consider the governance of public education as ‘fixing’ movement within the walls of the governed town (thinking here for example of national teaching standards, curriculums and assessments), then engagement with the wildlands necessarily involves a new image of thought, a wilding if you like. Without it, we may as well accept that commercialisation is becoming-public education, and forget our strange, romantic nostalgia for some idealised, value of public education.

Thought contents are sometimes criticized for being too conformist. But the primary question is that of form itself. Thought as such is already in conformity with a model that it borrows from the State apparatus, and which defines for it goals and paths, conduits, channels, organs, an entire organon. There is thus an image of thought covering all of thought; it is the special object of “noology” and is like the State-form developed in thought.This image has two heads, corresponding to the two poles of sovereignty: the imperium of true thinking operating by magical capture, seizure or binding, constituting the efficacy of a foundation {mythos); a republic of free spirits proceeding by pact or contract, constituting a legislative and juridical organization, carrying the sanction of a ground (logos). These two heads are in constant interference in the classical image of thought: a “republic of free spirits whose prince would be the idea of the Supreme Being.” And if these two heads are in interference, it is not only because there are many intermediaries and transitions between them, and because the first prepares the way for the second and the second uses and retains the first, but also because, antithetical and complementary, they are necessary to one another. pp.374-375


We never really finalised the conclusion. We will do, one day.

It is easy to see what thought gains from this: a gravity it would never have on its own, a center that makes everything, including the State, appear to exist by its own efficacy or on its own sanction. But the State gains just as much. Indeed, by developing in thought in this way the State-form gains something essential: a whole consensus. Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right, of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality. p.375


Why don’t we talk about structural issues in digital education?

This is a brief precis of my 5 min talk at QUT’s LCDM Forum held today. In it I address the designated question, but I wanted to get people to think past enthusiasm for digital literacy and tools to ask what are the dangers and challenges associated with the datfaication, and digitization of education.

My focus today, in my 5 mins, will be to address the question “What are the new challenges you see for education that are encountered in digital lives and societies?” with a particular interest in what may be called digital sociology. Digital sociology asks how the development and use of digital media, its proliferation and impact in everyday life (hi to all those with smartphones out here today) as well as how these various technologies contribute to the patterning of human behavior, social relationships and concepts of the self. Digital sociology concerns itself with who wins, who loses, who controls, what gest changed and what are the structural impacts of the digitisation of key semantic and institutional modes of subjectivity.

However, I also want to make clear that I am not arguing as a Luddite, advocating smashing the machines that are changing the social, economic and cultural landscapes in which we now move. Rather, I want to add a cautionary perspective, we need to step back from an enthusiasm for technology for its intrinsic appeal to ask questions about impacting structural change to institutions like public education. In short, we need to marry an enthusiasm for technology with a commitment to what may be called ‘technical democracy’, and I think that much of the utopian promise that characterised digital in the 80s and 90s is being replaced by a wariness regarding who controls the tools that we use, how they view the purpose of education and what it means for schools. While I don’t have time to go into this in detail, I’d like to briefly mention a couple of key examples:

  • The push for more automation in education. teaching machines have long been a desire for education reformists. Psychology professor Sidney Pressey received the first US patent for a “teaching machine” in 1928. B.F Skinner also patented a machine that used worked examples to correct student open answer questions. You can also read a lot more at Audrey Watters excellent blog Teaching Machines. I’ve also written about this here. Much digital innovation work is being spent on Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Interactive Learning Environments, Computer Adaptive Testing and Avatars as Instructors in order to improve the efficiency of knowledge transfer (through the removal of the inefficient mode of teacher-student interaction). I worry that the the notion of personalization has been overtaken by technical, rather than human, modes of interaction. (I have a paywalled paper on that here if you have access)
  • The ‘black-boxing’ of knowledge. What we know about teachers and assessment – the more complex and non-intuitive it is, the more likely it is to lead to misuse, and algorithmic approaches to assessment are difficult to understand statistically because many of the tools that we use to understand them don’t work in the ways that we have come to expect. Take the concept of validity and machine learning.
  • The ethics of public institutions providing student data to private companies that can be reused/repurposed for profits: i.e. ClassDojo as Ben Williamson sorts through here. ClassDojo which is estimated to be used by at least one teacher in about one out of three schools in the US. In a 2014 New York Times article “ClassDojo could make money from the information it collects in other ways. Another section of the privacy policy says the company may show users advertisements “based in part on your personally identifiable information.”” This position was defended by the company here.
  • What is interesting is that we are seeing a new arrangement of technology companies, venture capital and educational software that is forming a new apparatus (in Agamben’s terms) of education. Some of this is manifest in a new form of home schooling, as Ben Williamson again argues:

The role of Silicon Valley in and high-tech home schooling: A recent article in Wired has shown that many Silicon Valley coders, hackers and makers are now choosing to educate their own children at home. It profiles a new breed of homeschoolers—the techie parents who see public or state education as fundamentally broken, and have chosen instead to educate their children themselves. The Silicon Valley homeschooler is not the fundamentalist activist of liberal stereotyping. Instead, the high-tech homeschooler sees makerspaces and hackerspaces as ideal kinds of educational institutions, where children can learn directly through tinkering, hacking, coding and making, rather than through the prescriptive, standardized model of state schooling. These new Silicon Valley homeschoolers blend the approach of hackerspaces with a much longer lineage of progressivist education that includes such important ‘deschooling’ figures as Ivan Illich and ‘unschoolers’ such as John Holt. The deschooling and unschooling movements fundamentally saw schools as overly constrictive, and advocated instead for learners to engage in more self-directed education in real-life settings and social networks. This is an irresistible invitation for those with Silicon Valley ideology when it comes to rethinking education.

Now, what seems significant about this is that the infiltration of technological models and teaching machines appears to have moved beyond individual choice agendas to the level of systemic delivery. Educational technology apparatus’ are opening their own charter schools (I’ll leave you to decide on how charter schools are located in your moral/ethical code), and marketing themselves on their cutting edge digital tools:  a significant growth market in charter school enrolments in the US is online, sometimes for-profit, charter schools.

And so we return to the desire for personalisation and what it means for education…


And we could go on. The question it seems to me is how we think about the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable at structural and systemic levels for digital service and providers in education. This is the role of digital sociology to lay bare. And to start designing strategies, setting limits etc to ensure technical democracy.

On policy

Over the last week or so I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA). The time in Canada has been amazing, I’ve never been before and it is a wonderful place to visit. I fly back to Brisbane tomorrow, and while I will be very glad to be back home with my family and friends I look forward to coming back to Alberta soon.

Of course, these trips rarely proceed as expected. I arrived at the Brisbane Intentional airport for my trip out only to be told that the plane had a problem that needed to be fixed and it would be delayed by 8 hours. This of course meant that I would miss by connecting flight at LAX. A new connection was found, but the flight took longer than expected so I was behind the 8 ball in terms of making the connection. This wasn’t helped by spending 2.5 hours in the immigration line at LAX as 4 US ‘Border Force’ folks tried to deal with a cue of about 1000 entrants. Slow clap, LAX. Of course I missed my connecting flight, when I finally got through the Qantas staff found me another route (LA to San Francisco then San Francisco to Calgary). I only just managed to make each flight (I was the last person on each after sprinting to the Departure gates). I arrived at Calgary at about midnight and went to the luggage pick-up only to discover that mu luggage hadn’t landed.

Now, for those of you reading along (and thanks for persisting) you have to appreciate that I stepped onto a plane in Brisbane which was an amiable 28 degrees C, I stepped off the plane in Calgary where it was about 2 degrees C. With no luggage. Which was where my warm clothes where. Instead, I was dressed in shorts, a t-short and thongs. Th next day I had to go to a shopping mall (more on that in another post) and buy a load of clothes to survive. From a Quicksilver. The irony of flying to Canada to buy clothes from an Australian surf company is not lost on me.

However, the reason for the trip was the uLead conference in Banff organized jointly by the ATA and the Council for School Leadership. There was a pre-conference symposium on privatisation, datafication and commercialisation in public education where I presented alongside folks such as Pasi Sahlberg, Carol Campbell, Sam Sellar and Sam Abrams. It was interesting and useful, I plan to blog on this later (but given that I have 15 half written blog posts and have published only 7, it is a bit of a crap shoot).

During the week there were many personal connections formed. As well, I learned an awful lot about Canadian education and policy, and the similarities and differences to Australia. I talked with teachers, principals, Ministers, ministerial advisors, academics and union officials. I learnt a lot about how policy work is done, and suffice it to say it is a very complex beast. The main thing that I took away from the week was the point about complexity. For my Australian friends (and I’ll return to this in a future post as well) you’ll read a lot of nonsense about education policy in the next few weeks (I’m tempted here to invoke the nein teacher rule so popular in Twitter at the moment here by suggesting that if you don’t research, write or legislate education policy, your opinions should be dismissed, but I won’t because as a pluralist I respect all voices #vituesignalling) .

So, lots to think about, lots to do, I hope to have some more to share soon. Particularly on performance pay and what happens when you link aspirational outcomes to assessment.

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.


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)


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.


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.


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.

On Post-structuralism

It appears that there are few more confounding, and misunderstood, approaches to understanding the logic of the works that post-structuralism. Invariably, those from different philosophical/epistemological traditions and those for whom post-structuralism is a new field can fall into a form of a theoretical ad absurdam argument that post-structuralism in simply moral relativism (a point I will return to in a later post).

A common, and somewhat ridiculous request, that we sometimes see on Twitter is that post-structuralism should be able to be condensed to 140 characters for it to have either relevance or meaning. However, post-structuralism is difficult, but not impossible, to define, with the caveat that in the defining of it we necessarily force a systematicity that post-structuralism may not have. While a snappy tweet that is adequate to the purpose is not possible, a careful and considered unpacking of this rich theoretical tradition is very worthwhile. Over the next few weeks I plan to devote a number of blogs to poststructuralism, focusing in turn on the relationship between post-structuralism and the Enlightenment, truth, ethics, Science before considering the many and varied criticisms of poststructuralism. I hope that readers find these useful.

One of the reasons that many are loathe to define post-structuralism is that the term ‘post-structural’ is really a post-hoc categorisation originally created by American academics to group a collection of post-1968 Continental philosophers and sociologists. In short, it is kind of an academic shorthand to describe a loosely associated group of thinkers, many of whom did not see or define themselves or their work as post-structural. I often have doubts that post-structuralism is really a valid categorisation beyond that of a certain ‘historical’ form. To attempt a definition, however, we have to pay attention to the etymology of the term, and ask what the ‘post’ actually means? Does it refer to an historical moment (as in temporally after structuralism), is it a claim on theoretical succession (as an improvement on structuralism but still within the same theoretical ‘family’), or is it a decisive rupture with structuralism? I think the answer is probably all 3 in that different theorists manifest different aspects of these ‘posts’ at various points in their work. However in this post I will propose that the historical definition, although acknowledging it’s obvious limitations, is the most useful for an introductory treatment of the work.


Prior to 1968, and following the horrors of World War II, French leftist intellectual thought was dominated by two distinct traditions – existentialism and structuralism. Existentialism was the movement loosely organized around Jean-Paul Sartre that argued that the world was absurd rather than rational, and that human existence itself held no specific purpose. In this, existentialism is profoundly anti-Enlightenment in it orientation, Structuralism, on the other hand, is the belief that human culture and nature are related to broader structures and/or systems. In other words, human activity, thought, communication and belief are not natural, rather they are constructed. Furthermore, language is itself a complex structure is constructed of signs and symbols. Tellingly, for structuralists,

Truth is not something we ‘discover’, or can ‘own’, or can ‘start from’, but a structure which society invents.

The most important structuralists were Althusser, Lacan and Levi-Strauss. Basically, structuralism was heavily influenced by both Marxist theory and Freudian psychoanalysis.


Up until 1968, many of the leading figures of post-structuralism were busily going about their work in universities and salons across France, publishing work fairly traditional in scope. One thinks here of Foucault’s order of Things and Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. But France in the 60s was in the grip of social, political and economic turmoil. May 1968 in Paris was gripped by student riots, a general strike, mass civil unrest and confrontation with authorities. There’s quite a readable account here.

While they were protesting many things, what emerged after May 1968 was, to a great extent, the end of the dream of Communism, so horrified were many with Stalinism and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the abuses and barbarity of the Vietnam War, the ongoing horror at the Holocaust and the inability of the philosophical traditions at their disposal to explain, let alone improve, life and social relations. It must be remembered, that post-structuralism is, at some level, a criticism of Marxism as much as it is a criticism of the Enlightenment that thinkers such as Adorno had long argued was a central factor in the Holocaust.

So, at its outset, post-structuralism (if it exists) is an attempt to think about the relationships between individuals, societies, states, ideas and beliefs in new ways. This essay here is a useful introduction for those who would like to read further. In the next blog post, I will provide a brief insight into some of the key thinkers and their major ideas.

On ideology

One of the frequent expressions heard in the context of education and education research is that of ideology and/or the accusation that someone (presumably that we don’t agree with) is either being ideological or conducting ideological research. I must confess to being guilty of this at times as well. In my opinion ‘being ideological’ is often conflated with the quality of research, non-ideological=good research or practice, ideological research=bad research or practice. My argument in this post is that this conflation is highly problematic, because in its most literal sense all research can be seen as ideological to some degree because it is about the intersection of ideas with social relations and institutions.

One of the problems with this conflation is that it basically advances a position that some research (generally that I disagree with) is ideological and other research (generally that I agree with based either on the findings or the method) is clearly not ideological. This position is problematic for a number of reasons, because a) it misunderstands the etymology of ideology and b) following on from a), this position fails to recognise that all research is inherently ideological because the questions that we ask, the methods that we use, the way we analyse data etc are predicated upon ideological assumptions about reality, the world, the purpose of education etc.

One example of this is this article published in The Age, an Australian newspaper, which argued that social science as a discipline is in a dire state because “The very concept of objectivity is scorned in the academy” such that

The victory of theory and ideology is now pervasive in the social sciences, especially sociology and social psychology. Even history is now wrapped in so much historiography, encroaching on the primacy of rigorous factual research and narrative. Communications degrees are now weighed down by useless theory when the field requires rapidly evolving technical skills.

Of course the chief cause of this problem is the university, that bastion of (presumably Left) ideology, has become so enamoured with anti-empiricism and/or anti-realism that we can’t have basic Clint Eastwood style westerns anymore where the white guys are the good guys and the Indians are the bad guys.

One of the things that I find interesting about this piece is that it advances the notion that some beliefs are ideological, and others are not.  In this instance, it seems that a belief in empirical objectivity is natural, and a belief in theoretical accounts of the world must be ideological. Rather than prosecuting this as an argument about whether this is right/wrong (and I clearly have a position on that) I am much more interested in working through how we understand ideology, the rhetorical work that it does and how it is that some beliefs are OK and others not. In short, I think it could usefully help debate if we had a better understanding of ideology, particularly in the context of social media discussions.

Ideology was a phrased first coined, or at least popularised, by  Antoine Destutt de Tracy during the upheaval during and after the French Revolution. It’s originary meaning refers to a ‘science of ideas’, which aims to understand ideas empirically rather than theologically and/or metaphysically. During his life, de Tracy and his followers came into conflict with Napoleon who accused them, as Enlightenment thinkers interested in human rights, freedom, and other Enlightenment ideals, of being “ideologues” because their views were overly romantic, unrealistic and of no use to the real world which demanded military conquest. It seems that this style of critique remains alive and well.

Subsequently, ideology became an important concept for Karl Marx and his followers (such as Althusser), who argued that social, economic, and political theories were the structures, consciousness and set of ideas of the ruling classes. Of course, one of the problems with this position is that if all social theories are ideological, so is Marxism (a point I tend to agree with). In other words, Marxism is necessarily ideological as it advances ideological critique of the ‘ruling classes’.

In 1991, Terry Eagelton in his book Ideology: An Introduction which is framed as a Marxist rebuke of postmodernism, argued that the

word ‘ideology’, one might say, is a text, woven of a whole tissue of different conceptual strands; it is traced through by divergent histories, and it is probably more important to assess what is valuable or can be discarded in each of these lineages than to merge them forcibly into some Grand Global Theory. (p.1)

It is an interesting point, how do we assess what is valuable within the various ideological positions that proliferate within the social world? Also importantly, what do we need to challenge, remove, discard within those positions?  However, what his work most usefully does is set out a list of ways that ideology is employed as a communicative, and often rhetorical, tool. Eagleton argues that there are least 16 definitions of ideology (see below) that make up this text, some of which are similar whilst others are contradictory. This highlights the complexity of ideology as a word, often we may be using the same word but our understandings are so different that assuming word-meaning correspondence is often a problem for discussion.

(a) the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life; (b) a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class; (c) ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (d) false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (e) systematically distorted communication; (f) that which offers a position for a subject; (g) forms of thought motivated by social interests; (h) identity thinking; (i) socially necessary illusion; (j) the conjuncture of discourse and power; (k) the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world; (l) action-oriented sets of beliefs; (m) the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal reality; (n) semiotic closure; (o) the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure; (p) the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality (pp.1-2)

Perhaps the most useful, albeit largely forgotten contribution to understanding ideology was that of Karl Mannheim. Mannheim argued, in his foundational work Ideology and Utopia, that most ideological positions are derived from social life, are quite workable in social situations, and that they may even be necessary in certain ways for the maintenance of that social life. Where things get interesting, is where ideology becomes to an extent unworkable or unavailable (and indeed the inevitability of this), as “The individual is always compelled to fall short of his own nobler motives.” (p.342) and utopian notions of changing social relations are manifest.

Inasmuch as man is a creature living primarily in history and society, the “existence” that surrounds him is never “existence as such,” but is always a concrete historical form of social existence. For the sociologist, “existence” is … a functional social order, which does not exist only in the imagination of certain individuals but according to which people really act. (p.341)

One of the most interesting things about the use of ideology as a rhetorical device (intended as either a Napoleonist/Marxist put-down) is that it necessary appears to operate as a pejorative; whether it be a belief in the scientific method (or indeed its critique), quantitative or qualitative research method, the Foucaultean juncture of knowledge/power etc. Arguing that social science should be more objective is necessarily ideological, but it is also a position that should be engaged with and argued for or against rather than ignored. However, I don’t think that utilitarian or economic arguments are the best way to justify what it is that social science is and should be.

As I read it, everything we believe is already ideological because we are necessarily social (for example, through language). Saying this, however, does not  imply that any position held is necessarily right or wrong, rather that within the ontological and epistemological assumptions of any belief system ideology invariable precedes consciousness. For this reason, I don’t mind being called ideological (of course I am) or suggesting that others are ideological (of course they are). However, I do think that what is most interesting about the use of the term ‘ideology/ical’ is to try to uncover what is being concealed within that rhetorical move. Sometimes it may be a frustration that two distinct ways of looking at the world aren’t reconcilable. I kind of like this irreconcilability, I often learn more form the productive tension of ideologies than I ever do from their attempted synthesis.

On defending shit work

In response to On Reading (Part I) Greg Ashman responded with his post Dense and Complex. While I welcome the debate, and thank Greg for his consideration of my post, I think there are factual, logical and nonsensical problems with his work. Greg’s arguments, if I may summarise, and respond underneath to each one, are as follows:

1. All sociological/critical theory/poststructural work share certain outlooks: ‘In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.’

Unbeknownst to many (it would appear) there is a strong tradition of positivism in both sociology and  philosophy. Whilst I don’t subscribe to these positions myself, the argument that all sociology etc is anti-positivist is nonsense. A little bit of research (ie googling the terms) can simply refute this.

2. While Science and Maths are difficult, New Scientist (and presumably other publications) make this complex work like string theory easy to understand.

Just for fun, I googled ‘introduction to poststructuralism’ reasoning that if this field of endeavour was being deliberately obtuse, you wouldn’t be able to find anything. Here is a screenshot:


Given that there are around 342,000 introductory posts, papers, podcasts, lectures and comic books available for study, I disagree that explaining  poststructuralism has been shirked. There is more than enough for study there, and while I wouldn’t suggest that they are of equal quality, there is more than enough to go on with.

3. The Sokal Affair showed that postmodernism is nonsense.

The Sokal Affair showcases shit editorial work, and I’m not going to defend it. The editors deserve to be called for publishing the nonsense paper. However, as I’ll explain below, this is not a failure of the academic field and/or peer review. Sokal’s paper is often trotted out for rhetorical effect, with scant engagement with the actual details of the affair. Just to clarify:

  • The nonsense paper was sent to what I would call a literary magazine, not an academic journal, and as such was not subject to peer review. The editors read the paper, and asked for revisions, which Sokal refused to do, and they decided to publish anyway. Obviously this was a mistake, and the editors (and their journal) have had to cop the humiliation of publishing a nonsense paper. This is harsh but fair. However, and I stress this, because the Sokal paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, the argument that it is an indictment of academic work in the area is not a valid inference.
  • Further, Sokal also published a book which ridiculed many post-modern and structural thinkers. This book was enthusiastically received by the anti-PoMo crowd, until a number of problems of logic and fact were pointed out with the work. Here is one refutation. Someone who can’t even get the history of their own field correct seems to me to be of dubious authority as your go-to-guy for slaying the big bad PoMo wolf.
  • Finally, we all know that Science is not immune from egregious errors in publication. These include plagiarism, fudging results, and downright lying in areas such as cancer research. Now I, and I assume most people, would see these egregious and dishonest acts as exceptions to the rule and that the vast majority of science researchers are ethical, methodical and making their best possible contribution to their field. I am interested that this generosity isn’t extended to much of the theoretical work in and around education. Interestingly, I work as an editor on two education journals that publish sociological and philosophical work in education. Both of these journals have high rejection rates because they are rigorous, methodical and exacting. These rejection rates are as high as for some Science journals. If it was ever true that once upon a time all you had to do was mention ‘discourse’, ‘power/knowledge’ etc to get published, it is certainly not so now.

4. Given ‘that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself’. On the one hand, I think that all disciplines could do with better outreach communication. Broadly speaking, I agree with the second half of that argument, but as I’ve pointed out above, there is lots of (unread) explanatory and introductory material. However, in the spirit with which the comment was intended, over the next few weeks I’ll take the challenge of explaining poststructuralism in a series of posts, so watch this space.

  • My first problem with this statement is that the idea that we can choose where our tax dollars go isn’t how parliamentary democracy and taxation work. For example, if we could decide how our tax dollars would be spent, I’d imagine that there’d be a number of very nervous elite private schools in Australia. Of course,  wishing that governments would spend tax dollars how we would is the stuff of fantasy.
  • Second, each year government funding makes up less and less of the budget of universities, around 45% on average in this latest report. Following the taxpayer logic (remembering that academics also pay tax, so I suppose they could just refuse as taxpayers if tax payment confers some special authority), academics could manipulate their workload allocation on paper to show that they don’t use the government funding of their wage (approx 45% minus the tax that they pay as taxpayers themselves) for their poststructural research and devote the tax-funded aspects to teaching and service. Given the teaching/service/research workload split most academics work under, I doubt they’d have to change anything that they do. Of course, this example is nonsensical, sketched out to show the messiness of the ‘I’m a taxpayer’ argument.
  • Third, given that many of the most wealthy corporations in Australia pay no tax, one of which is NewsCorp which owns a number of newspapers which comment on Australian education, I wonder if the argument is that as non-taxpayers they don’t really have the right to that commentary? Of course, I would disagree with this because a) the status of taxpayer doesn’t seem to confer the authority in practice that the blog suggests and b) silencing public voices in most cases should be avoided.

Ultimately, this post has extended well beyond the 500 words I set myself for each blog post. If you’ve read this far, congrats, and sorry for the length.

On reading (part 1)

The end of the academic year provides academics, and others I presume,  with an opportunity to rest, recharge and spend time with loved ones.

Seemingly it also provides an opportunity for rather pointless Twitter witchhunts, attacks and narcissistic requirements to submit to ‘my authoriteh’, but seeing as how I see this pursuit as rather pointless, I like to spend my time reading. You know, trying to learn more rather than assuming that I know everything and everyone should be forced to acknowledge my brilliance.

So, over the next few posts I thought I’d share with you what I have been reading (and why). Here are the 4 books I’ve been working through this break.Books

The first book is Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time II. As the name suggests, this book is the second in the trilogy that looks at the relationship between technology and the ‘invention’ of the human. In the first book, Stiegler’s thesis was that the the most primitive tools (technology), and the most primitive humans, co-create each other, tools are only needed when the future (time) becomes a concern, yet correspondingly, tools teach humans to see the future. This is kind of a chicken and the egg argument (which comes first…) but Stiegler’s point is that the human (the who) is not the subject of history and technology (the what) its object. Rather, technology creates humans as much as humans create technology. There’s lots of Derrida and Heidegger in here. I must admit, even though I am well-versed in reading post-structural and modernist philosophy, I find these among the hardest to understand. (A note on this: there seems to be a popular view expressed on social media that dense and complex writing necessarily indicates that the work is not worthwhile. This is nonsense, I am in awe of my science and mathematics friends for the complexity of the work that they do and for the years of toil that enable them to do this complex work. I expect to have to study hard to be able to understand this, and I don’t blame them when it takes a long time for me to understand this. Expecting philosophy to be different seems stupid to me.)

In the second book, Stiegler advances the argument that the industrialization of time, affected by technological change and our incorrect conception of it (as being treated by the human) is problematic because the memory of human is being reconfigured. This is because, for Stiegler, technics essentially function as a form of external memory, that remind subsequent generations of how to ‘become’. The problem with this exteriorization, and indeed, the acceleration of this prosthetic memory due to technological innovation (think of computerisation, network technology and Big Data), is that it fragments the world into disconnected events, and in those disconnections we (paradoxically) forget as ‘society’ that which we don’t remember.

As many of you know, I am interested in the technologisation of education, including the use of digital forms of assessment such as computer adaptive tests, learning analytics and the creation of interactive learning environments. What I aim to do is to engage with these approaches that are emerging in schools on their own terms, to provide a critical reading of them in their specific functions, rather than regressing to some technology is good/bad binary. In other words, asking how do they work, as both technical and social machines that produce certain things. Stiegler is proving very useful in helping me think through these things.

I’ll follow though with book 2 (Galloway and Thacker’s The Exploit) in the next few days.