‘Racist’ views in university

This post was prompted by an incident that occurred yesterday during a course that I was attending. However, I am really struggling to know where to start or write something that makes sense because I still get shocked and angry when staff display obvious racially insensitive attitudes.

My own research and that of others highlights that there is racial prejudice in UK universities but that it tends to be indirect and subtle so when someone says something much more obvious it is noticeable. So I guess I should explain the incident and go from there.

At one point in the course we were discussing the idea of dealing with things quickly (as a manager) before they get out of hand. One example used to illustrate this was the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. I stated that I felt this was a poor example as the theory itself was contested and controversial and had most notably been used to inform policing practice in New York City. I mentioned that such policies risked discriminating against certain groups such as young, Black men and that maybe a less controversial example should have been used.

One of the other participants felt that it was perfectly OK to state that it was precisely because this group were committing crime that meant they were targeted; showing a complete lack of understanding of structural inequality. Now to a certain extent I can forgive ignorance but it just felt like a completely unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to my comment that served no purpose.

Had we been discussing race or policing or any other related matter then I would have happily had the debate. But this was a management course. I had simply objected to an example used on the grounds that it could be seen as insensitive and another member of staff felt the need to object and make what I felt was a comment that showed at best ignorance and at worst a racist attitude. Although of course, it was not blatantly racist enough to be able to take the matter further and make a complaint against the staff member. (I would strongly recommend everyone reads Pettigrew and Meertens’ 1995 paper on ‘Subtle and blatant prejudice in Western Europe’, European journal of social psychology, 25 (1) pp. 57-75)

I guess it is just another daily example of how whenever anyone tries to call out structural inequality related to race there is always plenty of white people who feel the need to object. It is just a shame that it happened in my own university but just goes to illustrate how much further we have to go to get real equality and of course it only hardens my resolve to continue that fight!

MOOC score

So how is my MOOCing going this semester, I ask myself. Well..

cMOOC – 0

xMOOC (ish) – 1

I dropped out of the more connectivist MOOC and am still hanging in there on the MOOC that is more x-type. So why might this be?

The cMOOC was How to Teaching Online my initial analysis is:

Material – As usual in a cMOOC loads of resources that I didn’t have time to read. This really does affect motivation. It is all very well knowing you don’t have to read everything or engage with everything but you do feel you are missing out. It does affect how you feel when trying to engage.

Interest in topic – the topic is very much work related and I seem to struggle to actually get motivated in work related MOOCs.

Discussions – I just find cMOOC discussions bewildering (‘nuf said!)

Structure – I think I need more structure than is typical in a cMOOC.

The more x-style MOOC is a basic writing course and my analysis of this is:

Material – focussed material that gives you all the basics. I feel more in control.  I can always go off and find more if I feel the need to.

Interest in topic – The topic is more related to personal stuff and my studies rather than work. This makes means I have greater intrinsic motivation

Discussions – Structured discussions. I have not found them that useful but at the same time don’t feel like I am missing out.

Structure – Highly structured which works for me. I feel on top of the course. Conversely, the topics are only released weekly which means I can’t jump ahead even if I have more time this week than next week. That is a big issue for me.


As I said in a previous post, it once again feels like wanting to get the best from both. I like the pedagogy of a cMOOC and see value in a community of learners. However, the structure is demotivating and overwhelming. So my idea would be to adopt and core & extension model.

Have a highly structured core to a MOOC that gives the basics with structured discussions as well. It would be easily manageable.  Then have an extension that allows some to go beyond the core and engage with material and each other to a greater extent. Hopefully this will help motivate and retain those struggling and with limited time whilst still meeting the needs of the keen and highly engaged.


Do students have to conform to our values?

It takes a convergence of events and a receptive mind to gain new insight. This thought was prompted by a planned conversation with a colleague and the chance arrival in our office of a copy of ‘The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience’, Trahar (2011).

In discussing academic advising, we came across the challenge of advising students whose values might not be the same as ours or those espoused in the higher education system in the UK. The job of the advisor should be to make students aware of the values inherent in the UK system. This is good. Students should always be made aware of the expectations of an educational system but you have to wonder how far we ‘force’ (if such is the right term) students to conform to those values in order to do well. That by espousing values that have developed over hundreds of years in UK academia we are unconsciously devaluing the student’s own values and the culture from which those values derived.

It is a situation neatly summed up by Trahar (2011) in her story of a supervision of a student with very different beliefs to her own. Trahar struggled  with notions of herself as open to diversity yet confronted with ideas of the world at odds with her own beliefs. The story was resolved with discussing her discomfort with the student which allowed them both to move forward. How often does this happen? This might work with a close doctoral supervision relationship but what about the undergraduate with their infrequent contact with their advisor?

Stockfelt (in Trahar 2011) rails against the hegemony of the western epistemologies of (mostly) dead white men that must be referenced. How can these be relevant frameworks for understanding the stories of disaffected young men in Jamaica? All around academia you will find ‘white’ curricula. It is not surprising really, most staff are white. We tend to teach and design our curricula around our research interests and with what we are most familiar. Or possibly we are directed in certain ways by, mostly white, professional bodies.

So how do we create a truly diverse and inclusive curriculum? I don’t have the solution to that (if you do please let me know!) In my work, I hope that the global citizenship graduate attribute will be a lever to have the conversation and to push the curricula in a more diverse direction. But first, I will start with my own practice and use May & Thomas’ (2010) audit questions and of course have a serious reflection about how to make the delivery more inclusive by September!


May, H. & Thomas, L. (2010) Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: Self-evaluation framework. HEA: York

Stockfelt, S. (2011) ‘Slave to the white leaders on paper? The PhD expedition’ in Trahar, S. (ed) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Trahar, S. (2011) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Learning from student researchers

I have been working with two postgraduate students on my project on ethnic minority attainment. At the start, I felt the main benefit was that as students from minority ethnic backgrounds they would be closer to the student experience. This would reduce the power distance between the interviewers and the students being interviewed and hopefully produce some insightful and interesting stories.

What was also obvious, with hindsight, was the additional benefits they would bring to the project. We have only just started interviewing but for me so far they have:

  • Challenged my thinking
  • Generated useful ideas
  • Have different contacts

Challenged my thinking

They have challenged my thinking from both their student and their background perspective. They have help me clarify my ideas and message and what we want to do. They have helped in shaping the interview schedule.

Generated useful ideas

Two heads are better than one, as they say! I would not have come up with all the ideas that we have generated as a team. This has been particularly helpful in recruitment of participants.

Have different contacts

The students are very much connected to different networks than I am. This haas proven helpful in recruitment but going forward this could be extremely useful in driving the implementation and future phases of the project. Effectively, we have a ‘steering group’ of interested people who can guide how the project goes forward.

I am sure this is just the start of my learning on this project and the start of the great benefits that the student researchers can bring to the project. In the process, I hope the students are learning valuable skills. Note to self: must ask them what benefits they feel they are getting from the project so far.


Critical Race Theory

As a very belated follow-up to my last post, I have just acquired ‘Racism and Education’ by David Gillborn. I am looking forward to getting stuck into it. I think one of the appeals of this approach is the counter-story. I love the idea of using narratives for research and for exploring the world. Originally, I had wanted to research e-portfolios in this context but I think this approach to social inequality is also a fascinating and fruitful line of enquiry.

Organizational change for HE


I am fascinated by change and change theory ever since I started teaching on a Master’s in Training & Development. I have been reading Val Roche’s (2003) chapter on ‘Being and Agent of Change’ and Linda Holbeche’s (2006) chapter on ‘Change Theory’. Roche proposes a systems thinking approach to educational development a la Senge (1990). This is a massive and complex approach which Roche simplifies into a practical application based on a reflective framework. This framework has a number of different inquiries using a whole range of the ‘tools of the trade’ such as ecological mapping, stakeholder analysis, repertory grid analysis, rich pictures, force-field analysis etc. So lots of practical advice and a comprehensive tool to get you started. So what does it mean for me beyond being able to use the tool in my practice?

Links to my practice

One idea I particularly like from systems thinking is ‘reciprocity’. That effects of change spread out. I think this is a cornerstone of educational development work that is often misunderstood outside of our units. As an example, our PGCert course provides us with ample evidence of this. We get referrals from colleagues of those who have been on the course and want to learn more from seeing the positive changes participants make. We get offers to run workshops based on the delivery of the course. These are just a few examples of how working with small numbers of staff directly (usually about 50 – 60 at any one time) can lead to wider indirect benefits to the system as a whole. The challenge we have is in explaining that trickle effect to the bean counters who just see the headline figure of staff on the course.

What else stands out is a recommendation for educational developers to move away from being learning experts to being agents of change. I think this is a big shift for some. Especially so when you think of the nature of academia being one where it is your subject expertise which is what you are paid for. We were asked on the induction day for the PGCert this year whether we were experts in learning theory. We said no, which is actually quite a difficult and exposing thing to say to a room full of academics. A response which our boss was not overly happy with but which reflects for us this role change to being agents of change. Our role on the PGCert is not to espouse our expert knowledge but rather to facilitate change in the knowledge, skills and attitude of our staff.

Change Theory

Moving on to the nature of change and trying to understand what it all means. Roche’s approach is one of planned change. It also fits into what Beer & Nohria (2000) describe as a Theory O approach to change rather than theory E, (change being about organisational capacity rather than economic factors). Which is of course entirely consistent with our own conceptions of our role in educational development. However, Beer & Nohria (2000) recommend that you need to merge both approaches to be successful and therefore this raises in my mind the need for greater links to the economic factors of our work and closer ties with both HRD & HRM.

There is one more thought that appeals to me from Holbeche’s chapter and that is the limitations of the planned approach. A lot of modern literature on change is looking at ’emergent’ models of change. These models talk of ‘purposive drift’ – the idea that you can have a broad purpose to the direction you want to travel in but need to be responsive to opportunities that arise that allow you to travel in that direction. As a scientific minded person, I like the analogy to physics; planned change is like Newtonian mechanics, whereas Emergent change theory is like quantum mechanics. This emergent approach requires creativity, learning, experimenting and empowerment (Holbeche 2006:160) in us and our staff. I think this is a direction I can take. Plans don’t always work and I think I would fall on the emergent side rather than the planned side of change but I don’t think our universities are ready for that! [For example our role-based structures (as in Handy 1999) don’t support this emergent approach.]


Beer, M. & Nohria, N. (2000). “Cracking the Code of Change.” Harvard Business Review, 133-141

Handy C (1999) Understanding Organizations, London:Penguin Business Management

Holbeche, L. (2006) Understanding Change, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann

Roche, V. (2003) Being and Agent of Change in Kahn, P. & Baume, D. (2003) Staff & Educational Development, Abingdon: Routledge