Research Lab 1: Innovation, resistance and the new

The following post is a transcription of the third and final contribution to our inaugural Research Lab on 3rd December 2014, a talk given by Leigh Wilson from the Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies on the topic of innovation, resistance and the new in the context of the ‘Learning Futures Framework’. Leigh’s talk initiated the proceedings and generated lots of discussion about teaching, administration and the change in universities:

The questions I’d like to set out this afternoon have been provoked by my involvement with the Learning Futures project which has been running in the university for just over 2 years, and is just about to come, as I am sure you’re all very aware, to its first milestone at the beginning of next year with the approval processes for the new degrees.

My main involvement over the last year has been as part of the Curriculum and Assessment project board – one of the five boards that make up the project – and in particular I’ve been chairing the assessment sub-group to that board. My involvement in LF from the beginning, and especially my work in the assessment group this over the last year, has really been my first experiences of quite intense cross-university work and contact, and my first experience really of seeing how decisions and policy are made at university level. I’ve worked with people from parts of the university I didn’t before know existed, and had lots of discussions about pedagogy via other subjects, and encountered a whole set of experiences and expectations that are very different from my own or those in my subject generally. This has been very useful in many ways, but what the whole experience has made me think about a lot is the question of innovation, how it happens, what it means.

My first involvement in the LF project was, I have to say, for me a positive one in that I felt very buoyed up by the idea of encouraging innovative re-thinking in lots of areas of practice within the university, including, of course, assessment. I did feel that the project offered the opportunity to ditch lots of the accumulated baggage about how things had to be done, that it promised a way of being able to make changes that would in the end, as well as all the other aims of the project, really encourage academic staff to think about their subjects, about the place of their subjects in the world, and about what we really think we are doing when we teach students the bodies of knowledge that constitute our disciplines.

So this is how I went into being involved in the project, and I’m going to go on to explain what I think now about it has fed in to the questions raised for my thinking about my own subject, my own teaching, and in particular the thinking about assessment that I have done for the redesign of the BA English Lit in my department.

I think the first thing being involved with the project has taught me is about my own naivety. When I was thinking about this for today, I idly googled innovation, and came across this definition from something called the businessdictionary.com. Innovation is, according to them:

The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products.

This is really about the transformation of ideas into money, or actually the transformation of ideas into profit. As reductive as this definition is, what it makes clear is that my original hope that the LF project would encourage innovation, indeed the project’s own claims to have at its heart the fostering of innovation, was already, although not clear to me then, about the transformation of ideas into money. The LF project is upfront about its necessity as originating in the state of the HE sector at the moment. A reduction in the real value of the £9,000 fees by 2017 means that universities, to stay economically viable, are going to have to find other sources of income, and at the same time all universities will increasingly have to explicitly ‘sell’ themselves to potential students, especially universities like Westminster whose names and histories that don’t have the privilege of an uncontested, or little contested, value. In this environment, of course, the concept of innovation is easily assimilated into a strategy for thriving in the free market, for adding value to a degree that is bought as a consumer product like any other, and where lack of innovation necessarily loses customers. So for me, at the heart of the project is a tension – my enthusiasm for it was predicated on the idea that academic disciplines (especially my own) need to remain lithe, vital, and innovative in order to remain resistant to and critical of the orthodoxies that are always waiting to recolonize it, and make it safe again – but the project itself is made necessary by an external environment in which innovation is one of the central drivers of consumer capitalism. That fusty old universities (except that the really fusty ones are somehow exempt from this) need to get to grips with the world as it is and stop hiding behind their high walls and intellectual good manners is one of the underlying stories of government’s attitude to them from the Browne Review onward, from before then too of course, but I think this has intensified since Browne. So the question I have now is – how can we tell one kind of innovation from the other? How do we know that the new we are designing and just about to institute is the right new, not the new which affirms and confirms the orthodoxies of government and consumer culture more generally?

The significance and reach of this larger question has been I think confirmed by my experience both on the assessment subgroup and in terms of my thinking about assessment for the new English literature degree.

The assessment subgroup had to put together recommendations on the framework on assessment within the wider aims of LF, to be passed by Academic Council, and then had to put together a set of guidelines for faculties to use when putting together their own tariffs on assessment.

The wider aims of LF re assessment within which we were working were:

  • The reduction of overassessment
  • For assessment to aid the coherence of courses
  • To bring in synoptic assessment
  • To encourage and increase the explicit use of formative assessment
  • To encourage students to be less ends-directed in their learning

At times doing this in the group was fraught. I found myself in the position of tending towards very prescriptive recommendations whose final aim was to produce creative innovation, to produce something new. I found myself wondering how to prescribe for my peers imaginative thinking, creativity, innovation. Within the terms of my initial enthusiasm for LF, I found myself in a position where I was sort of saying that I believed the institution could force the kind of light on its feet critical resistance in disciplines that I wanted to be the outcome of the project. And this prescriptiveness was of course challenged, with some validity, by some of my colleagues on the groups. Indeed, the grounds of their resistance, it seemed to me, really looked like exactly the kind of critical resistance that I have wanted to be the innovative outcome of the whole project.

It seemed to me that their resistance came from the following places:

  • defence of disciplinary boundaries
  • belief in their discipline as special
  • a generalized suspicion of university and its agenda
  • a suspicion of the leveling, one size fits all effects of university systems

All of which could signify the kind of resistance/innovation I had been keen on, but had thought could be produced through innovation and the new.

But, at the same, much of the challenge to the project’s aims around assessment were also based on an idea of what students will and will not do – so often the block to something new was in the end the claim that students wouldn’t do it. And here I began to think that there were some questions to be asked about the prescription of innovation – isn’t this sort of what we ask students to do in each assessment? Not that we ask them to be innovative in terms of the discipline, but we do ask them to be innovative in terms of their place in it, making their place in it new, making new their sense of themselves, their learning, their place in the world? We do ask them to do something that is new to them. And for all the use by some of my colleagues on the group of student resistance to justify their own resistance, it made me think that perhaps in assessments too the prescription of traditional assessments produced not the new but resistance.

The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that assessment is the place too of another kind of resistance – it is the place where the innovation demanded by a consumerist market driven culture meets resistance. If and when higher education is truly marketised, students will indeed be able to buy the kind of degree they want, and the amount they can pay will be the greatest determinant of that degree – greater than ability, or effort, or quality of teaching. Students do already sometimes use the language of consumption, of their sense of having bought something as shaping their expectations, although of course the language of consumption from students (as it is from the government) is patchy, inconsistent and contradictory. But it is around assessment that the ideology of the market most clearly meets a kind of granite, a kind of resistance.  You can’t yet buy good grades (not directly from universities, anyway, only indirectly from websites). The effort needed to complete assessments resists the whole idea that degrees equate to consumer products. For the student then, assessment is riven with resistances – their own resistance to perceived prescriptiveness, the resistance of assessment to the central ideological orthodoxy of the time, the resistance of the assessment, perhaps, to students’ own desires and aims.

All this has made the whole question of assessment seem both a very interesting one, but also one heavy with complexity – not so helpful when coming, with a short deadline, to designing assessment for the new degree.

Where have I got so far with thinking through all this in terms of my own assessment design?

  • less is more
  • be less anxious about coverage
  • let what students have learnt stay silent – Not everything has to be written
  • Assessment that is useful for students not for us
  • Assessment that is outward rather than inward looking – let the discipline breathe
  • Allow students not to be ends-directed – ie let the assessment be partial, incremental, modest
  • Assessment as active rather than resolved end point
  • Giving students more responsibility for their assessment – choices etc.
  • Trust them more

In other words – while innovation might need some prescription in order to come about – it needs to factor in resistances good and bad, and work with them.

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