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  • Some Notes on a Project:Democracy and Authority in the Production of a Discipline
  • Susan Bruce (bio), Ken Jones (bio), and Monica McLean (bio)

The Production of University English: A Project and Its Background

This essay describes the parameters, the methodology, and some of the initial findings of a collaborative research project, begun in September 2006, involving colleagues in English and education departments in five different British universities. Our project, funded by the English Subject Centre, investigates how English (understood as a form of knowledge socially constructed through disciplinary tradition, institutional context, and immediate exchanges in the teaching room) is "produced" in the context of the teaching space, a site less formal than, but as significant as, the scholarly articles and books produced by academics working in a field, or the scholarly histories of a subject qua subject.1 How do university teachers and their students "produce" their subjects, we ask, moment to moment, in situations and with sets of resources and constraints that are not fully—and, some would argue, ever less—under their control? In what communicational practices do students and teachers engage in their discussions of material in the classroom, and how might we "read" those practices once we have identified them? How might multimodal theories—theories that attend to forms of meaning making that involve gesture, posture, gaze, and movement as well as the spoken and written word—help to describe and interrogate what actually happens when a discipline is taught and learned? And how do broad patterns of institutional [End Page 481] and cultural change interact with discipline identities to reshape what happens at the level of the classroom?

At its most general, our project seeks to situate what occurs in specific, individual teaching spaces within large-scale and arguably global phenomena (socioeconomic changes and their impact on the higher education sector) as well as within the more local forums of the identities and practices embraced by a given discipline. Current approaches may emphasize the student experience of university learning (Prosser and Trigwell 1999; Biggs 2003; Ramsden 2003), but theoretically and methodologically, they tend to be discipline-blind: the broad set of contrasts they produce—between "deep" and "surface" models of teaching and learning, between "transformational" and "instrumental" responses on the part of students—has been criticized as abstracted from social and political contexts, and from subject disciplines and histories (Haggis 2003; Malcolm and Zucas 2001; Webb 1997). Other approaches—employing concepts of "academic literacy" and "community of practice"—are more attentive to the material practices and social relationships through which acculturation into academic practice occurs (Lea and Street 1998; Jones, Turner, and Street 1999; Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). But with some exceptions (Brennan and Jary 2004), they, too, tend to be insensitive to the content and protocols of disciplinary knowledge.

Much the same is true of accounts that embed analyses of developments in higher education within wider sociohistorical contexts such as that of early-twentieth-century globalization. We find many of those accounts persuasive: certainly, contemporaneous trends toward, on the one hand, uniformity, standardization, and homogeneity and, on the other, fragmentation and differentiation (Apple 2000; Mouffe 1998) are as apparent in the university today as they are in other manifestations of the market. We are sympathetic, too, toward observations that an "economization" of higher education's declared purpose and principles of operation goes hand in hand with the unparalleled expansion of it we have witnessed in recent years (Delanty 2001; Kenway 1994; Naidoo 2003). In Britain, we have seen new forms of governance, such as increased demands for audit and accountability; organizational changes, such as successive restructurings; curricular changes, such as the modularization of degree structures, the benchmarking of disciplines against national standards, and recently, a new emphasis on the teaching of "skills" (Department for Education and Skills 2003); and increasing institutional competition and the growing influence of league tables. None of this is to begin to speak of the changes in the nature of students' institutional experience attendant on the combination of study with part-time work. [End Page 482]

Many have argued that the high workloads, scarce resources, and audit-focused cultures of the mass university—the "quality regimes"—impede...


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