Thursday, 12 February 2015

Can theory enable us to speak back to power?

As a new contributor from Melbourne, I am most impressed by the longevity and depth of the Structure, Culture and Agency research project. 
I would like to introduce myself as a researcher at La Trobe University, taking part in an international study with Brenda (and others) on the topic of knowledge practices in teaching & learning. The study is bringing together a corpus of interview data from five universities in the UK, South Africa and Australia, led by Tai Peseta from Uni of Sydney. The title is "The flow of new knowledge practices: an inquiry into teaching, learning and curriculum dynamics in academic work-groups", where workgroups is a term used by Trowler to describe how academics put their new knowledge and know-how about teaching and learning to work. This study looks like it shares ground with the Structure, Culture and Agency project. 
The study also offers the rare prospect of a team of researchers bringing different theories and approaches to one investigation– in particular the two approaches mentioned in the 'Focus on Theory' posting of 28 January, namely on critical realism and sociomaterialism. 
I plan to contribute to the planned Critical Realism colloquium on 27 July, which Brenda mentioned in the Focus on Theory posting. I concur with Brenda that these theory issues matter: teaching and learning practice in higher education are at risk of being framed through a deracinated, "what works" lens, particularly when learning technologies are present. It also matters to articulate a response to the discourses of neo-liberal organisational change that now inform academic practice – these discourses invite us to align academic identities with our performance measures, to be reset like a timer every year. 
Can theory enable us to speak back to power?
Back to contesting theories/approaches: sociomaterialism and actor network theory is my bent: While the possibility of a theory face-off or debate between critical realism and sociomaterialism may be exciting, I am more interested in the intersections between the two approaches: to what extent are they incommensurate, their ontologies contradictory? How does each understand agency and practice from the same data? What are the dimensions of practice? And can each theory/approach make a contribution to the pressing issues in higher education in concert and find common ground?