‘Student as Producer’ an idealised response to the marketization of Higher Education: A critique based on accounts of ‘student identity and practice’
IntroductionPresentation can be downloaded here. This paper attempts to generate academic and thus student reflection about a major contemporary theme in the education literature: that of student as Producer. Such a notion readily aligns itself with the discourse of ‘enhancing student engagement’ (Government White Paper 2011) a core feature and occupation of HE institutions operating within the framework of student fees. It is borne out of reflections on my own and other colleagues’ efforts to embed SAP within the curriculum. Some of these were part of the curriculum, others extra curricula, where we have at times consciously, at other times inadvertently, created a learning context where aspects of SAP have taken place. The paper offers a brief review of literature in this area drawing on existing theories of identity (Cherrier 2006) and Praxis (Warde 2005) to help unpack some of the pertinent challenges in generating and embedding ‘student as Producer’ in meaningful ways to both tutors and students. It also introduce some of the insights generated from phenomenological research carried out amongst students to help understand their approaches to, but that also speak directly to a contestation of SAP.I argue that students entering universities as ‘established and experienced consumers’ serves to narrow rather than broaden students’ learning experiences and therefore identity. Such students seek certainty and expended effort to avoid the ambiguity caused by challenging choices or the discomfort of transformational learning. The paper finishes by combining reflections on practice, conceptual problematizing of SAP and insights from primary research to offer a purposeful disruptive view of us as ‘practitioners of pedagogy’ Thus in this paper I offer a brief review of literature on Student as Producer in order to problematize the notion. I draw on theories of identity (Cherrier 2006) and Praxis (Warde 2005) to help unpack some of the pertinent challenges in generating and embedding ‘student as Producer’ in meaningful ways to both tutors and students. I also introduce some of the insights generated from phenomenological research carried out amongst students to help understand their approaches to scholarship (see Molesworth et al 2009, 2011) but that also speak directly to a contestation of SAP. The paper finishes by combining reflections on practice, conceptual problematizing of SAP and insights from primary research to offer a purposeful disruptive view of us as ‘practitioners of pedagogy’.
MethodologyTo help explore students’ characteristics, practices and experiences as contemporary students a phenomenological approach to interviewing was adopted. This locates a place in our overall understanding for this new ‘knowledge’ that is deeply embedded in the context from where it was generated, (Holstein and Gubrium 2005). Here, ‘understanding’ means an interpretation, or, more accurately, a fusion of interpretations, authors and participants (Gadamer 2006). Consequently, efforts to seek truth will be seen for what they are – forms of discourse (Parker 2002). Subsequently a first-person description of the lived experience of students was generated. As a result, it is the personal meaning of the participants’ experiences that this paper uses to understand, and interpret in the context of students as potential producers. Long interview techniques (McCracken 1988) were used with the average length of each at over 90 minutes. To explore the topic we asked for 2nd and 3rd year volunteers from undergraduate degree courses from a three post 92 universities from programme disciplines of business, art, media and communication. A total of 53 students were interviewed and forty seven of these were included in the analysis. After the data collection was completed a process of selecting and filtering the discussions allowed themes to emerge and resonate with our research focus.
Problematizing ‘Student as Producer’Such a notion appears to readily align itself with the discourse of ‘enhancing student engagement’ (Government White Paper 2011) a core feature and occupation of HE institutions operating within the framework of student fees. It is borne out of reflections on my own and other colleagues’ efforts to embed SAP within the curriculum. Some of these were part of the curriculum, others extra curricula, where we have at times consciously, at other times inadvertently, created a learning context where aspects of SAP have taken place. These course work, the development of a website called ‘student Showcase’ and work undertaken by some students within our commercial arm ‘Creative Enterprise Bureau’. Just how ‘should’ scholars respond to the marketisation pressures being generated as a result of student fees, HE being seen as a ‘meal ticket’ to better job prospects and the ubiquitous notion of it now being all about the student experience. One appealing set of coherent responses has been through the emergent notion of ‘Student as Producer’ (Neary and Winn 2009). From an academic perspective it has merit because it is rooted in a long scholarly history (Benjamin 1915) and because it fits educational ideals of active and concrete learning (Cassidy 2004). The intellectual base for adopting such a strategic response to the potent perils of a marketised HE may thus be sound. It also rather neatly offers a symmetrical response to perspectives that view contemporary students as consumers: from passive consumers to active producers. This paper offers a critique of SAP not because it has become too celebratory in its evocation – though it has, but because it too readily ignores (or worse still offers an idealised) picture of the new fresh-faced undergraduates pouring though the entrance halls of our universities in record numbers. The critique is built from several interconnected strands. Firstly the reflective experiences of embedding a SAP orientation, secondly drawing on existing theories of identity (Cherrier 2006) and Praxis (Warde 2005) to help unpack the pertinent challenges in generating and embedding ‘student as Producer’ in meaningful ways to both tutors and students. And thirdly, using insights generated from phenomenological research carried out amongst students investigating their own sense of identity and practice. SAP calls for a ‘redesign of the organising principle through which knowledge is currently being produced (Neary and Winn 2009). Our experiences suggest attempts at SAP are often isolated events not institutionally embedded. The current vogue of using traditional commercial business measurement metrics (Brown 2013) places emphasis on bureaucratically friendly audits of output, largely side-lining richer notions of ‘the productivity of the higher education industry as creative thinking’ (MacRury 2007), that is to say organisational imperatives count what is deemed of value and generating capacity for thinking is marginalised. Furthermore, such efforts that are made to frame the student experience that place forms of ‘scholarly production’ at the centre appear in conflict with increased marketisation of the HE sector (Molesworth and Scullion 2005). It is claimed that a major outcome of SAP is that the educator is ‘no longer a delivery vehicle’ (Neary and Winn 2009), if so it means the student can no longer be a receptacle waiting for others to give them the learning, the student must willingly take on this role. However, there appears to be little recognition and appreciation of that contemporary character of undergraduates as they pour through the gates in fresher’s week as already experienced consumers, what Fromm (1962) originally called the ‘marketing personality’ a notion others have subsequently used in wider explanations and critiques of consumer culture (Shankar and Fitchett 2002, Solomon 2009, Again, experience suggest potential and existing students, plus those that help frame what being a student is (parents, school teachers, careers advisors, HE managers, employees) are often at odds with the guiding principle of SAB, unless of course, it is positioned as something that will. improve the economic worth of the degree the student is working towards having (as a possessive verb). Inherent in the ideas of Student as Producer is student as change agent (Healey 2012) this resonates with established pedagogic notions of H.E. as a liminal space rich in transformative potency. However, the notions of ‘having rather than being ‘as the dominant mode of operating, (Shankar and Fitchett 2002) appear to have transferred from mainstream consumption into the everydayness of higher education (Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion 2009). What we now appears to be witnessing across much of the sector is a focus on more rudimentary forms of transformation; from highly structured studies at school to more independent students (by necessity given how relatively little weekly contact time they are offered). Whilst SAP conceives of students being ‘creators of social wealth’ (Neary and Winn 2009), we note that various forms of capital wealth remain culturally dominant through, for example, aspiration being directed at getting a ‘good job’ and enhancing ‘career prospects’. SAP emphasises the role of student as collaborators in both the production of knowledge and the meaning afforded to this new knowledge. Conceptually this is attractive but it has significant implications for the notion of expertise (Hendry and Dean 2002). Unless we change the basis on which we judge the value of new knowledge, much of the veracity of what is produced by students remains highly contestable. Indeed we note that the students themselves often place little credence on the value of their own work. We need to consider the quality of the outputs as well as the quality of the process and experience of those involved in SAP practices. Previous work on both ‘student as consumer’ (Molesworth et al 2009) and on student choice (Nixon et al 2010) form the conceptual base for our lens of ‘student identity’ to critique student as produce SAP. Student identity has been characterised in our previous work as risk averse, conservative, comfortable to play the contemporary role of student as passive, hedonistic, individualist, career oriented and extrinsically motivated. Linking these dominant identity discourses to practice theory (Warde 2005) a series of praxis are apparent. Dependent, resistant to transformation, assessment driven, semi engaged learning, distant from, often ‘othering’ the discipline they are studying, at times anti scholarly. This focus on contemporary student identities and resultant student practices informs our problematizing of SAP.
Dominant student characteristics and practicesBrevity means only glimpses are outlined here from the findings and insights generated from a series of long interviews carried out with existing students over a three-year period. In essence, the core argument is that the ‘raw material’ in the form of our new undergraduate student intake demonstrates powerful characteristics and a clear comfort zone of practice that are contradictory to many of the tenants of SAP. Here an undergraduate student is reflecting on his apprehension of going into final year, where now that it really counts (marks matter most in this final year) notions of learning for learning sake are clearly beyond the pale: And then they say, well it’s you are taking responsibility for your own learning but…that’s fine…but it’s just…I guess some think that you are here just to learn but you aren’t, you aren’t here just to learn, you’re here to get a degree, because you’re here to get a job at a later point in life. It’s not all about learning, it isn’t! I mean you would think so to go into a learning institution you know…but it’s not! It’s partly learning, but mostly to get a job and to get good grades and then get a job. That’s what it is. Frequently students recounting the meanings they are attributing to their HE experiences reveal depths of instrumentalism, as with two separate individuals here: I never went to see a lecturer or seminar teacher about which assignments I did. I normally…I often knew in my own mind what I would be good at, or better at, or less worse at…I sometimes worry that if I’d have gone and seen them perhaps they would’ve suggested I do one that I’m not very good at just for the sake of learning it…whereas I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to that, I’d rather just do something I know I can get a 2:1 in without sort of having to really work as hard as perhaps I should do, which is probably my problem really…..….Like in the exam there was a question about looking through Noam Chomsky’s books about public opinion and propaganda and stuff, and there was another one about television licence and I thought ‘I’ll do that…sounds easier’. And: Like there has been a situation, I remember one essay last year where I just decided, because there was so much other stuff going on that I was so much more interested in, I just thought that…so I calculated alright ‘This essay is about 2% of my degree, my final degree, I’m not going to put that much work into it. I’m going to focus on the production work, which is what I enjoy doing, which is what I really am good at, and then I’m going to let this essay sort of slide. To be a producer in the way envisaged from the intellectual base of SAP, autonomy in terms of working out what is worthy of production is vital. Here a student faced with final year option choices recounts her process of decision-making. The tutor that does that…makes it interesting and you know fun, they’re the ones that I’m not going to fall asleep in the lectures and am more likely to get up, want to turn up to and makes notes. Because he’s so relaxed and chilled you get more out of it….I don’t want a lecturer who makes it boring so I won’t keep up or worse stop turning up, that’s no good for me. So yes, that was a really big part of why I choose the options I did, I think if he wasn’t the lecturer then I probably wouldn’t have taken that subject. The reference too or reflection on the actual specificity of the topic being studied shouts loud here by its total absence. The nature of what is to be produced is subsumed by consideration for the process; one clearly envisaged not as primary producer or partner but as recipient.
DiscussionTypically prominent student identity characteristics and patterns of practice – applying Cherrier (2006) and Warde’s (2005) respective notions of these concepts have been briefly revealed above through the student’s own words. They can be summarised as follows. Most contemporary students who we spoke to are risk averse in the ways that they interact with their respective HE institutions; a primary driver is rooted in wanting to know what is expected of them in an assessment focussed manner where attaining 2;1 grades is their mark of success and worth. As a consequence they demonstrate strong traits of extrinsic motivation and display a career orientation that often subsumes the actual learning opportunities presented to them. They frequently play a passive role as a learner who sees it as the tutors’ responsibility to ensure they obtain the knowledge they require before moving onto the next ‘assessment as obstacle’. Their overriding comfort zone is as individualist recipient of a service. Flowing from these characteristics are practices of dependence, semi-engaged learner, wanting to remain distant from the discipline they are nominally studying and, at times anti scholarly (manifest most frequently with reference to theory as of marginal value). Collectively this makes them resistant to the very types of transformation that many universities design as the essence of their programme offerings. This purposefully limited way of conceptualising students does not facilitate fertile ground for successful implementation of SAP beyond infrequent ‘outliers’ in the form of individual academics (and occasionally small groups of proactive students) who are organisationally tolerated because they do not pose a threat to the dominant audit culture. This is so because the pursuit (or tacit acceptance of) ‘student as consumer’ (and its many manifestations in terms of HE being all about the ‘student experience’) tends to encourage conservative attitudes towards learning. As Ferudi argues when talking about the assumptions held dear in the current HE context (2010 p8) ‘Students know how they want to be taught and have ideas about how techniques can be improved’… Aside from a disturbing tendency to equate academic teaching with a technique, the assimilation of the idea that the customer ‘knows how they want to be taught’ reduces academics to a service provider’. Where, in this, is there space for thinking, risk-taking and wisdom? Students entering universities as ‘established and experienced consumers’ serves to narrow rather than broaden students’ learning experiences and therefore identity. Such students seek certainty and expended effort to avoid the ambiguity caused by challenging choices or the discomfort of transformational learning. They confirm and build on their existing sense of self as a member of a consumerist culture they have already chosen – they largely see opportunity as a way to confirm themselves into a perceived job role rather than to experiment, discover different identities or broaden their capacities whilst at university. Thus students, acting as consumers, are a conceptually poor fit with ‘student as Producer’. They largely expect the opportunity to be able to tailor their degree course, purchase assistance with their desired identity and gain entry to their vision of a job. Other potential areas of tension between contemporary student identity and SAB can be found in relation to ‘identity work’ that reduces the chance of them becoming autonomous, critical thinking individuals. However, it would be inaccurate to envisage students as possessing a fixed and finalised identity by the time they start their studies, thus the context co-created by their tutors and peers has the potential to be used for what Warde would call ‘ identity work’ which in turn might inform and change typical practices and routines. Students, as all humans, tend to move between various dominant postures but are ‘always also’ consumers; this is their default. The sector acting as a business, most institutions response to market forces privileging flawed instruments such as the NSS, the audit culture practiced within, and the academic as service provider all contribute to making ‘student centred’ appear so obvious as to be ‘natural’ undermining much of the essence of SAP. Consequently whilst critiquing notions of ‘Student as Producer’, it remains vital to ensure we place self-critique as ‘practitioners of pedagogy’ at the centre of our concerns. In that light we can consider how SAP could serve as a vehicle to assist students in challenging how they have come to acquire and sustain their identity, so that the potential for HE experiences transformative role remains.
ConclusionThe purpose of presenting this paper is to introduce the intellectual base of my critique of SAP. It is not to demonise contemporary students or to suggest they are to ‘blame’ for the context they have to respond within. I wish to offer, by way of our reflections on a range of SAP like learning experiences we have been involved in, consider the barriers to realising the richness that SAP conceptually claims. It asks participants to share thoughts and experiences of student identity to capture ‘identikit’ portraits, using these as the basis for discussion about what elements of these ‘student portraits’ cerate obstacles for successful SAP and which offer fertile entry points for successful SAP. In so doing I aim to have generated a reflective practice mode through challenging us all to reflect as ‘practitioners of pedagogy’ about what constrains us from fully embracing changes in our own academic identity and practice that might be necessary for SAP to emerge. Readers might now share thoughts and experiences of student identity from their perspective and to use this as the basis for discussion about what elements of these ‘student portraits’ cerate obstacles for successful SAP and which offer fertile entry points for successful SAP. Readers might also reflect as ‘practitioners of pedagogy’ on what constrains us from fully embracing changes in our own academic identity and practice that might be necessary for SAP to emerge in our own intuitions.
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Is a senior lecturer in marketing communications at Bournemouth University. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics on the meanings that consumers ascribe to their consumer and political choice practices. His research to date has focused on advertising, consumer choice and how consumer culture and civic culture inter-relate. He has published in a range of international journals including Advances in Consumer Research, European Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Marketing Management.