Tuesday, 12 July 2011
Teaching Cross-Cultural Communication?
1) You’re probably right that there will be more pressure from students to choose what modules to study in the future. This change is part of the wider transformation of universities towards a more commercial, ‘customer-focussed’ style. But I’m not sure that it implies demand for a more international political theory: some of the most successful courses I’ve taught – according to student feedback – have been very traditional close reading courses, in small groups, on canonical texts. My attempts to introduce non-canonical texts have been often resisted and resented by my students, many of whom have an instrumental, performative attitude to their studies. They know what to do with Mill’s On Liberty, they have a context and prior acquaintance, they understand (or think they understand) what’s expected of them. They’re quite unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar, because it’s too open-ended and risky.
[Later: I should have made two things clearer here: (1) that this is true only of some of my students; many are pleasingly independent; (2) that I don't blame the more instrumentalist students - they've been poorly served by A-levels, and in any case have good reasons for regarding a degree as a necessary passport to the lives they want, not as anything worth doing for its own sake].
2) Again, you’re right that higher education increasingly operates in a global market. But British Universities’ pursuit of international students is at least partly the product of a particular funding regime which incentivised, especially, efforts to recruit non-EU postgraduate students. That funding regime is being dismantled as we speak, and it’s very unclear what the effects of its replacement will be. It might, for example, shift recruitment efforts much more towards the most well-qualified of UK undergraduates (students with AAB or above at A-level), because there will no longer be a cap imposed on how many of them we can take, and each will be worth £9,000/year.
3) I and many other political theorists/philosophers are humanists deeply committed to the value of reading, interpreting, and arguing with great texts. We’ve invested a great deal in learning the skills involved in that kind of work, and in understanding particular texts through it. I teach John Stuart Mill, for example, because I’ve spent some years and effort becoming an expert on him, and I did so because I love both his work and the particular kind of investigation involved in understanding it. So I’m not sure that the changes you look forward to will be made easily, especially in an environment where we’ll be under student/customer pressure to teach more contact hours on more familiar material. When am I going to have the time to become an expert on Lao Tzu, for example? Would anyone take my course on him even if I did?
4) I’m not to be honest sure that political theory’s ‘place in the discipline’ is ‘advancing cross-cultural communication and understanding’. In the first place, which discipline? In the second, the obvious role of political theory – like any other academic discipline – is to expand our understanding of the world. If that fosters good things like cross-cultural communication, great, but it isn’t really my, or political theory’s, job.