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 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.