A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

Below is an abstract that I’ve just submitted, to be considered for the special issue of Critical Studies in Peer Production. I was drawn to the call for papers for three reasons: 1) One of the co-editors, Johan Soderberg, wrote an excellent book, Hacking Capitalism: the free and open source software movement (it’s expensive to buy but worth it. His PhD thesis is here); 2) One of the ways I frame our new LNCD group, is around peer-production of technology for education by students and staff; 3) I’ve been planning to write this paper anyway but could do with a deadline. It’ll get written before the end of the year, one way or another. There’s just so much happening at the moment, I could do with a deadline.

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A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

Despite the increasing marketisation of higher education, the generous practices of peer production have long been a characteristic of university life, giving rise, for example, to the emergence of the Free Software, Open Access and Open Education movements. These practices point towards a state of abundance that is not simply a Utopian vision but a real possibility of conditions already in existence within higher education where needs and capacities can be brought together (Kay and Mott, 1982). This possibility of abundance is at the heart of a critical political tradition that the University of Lincoln (UK) is engaged with through its institution-wide Student as Producer initiative (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/), articulated through a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (Neary and Hagyard, 2010) where students are more than just students and become producers of their own social world.

The possibility of a state of abundance in university life has been partially recognised by both the State (e.g. Lammy, 2009) and educators (e.g. Weller, 2011). In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as ‘edgeless’ resource providers through the funding of Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources (Winn, 2011a). Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this abundance of open resources by articulating a pedagogy of excess, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a critical, productive, social individual. In practice, a pedagogy of excess attempts to re-orientate the roles of staff and students against the marketisation of university life, to become producers of a really existing Utopian university and creators of social wealth (Neary and Winn, 2010).

This paper will introduce the unique approach of Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln and the ways in which we are actively supporting the re-establishment of a ‘hacker culture’ within the university where students are invited to share their ideas, mash up university administrative data and build prototypes that improve, challenge and positively disrupt the research, teaching and learning landscapes of further and higher education. In doing so, I will discuss the theoretical and practical articulation of a pedagogy of excess in terms of the peer-production of technology for education (Winn 2011b) as well as highlight the limits of our approach within a capitalist social universe.

379 words.

Kay and Mott (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. The Macmillan Press.

Lammy (2009) The Edgeless University.

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London.

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2010) Education Beyond the Property Relation: From Commons to Communism. Presented at the Open Education 2010 Conference, Barcelona, November 2010.

Weller, Martin (2011). A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy, 249 pp. 223–236.

Winn, Joss (2011a) Open Education: from the freedom of things to the freedom of people. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum, London. (In Press)

Winn, Joss (2011b) Technology for education: A new group.

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened

Dr Dean Lockwood recently gave some lectures where he reflected on Student as Producer in the context of digital media theory. Go to the Student as Producer site for the full paper. Here’s a very brief excerpt.

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened. Let’s focus on the university. For a couple of decades and more, higher education has increasingly been pushed towards running on a business model, a market model, in which the student is understood as a consumer. The current struggle over tuition fees highlights the extent to which this model is in crisis, in common with the market model more generally. Many are arguing again, just as they did in 68, that education must be politicized, connected back up to struggles against exploitation. Here, at Lincoln, the institution of the university itself is showing signs of moving this way, or at least there is an initiative, an experiment, at large within the university which is based on the argument that those who teach can no longer remain politically indifferent. Mike Neary, our Dean of Teaching and Learning, has even gone so far as to call for an agenda for ‘revolutionary teaching’, what he calls a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (see bibliography).

This agenda has become dominated by an organizing principle for teaching and learning which goes by the name of ‘Student as Producer’, which I want to say a few words about.

Critical pedagogy as expedient means

During the middle part of my twenties, I studied Buddhism at SOAS, University of London and then at the University of Michigan. A very common phrase found in English translations of Buddhist texts is ‘expedient means’ or ‘skilful means’, from the Sanskrit उपाय upāya. Although I’ve barely read any Buddhist texts for over ten years now, recently this phrase has been coming to mind quite often and it was only when I read the Wikipedia article for upāya that I realised the connection to my current work.

Upaya (Sanskrit: उपाय upāya, “Expedient Means” or “pedagogy”) [1] is a term in Mahayana Buddhism which comes from the word upa√i and refers to something which goes or brings you up to something (i.e., a goal). It is essentially the Buddhist term for dialectics. The term is often used with kaushalya (कौशल्य, “cleverness”); upaya-kaushalya means roughly “skill in means”. Upaya-kaushalya is a concept which emphasizes that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques in order to cease suffering and introduce others to the dharma. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately “true” in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to true realization anyway.

I’d never thought of upāya as ‘pedagogy‘ but this translation does make sense to me. It is a technique, a practice, a method of instruction, that may further one’s understanding of something, or taught to further the understanding of others. It’s also interesting that the Wikipedia article refers to upāya as the term for Buddhist dialectics. I don’t think this is strictly true as there are examples of upāya in the literature which use parable or kōan for example, but it’s true that in the early scholarly (monastic) texts, negative dialectics is a preferred method of pursuing truth. Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamaka school of Buddhist thought is a good example of this. The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism still maintains a tradition of negative dialectical debate in its monasteries.

Although, as I learned to both my interest and frustration, the interpretation of ancient religious and philosophical ideas is constantly open to debate, it is conceivable that upāya might be understood and expressed as a pedagogical praxis of negative dialectics, or more simply, a critical pedagogy. It’s also occurred to me that there might be some value in thinking about ‘expedient means’ in light of Holloway’s work on negativity, his No! and Marx’s ‘negation of negation‘.

No opens. It opens a new conceptual world. It also opens a new world of doing… Our no is a negation of the negation, but the negation of the negation is not positive, but a deeper negation, as Adorno points out.1

The negation of the negation does not bring us back to a reconciliation, to a positive world, but takes us deeper into the world of negation, moves us onto a different theoretical plane.

There’s clearly a lot to clarify and flesh out but, broadly speaking, I think the idea of ‘expedient means’ is a useful way of organising and developing my thinking. In pedagogical terms, what is technology’s dialectic? How might it be used as an expedient or skilful means, which leads to a better understanding of ourselves and our predicament?

To reflect this new approach to my work, which has been emerging since the start of this year, I’ve changed the title of this blog. The previous ../learninglab/joss title no longer made much sense anyway, as the blog is no longer hosted on the Learning Lab.

  1. Adorno, Theodor 1990, Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge. The quote is from Holloway, John. No. Historical Materialism, Volume 13. Number 4. pp. 265-285. []

Roundhouse Student-led Conference on Critical Theory and Education

Last Tuesday, I attended the Roundhouse Conference on Critical Theory and Education, organised by students at the University of Leeds, who run Roundhouse: A Journal of Critical Theory and Practice. It was a great, inspiring day that reminded me of what it was like to be a student1 and why students are well-placed to affect change in universities, whether it’s pressure from the outside or covertly from the inside.

Rather than simply moaning, there was some good negative critique about the role of universities with both staff and students shifting between anger, despair and inspired subversion of the neo-liberal agenda.

A few things in particular caught my attention on the day. The first followed Mike Neary’s talk during ‘The State of Pedagogy and the University’ session. He referred to the ‘student as producer‘ and this phrase kept returning throughout the day as staff and students seemed to like it. The conference itself was a good example of student/staff collaboration and there were no apparent hierarchies in the running of the day. Students were more than capable of organising, moderating and running a day-long session that critically discussed pedagogy, the role of the university and how it might be transformed.

Secondly, the current industrial dispute at Leeds over job cuts, was a recurring theme during the round table discussions over the course of the day. This helped ground the theoretical critique in a real crisis that staff and students at Leeds are actually part of.

Thirdly, there was a discussion about parallelism, with one of the speakers saying that there was no hope of meaningful reform and that the time has come to contemplate the end of the university as a site of critical thinking. He argued that by remaining within the university, we collude in our own oppression and suggested that new autonomous spaces needed to be created apart from the agenda of neo-liberal education. There was some sympathy with this view, although another speaker referred to the time when Charles Clarke questioned the state funding of Medieval History in favour of subjects that benefit the economy. The point being made was that parallelism would still serve the interests of the State by removing the responsibility of funding ‘uneconomic’ subjects. In effect, parallelism would act as a form of efficiency under the neo-liberal agenda.

Finally, I was really pleased to hear about a couple of student run initiatives at Leeds:

The Peanut Gallery, an autonomous student-run social centre.

I hope they can keep this running as it sounds like there’s pressure to close it down.

The most inspiring aspect of the day for me was learning about The Really Open University, which “sets out to change the expectations that people have of university life, and by extension the rest of our lives.”  The conference was leafleted with a recent copy of The Sausage Factory [PDF], describing their launch.

The public launch of ROU took place on March 2nd, when over fifty students, staff and members of the larger community came together to discuss, ‘What is a Really Open University?’ This group was brought together by a recognition of the need for alternatives to the current educational system which puts everything – teaching, learning, our daily lives – up for sale, and makes efficiency drives such as the current budget cuts seem inevitable. Through a collective and participatory process, this group developed several vision statements about what education without restraints would look like.

The Really Open University website has opened my eyes to how students are using the web for education-related activism. The Really Open Union site is a good example that brings together initiatives elsewhere. I agree with Leon’s comment on the Roundhouse blog that The Really Open University is a good example of putting theory into action and should be supported.

  1. It’s been ten years since Graduate School and I don’t have much contact with students in my current role []