Back in July, I gave a brief presentation at the University of Leicester’s Annual Learning and Teaching Conference. Based on some stuff I’d been reading and had been on my mind for a while, the presentation sought to problematise notions of ‘belonging’ and ‘resilience’ in contemporary higher education (HE). This was in response to the conference call for contributions which identified ‘belonging and resilience’ as a key theme. In the end, I don’t think I did a particularly good job of the presentation at all (please don’t alert any of the students I regularly advise on how to plan and deliver effective presentations!). However, a recent conversation with Dr Emma Parker (Associate Professor (Reader) in Postwar and Contemporary Literature, and also Equality and Diversity Champion for the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities) concerning how she and colleagues in the College might stimulate discussion and practice-development around questions of equality and diversity in the curriculum, has prompted me to return to the material and give it another go on here. Below, then, is a slightly edited transcript.
“Hello and thanks for coming along to this presentation. For those who haven’t met me, my name is Steve Rooney and I’m a learning developer based in the Leicester Learning Institute. I suppose there are lots of different ways I could define what Learning Development (LD) is about, but I’m going borrow my definition from an editorial by John Hilsdon (2013) who described learning development as being interested in the ‘how we do things around here’ elements of higher education study, and how these are ‘likely to affect inclusion or exclusion, success or failure, or to advantage or disadvantage certain groups of students.’ What this means to me is that LD is concerned with the ways in which different disciplinary and institutional contexts set certain parameters and ‘rules’ when it comes to who is recognised as a ‘legitimate’ participant and, by extension, who is not – or, more usually, who has the most work to do in order to secure their recognition.
So, it’s a conception of learning and what it means to learn, that sets itself against what I would argue is a reductive notion of ‘study skills’ – which seems to assert that successful participation in HE is a question somehow acquiring and applying a set of mysteriously generic, neutral, context-independent ‘skills’ (such as ‘essay writing’ or ‘critical thinking’ or ‘independent learning’ skills). Alternatively, LD as I understand it insists these practices must be understood as complex and context-specific social practices which participants develop as part of a broader process of becoming a particular kind of scholar with particular orientations towards knowledge and towards themselves as a producers of knowledge.
Alongside this, LD has also always produced, and drawn on, more critical insights which seek to problematise and interrogate the various norms and conventions that prescribe how knowledge should be produced, what counts as legitimate knowledge, what a suitable ‘academic voice’ sounds like etc. When we talk about student learning, the argument goes, we’re always also talking about questions of social and institutional power (see, for example, Burke, 2008; Inohue, 2015; Lillis & Scott, 2007; Sinfield et al. 2011; and John’s editorial referred to above).
So what I want to do briefly, here – and drawing on some of the critical scholarship regarding participation in HE – is to look at how we might approach, more critically and reflectively, questions of ‘belonging’. And this is going to culminate in presenting a set of questions that to my mind this scholarship raises.
To begin, then, with why the question of belonging is worth reflecting critically on in the first place:
‘Belonging connects matter to place, through various practices of boundary making and inhabitation which signal that a particular collection of objects, animals, plants, germs, people, practices, performances, or ideas is meant `to be’ in a place.’
(Mee and Wright, 2009)
The quotation above reminds us that belonging anywhere is intricately bound up with boundaries which mark out who, or what, is meant to be here in the first place. In social settings like universities these practices of boundary-making are, of course, inescapably linked to broader social structures and practices – of exclusion and inclusion, recognition and misrecognition.
Burke and Crozier, for example, highlight that coming to belong – or to be recognised as belonging – is to come to perform particular types of identity. What is more, these can often be presented as socially neutral norms from which certain groups of students might be positioned as deviating from, or displaying a certain ‘lack of’:
‘Gaining access to higher education often depends on demonstrating particular attributes and dispositions. These are embedded in an esoteric framework, requiring that the student decode legitimated forms of academic practice…. [T]o achieve in higher education, the “successful” student must first understand how to write, speak and read in ways… recognized as legitimate forms of practice… Academic practices are usually presented as neutral, decontextualized sets of technical skills and literacy that students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are often seen to lack…’
(Burke and Crozier, 2014)
What I think scholarship like this reminds us of is that our own practices of boundary-making and recognition – regarding the kinds of behaviour and ways of being which signal ‘belonging’ – are themselves worthy of critical reflection. When we talk about belonging or its lack, we need to turn our gaze upon ourselves and how we might signal to students (maybe often unintentionally) just what it means to belong around here. As Burke and Crozier go on to explain:
‘Work on “Othering” developed by Black feminist scholars… theorize the ways that embodied intersections of gender, class and race re-position some bodies as dependent, subjective, emotional and potentially dangerous and contaminating, whilst others or constructed as autonomous, objective, rational and “proper” citizens…
Students from “Other” backgrounds are often characterised then through a range of deficit disorders, including lack of confidence and are positioned by gendered, classed and raced constructions. In this view, confidence is a signifier of a legitimate position as a university student and is framed as a neutral, decontextualized and disembodied trait that “non-traditional” students lack.’
(Burke and Crozier, 2014)
So, let’s look briefly some examples of research into how some students have made sense of their experiences. Below are a couple excerpts from research by Gagnon and Lillis, respectively:
‘Audrey [research participant] discusses being very aware of the fact that her accent did not belong. She endeavoured to erase her accent by training out her use of the glottal stop and instead practised pronouncing her Ts so that she might no longer be seen as ‘uneducated’, ‘inferior’, and ‘dodgy’. Many of the women in this study, like Audrey, discussed trying to hide, change, soften, or ‘lighten up’ their accents so that academia might find them more suitable.’
‘…In a discussion about writing in academia she [Mary, a Black working class student] compares the difficulties she faces to that of a white middle class student in the same course:
He doesn’t have to make a switch. It’s him you see. Whereas when I’m writing I don’t know who it is (laughs). It’s not me. And that’s why I think it’s awful, I think it’s awful you know. It’s not me at all. It’s like I have to go into a different person. I have to change my frame of mind and you know, my way of thinking and everything. It’s just like a stranger, it’s like I’ve got two bodies in my head, and two personalities and there’s conflict.’
In both these cases, then, students who may be positioned – or perceive themselves as being positioned – as ‘other’ from an assumed norm, felt compelled to disguise or even erase aspects of themselves in order that they may ‘belong’ – or at least, appear to belong. Belonging as performance, for Audrey and Mary, is very much one of appearing as unlike themselves as possible.
In a similar vein, colleagues from the University of the Arts London led a project recently in which students produced photos and minimal textual comments to capture their experiences of studying and ‘belonging’ in HE (Suka-Bill and Taylor, 2016). In one image a student photographed herself in front of a mirror, and then ‘lightened’ this image, in order to symbolise the perceived necessity of performing a version of herself she feels is radically other from herself. The photograph was accompanied by the words:
‘When I look at my work I should be able to see myself… not a version of what someone else has decided is important.’
(Suka-Bill and Taylor, 2016)
Such insights reveal just how complex the question of belonging can be, and how potentially violent the costs of belonging may well also be for many students. (It’s also worth acknowledging here that education is a far too complex and contradictory endeavour to ever produce a single or consistent set of ‘outcomes’ or experiences. There’s no such thing, after all, as ‘the student experience’; we can only ever meaningfully speak of students’ experiences). As an aside, it’s perhaps also worth noting that Audrey, Mary and the student quoted above would all be counted as contributing positively to their respective institutions’ retention and diversity data. Apart from anything else, I think this highlights why such data do not provide us with adequate proxies for something as complex and as socially mediated and negotiated as belonging.
So, if we understand belonging simply as something an individual can be helped to achieve or perform, we are in danger, I believe, of neglecting to reflect on how we – at disciplinary and broader institutional levels – establish the terms of belonging and how far those terms may be implicated (even unwittingly) in relations of power and in practices of exclusion and symbolic violence.
Linked to this, I think, is a danger that belonging – like academic ‘success’ or ‘employability’ – comes to be defined predominantly or exclusively along individualist and individualising lines. I was struck, for example, how for this conference, the theme of belonging was conjoined with that of ‘resilience’ – a term which has become closely aligned with the broader neoliberal ideal of the competitive, human capital bearing self.
As Will Davies has written, within a contemporary context of increased economic insecurity and precarious employment, the discourse of resilience works to place responsibility very much with the individual. In this way, the structural bases of many of the inequalities that our students face in contemporary society become re-framed as individual deficits and failures of ‘resilience’:
‘Individuals are trained and “nudged” to live with certain forms of economic uncertainty, in the assumption that they personally need to become more “resilient” in the face of unexpected shocks to their careers, pensions and domestic lives.’
Feminist philosopher Robin James likewise argues that resilience has come to mean something far more ideological than a general ability to cope with and recover from life’s set-backs. Rather, it has become understood specifically as an ability to continue to contribute to the reproduction of capitalism and to ensure that the numerous burdens of structural inequality are borne exclusively by individuals:
‘Resilience isn’t just “recovery” or “bouncing back” in general, but a socio-historically specific technique and ideology: resilience is recovery that is profitable for neoliberal capitalism…
…Resilience discourse is a way of making individuals do the work of managing the overall distribution of life and death, health and vulnerability…’
The presentation concluded with sharing a set of questions designed to help prompt critical reflection on questions of ‘belonging’. Maybe some of these questions could be adapted to support discussions around equality and diversity in the curriculum?
References and some suggested further reading
Burke, P.J. (2008) Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 15(2), 199-210.
Burke, P.J. (2013) The right to higher education: neoliberalism, gender and professional mis/recognitions, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(2), 107-126.
Burke, P.J. and Crozier, G. (2014) Higher education pedagogies: Gendered formations, mis/recognition and emotion. Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 4(2), 52-67
Case, J. (2013) Researching Student Learning in Higher Education: A Social Realist Approach. Abgingdon: Routledge.
Davies, W. (2014b) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Gagnon, J.D. (2016) ‘Born to fight’: The university experiences of the daughters of single mothers who are first generation students in the United Kingdom. University of Sussex DPhil thesis.
Inoue, A. B. (2015) Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.
James, R. (2015) Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books
Leathwood, C. (2006) Gender, equity and the discourse of the independent learner in higher education. Higher Education, 52(4), 611-633.
Lillis, T. (2003) Student writing as’ academic literacies’: Drawing on Bakhtin to move from critique to design. Language and education, 17(3), 192-207.
Lillis, T. and Scott, M. (2007) Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy, Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5-32.
Mee, K., Wright, S. (2009) Guest Editorial: Geographies of Belonging, Environment and Planning, 41, 772-779. (With special thanks to Zey Suka-Bill and Louise Taylor for putting me onto this)
Read, B., Archer, L. and Leathwood, C. (2003) Challenging cultures? Student conceptions of ‘belonging’ and ‘isolation’ at a post-1992 university. Studies in higher education, 28(3), 261-277.
Reay, D., Crozier, G. and Clayton, J. (2010) ‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: working‐class students in UK higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), 107-124.
Sinfield, S., Holley, D., Burns, T., Hoskins, K., O’Neill, P. and Harrington, K. (2011) Raising the Student Voice: Learning Development as Socio-Political Practice. In Hartley, P., Hilsdon, J., Keenan, C., Sinfield, S. and Verity, M. (eds) Learning Development in Higher Education. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 53-63.
Spohrer, K., Stahl, G. and Bowers-Brown, T. (2017) Constituting neoliberal subjects? ‘Aspiration’ as technology of government in UK policy discourse, Journal of Education Policy, 1-16.
Smit, R. (2012) Towards a clearer understanding of student disadvantage in higher education: Problematising deficit thinking. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(3), 369-380.
Suka-Bill, Z. and Taylor, L. (2016) PhotoVoice: Exploring student identity in a specialist design, media and communication HEI. University of the Arts, London: London College of Communication.
Walkerdine, V. (2011) Neoliberalism, working-class subjects and higher education, Contemporary Social Science, 6(2), 255-271.