HEA Seminar on Student Engagement


I’m on the train (and failed in my duty as a customer to see any ‘unintended items’ or ‘suspicious persons’ – must try harder) returning from the HEA seminar ‘Student Engagement and Partnership in Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy or Politics?’ at Keble College, Oxford. These are a few thoughts with no particular order or logic.

‘Teaching as an active act of surrender.’ Didn’t hear the source but like the quote.

It was useful (and important) to think about the ‘why’ question – as well as the ‘why bother?’  Defining ‘student engagement’ was pleasingly difficult. There seems to be a reification of these forms of educational discourse, although there was a sense that definitions very much depend on contexts. I found myself in an infinite regress as I was thinking these definitions through, and kept coming back to what we think the role of the university is in society; and what, where or even if there are boundaries and limits to these debates on engagement.

Our language is important and there were discussions about how wittingly and unwittingly we talk about ‘making’ students engage ‘giving’ them the opportunities, ‘inducting them’ into HE, sometimes unaware of who is doing the giving, and how we characterize the ‘them,’etc. Is there a danger of replacing what may have become one reified concept ‘student engagement’ with a newer trope of ‘student partnership.’ Although I was curious about the slippages/overlap in our uses of ‘partner’ and it’s reference to a business collaborator, co-habitee/common law relation, and engagement’s marital sense. A good point made at the end was the call ‘to challenge the terms in which the debate is framed.’

In my notes I wrote that it should be ‘pedagogies and politics’ in the seminar title, a point made by Rachel, one of the Student Union speaker. Interestingly, there was little discussion of politics, although we talked in detail about the tensions between pedagogy and politics, in particular, what may be a liberal/left leaning body of staff and their pedagogies operating in a neo-conservative institutional context (in the UK). How can we enable students to understand the political and power structures of a university so that they are in a position to challenge and question, set an agenda on their terms, and perhaps shape more radical pedagogies? Kathy and I talked about the possibility that these interweavings of pedagogy and politics might entail risks and dangers to our practices, a good thing.

Discussions and a call for partnerships among students and staff, and their respective unions, around what engagement could mean for learning and teaching in HE institutions were valuable. Mike Neary’s work on ‘collectives’ is one I’ll look into. I wondered whether institutional structures militate against any continuity and sustainability of ‘authentic’ (?) student engagement, particularly for Student Union Reps, who may only be in post for a year. Senior management knows that they can ‘wait out’ problematic areas until a rep has gone and avoid taking their concerns seriously.

Lots of useful thinking, which needs to continue, but how we take this forward, relate to our practices was left hanging. The discussions will/may continue….