Constructing the Paraversity using the web.
Higher Education institutions across the globe are changing and changing fast. Several writers have expressed dismay, as well as seeing opportunities to move in different directions, in response to what has been called the ‘University in Ruins’ (Readings 1996).
Gary Rolfe (2013), picking up on Reading’s work addressed ‘scholarship in the corporate university’ and suggested that academics must ‘dwell in the ruins’ in an authentic and productive way through the development of a community of philosophers who will dissent, subvert and challenge the ‘corporate university’ from within. Tools for subversion are at hand. Social media, blogging, open access journals and the development of new academic websites such as Researchgate and academia.edu, give academics new ways to reach students, and indeed anybody, way beyond the physical confines of their campus. Accepting that there are issues of peer review and hence quality, these tools allow free access and may facilitate dialogue in ways unheard of just few years ago. This paper explores the ruins, argues for critical dissensus, and shares one experience of using such tools and suggests that this might then assist in building Rolfe’s ‘community of philosophers’ or what Slavoj Žižek has called ‘liberated territories’ (Žižek 2008).
Following a note on pedagogy and addressing what the purpose of education might be, the idea of the Paraversity will be outlined, and importantly a central notion of dissensus highlighted. Why nurse educators and student nurses should engage in dissensus, as well as professional training, is a point to be debated. To do so, I will refer to the work of C Wright Mills’ on ‘intellectual craftsmanship’. Secondly, an example of constructing this Paraversity will be shared, not that this is a paradigm case, but as only one way to do so, a way that of course may prove fruitless as we acknowledge the variety of approaches and uncertainty of any outcomes. Indeed ‘outcomes’ themselves may be part of the language of a certain mindset that is antithetical to the Paraversity.
So, what follows is a thesis, which may draw forth an antithesis resulting in a new synthesis, which in turn can be challenged. Consensus and agreement is not the point; dialogue is. This paper is overtly political; drawing upon Freire’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, Marx and the heirs of Marx, to argue that nursing is locked into a matrix of social systems that are oppressive and marginalising, and that Higher Education itself, in the guise of the ‘University of Excellence’ is increasingly commodified, and losing its way as it tries to meet the needs of the ‘Knowledge Economy’ in the production of ‘Cognitive Capitalism’. I argue we need to revisit the question ‘what is education for’?
A note on Pedagogy
Paulo Friere’s first premise concerns a humanistic value base, upon which a pedagogy should be constructed. The human being is a ‘subject’, rather than an ‘object’ ready for construction by oppressive forces. Our ‘ontological vocation’ is towards ‘humanization’; to be able to engage in ‘conscientização’ which is learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.
Stephen Sterling (2001) later argued that we need a paradigm shift away from transmissive forms of education towards transformative forms of education. Transmitting an education that ensures graduates are better equipped to perform clinical skills is first order learning. However it is a partial education at best. First order learning takes place within current educational boundaries and philosophies. It is adaptivelearning, e.g. the acquisition of skills and knowledge to assist in adapting to new roles as registered nurses.
Education ought to be a process of transforming individuals so that base values, assumptions and paradigms are taken into account and challenged – this is what Sterling calls second and third order learning.
Second order learning involves critically reflective learning. This is about examining the assumptions that underpin first order learning.
Third order learning is transformative learning and allows us to change perspectives and paradigms. It is creative, is a ‘shift in consciousness’, and involves a ‘deep awareness of alternative world views’ (Sterling 2001 p15).
Education in this sense is for humanity rather than just the transmission of knowledge, skills and values for the corporate, or employment, sphere. The Paraversity could be such a space in which this pedagogy operates. Thus, the process of education is as important, if not more important, than the end product. However, this is an issue for nurse education – to what degree is the product more important than the process? Do certain professional values, regulation and the needs for an NHS workforce outweigh the experience of a critical pedagogy? If so, are we constructing the student as passive object, who also self governs, rendering them unable to engage with countervailing voices against a one dimensional political hegemony in which the ‘market is king’?
We need to challenge pedagogical assumptions because, contrary to what many would have us believe, history has not ended, business can’t be ‘as usual’ and this is not ‘the best of all possible worlds’:
“The truth is that many things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy….this is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the results of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.” (Orr 2004 p.7)
The global financial crisis of 2007-8 was not caused by blue collar workers, nurses or teachers, but arose out of the activities of very clever people recruited from so called elite universities, many of whom studied economics mired in orthodoxy, rendering it unable to foresee the systemic risk building up within finance capital.
Jihadist social movements have gained ground in part to the ideologically based bumblings of Yale, Harvard and Oxbridge Educated elites, who with characteristic hubris and with appalling lack of insight, declared ‘mission accomplished’, and are now fretting about ‘radicalisation’ while doing little to address the socio-political causes of jihadist ideological narratives that drive young men and women into armed conflict.
Older people, their families, and those with mental health problems, in contemporary capitalist societies are experiencing crises in health and social care provision as successive governments have failed to put the interests of people before profits and capital accumulation.
With a few exceptions, for example Michael Burawoy’s (2004) notion of ‘public sociology’ or Paul Hawken’s notion of the ‘Blessed Unrest’, we have largely failed to produce enough countervailing voices, or a new vision of care that is fit for the 21st century. There is little in the way of critical guiding philosophies in operation for nursing beyond individualised biomedically dominated notions of ‘care and compassion’ in the context of instrumentally orientated curricula obsessed with competence – ‘doing rather than thinking’. This is not to deny the existence of critical voices in the literature, just to acknowledge the often ahistorical, apolitical and anti theoretical nature of what passes for scholarship in and for clinical practice.
This might seem irrelevant, idealistic, utopian and antithetical to professional nursing practice. Nonetheless, it is a notion that can be discussed within the paraversity as an element of dissensus.
What is the ‘paraversity’? (Rolfe 2013).
Gary Rolfe suggest that the ‘paraversity’ runs alongside the visible University, going unnoticed or unseen. The paraversity is a ‘mental space’ of dissensus, seeking no unity of thought or acceptance of any grand narrative. As such, the Paraversity may well throw up an antithesis to this thesis. It is invisible, subversive and a virtual institution. It is not owned by corporate interests, it is not influenced directly by research bodies, funding streams or research programmes or corporate management strategies. The national student survey is irrelevant to its continuance. There will be no physically identified building or faculty – it exists in the form of a community of philosopher scholars exploring and deconstructing and reconstructing ideas.
In the paraversity there is no need to arrive at consensus or agreement or a system of unified thought. It does not exist to fulfil the corporate university’s aims and objectives, it is the ‘pursuit of difference’ to keep open debate and discussion and not to shut it down. It also operates to call the corporate university to intellectual account.
In this aim, it fosters countervailing voices to critique one dimensional thought and implicitly evokes the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno and Louis Althusser, but is of course not merely the intellectual heir to such thought as if the matters regarding ontology, epistemology and philosophy were settled. This uncertainty of certainty could be potentially unsettling for nursing thought and practice which seeks certainty and truth in professional practice.
What are Universities for?
“In a world characterised by complexity and uncertainty, our long term survival lies…..in our willingness to bend the rules in unforeseen circumstances and even operate beyond our level of knowledge as we make our world view” (Paul Vare p2).
Vare acknowledges that the problems besetting the world require thinking differently, acting differently and challenging many long held assumptions. Academic disciplines which cannot evolve their thinking will produce graduates who will engage in ‘business as usual’ chasing fewer and fewer ‘plum’ jobs as they join the precariat (Standing 2011) as ‘graduates with no future’ (Mason 2012) .
The ‘University of Excellence’.
It might be argued that within the ‘Enlightenment’, the historic missions of Universities focused on ‘truth’ and ‘emancipation’. Docherty (2014) writes
“In 1946, the political theorist Hannah Arendt received a copy of The Idea of the University, which was written by her mentor, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers had revised the book, originally published in 1923, for the post-war context, when German universities needed to recover from explicit institutional and ideological conformism to Nazism. He advances a reconfiguration of academic freedom that, today, is everywhere threatened again, thanks to a failure of political will – and of leadership – that allows intellectual freedoms to be sacrificed to financial priorities. Writing to Jaspers on receipt of the book, Arendt firmly expressed the view that, given the cost of the higher education system, it must be state-funded. But it was vital that the professoriate should not thereby become tacitly politicised “civil servants”. Academic freedom meant that universities should be governed by intellectual demands, without improper political interference”.
Now, this narrative has been replaced with that of the neoliberal capitalist narrative of efficiency and profitability, i.e. the narrative of the market. Readings (1996) argued that the ‘pursuit of excellence’ within this narrative is a legitimising idea. However, ‘excellence’ refers more to administrative processes in which ‘excellence’ is a unit of measurement, devoid of qualitative content, which we now measure through such metrics as attrition, the number of firsts, impact factors, the number of research grants awarded and student perception questionnaires. An excellent nursing degree is one with low attrition, satisfied students, high employability and high numbers of firsts. Who would disagree with that? Rolfe (2013) suggests this view of excellence is one of quantity rather than quality and brings us into the realms of ‘efficiency, profitability and administration’ (p9). He goes on to argue
“The vision and mission of the University has shifted from the production and dissemination of thought and ideas to the generation and sale of facts and data” (Rolfe 2013 p 81).
This suggests that the role of Universities now is often that of contributing to the local and national economy and to train graduates for the job market, and I would suggest that in many nursing departments that is the sole ‘raison d’etre’.
This instrumental orientation to nursing education (Goodman 2012) is evidenced by the dominance of competency based education, fit for practice, fit for purpose curricula, based on the NMC’s educational standards. The student nurse or graduate registrant who questions and critiques the ontological, political, ideological and epistemological assumptions upon which care is designed, delivered and evaluated would not be that welcome in clinical practice and perhaps only marginally tolerated in many nursing modules based on the transmission of facts and theories for clinical practice, grounded as many are in the assumptions of positivist and empiricist science. Nursing theory, let alone feminist or critical theory, may have disappeared from nurse education. We may now be less able within nursing curricula to question the basis of social knowledge and care practices from critical perspectives that seeks to illuminate the subject positioning of women and the marginalisation of older people as unproductive burdens on society.
What is being lost is the notion of ‘intellectual craftmanship’ in favour of the search for empirical certainty, data and hard facts to guide practice. Indeed, evidence based practice education can be reduced to issues of methodology rather than issues of epistemology, philosophy and ontology. Perhaps many nurse scholars themselves have lost the ability to engage in this activity, and thus to be role models, buckling under the pressure to deliver clinical skills and other diverse teaching while also delivering empirically based research which provides facts and answers to practical questions. Many of course will have been schooled in the biomedical sciences and thus would not have had the critical epistemological enquiries and paradigms of social science. What we end up with is the pressure to produce ‘denotative’ writing – the telling and informing process through powerpoints and scientific reports as the dominant discourse of knowledge production and dissemination. This is the ‘University of Excellence’.
What are academics for in the ‘University of Excellence’?
Brock (2014) asked “what is the function of the social movement academic’? However I would rephrase this and ask “what is one of the functions of the nurse academic? I would respond, as Brock does, with the suggestion that it is partly “to debunk the knowledge on which the powerful rest”. One of those notions being peddled currently is that the NHS and society will not be able to afford care for older people, that free at the point of delivery will no longer be possible, and that expensive external monitoring and inspections are worth the money spent on them. All the while corporates lobby behind the scenes for bits of the profitable NHS pie; see this list by Andrew Robertson on his site ‘social investigations’.
To engage in debunking requires ‘intellectual craftsmanship’ and is important for critical enquiry in the paraversity. What might that look like?
On Intellectual Craftsmanship (C Wright Mills 1959).
In the appendix to ‘The Sociological Imagination’ Wright Mills outlined his view on ‘doing’ social science in which he suggested that ‘Scholarship’ is more important than empirical research for the social scientist. He considered that Empiricism was the ‘mere sorting out of facts and disagreements about facts’. Wright Mills’ critique of abstract empiricism contained in ‘The Sociological Imagination’ is that argument made manifest. Rules of method and arguments on methodological procedures and validity are just so much navel gazing which Wright Mills wished to avoid if he could possibly do so:
“Now I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoid it” (p205) and “there is no more worth in empirical enquiry as such than in reading as such” (p 226).
The task of social science is thus to critically engage in the real world, joining personal experience and intellectual life through critical reflective reason as the
“advance guard in any field of learning” (p205).
“It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work — and, as an educator, in his life as well — this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society” (p187).
The personal trouble of obesity is a public issue not a personal moral failing of weak willed individuals. We must look to the role of fossil fuels instead of food, in providing energy; we must look at the marketing and distribution activities of the food industry; we must look to portrayals of the body in the media; we must look to the structures od sedentary employment…..
Nurse educators might read this and think, actually, no it is not my political task at all! Nurse students do not need to think about their personal lives and the lives of others as they relate to wider social and political issues…they need to be able to deliver care – to provide pain relief, comfort and explanations to vulnerable people, to interpret cardiac rhythms and administer medications, to assess wounds and decide upon management plans….that is the stuff of nursing and the rest of this is mere frippery. This is a view I have heard expressed by students as they cry “when are we going to learn proper nursing?”
In this they might be supported by the Corporate University which, in response to the demands of its customers, industry, commerce and the economy, has shifted the emphasis of the role of the academic from raising questions to providing answers, from problematizing to problem solving. Many nursing students want answers, not to raise questions. Thus empiricism and the tenets of positivistic science have been dragooned to support this mission. This is in opposition to many notions regarding personal and social transformation.
Michael Burawoy argued:
“The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily”.
Can we replace sociology with nursing in this paragraph? Can we say our original passions have been channeled into pointless mindnumbing bureaucratically led education programmes that do nothing to challenge or change the context of care in which currently we are facing major issues in mental health and the care of older people with long term conditions?
Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) archetypal theory of the intellectual may also be illuminative and raises questions about what we are here for. Gramsci described two types of intellectual: the ‘traditional’ and the ‘organic’. The traditional is the academic who secures the status quo and the organic as the activist whose function it was to ‘construct a transformative historical bloc’, an alternative basis of consent for social order (Cresswell and Spandler 2012 p4). Although written many decades ago, this archetype may well be seen within the corporate university which supports and encourages the traditional and ignores the activist.
Nursing, and nurse academics, have a question to address. Are we engaged in the development of a practice based discipline interested only in the ‘sorting out of facts and the disagreements of facts?’ Are we traditional and/or organic academics? Is there room for both, either as separate individuals or as two roles within the same person? Justification for the ‘discovery of facts’ may be founded on its usefulness for policy and clinical practice and of course should be foundational knowledge for clinical nursing practice, after all we do not want the wrong drug to be administered because we have not sorted out the ‘facts’.
However, empirical research does not take place within a political vacuum and it would be a mistake to see the relationship of research to policy and practice as a simple linear relationship. The purist model of ‘research-policy relationships’ which takes for granted that research informs policy action by generating knowledge, or the problem solving model whereby research is driven by the need for a policy answer, do not adequately describe the process and is a far too narrow a focus for scholarship. It just does not address some of the fundamental questions underpinning human health and well-being which are as much to do with human agency and social structures within certain political economies, as to do with biomedical processes.
Research and policy then is a political activity. Wright Mills in arguing for craftsmanship in intellectual life implicitly acknowledges in the Sociological Imagination the need to go beyond simple empirical knowledge in forming policy action when he enjoins social scientists in a political and intellectual task to clarify the contemporary causes of “uneasiness and indifference to personal troubles and public issues” (p13). The social scientist is not to merely describe the contemporary elements of social life, but to engage in it.
The use of the word ‘craft’, undefined by Mills, appears here to differentiate the activity from that of (mere?) mastery of elaborate discussions of research method and ‘theory-in-general’, which would quickly make one “impatient and weary” (p195). A craft suggests development of skill by diligent constant practice, honing one’s technique by reference to finished products and products in the process of being to evaluate their flaws and strengths and then adjust accordingly. This is reflexive practice in that the work as it continues is being constantly worked and reworked as required. It suggests leaps of imagination and intuitive thinking and practice in the creation of a project. It calls for a departure from strict adherence to a rigid structure of routines, methods and frameworks. It also suggests a measure of artistry in thinking.
The scholarly craftsman is his work as his craft develops alongside who he is. Scholarly craftsmanship then is a state of being not only doing:
When Wright Mills argued that:
“admirable thinkers…do not split their work from their lives” (p195), he also argued
“Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career” (p196).
“Scholarship is writing”.
To undertake this craft he asked students and social scientists to keep a journal to enable the development of the intellectual life, of the craftsmanship of social science. This should consist of ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographical items and outlines of projects. He suggests that journals should record ‘fringe thoughts’, snatches of conversation and even dreams. This will also include the taking of copious notes from books and this needs developing into a habit.
Since Wright Mills outlined notes on journal keeping there has been the explosion onto the scene of information technologies, elearning and web 2.0. These are now new tools that were unavailable to Wright Mills. However the essential nature of scholarly activity should not be lost in any infatuation with new technologies, rather these gateway technologies could facilitate critical enquiry, journal keeping and the connection of a community of philosopher scholars engaged in dissensus and critique through a process of what Paolo Freire called dialogics.
To assist in this process, scholars need to write, and to write essays or blogs and not just research reports; to engage in discussion and not just to tell; write to invite commentary, to clarify one’s thoughts, to learn about oneself as well as to explore ideas and investigate one’s area of interest. Nursing is a socio-political activity and not just an applied set of techniques; and as such requires critique, understanding, discussion, reflexivity and transformation. The corporate university may not be interested in these ‘outcomes’, fixated as it may be on contracted commissioning targets, workforce development, league tables, SPQ results, attrition rates and ill defined notions of the ‘student experience’. The early career nursing academic will be faced by a host of external constraints on their intellectual development and their ‘success’ or performance development reviews may rest on targets and values not of their own making. What may be ignored by ‘impact metrics’ is any of their writing, which is createdover and above the research ‘write up’ focused on answering an empirical question according to a matrix of methodological imperatives. Graham Scambler (2014), as a now retired academic, makes the point that he benefitted from the freedom to engage in intellectual activity unchained from the demand s of the Corporate University chasing its position in league tables:
“I was rarely during my career forced onto the back-foot, obliged to define achievement in terms of research revenue generated or publications in high-impact journals.”
“I have encountered several ‘young’ sociologists whose expertise by far exceeds mine and who have played significant roles in facilitating as well as contributing to virtual networking and innovation but whose pioneering expertise in social media remain institutionally unrecognized and unrewarded” (my emphasis).
Karl Marx, C Wright Mills, Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Burawoy, recognized that intellectuals can play a crucial role in ideological warfare against the dominant classes. The Paraversity may assist in this by creating
“havens of thinking into which thinkers can migrate and from which thoughts can proliferate and social change can reify” (Žižek 2008).
What might the Paraversity begin to look like?
The examples below are not definitive, it is up to the community of scholars to construct the Paraversity and if it is based on dissensus, it may look very different and take on a dynamic nature. If the idea is to create dialogue, to share ideas, to critique, to go beyond the physical confines of the Corporate University, the web 2.0 technologies might assist in this process.
The links above will provide examples of critical thought and the sharing of ideas accessible by anyone anywhere and at anytime. They provide platforms for commentary and feedback, both synchronously and asynchronously. Their credibility may be built upon already established reputations and research outputs and/or by the clarity and force of the arguments. They will stand or fall by the readership wanting to engage and share and the commitment and enthusiasm by the creator.
Human health and wellbeing depend on many things. Critical education and challenging taken for granted assumptions are part of the foundations for human progress, if we still believe in progress. Universities may not provide the fertile soil for critical enquiry and discourse, but we do not have to wait for this to occur. We can right now live in the ruins of the University and engage in scholarship that is subversive, critical and potentially engaging and do so in the full knowledge that traditional rewards and recognition may not be forthcoming. That makes it risky. That also makes it fun.
Brock T (2014) What is the function of the Social Movement Academic? The Sociological Imagination. http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/15545
Burawoy, M. (2004) Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas and Possibilities. Social Forces, 82(4), 1603-1618.
Cresswell M. and Spandler H. (2012) The Engaged Academic: Academic Intellectuals and the Psychiatric Survivor Movement, Social Movement Studies DOI:10.1080/14742837.2012.696821.
Docherty T (2014) Austerity canard stymies funding debate. THES. July 7th http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.aspx?storyCode=2014367
Goodman B (2013) What are nurse academics for? Intellectual craftsmanship in an age of instrumentalism. Nurse Education Today 33: 87-89
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Lawrence and Wishart. London
Mason, P. 2012 The graduates of 2012 will survive only in the cracks of our economy. The ‘Graduate without a future’ series. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/01/graduates-2012-survive-in-cracks-economy
Orr D. (2004) Earth in Mind. On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington.
Rolfe G (2013) The University in Dissent. Routledge. London
Readings B (1996) The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. MA.
Scambler, G. (2014) A 100th Blog: A reflexive interlude.http://www.grahamscambler.com/a-100th-blog-a-reflexive-interlude/#respond
Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: the new dangerous class. Bloomsbury. London
Sterling S (2001). Sustainable Education – Revisioning Learning and Change, Schumacher Briefings 6. Green Books, Dartington.
Vare P (2014) Sustainability Literacy: role or goal? (online) http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/6202/Sustainability-Literacy-Blewitt-and-Vare.pdf in Stibbe A (2014) Handbook of Sustainability Literacy http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/stibbe-handbook-of-sustainability
Wright Mills C (1959) The Sociological Imagination. 40th Edition. Oxford University Press Oxford.
Zizek S (2008) Violence. Profile. London.