Sunday, 29 June 2008

Assessment, authority and the ownership of knowledge

Over the past week or so I have been researching 1970s student politics, especially around the ownership of knowledge (of course, since that is my topic). Naturally I have barely scraped the surface but I have been thinking about something.

Themes, as well as the ones we know well (Vietnam war, apartheid, aboriginal land rights, feminism, gay rights etc etc) included examination, assessment, professorial authority and democracy in education.

UNE had a peasant’s revolt against exams and students completed the exam on Marxism collectively, to the horror of the poor exam supervisor. Eliminating exams was on placards along with other political statements and an idea that students should “assess the teachers” (instead of being assessed as students) seemed quite reasonable to students. And to some staff, mind you.

Sydney university largely went on strike in 1973 over the professorial board failing to approve a course on feminism in the philosophy department – which was one of several departments experimenting with allowing all students to vote at departmental meetings. Students at Sydney conducted a 3-day hostile occupation of the Registrar’s office over failure by the university to grant advanced standing to one of its students.

Universities responded surprisingly positively to student wishes, despite the bluster of a number of Sydney professors and concerted efforts by the Sydney professorial board in 1970 to piss students off with particularly paternalistic approaches. There was a little war (of letters, mostly) for a while.

A free university was set up at Sydney, and at UNE and probably other places too.

For even by 1975, professorial boards were being replaced by academic boards changing the role of professors and giving expanded say to junior staff and students. Faculties and departments were now required to have student representation and universities tended to encourage continuous assessment, take-home exams and discourage single-exam-only forms of assessment.

UNSW addressed the period’s whimsy, if nothing else, by officially appointing a Wizard as a part of the university’s organisational structure.

But there was still a minority that felt assessment should be eliminated all together and I think this is interesting. I find it difficult- probably due to lack of research so far – to really understand how this could be. But I am sure it is related to authority and the ownership of knowledge. Looking closely at the philosopher’s strike at Sydney uni, the course proponents felt that the professorial board was unqualified to judge the value of this new knowledge – knowledge which students could explore and access, which undermined the traditional authority of professors. Given that the new – and important – knowledge was something young people possessed and professors didn’t, professors should have no role in assessing them. Also, professors clearly care about a range of things that have no importance in comparison to the new knowledge possessed by students and the legitimacy of their authority in the university should be questioned.

References I've used in think and scribbling this are:

Bashford, Alison. "The Return of the Rpressed: Feminism in the Quad." Australian Feminist Studies 13, no. 27 (1998): 47-53.

Beer, Don (ed.). A Serious Attempt to Change Society: The Socialist Action Movement and Student Radicalism at the University of New England, 1969-75. Transcripts of Interviews. (Armidale: Kardoorair Press, 1998).

Jacka, E.M. and Curthoys, J, Open letter to members of the Committee appointed by the Professorial Board to to consider the qualifications of two persons recommended for appointment as Part-Time Lecturers in Philosophy (1973)

Several Sydney Professorial Board Minutes and some Academic Board minutes between 1970 and 1976.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Academic freedom - or freedom from academics?

I have just noticed this article in The Australian HES -,,23916884-12332,00.html

This article includes a very interesting definition of academic freedom - libs that are concerned about "academic bias" are looking for academia to be "free" of politics.

Normally, academic freedom means things like:

- academics need to be able to pursue the scholarship they consider to be important without interference from politicians or churches. We could possibly extend this to industries, businesses, unions or anyone else.

- academics need to be able to state publicly their scholarly findings without fear of physical or financial penalty (verbal penalty is to expected though) and thus probably need to be quite secure in their job (ie tenure)

It does NOT normally mean:

- academics are not able to hold or express a public political or religious opinion that may or may not be based on hard evidence (would these libs have a problem with academics declaring a belief in God?)

Politics, as well as being a democratic/media/entertainment/career/wayoflife/whatever, is also an area of scholarly study (or an issue in several areas). Academic freedom really is at risk if politicians wish to ensure that scholars never express a political opinion.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Notes on (and beyond) Charland 2003 The incommensurability thesis and the status of knowledge

I still don't get delegitimation. Rough notes here only, with next questions.

Lyotard borrows from Wittgenstein’s language games, which approximately equal Kuhn’s paradigms.

Paradigms (Kuhn) are incommensurable with one another. Within paradigms, the world is represented acc/- the rules of paradigm but on the basis of empiricism – a representational mirror. Rhetoric is non-scientific ie. Non-empirical but must be deployed in scientific revolution to establish a new paradigm, because paradigms are non-scientific ie based on a priori assumptions, not empirical observations.

But this undoes itself (perhaps - Gross) because the scientific community is continually (not periodically) deploying rhetoric to test the paradigm…meaning incommensurable rhetoric is deployed within a paradigm, making the paradigm unstable (and science unscientific).

Charland (2003) seems to use Lyotard as the Third Way in this essay. Language games approximately equal paradigms, but do not draw on an analogy with representation and also does not care about empiricism or the mirror to reality. That is, paradigms are a game, where every move is a response to previous ones, ether commensurable or incommensurable, doesn’t matter.

Here is where it all gets relevant to me:

The thing with the game is that is assumes the equal status of its participants – that is, each move in the game is directed towards another participant in the game who must be qualified to understand and respond to it (for it to be valid?).

This “scientific” knowledge is different to “narrative” knowledge, which assumes the inequality of the speaker to the audience – that is, while commensurability doesn’t matter within science, science is incommensurable to, say, politics (which is narrative knowledge).

Next questions will be….

How is the language game legitimised?

How does the need for legitimacy delegitimise it?

Does scientific knowledge belong beyond science to other university-based knowledges?

Is narrative knowledge equal to non-university knowledge - or is it also scholarly humanities?

Experts, please speak up!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Knowledge, power, money and ownership: conclusions from the 1940s and 1950s

Here is the conclusion from my first draft of the 1950s chapter.

Full text is available. Part 1 Part 2 Bibliography

I would definitely welcome any comments and criticisms anyone has. If you're more comfortable emailing me, please do.

Knowledge, power, money and ownership: conclusions from the 1940s and 1950s

This chapter has come to the same conclusions from two directions. Part one considered, largely, the perspective of academics within Australian universities as higher education gained a high profile as a result of the Second World War. Part two broadly (though not exclusively) considered the government side of the events of these two decades, highlighting the difficulty in a democratic system of maintaining both academic freedom and accountability for public funding. What emerged was a new kind of university that had a responsibility to be responsive to the public in its production of knowledge – and where the ownership of (new kinds of) knowledge was slipping through the fingers of the academics that produced it.

The massive changes to higher education that occurred throughout the 1940s and 1950s were felt, by the academics who engaged with these issues, as potential challenges to academic ownership of knowledge – understood in the tradition of academic freedom. The potential for interference by government increased with every funding allocation. Changes to the demographic of enrolling students, as well as an increasing public expectation, functioned to add a new instrumentalism to university knowledge, embodied in the name of the NSW University of Technology. The construction of the ideal academic in heroic terms, emphasising that you can’t buy academics that do not care about money, operates as an attempt to assure the ownership of knowledge stays with the academic. However, this character did not possess the resilience that academics like Eric Ashby would have hoped.

In the Murray committee’s report to government, this same academic hero was present – but so was the requirement that universities efficiently fulfil (public) needs in exchange for (public) funding – a requirement that required some central (government) control and coordination. The structural consequence was, as Patrridge demonstrated, the positioning of universities as “public instrumentalities…[with] public functions”, which also contributed to a tendency to increased instrumentalism of the knowledge produced. At the same time, the Commonwealth established its own “pet university” in Canberra, with a mandate to expand the boundaries of knowledge with a focus on research – or knowledge production.
Knowledge production (in research) is the predominant perception of knowledge by the end of the 1950s, which is a change from the previous period that saw knowledge transmission (in teaching) as the principle role for universities. This is a symptom of the process Lyotard defines as delegitimation, in which knowledge as absolute and encyclopaedic is delegitimised, replaced by contingent and ever-expanding knowledge. It is clear that this shift in the perceived character of knowledge also commences the displacement of the heroic academic as autonomous expert, repositioning them as dutiful employee – starting to remove from them the control, validation and ownership of knowledge.

It might seem ironic that in this period of knowledge delegitimation, knowledge was also gaining greater value. But delegitimation is a process internal to universities – a process that questions the academic monopoly over university-based knowledge – and it disperses the possession and control of knowledge more widely. With the increased economic and moral value of knowledge came a widening desire to possess it. The democratisation of higher education in this period is one sign of this, as a widening group of students – including more women – seek to possess it. However, while the education explosion of the 1950s identified the agency of academics, universities and government, it assumed passivity in its students, possessing a right to access, but not control knowledge – despite increasingly identifying student individuality, as Brown showed. But the control of knowledge is power – and students, as we will see, were soon to want it too.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Delegitimation and liberal versus applied knowledge

I am having trouble separating the process of delegitimisation from the discursive opposition of liberal or traditional academic –and useful, skilled, knowledge

The process of delegitimation is one that functions at a level separate to the binary opposite of theoretical and applied knowledge, though it can easily be mistaken for that. This is because theoretical and applied knowledge operate within separate fields of discourse, as Lyotard shows.

But the actual reason for delegitimation is that the only operator of legitimacy is the producer of knowledge: knowledge legitimates itself. Where then is its value? Where is its legitimacy? It may actually have legitimacy but what it doesn’t have is a means to prove that it is legitimate.

This is why it looks like a division between applied and liberal knowledge: when the problem is that legitimacy is incestuous, external application appears to be the solution. But in fact external application is not entirely relevant: except that the statement (in the language game) that ‘application is outside of the scope of the university’s project’ functions to delegitimise it – because it emphasises that it is only those who possess it that can judge it: for what, then, is it worth?

Please help, if you can!