Critical teaching and research


Chapter 13 of

Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education


by Brian Martin

Go to Tied Knowledge contents page

Initiatives to change the content or form of teaching or research are very common in academia. The professional autonomy which is claimed by academics in some cases provides the opportunities for innovation by individuals and groups. Academics see themselves as teachers and researchers. Therefore the most obvious way for them to change what they are doing is to change their teaching and research.

Curricula and research programmes are the subject of continual power struggles precisely because they constitute the use of knowledge most directly of interest to academics. In this chapter I discuss the potential for critical teaching and research, and some of the limitations of the usual approaches to doing this. First I look at staff initiatives concerning teaching and research, and then at student initiatives.

Critical teaching

Teaching in academia is conditioned by several forces, notably control over entry into occupations by credentials, control over the content and process of teaching by teachers and administrators, and control over course content by members of the discipline. Yet these influences do not determine the details of curriculum and teaching method. There are opportunities to promote alternative content and methods because academic autonomy often gives individual teachers opportunities to do things differently in the privacy of their own classrooms.

The extent of these opportunities varies considerably from place to place. In centralised educational systems the curriculum is specified by state authorities, and innovation at the departmental level is difficult. In decentralised systems, some departments allow individual teachers to proceed pretty much as they like, while other departments keep a close check on content and method. Such factors greatly influence the prospects for critical teaching.

Changing the content. An individual teacher usually is supposed to teach 'the syllabus'. In some educational systems and departments, there is an enormous freedom within the general constraint of 'teaching the course'. The teacher can choose the material to be covered, the texts to be used, and the examination questions and essay topics. When this sort of freedom exists, considerable scope exists for changing the content. The course can focus on academic issues or on broad applications; it can sample a range of viewpoints or be very partisan.

Why do some academics introduce critical content into their courses? Quite frequently, they are concerned about social issues - such as housing for the poor, the arms race or racism - and realise that the usual courses shortchange critical perspectives. In other cases academics simply become dissatisfied with the usual formulas and seek out new perspectives. Sometimes - though this is never admitted - the critical content is used by academics to stake out a domain of expertise and to increase individual status as a critical intellectual.

The most immediate constraint on individual initiatives comes from colleagues. If they agree with the approach taken, there is usually no problem as long as the course content is not so notorious as to arouse opposition from administrators or the general public. But if colleagues do not like the initiative, they have several potential excuses for opposing it. They can attack the course because (1) it diverges from the formal syllabus, (2) it is not sufficiently 'rigorous' or relevant to the discipline, (3) some students did not like it, or (4) there were some minor violations of formal procedures.

These justifications for attack are used selectively. For example, if a course is central to the discipline and taught by a powerful figure, then even major student criticism usually can be ignored. ("It's just sour grapes from a few misfits.") But even a few student complaints about an unconventional course can be used to help attack it. Student complaints are resources in the academic power struggle, resources which are mainly useable by academics or administrators - not the students.

For these reasons, individual initiatives in course content are most frequent when colleagues are tolerant or supportive. In many physical science courses, any political discussion is seen as foreign and may be attacked because it challenges the belief that science is value-free. In the social sciences, political issues are more prominent but they are also more highly charged, since they go to the core of the discipline's self-definition which is subject to dispute.

The greatest challenge in changing course content is to make the change permanent. It may be quick and easy to introduce different material into the course one is teaching, but as soon as someone else teaches the subject it may revert to the previous content.

Sometimes the interest of a particular academic, plus student demand, is sufficient to establish a critical subject as a regular option. Charles Schwartz, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, introduced a physics course dealing with a series of issues from a radical science perspective. This course was not welcome to most other staff in the physics department, but it was tolerated as long as Schwartz was pushing it and students were around to take it and protest if it were abolished. But the course depended on Schwartz. Once he retired, there was unlikely to be anybody else to take it up. One of the most effective arguments against teaching a course is that "there is no one to teach it". (But it would be out of the question for another radical physicist to be appointed especially to carry on teaching the course).

To obtain a lasting change in course content requires more than individual initiatives. The key is personnel. If a faction in a department can gain sufficient strength to influence appointments and promotions, then control over course content will not be far away. It is for this reason that struggles within departments involving claims about the nature of the discipline are so important. In these struggles, those academics with ties to powerful outside groups have an advantage, but they are not guaranteed to win. When social movements are strong, it becomes possible to push for courses or new programmes in relevant areas. It is because of the resurgence of the peace movement in the 1980s - not because of advances in the scholarly study of peace issues - that there are so many more programmes in peace studies and peace research. Many of these programmes have been introduced over the screaming opposition of the discipline-based specialists.

The major limitation involved in changing the content of teaching is that the formal relations of power are left unchanged. The academics still determine the syllabus, establish the teaching methods and control assessment. Much 'critical' content is not very critical so far as students are concerned. To be assigned to read Karl Marx or Ivan Illich, to be expected to write suitably radical essays and shine in tutorials, and to perform well in examinations about these radical ideas, in many cases simply breeds cynicism. The divorce between radical theory and conventional teaching practice is particularly nasty. "Do as I say, not as I do" is no more effective at the tertiary level than at preschool level.

Changing the form. In many ways a more fundamental challenge to the academic power structure than teaching radical content is introducing teaching methods which give the students more control over their learning. When students choose what and how they learn, they are more likely to develop critical perspectives - or so radical academics hope.

There are numerous initiatives which have been used in teaching.

* Self-paced learning. The syllabus can be set up in modules which students study at their own pace. Assessment is carried out as they finish each module. The modules can be made up of written and taped material, and laboratory or field work along the way can be included. The teacher becomes a resource person. The Keller plan for example abolishes the fixed rate of progress of most classroom learning. The limitation is that the content of the course often is more tightly specified than ever.

* Student choice of topics. Students, as individuals or in groups, are given the opportunity to choose topics for study or investigation, within the overall framework of the subject. This approach is used in quite a number of social science subjects. The teacher still maintains overall control through veto power over topics and through assessments.

* Student participation in assessment. Various alternatives to assessment solely by the teacher have been tried, including peer assessment and self-assessment. One difficulty is that peer assessment may increase competitive pressures. A more general problem is that assessment is maintained. Another approach which is not uncommon is a pass-fail system in which all students who attend class or do a minimal amount of work are passed. This approach recognises that what counts is not so much what is learned as sheer persistence in continuing through the system.

* Student-oriented learning. A common problem in the usual teacher-centred format is that the students defer to the teacher, and consciously or unconsciously avoid developing or voicing ideas which might be disagreeable to the teacher. Another common problem is that only certain students have sufficient confidence to speak in class, and they dominate any discussion that takes place, such as in tutorials.

One way to overcome these problems is through pair learning: each student listens to one other student describe their views on a particular issue. No interruptions are allowed. The talking and listening roles are then reversed. This allows students to describe their ideas without the teacher hearing them, and with no interruptions from dominant students.

Another possibility along these lines is for small groups of students to work together to study course material, discuss ideas, or prepare talks and essays. The teacher becomes an adviser. Provision can be made for students who prefer to work alone.

Methods in which students help each other to learn can be quite effective since there is a quick and ready response to individual difficulties, and because one effective way to learn something is to explain it to someone else. The main reason that student-oriented learning is more effective is that students are active participants rather than passive recipients.

Student-oriented learning does not remove all obstacles to learning. The biggest problems are assessment and credentials. For example, student groups may malfunction or collapse because of the individualistic orientations of students who are seeking high marks rather than maximum learning. Another problem is that the students are not really learning to be independent learners and thinkers because they still depend heavily on the teacher to provide the content, such as the material discussed in pairs.

* Student design of learning. This is the most radical alternative to conventional teaching. Students are expected to design their own plan of study, either as individuals or in groups. Staff - or other students, or member of the community - act as advisers.

Within a typical framework of courses, staff can still allow students to design individual courses. This is likely to work well only when students are taking the course mainly because they are interested in the subject, rather than to obtain specific credit points. In my own experience as an undergraduate, the course that left the most lasting impression on me was one in which the ten students collectively decided what topics would be dealt with and what the format of the course would be. The result was not all that unusual: a series of guest speakers, discussion of readings chosen by the students, and discussion of each student's essay. The important thing was not the novelty of the methods adopted, but that the students had chosen them. Even in this course, the usual problems remained: assessment by the course adviser, and the reluctance by shy students to speak out in the presence of other students and the staff adviser.

The subject of this course was "The meaning of death in Western culture". It is revealing that student-oriented learning or control of learning, and other educational innovations, are more often tolerated or encouraged in 'fringe' topics. Student control in 'core' areas such as physics, political science or psychology is less common. The reason is that academic power is based on control over knowledge and credentials in the core areas. Greater student participation is less of a threat in fringe topics, especially if it helps prevent discontent from boiling over.

In some cases greater student participation is introduced in core areas for the top students, namely those who are already committed to the discipline. These top students might otherwise rebel against tedious orthodox teaching and go elsewhere.

* * *

Student-oriented teaching and student-controlled learning are a challenge to staff control within academia. Those staff who promote these alternatives essentially are linking with the students rather than with disciplinary or administrative power.

Those staff members who push for greater student participation in learning have one important argument: most students learn much more when they are actively involved in controlling their own learning rather than being passive recipients of material provided by teachers. Yet this argument wins the day only in a tiny minority of cases. There are two sources of opposition.

First, the most powerful academic staff usually have an interest in ensuring that teaching is oriented primarily to the discipline, not the students. A large proportion of staff prefer to maintain their power over students. Also, overall professional control depends on putting students through hoops in order to obtain credentials. These priorities come first.

The second source of opposition to student control of learning is many students themselves. Due to their experiences in primary and secondary school, most students are accustomed to getting ahead by doing what the teacher demands. The top students are often the most adept at this. To be thrown on their own devices and expected to help fellow students to learn clashes with this whole pattern of socialisation. The innovative teacher often must deal with sullen or recalcitrant students who expect or demand to be told what to do, and who sabotage exercises in collective learning.

Much effort and ingenuity has been expended in trying to overcome this 'fear of student freedom'. Many course innovations, or entire universities, have been introduced to promote greater student participation in learning. The fly in the ointment is credentials. A typical irony is that individual teachers or entire faculties may attempt to stimulate student control over learning by fiddling with details of the assessment system. Abolishing credentials would be going too far!

For these reasons it is important to remain sceptical of initiatives to make students more interested in learning. If the material to be learned is irrelevant to any practical situation and is only there because of the need to fill out a degree, it is natural for students to become bored and cynical. Teaching innovations, from visual aids to student choice over essay topics or laboratory experiments, may only serve to make a pointless process a little more sugary.

Critical research

Academic freedom, in one of its senses, is supposed to allow scholars to pursue their inquiries without fear or favour. But very few academics actually do any research which has more than the mildest critical edge. This is due to the social definition of acceptable and scholarly research which is conditioned by the academic disciplines and the standard paradigms, and by the main sources of patronage and areas of application. Before the rise of the animal liberation movement, the 'freedom' of academics to study - and hence expose - cruelty to and exploitation of animals through factory farming and scientific experimentation was seldom taken up. Likewise, using one's academic freedom to study Gandhian economics or psychic phenomena still remains a sure way to limit one's future career prospects.

Precisely because critical research is so seldom done, it can be one of the more effective ways for academics working inside the system to challenge knowledge tied to powerful groups. Critical researchers can use the system against itself by using the public perception that claims about knowledge made by professional credentialed scholars are more legitimate than the same claims made by other people.

What sort of critical research can be done? The possibilities are endless.

* Analysis of inconsistencies and biases in government policies.

* Evaluation of dangers from food additives, herbicides and drugs.

* Exposure of military applications of other research work.

* Study of hazards to workers.

* Analysis of possibilities for local decision-making.

* Study of environmental dangers and their social roots.

* Development of strategies for promoting the interests of minorities.

* Exposure of value judgements in allegedly value-free scientific research.

In doing critical research, there are a number of dangers and pitfalls. On the one hand is the danger of suppression: vested interest groups may attack the researcher or the results. Often the attacks come from inside the university and are mounted by administrators or academics who see critical research as a threat to the usual way in which academic knowledge tied to particular interest groups. An example is the attempt by academics within the Australian National University to block publication of the book The Fight For the Forests by Richard and Val Routley, which was very critical of forestry planning and practice. The primary outside groups threatened by the book were the forest industries and the state forest bureaucracies. But the attack on the book was largely mounted by a few academics associated with the Forestry Department within the university.

Although direct attacks on critical research and the academics who carry it out sometimes occur, a more frequent problem is encountering obstacles in further research and in one's career. Those who do critical research often have difficulties obtaining research funding, appointments and promotions.

One response to the danger of suppression is to carry out critical research in full academic dress, so that the work cannot be criticised as unscholarly. Often it is attacked as unscholarly anyway! But this method of avoiding suppression introduces another danger: becoming too academic. Critical ideas and comments that are hidden away in the bowels of academic journals or embedded in piles of statistics or indigestible argument seldom have a critical impact. To have an effect, critical research needs to be available and understandable to the individuals and groups who can use it. Therefore, the form of research as well as the content needs to deviate from the academic norm.

To make the results of research available and understandable to a wide audience means publishing accounts in newspapers, popular journals and readable books, and on radio and television. This challenges the normal professional control over knowledge and hence is seen as unscholarly even when the content is not critical. One way to proceed is to publish academic-style papers in professional journals and also to publish popular accounts elsewhere. This can help limit denigration as being a populariser, at least in some circles.

The potentials and limitations of critical research in academic form are illustrated by work on the sociology of scientific knowledge in Britain. Quite a number of academic researchers in Britain have developed a far-reaching critique of scientific knowledge. For example, they have studied cultural influences on the development and content of scientific knowledge, and the ways in which beliefs are 'negotiated' through social interactions. Some of them have argued that scientific knowledge cannot be distinguished form other belief systems (such as magic used in some African tribal cultures) by 'objective' criteria such as accuracy or coherence.

Many of the ideas developed by these researchers are deeply subversive of standard views about science. But the ideas are mostly presented in academic form, typified by the style of the key journal Social Studies of Science. This has greatly limited their impact on the scientific community. Many of the researchers are not concerned about this: they are aiming at establishing their own professional status as rigorous scholars.

Nevertheless, the ideas do leak out of the academic container. Some of the researchers write more popular articles, and deal with current issues such as genetic engineering. These more activist scholars serve to translate and popularise critical ideas. Another avenue for release is through students who take courses in social studies of science. Some of the more accessible treatments in the field are written especially for students. Finally, there are some practising scientists who are willing to plough through the sociologese and grasp the ideas directly.

One reason that critical social studies of science have been somewhat open to use by non-specialists is that it is a new field, and many researchers are actually natural scientists who switched to social studies of science. But this will happen less often as the area becomes more professionalised and recruits are drawn from students coming out of social studies of science courses. (This account was written before I obtained a job in social studies of science!)

The way in which critical research is done involves more than how the results are published. The relationship between researchers who are working together are important. Breaking down hierarchies and working as a team - which is quite compatible with acknowledging differences in knowledge and experience - is a challenge to common patterns which often involve domination and exploitation. Doing research in an egalitarian way is especially important when the research has a critical thrust and is likely to attract criticism. When co-workers are treating each other as equals, group cohesion and individual commitment are improved, and hence attacks are less likely to splinter the group. Developing such cohesion and commitment is not easy in academia, where the temptations of individual advancement and prestige often have a corrosive effect.

Involving undergraduate students in research work provides a means for linking critical teaching and research. In most fields, very little background knowledge is needed before apprenticeship training in research can begin. For example, Harold Johnston at the University of California has co-authored many papers in chemistry with his undergraduate students. Gary L. Huber has reported the success of high school students in doing specialised medical research, and publishing papers. I have some experience in this vein, working with a number of undergraduate students over summer holidays on physics and, years later, social science research. Another approach is the study research papers under the guidance of a researcher in the field. The method was developed by Herman T. Epstein for first-year biology students, and has been used in many fields successfully. It certainly provided me with my most exciting moments in teaching physics.

Integrating research into the undergraduate course of study is essentially a way of breaking down the artificial distinction between study and application in the usual academic sequence of undergraduate study and postgraduate research. Integrating research and learning makes a lot of sense educationally, but it is a serious challenge to academic control over students and over the credentialling process. It also helps overcome the banking form of education in which the teacher is not a joint investigator with the students.

Involving outsiders - non-academics - in research is an even greater challenge to the usual way in which research is carried out, since it throws into question the professional claim to exclusive ability and right to use academic resources for research. The usual academic involvement with outsiders is as clients or subjects, such as the groups who answer the questionnaires of social scientists or participate in psychological experiments. When outside collaboration is carried out, it is usually with trained professionals in other institutions, such as government scientists or practising lawyers. Much less common is collaboration with outsiders such as trade union officials, social activists or freelance writers, not to mention shop floor workers, housewives and clerical employees.

There is an enormous cultural gap between most academics and people who are not socialised into the academic mode, and this makes genuine collaboration very difficult. Arguably, academics have as much to learn in such an interaction as non-academics, especially in learning the practical realities of how the world works and how academics can communicate outside their own speciality. But this advantage is usually dismissed compared to the importance of maintaining academic standards and maximising individual returns from intellectual effort.

Student initiatives

So far I have talked about critical teaching and research as things to be introduced by members of staff. Staff are in a relatively strong position to make initiatives in these areas if they want to, although that is seldom enough. Students who want to have critical perspectives included as part of their studies are in a much weaker position to press their claims.

One basic approach by students is to mount pressure-group campaigns to change the content or methods used in their courses. This can include talking to staff members, writing letters, organising petitions, working through official committees, and organising demonstrations and occupations.

Student campaigns have a much greater chance of success if there is some degree of staff support (which may be linked to a wider concern in the general community). If academic staff are mostly united against student demands, students usually can be held off or diverted. Sometimes staff simply say "no" and do not attempt to provide a reasoned defence. Other times staff and administrators may use tactics such as claiming that there are no suitable staff to teach a course, promising consideration of the issue next year, forming subcommittees, or allowing a token course to be taught by a marginal or incompetent staff member. Because students are transient members of the academic community, it is hard for them to organise to maintain concern and pressure and to overcome these stalling tactics.

Another problem is that students may become diverted onto issues which are not central to curriculum and teaching methods. One prominent example is assessment. In Australia much student effort has gone pushing for more student control over how they are assessed. The result has been a shift from end-of-year exams to 'continuous assessment', occasionally with more student say over the types of assessment used. If anything, the shift to continuous assessment has reduced control by students over how they learn, and their marginal participation in decisions over assessment has had little impact on what is taught and how.

Students also can push for more participative, student-centred teaching/learning methods. Once again, the teacher has much more power to introduce change; with a recalcitrant teacher, student demands can be readily sabotaged. The other problem is that most students in the core subjects are more concerned about passing courses than with what they are learning. The best chance for student pressure to influence teaching methods is in critical programmes, such as women's studies, in which both the staff and students are much more likely to be there because they want to learn. Student initiatives also have much better prospects if they are linked with community groups that are concerned about academic teaching and research.


David Boud (ed.), Developing student autonomy in learning (London: Kogan Page, 1981). Useful ideas on helping students to take control over their learning.

Adam Curle, Education for liberation (London: Tavistock, 1973). A valuable attempt to integrate radical ideas on education with nonviolent strategies for changing oppressive structures.

Peter Dreier, 'Socialism and cynicism: an essay on politics, scholarship, and teaching', Socialist review, no. 53, September-October 1980, pp. 105-131.

Jerome R. Ravetz, Scientific knowledge and its social problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). An analysis of the scientific research process, raising the idea of critical science.

Ira Shor, Critical teaching and everyday life (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980). Valuable ideas for critical teaching within the conventional classroom structure.

Jane L. Thompson (ed.), Adult education for a change (London: Hutchinson, 1980). Radical viewpoints on adult education.

Alan Wolfe, 'Radical intellectuals in a conservative time', New political science, no. 5/6, winter/spring 1981, pp. 7-19.

On Herman T. Epstein's method see his A strategy for education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).