the c words

Last week a student I teach at a UK University wrote to my employers to propose that I should be sacked. My pedagogical crime was to change a slide on my power point presentation the day before the lecture. The student also raised his concerns that I move around the room during the 3 hour class and actually talk to my students.

 

What a malevolent planet I am.

 

One of the ironies of this complaint was that I had that week been teaching theoretical models of capitalist institutions and Comparative Employment Relations. Code for how-to-understand-pretty-much-everything-about-work-organisation-in-the-entire-world. From Neo-liberal macroeconomics, the decline of the welfare state and wage led growth, the organisational cultures of multinational corporations to the global decline in trade unionism. Under certain interpretations to teach this stuff you’ve pretty much got to be Yoda.

 

During this apparently inflammatory session we had discussed a case study of McDonalds’ anti-union strategies in Russia. Marx meets Mammon, universalism and US foreign policy – seriously sexy stuff for Human Resource Management students on an intellectual diet of rewards and talent management. As the trade union leader in this case was a woman I may have used the word feminism. As a total boon I had been involved in the case with the international food workers federation which although leading to awkward silences at dinner parties is considered quite handy when teaching this stuff.

 

So maybe unsurprisingly I have lots of thoughts about whether I should be losing my job on the basis of a power point presentation.

 

An education system that commodifies learning is a censorious environment to work in. Although we are all free to have thoughts inside our own heads, there are certain words that the professional educator has learned not to say out loud for fear of exposing some growing tensions in the university business.

 

The monetisation of education where learning is an exchange between ‘economic agents’ inevitably leads to a competition between colleagues over who becomes this year’s student choice.

 

A new Teaching Excellence Framework to be introduced this year, unencumbered by the lessons learned from the Research Excellence Framework that precedes it, side swipes the learning contract by demanding absolute knowledge of both staff and students.

 

The collusion between universities and the people within them is that by paying for an education – which since the 2015 Spending Review is significantly higher than commonly understood – students are employable regardless of the actual existence of jobs.

 

One of the problems with a narcissistic system that denies reality is that learning anything involves a conversation – between people, between ideas, between different perspectives. The teacher is there to create a space where this conversation can take place where ideas can be digested, discussed and taken in. Although the expectation is that the teacher knows something that the students don’t (yet) this can’t be delivered without cooperation between everyone in the room. It means actually having relationships where our lack of absolute knowledge is not a total catastrophe.

 

There is a paradox to learning – that to know something you have to be open to the possibility that you don’t know everything. This requires a degree of compassion towards ourselves and each other.

 

For many people working in education, January tests your metal. Ideas matter, as do the ways in which we share them. For learning to happen we have to be able to use the C words – with compassion, with care, collectively.

 
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