Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Has the discourse of 'Teaching/Learning' killed the radical and the spontaneous in university education?

Matthew Allen
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University of Technology
In the past decade, a new discourse has developed within universities regarding teaching/learning. This discourse, a commitment to teaching, not (just) research, can be seen in university mission statements, strategic plans, new staff development activities, groups dedicated to teaching and learning, government funding initiatives, quality reviews, promotion and selection criteria and so on. The discourse of teaching and learning is, of course not the same thing as the actual practices, experiences and so on of being a student or teacher at a university. These activities go on within the discourse, even in opposition to it. The discourse is, then, the institutionalised system of knowledge and values. It results from the shift from a research orientation to the current, mixed teaching and research orientation in many institutions.

In this dilemma, I want to explore the following idea. The discourse of teaching and learning involves managerialism and surveillance, and is institutionally valued for making universities more profitable/efficient. Hence, spontaneous, even radical teaching practices - even if apparently in line with declared commitments to good teaching/learning - may however be impossible or increasingly irrelevant if they challenge the embedded processes and values in the discourse of teaching and learning.


In this paper, I will outline some of the key conceptual issues which underpin my approach to the dilemma which I pose in the title and which I wish to explore at the conference. I will not directly address some key issues (such as the meaning of spontaneity, whether or not it is valuable educationally and how it might be achieved). I do so not just because I want to hold open the door to many different ways in which these issues might be discussed at the dilemma session that I will facilitate at the conference, but also because the fact that there are many possible meanings to a term such as 'spontaneity' reveals the importance of first of all considering the discursive structures within which the practical, lived experience around the idea of spontaneous teaching practice take place.

By 'discursive structures' I mean, in simple general terms, the epistemological rules by which human experience can be understood. In that process of meaning-making, the discourse comes to be the repository of values and knowledges by which a particular experience can be classified, judged and related to other experiences. The Foucauldian concept of 'discourse' requires that we recognise that the meaning of an activity or event is never evident in the thing itself (in some objective manner) but rather is constituted intersubjectively, through the shared, social resource of the language by which that thing can be described and analysed. As Foucault put it, discourses lie "between words and things", playing an essential role in the social construction of a known (and knowable) reality (1972:48-49). The words used by discourses do not merely "designate things" but "systematically form the objects of which they speak" (Foucault, 1972: 49).

Hence, the discourse of teaching/learning provides the ground on which educational practices are assessed, shared, discussed, promoted, criticised and, in the end result, implemented (as Foucault so clearly demonstrates in Discipline and Punish, discourses are not ethereal: they are constitutive of the specific actions of the social world and have material consequences - Foucault, 1975). It is to be seen primarily in the institutional forms of committees (Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development), associations (HERDSA), conferences (Teaching Learning Forum), groups as are now found at every Australian university to promote university teaching, journals, institutional practices (surveys) and policies (the inclusion of particular criteria and rules within promotions procedures), funding mechanisms, and so on. Crucially, the discourse must be analysed in terms of the ways that it assigns values and meanings to a whole range of activities undertaken in and around the higher education system, and in this analysis, we cannot forget that discourse of teaching/learning owe little to the actual practices in whose name it speaks. In the process, we can re-orient our understanding of teaching/learning away from the internal dynamics of the discourse itself and instead comprehend the governing conditions for 'knowing' and 'using' education practices that come from outside the practice of teaching and learning itself.

The relationship of the system to teaching/learning

One of the defining characters of the now-extensive literature on the pedagogical practices of higher education is its general failure to explore the relationship between particular, practical developments in teaching/learning and the broader political forces at work within universities. Discussions of economic factors, social change, government policy and new theoretical developments are not completely absent but, by and large, serve as a sort of generalised background whose relevance to the 'real' issue - improved learning for university students - is marginal. Where writing on teaching/learning includes these discussions, it does so usually to establish, in fairly simple terms, the reasons why a particular educational practice or development is or should be significant, or what the impacts of such an development might be. The lines of connection are represented straightforwardly according to common-sense models of cause and effect.

I would not claim that those contributing to the growing intellectual apparatus of teaching/learning (as represented by events such as the Teaching Learning Forum) are unaware of the sorts of broad systemic forces which are most publicly embodied in, for example, the recently completed Review of Higher Education chaired by Roderick West. Far from it. Some of the most effective contributors to the policy debates around higher education also make important contributions to the field of research and analysis of education in 'higher education'. Moreover, the lived experience of almost every academic in the country (many of whom constitute the scholarly field of teaching/learning precisely because they are uninvolved in policy and are merely getting on with the day-to-day business of education) brings them into daily contact with the results of the economic and social climate within which universities operate. I would claim, however, that the relationship of current political constitution of the higher education system to teaching/learning is not well understood. The reason for this misunderstanding, put simply, is that the meaning of effective and innovative teaching/learning practices is too readily divorced from the system of which they are a part; the value-judgments necessary to establish why something is 'good' for higher education are thought to relate to some ideal conception of education, rather than to the historically contingent education system that we actually inhabit.

In general terms, teaching/learning is seen by those academics who identify themselves as part of this scholarly field in two ways, each of which enacts a rather simplistic epistemological relationship between the particularities of educational practice and the general system within which it takes place.[1] First, teaching/learning is thought of as a refuge from the vicissitudes of financial cutbacks and concomitant threats to some idealised notion of 'quality' education.[2] Better teaching practices are valuable and worth pursuing because they enable academics to 'forget' (even as they are driven by) changes which are reshaping the fundamental conception of 'the university'; the effort and resources expended on teaching/learning come to represent one of the few 'advances' in government higher education policy at a time of many reverses. Second, teaching/learning is seen as a brave new frontier of developments which will give students the educational experience best suited to the needs of life in the world of global late capitalism. Here, better teaching practices indicate an acceptance of reality, a surrender (perhaps willingly) to late twentieth century socio-economic conditions. Their value comes from the completeness of the 'fit' between those conditions and educational activities.

What both of these approaches do (in very different ways of course) is to distance from teaching/learning the essential components of the contemporary conditions of higher education which actually make it possible to 'think' teaching/learning. The very fact that, generally, we no longer refer to 'teaching' or 'learning' but instead conceptualise the business of education as a relationship between the two, opens the door for a very different analysis of university education based on understanding the relations of power between the various groups and individuals who now, as education policy puts it, are 'stakeholders' in higher education. For, fundamentally, the analysis of discourse is about the critical examination of the way that people's identities and lives are governed by their interactions on the basis of knowledge about 'things' (such as, for example, a tutorial). If we are to explore how radical spontaneity might not be possible within the current discourse of teaching/learning, then we must understand how subjective relationships between students and teachers are governed by that discourse.

Teaching/learning and the knowledge-product

University education is, now, a commodity. By this I do not mean simply that it is bought and sold, but rather that it is understood and known in terms which are all to do with the relationship between the buyer and the seller (see Allen, 1996). One of the mistakes made in this now-common analysis of higher education through theories of commodification is to see individual students as customers, buying from the supplier, the university: academics become part of the product, in effect. In fact, the system is organised around a more abstract conception of consumption, in which students represent a more generic consumer - society itself. Moreover, 'society' is not merely the aggregate of possible consumers and (as is important in the buying and selling of education) their parents. 'Society' is here the vision of the ideal society - the society of the market - which economic rationalist thinking employs to claim moral legitimacy for its empirically indefensible claims. Not surprisingly, most students are unwilling representatives of this society, as evidenced by their collective disdain for any attempt to refer to them as 'clients', their resentment towards attempts to make them actually 'pay up' for what they are buying. That students regularly claim the authority afforded to them by being 'customers' (for example, in demanding better service for their fees) should not blind us to the fact that, for many, this negotiation of university life is not one they particularly admire. Academics, too, are not really part of the product: they are representatives of the government of that ideal society, educating its members as to their correct responsibilities.[3]

In the everyday transactions between students and academics (which we tend to understand as being the 'stuff' of teaching/learning), the key subject positions are not merely those of some generalised and essential intellectual interchange between pupil and teacher in which the primary goal (as most teaching/learning advice would have it at the moment) is for the pupil to somehow become the teacher. Rather they are fundamentally political and economic. Students, mostly unwilling, act as the customers; Teachers, mostly unwillingly, act as the producers; at the same time, students represent society and teachers the governance of that market-driven society. These subject-positions are both the consequence of the current, commodified conditions of higher education and the necessary everyday 'experience' which makes the idea that universities are just one more sort of business in global capitalism seem 'normal' and 'obvious'.

Spontaneity and the discourse of teaching/learning

The impact of this consumerist ethic (even allowing for the irony of calling it 'ethical') on the discourse of teaching/learning in many ways. Take, for example, quality assurance: the principal mechanism for the surveillance of teaching and learning by government and institutions acting 'on behalf of' students. Quality assurance is, as one of the leading 1980s gurus of TQM, puts it "a measure of the value of goods and services as perceived by the supplier, producer and consumer." (Edosomwan, 1988: 9). In other words, there is no external reference point from which to judge quality: quality is necessarily that which the consumer desires. Quality assurance, therefore, simply means ensuring that the customer's desires are met and, of course, shaped so that they can be met. Quality teaching/learning, therefore, depends upon creating an educational system in which measurements of product and consumer are possible so as to produce the knowledge necessary for quality assurance to work. Any form of teaching and learning practice can be tolerated, can be 'quality', as long as it is effectively known (in terms of the way that it joins students and teachers together in their double act of buyer and seller). That certain practices are seen as better or worse is merely an effect of the competitive forces which now infuse the commodified university system. But what cannot be tolerated are the unknowables. And, to the extent that the spontaneous teaching/learning practice evades 'being known', spontaneity is in fact deeply radical and threatening. It is also very difficult to achieve because of the pressures against the unknown that are now entrenched in universities (through, for example, the demands on academics to produce detailed unit plans, with set objectives, clear paths, and for academics - and students - to stick to those plans).

Thus, in trying to understand spontaneity in higher education, we might take many pathways and assess the claims that can be made from a variety of experiences and observations. But, at the very least, we must remember that we are in a forum that is complicit, to some extent, in sustaining consumerist education and education for consumerism, through the discourse of teaching/learning's role in implementing the subjectivities outlined above. We should begin this dilemma, then, by recognising that the meaning of spontaneity and our assessment of its possibilities and operations must take place with due recognition to the way that the discourse of teaching/learning (within which we conduct that assessment) specifies and knows educational practices so that they might play their part in the ongoing regimes of power that make up world of late capitalism.


Allen, Matthew (1996). The Future of Knowledge and Subjectivity in Higher Education. In N.F.Ellerton (ed). International Networking: Education, Training and Change. Perth: Edith Cowan University. 85-89.

Edosomwan, Johnson (1988). Productivity and Quality Improvement. Bedford, UK: IFS.

Foucault, Michel (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon.

Hunter, Ian (1994). Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, bureaucracy, criticism. St Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.


  1. There is an analogous, simplistic relationship for many other academics, those refusing to be part of the teaching/learning discourse (for example, people who refuse to undertake student evaluations), in which teaching/learning is recognised solely as an 'agent' of those political forces. While I take analytical inspiration from this position (for it enables me to recognise my own role - small though it may be - in contributing to the changes in higher education (many of which I am profoundly opposed to even as I enact them), I don't have time here to explore it in detail.

  2. That John Howard presides over the current round of cuts should not be taken as a sign of something new. Howard's influence on higher education extends as far back as 1975 when, as Treasurer in the Fraser government, he began a process of cuts to higher education which were then taken further by ALP governments under Hawke and Keating. It is fitting, if not at all comforting, that Howard seems destined to complete these cuts to the point where no element of equity and intellectual creativity will remain free from the return of the razor gang.

  3. I use government here in its Foucauldian sense: see Hunter, 1994.
Please cite as: Allen, M. (1998). Has the discourse of 'Teaching/Learning' killed the radical and the spontaneous in university education? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 12-16. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/allen.html

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