The new language of sociology: teaching-and-learning

Institutionalised sociology begins in the classroom. The classroom is the principal site in which sociologists communicate with non-sociologists or – idealistically – future sociologists about the ethos and knowledge of the discipline. The classroom is the principal site in which the sociological imagination can acquire practical and public relevance between the narrow world of, as a matter of fact largely self-referential, academic publications and events. But can sociology still speak to students? Some purely subjective observations:

The ethos of teaching sociology has changed drastically within the past decade. A key marker of this shift is the now widespread use of the postgraduate certificate in higher education as a means, ostensibly, to creating a professional workforce of skilled teachers able to draw on a wide array of classroom techniques. Postgraduate students hoping for a career in academic sociology now often acquire the certificate during their doctorates, and universities increasingly require ownership of the certificate for entry-level lectureships. Alongside and through the rise of the certificate, a shift in institutionalised forms of talking about teaching has taken place. The term teaching-and-learning is arguably central to this shift. What does teaching-and-learning mean? Three suggestions:

First, teaching-and-learning is a form of institutional self-defence in the context of the reconfiguration of higher education as a market-driven ‘industry’ governed by the principles of audit culture. By adding learning to teaching, teaching-and-learning means a gesture to the principles of customer service, through which students obtain, from a certified workforce of lecturers, value for money and acquire skills that can be deployed in the ‘real world’ of non-academic labour. Sociology departments often justify their degree programmes along these lines on university websites and in undergraduate prospectuses. Likewise, in line with more general university policies, they go to great lengths to measure learning through student satisfaction surveys, class pass ratios, degree completion ratios, and so forth. My previous department, for instance, imposed a minimum pass ratio of 85 per cent on lecturers, requiring, if this target was not met, an extensive written self-defence. Such mechanisms allow the marketing of degrees based on their measurably high quality, and they permit sociology departments to justify their existence vis-à-vis academic managers reluctant to retain non-instrumental degree programmes.

Second, teaching-and-learning achieves an inversion of the relationship between teachers and students, by enabling students to request the aforementioned value for money in measurable quantities: lectures, one-on-one tutoring time, PowerPoint presentations, documents downloadable from e-learning platforms, and good marks. The declaration that ‘I want to get a first in your class’ thus acquires an all-new meaning, as the increase in student complaints across the ‘industry’ shows. At best, all this may mean a move away from the bad old times of unaccountable lecturers leaving students to their own devices. At worst, this trend may undermine lecturers’ authority to use the classroom to challenge students intellectually, for fear of provoking their resentment and missing performance targets.

Third, teaching-and-learning is the discursive centrepiece of a drift towards an authoritarian standardisation of teaching in higher education. It provides a legitimisation for measures such as the PGCert, performance targets, etc., it sustains the reconfiguration of sociology in terms of principles of economic usefulness, and it provides managers with reasons for intervening in the classroom. For instance, in my aforementioned previous department, the language lecturers used in course outlines (‘module handbooks’) was strictly monitored by senior staff (‘line managers’), requiring the use of certain terms (e.g. ‘teaching-and-learning’) but not others (e.g. ‘teaching’) and the inclusion of measurable performance targets. Respective review processes followed a top-down command structure, rather than adopting dialogical principles suited to specific styles of teaching and subject matters. For academic managers, teaching-and-learning thus is a means to ensuring their authority, while for sociology departments and individual lecturers it is a device for demonstrating acquiescence to the wills of management and ensure the survival of discipline, department, and individual careers.

To conclude, what may be lost in all this is lecturers’ ability to attempt to turn their students into critically conscious citizens interested in and able to participate in public life, according to the idea that universities serve as a critical ‘counter-institution’ (Henry Giroux) to the normal world of increasingly apolitical hyper-competitiveness. Is this true, and, if so, what might be done about it?

Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.