Debates in Higher Education, University College London
Higher education, critical professionalism and educational action research
11 October 2001
Melanie Walker, School of Education, University of Sheffield
‘There is no subjugation so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom’, remarked Rousseau. ‘It is thus the will itself is taken captive’. (quoted in Marginson, 2000, p.199)
Against a contextual framing of changing conditions of higher education, this paper points to how a reconstructed professionalism in university teaching might be realised through a collaborative and reflexive professional dialogue regarding the ends and purposes of learning, explored in discipline-based action research projects. It takes the view that higher education produces and reproduces particular ‘storylines’ of how to live ethically and politically, and through its practices constructs lecturer and student identities. Grounded in work over two years with lecturers in a pre-1992 Scottish university, it seeks to prise open the possibilities of ‘speaking back’ to managerialism and marketisation through showing how we might do a critical professionalism in our teaching and learning practices in higher education. The paper further seeks to open out a limited discourse around ‘teaching and learning’ in higher education. This is not the same as trying to make a case for teaching versus research (or vice versa), or to gainsay the obvious importance of quality teaching in our universities, rather it seeks to problematise a discourse which fails to centre the purposes of higher education teaching. Thus the issue is not, for example, whether something like the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) is "vapid and costly" (Gillian Howie, letters page, THES 20 July 2001) or "set on identifying a real understanding of teaching" (Bill Cranston, letters page, THES 27 July 2001), but to ask questions about the moral base of our academic professionalism and the values that underpin educational action research studies into teaching and learning in higher education. The point is that the space of higher education and its place in society is still an important public sphere for contestation and struggle, a worthwhile site of struggle over resources, meanings, identities, and a struggle for better knowledge and fairer education. At stake are practices of ‘criticality’ (Barnett, 1997) which encourage students to not only learn about their world and learn about themselves, but to develop themselves and contribute to their world. Criticality "requires that one be moved to do something" (Burbules and Berk, 1999, p.51).
Changing conditions in higher education
We know that universities in the UK, and globally, have and are changing radically – there are more students, more universities and of different kinds, less resources, a reductive and technicist notion of the individual, and increasing debates around ‘standards’ and ‘effectiveness’. It has even been suggested by Parker and Jary (1998) that these developments have created the ‘McUniversity’, with standardized, bite-sized modules served up by ‘have a nice day’ automatons to increasingly instrumental customers. The concept and practices of managerialism have penetrated the academy as a means to encourage efficiency, productivity, value for money and so on. In higher education this is a time of benchmarks, measurable and comparable outcomes, a hard-edged accountability and the ‘bottom’ line’. With the advent of a global economy, and a discourse of ‘skills’ and economic advantage, the economic importance of education has been rediscovered as a key form of productive capital in the race for competitive advantage. As Peters and Roberts (2000) point out, ‘new growth theory’ highlights the role of education in producing ‘human capital’ and new knowledge. While the production and dissemination of knowledge remains central to university work in this ‘new economy’, "its value is legitimated increasingly in terms of its attraction to and service of global corporations" (Peters and Roberts, 2000, p.129). The neo-liberal emphasis, they say, on the workings of a ‘free market’ increasingly divests universities of their ‘public–good’ functions, reduces their institutional autonomy and threatens their forms of democratic governance. What is apparent, is that, like other sectors, higher education confronts the ‘economizing’ of education, the hollowed-out language of the ‘market’, and the ‘emptying out’ of relationships (Lash and Urry, 1994). We now have a discourse of clients and consumers, individual rights rather than social responsibilities, stakeholders, and economic relevance, and much less space is given to issues of equity and social justice.
Not surprisingly the dominant paradigm in academic staff development emphasises the practise and perfection only of methods and techniques, rooted in a ‘training’ tradition and a language of skills, objectives, outcomes, prediction and control of what is to be learnt and how. Thus teaching has become a focus of attention in higher education, but much of this attention has been marked by a technicist discourse and a ‘surface learning’ about teaching (Rowland, 1999), and the dislocation of teaching and staff development in higher education from a wider literature about education. Added to this is a general shift away from nuanced and subtle languages of possibility. As Smith (1999) argues, the dominant cognitive, performative and economic genres currently work very effectively to drive out or silence other ways of understanding and acting and speaking in society, including the moral or ethical basis of our professionalism. It is the difference between the language of ‘university life’ compared to the language of ‘human resource development in the higher education context’ (Smith, 1999)!
Reconstructing professionalism in university teaching
What are the implications for us as professionals working in higher education? Under current conditions of ‘performativity’ we are required to add-(particular kinds of) value to our professional selves (Ball, 2000). Ball (2000) explains that:
Performativity is a technology, a culture, a mode of regulation, or a system of ‘terror’ in Lyotard’s words, that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as a means of control, attrition and change. (2000, p.1)
New modes of regulation (accountability) produce or fabricate new professional subjectivities, for example, the enterprising subject, and work to erase others, for example the collaborative teacher. Nor are we simply able to shrug off the effects of performativity on academic life. Ball (2000, p.17) argues that performativity does not simply get in the way, "it fundamentally changes what academic life is". Yet, as teachers in higher education, our professional work is integral to our identities and self worth – "[our] freedom to exercise informed judgement in work is a vital part of being human", explains Ozga (1999, p.69). What kind of academics and teachers, then, are we, or can we now be? What are our educational purposes and values as teachers in higher education? How might we ‘do’ critical forms of professionalism and reconstruct professional identities under changing conditions of higher education? What new forms of professional association and agreement might take us forward? What professional identity work do we do in telling one set of narratives, rather than another?
With colleagues (Walker, 2001), I have argued for a view of professionalism that acknowledges and celebrates the complexity of professional judgements in which outcomes may, but cannot always be determined in advance, and where reflection and improvement is integral to professional work in higher education. Uncertainty is part of the job, not a troublesome process to be expunged through ‘performance indicators’. This "emergent professionalism" (Nixon and Ranson, 1997) is substantially oppositional in meaning and values (to marketisation), rather than merely novel or innovative. It seeks to prise open the spaces in the dominant culture (or discourses) involving complex and ambiguous struggles over incorporation into dominant ways of being in education. Added to this is a commitment to ‘professionality’ - focusing on "the quality of practice in contexts that require radically altered relations of power and control" (Nixon et al, 1997, p.12); ‘professionality’ further includes "a renewed commitment to building a learning profession" (Nixon et al, 1997, p.12). Such a learning profession is defined in terms of its "commitment to the internal goods of learning, and the maintenance of a critical distance between the practice and the external goods of schooling" (Nixon et al, 1997, p.13). Indeed, lecturers in universities might be seen as having a professional duty to adopt an explicitly oppositional stance to policies that prioritise the external goods of the institution or militate against the internal goods of learning. Commitments to equal opportunities or fairness and social justice, must, in this view be intrinsic to professional practice, not stand outside of it.
Reworking our professionalism involves a specifically political understanding which embraces justice and fairness. In my own work with university colleagues, the project we set up (see Walker 2001 for the detailed case studies) turned on engaging in action research into student learning on the one hand, and constituting ourselves as a dialogic and collaborative community of action researchers on the other. Through these processes we worked to rebuild professional identities (who we are in higher education) more consistent with our educational values. We worked to open the space from which to ‘talk back’ to the marketization of higher education, to assert critical agency for ourselves and our students, and to reclaim the wisdom of our own professional judgements in the face of the "moral ascendancy" of managerialism (Inglis, 1989). For example, we problematised uncritical notions of ‘student-centred learning’ by trying to locate our pedagogical decisions in a wider context of practice:
Sometimes it is right to step back to let the students tell me what they want. But this is not a general truth. It’s all right in a period when people are active, engaged, committed, struggling, then you assume that in such an active environment, the kinds of questions that ought to be asked will eventually be asked. But if we live in an environment where the opposite is true, where the common sense is passive, consumerist, individualizing, then actually you don’t just go with the flow…and that might be the most ethical and democratic position you could adopt. (quoted in Walker, 201, p.8)
Becoming practically critical
Thus we advocate a key role in our critical professionalism for inquiry into practice, and for what Noffke (1995) describes as ‘becoming practically critical’, clarifying and reconstructing or challenging our educational theories and assumptions. Of course, there are many ways to do action research, not all of which seek to challenge dominant practices in education and society. The tension is mainly between those who argue for a social justice perspective, and those more concerned with professional development (see Weiner, 1989). In our work, action research was been a powerful way for us to understand how we and our students make and re-make the curriculum, raising questions about what counts as knowledge and ways of knowing, and how these work to construct symbolic boundaries which include some learners (and teachers) and exclude others, and make our identities as teachers. . Pedagogical practices are important - form shapes and recontextualises content. As Britzman reminds us, a central question for any pedagogy is, "How one comes to find relevance for one’s present world in events that are not one’s own, but that have the capacity to say something more to the stories one already has….." (2000, p.50). At issue is how local classroom sites participate in the production of knowing, speaking citizen subjects, and how curriculum practices might work to produce social justice effects and ethical views of the world. Education in universities teaches subjectivities (identities), as well as subjects, and identities are forged in the fine detail of the social organization of knowledge and pedagogy.
Our action research thus explicitly located itself within a tradition of critical social research:
[which] does not take the apparent social structure, social processes, or accepted history for granted. It tries to dig beneath the surface of appearances. It asks how social systems really work, how ideology or history conceals the processes which oppress and control people. Critical social research is intrinsically critical. It assumes that a critical process informs knowledge. (Harvey,1990, p. 6, author’s emphasis)
We assume that our experiences in education are open to reflection, reworking and critique within a ‘democratic knowledge-making project’ (Barr, 1999). The process involved action, participation, improvement, collaboration, inclusion and critical self-reflection. While the shifts that resulted may only be small accretions of local change, the broader purpose is still for equity in learning and society. Knowledge about practice and the self in educational change is also then acknowledged as a cultural and intellectual project and a set of material and cultural practices which embodies a particular way of knowing the world.
Action research assumes some form of human agency in relation to structures and social processes, albeit constrained by the circumstances within which we find ourselves. What kind of identities are constructed in and through action research would turn partly on circumstances or conditions of possibility, but also on the strategic and professional choices we make in our bid for emotional and intellectual authenticity of the self. Anderson (1998) reminds us that constituting ourselves as authentic selves is not simply a kind of private indulgence, but central to what we do and how we do it, individually and collectively, and spinning out from this the kind of society we end up by shaping. It is then crucial, he says, that we better understand "not only how authentic forms of participation can constitute more authentic private selves and public citizens but also how they lead to the constitution of a more democratic and socially just society" (p.596). To feel as if one is playing false to oneself, or being forced to play out the part of one kind of lecturer in higher education, for example not so much the inspiring teacher but the efficient bureaucrat, or the teacher as technocrat who must not raise questions about the moral purposes of his/her educational work, or the woman who must ‘pass ‘ as one of the boys to gain acceptance in her department, all have implications for how one is to be authentic, with effects for who we are professionally. As one of us commented:
I have experienced a serious loss of personal identity at times while working here, in that I believe myself forced to fit into some mould. This rather goes against the point of working in a university for me. The work we are carrying out is allowing me a bit of space to rebuild an identity and with that in place to choose the particular form I take. (quoted in Walker, 2001, p.53).
Importantly, changing what we do involves changing ourselves and constructing ‘authentic’ professional identities. As Cockburn (1998, p.10) forcefully points out, identity processes are "second only to force as the means by which power is effected in oppressive and exploitative systems". Where processes of identification articulate with dominant professional identities, for example, "compliance has been won" and holds existing lines of power in place. At issue is how discourse works in higher education sites – producing power, but also undermining and thwarting it; normalising and producing particular identities, but also prising open spaces for moments of equity and dis-identifications. We are all located in myriad ‘capillary’ power relations at the micro level of society, and in a complex web of discourses which offer many ways of seeing and being. Thus processes of identification, Hall (1990) argues, mark symbolic boundaries and produce ‘frontier effects’, working to exclude as well as include.
Crucially, the action research studies of my colleagues involved other epistemological communities – our students, and their thoughts and concerns. A ‘banking’ process between full vessels and empty receivers (Freire, 1971) is as inappropriate in our research as our teaching. Readings (1996, p.155) cites Bahktin’s observation that: "it is not a mute, wordless creature that receives such an utterance but a human being full of inner words". Student experiences and their voices count in the creation and legitimation of knowledge about education and learning. But for us, action research is also consistent with the kind of pedagogical principles that we articulate - where students are agents of their own knowing, and agents in the construction of knowledge about curriculum, about teaching and learning. Everyone has a stake in developing pedagogical knowledge. On the other hand, involving students is not uncomplicated; it may work patchily in practice. When power ‘speaks’ in particular ways in higher education pedagogy, it is not surprising that students are unsure: is it a kind of hidden assessment? Is it really about their best interests?
Action research communities of practice might share their work across disciplines to build ‘critical interdisciplinarity’ (Barnett, 1997) in which the different assumptions and values underlying disciplines are explored, thereby reconnecting questions of professional development and pedagogy to academic disciplines and research. At issue, as Malcolm and Zukas (2000, p. 4) point out, is the current oddity of separating university teaching from other forms of disciplinary activity (in a way which would be unimaginable for research). They claim that this separation of pedagogy from the disciplines and research "has serious implications for the status of teaching in higher education, the prospects of ‘connective specialisation’, and the process of knowledge production itself". They argue strongly for "the return of pedagogic practice to the site of knowledge production" (p.12). What counts as ‘learning’ will be shaped epistemologically by whether this is learning of chemistry, or philosophy, or mathematics, or history, and so on. Arguably, then, an effective collaboration in higher education must include participants’ disciplines and their discourses or languages, a shared conversation about teaching, and practical efforts to improve learning. One of our group explained:
It seems to me to be central to the whole business of communication that we appreciate the allusions and metaphors of people engaged in other disciplines. It is this web we form in our [project] meetings and for me the nub of our work. Interwoven with this is of course, using action research and applying that to improve our educational practice. (quoted in Walker, 2001, p.48).
Any professional identity is then multi-layered, and includes both pedagogic and disciplinary identities.
In these uncertain times it seems ironic that the drive in higher education teaching and learning is towards prediction, control and certainties. Action research is one way to prise open these claims to certainty about the way the (educational) world is, in pursuit of better educational practices, not tips or chekclists, for ourselves and our students. One of us elucidated:
What I was really getting out of teaching my course before I started doing action research was a sense of something that was working, there was a buzz in there, there was something that was connecting, and I wanted to understand what that might be. Yet as soon as I find the ‘ingredients’, I think, OK, this was it, it was this set of questions, or this way of working or this particular set of student groups. And then I put the ideas into practice again this year but it didn’t work in exactly the same way. I was constantly having to think again on the spot and work out exactly why the same formula, even with some of the same students, wasn’t working a year later. (quoted in Walker, 2001, p.192)
It means recognising that our own stories about practice are partial and situated, and hold their own potential for repression as much as empowerment. It means welcoming complexity and resisting the smoothing out of unevenness. At issue is that action research is not simply a set of methods or techniques to investigate and report on practice. It is a methodology that raise questions about what counts as knowledge about educational practice, about how we come to know, about who counts as knowers, and about how we write about higher education and our lives within it.
Dialogue, shared work and collaboration
For myself and my colleagues, central to doing criticality, to constructing a new professionalism in university teaching, and to working as teachers and learners in action, have been processes of collaboration, what Lomax (1994) calls a ‘double dialectic of learning’ of both personal development and critical community. Through participation in collaborative groups we work to resist the "individualization of identity attached to life in the global networks of power and wealth" (Castells, 1997, p.65). Working together is part of our attempt to refuse performativity and a "mindless collusion" (Ball, 2000) by constructing a resistant practice of professionalism, to do criticality. The risk is that these same collaborative spaces might work defensively so that we sediment resistant identities which privilege solidarity over difference, and consensus over critique so that we risk confirming rather than challenging each other’s assumptions. At issue is that interactive spaces are always risky and emotional, saturated with feelings as well as ideas, and that the effects of collaboration might not always be as we would wish and hope.
Collaboration is not inherently liberatory; much turns on the context and practices that give it form and there is no one trajectory that defines all collaborations. These spaces are unpredictable and complex, as the "ideas and actions of one person interact with the ideas and actions of another to produce a co-construction" (Griffiths, 1998, p.13). Yet therein also lies their richness and possibility. It is at the knotty points and moments of disagreement and unpredictability that we gain insights into each other and ourselves and generate the spaces and intersections which are simultaneously uncomfortable, and yet satisfying and productive. Indeed, friction keeps us open to the challenges posed to our own thinking, rather than dissipating them, even though the rasp of disagreement and difference can be hard and difficult in practice.
There are important epistemological aspects to collaboration as well, as Griffiths (1998) emphasises. If hegemony works to perpetuate the status quo and maintain control, then keeping open different ways of seeing and voicing different experiences seems significant if we are to avoid consensual relations (or a search for them) hardening into their own hegemonic regime of truth within a group. Obliterating disagreements and eliminating frictions may well simply mask the power relations which are anyway present in any interactive encounter. Thus consensus and agreement may well be more rather than less problematic. As Lukes (1974, p.23) warns "the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent conflict arising in the first place". At issue is that working with many different voices and different perspectives in a framework of mutual support and knowledge, generates more responsible and inclusive knowledge. This is very unlike dominant modes of knowledge production in the academy which are competitive and adversarial (even where working in teams is part of the process). Collaboration is then also ethically desirable (Griffiths,1998).
These processes should not be underestimated or dismissed under present conditions of (im)possibility in our universities. Anderson reminds us that in the face of a growing consumerist and market-oriented hegemony, and divisions along race, class and gender:
the constitution of an authentic self through participation in democratic community may become increasingly rare…it is crucial that we better understand not only how authentic forms of participation can constitute more authentic private selves and public citizens but also how they lead to the constitution of a more democratic and socially just society. (1998, p.596)
One of my colleagues captured the fragmentation and alienation that seems increasingly to pervade academic life with the following anecdote, which followed his comment that pressurised staff in his department no longer bothered to meet and chat over coffee:
We don’t even have a room to meet for coffee. We finally, after several years of insistence, bought a coffee machine but had nowhere to put it. The secretary is allergic to the smell of coffee so we couldn’t use her office. I offered to put it in my room but at least two members of the department wouldn’t dream of having coffee with me. So the coffee machine sits in its pristine box in the office while we try to work out what to do with it! (Walker, 2001,p.56 )
Thus, while not ignoring problems, nor proclaiming that we heroically triumphed over all adversity, our concern was with what Raymond Williams called ‘creative practice’:
[an] active struggle for new consciousness through new relationships …. a process often described as development but in practice a struggle at the roots of the mind – not casting off an ideology, or learning phrases about it, but confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships. (1977, p.212)
For us, then, critical collaboration was a practice, "a way of being as well as a way of thinking, a relation to others as well as an intellectual capacity" (Anderson, 1998, p.62), a challenge to dominant discourses of professionalism and a market in higher education.
Landscapes of possibility
While there is room for optimism regarding the possibilities of improvement in universities, there is equally a need for a kind of reflexive vigilance in analysing the power relations in which we work, including our own self interests. Moreover institutional arrangements and relations of power have effects for what can be said or done in order for the powerful to protect institutional agendas and boundaries.
Yet despite the ‘dangers’, pedagogic work is still a location of possibility for "education as the practice of freedom" (hooks, 1994) and the construction of learning communities which are collaborative, critical and participatory and which enable students access to knowledge and to academic success. At issue here is that understanding student learning requires more than a limited and limiting language of aims and objectives and deep and surface learning; "the deeper significance of learning lies through its forming of our powers and capacities, in our unfolding agency", say Nixon et al (1996). They acknowledge the role of skills and the development of particular competences, but believe that the central purpose of learning is to enable such skills to develop "our distinctive agency as a human being", They remind us that teacher and student selves can only find their identities "in and through others and membership of communities" (1996, p.135).
If a democratic society is an educative, or ‘learning society’, what does a higher education which educates for the democratic life look like? If universities are places where ‘citizen’ identities are formed, with effects for the society in which we live now and in the future and for our understanding of diversity in local and global contexts in an interlocking world, what should a ‘good citizen’ of the present day be and know, and in the context of higher education, what might educating for a ‘democratic sensibility look like? How do ‘critical communities’ establish their own claims to be heard, to be listened to, and to be taken seriously against dominant and grander narratives of universities as ‘corporations’? How might we, through curriculum work, institutional programmes, and educational research, expand participation, and challenge asymmetries of pedagogical, institutional and social power relations in order to build a democratic learning society? Our work has implications for the kind of society in which we would hope to live - how then do we want to live our lives in education, why do we what we do, and who benefits from it?
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1997) in her account of liberal education cites the story of Jacob Marley’s Ghost in Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol as an image of ‘bad citizenship’ and a ‘blunted imagination’. This is how we encounter Marley, the ‘good man of business’, who appears to Scrooge as a frightening apparition, fettered by heavy chains, bemoaning his fate to wander the earth after death, witnessing the human interaction and care he cannot share but might have shared on earth:
Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands. ‘You are fettered’, said Scrooge trembling. ‘Tell me why’. ‘I wear the chain I forged in life, replied the Ghost. ‘ I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’ ….‘I cannot rest, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting house – mark me!- in life my spirit never roved beyond the n arrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!…‘But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge….‘Business’, cried the Ghost, wringing its hand again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop in the comprehensive ocean of my business.
As Nussbaum comments, we produce all too many citizens who are like Marley’s ghost. At issue is that in higher education we can do better. Kadar Asmal, currently Minister of Higher Education in South Africa, succinctly puts the case for higher education – "being business-like is not the same as being a business" (quoted in Times Higher Educational Supplement, 11 August 2000). If higher education is still to be a public good, we need to speak back to the ways in which our professional identities as teachers and researchers are being colonised subtly and not so subtly by new managerial imperatives exemplified by Asmal’s comment.
In the words of one project member in dialogue with the rest of the group: "The real benefit, the most profound benefit for students is discovering how to discover the world, how to ask and answer questions about the world and how to do it with other people in a context which they define" (quoted in Walker, 2001, p.19). Or as one second year students said in an interview for the action research project:
One thing I’d like to say to other teachers that are thinking about this kind of [collaborative student-led projects] approach is that we are all cheats you know. We cheated because we saw each other’s work. We cheated because we set our own questions and we cheated because we actually really enjoyed ourselves when we were meant to be doing some serious work. I think cheating is very educational, you know. (quoted in Walker, 2001, p.18)
We might do well as university teachers to pay attention to Hannah Arendt’s (1977, p.196) injunction that a teacher’s obligation to her students is "not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something foreseen by no-one, but to prepare then in advance for the task of renewing a common world". Dialogic and reflexive professional communities undertaking explicitly values-based action research into our practices of teaching would be one strategy to realise the public duties of our universities which such a vision of education demands, and at the same time reconstruct the ‘activist’ professional identities (Sachs, 2001) and ‘brave acts’ (Barnett, 1997) that support rather than erode higher education’s civic capacity.
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