In formulating my research methodology, I aim to map the contested margins of FE: the contest over access to and transition into educational space and how this is experienced by students traditionally shut out of education, and the activists (students and workers) who contest these borders. In this third blog, I want to think about issues of power and knowledge: the power dynamic of the researcher/researched, issues of democracy and “ownership” of knowledge production and distribution, and what I as a researcher conceptualise as being the “truth” in the experiences of education I aim to evoke and document. All of this is shaped by the uncertain seas of lockdown and the deeper structural forces of racial capitalism, neoliberalism, and heteropatriarchy.
I perch on the end of my bed, feet next to a basket of clean washing ready for putting away, laptop balanced on my knee. I open a window taking me to a student’s kitchen table where she sits with her mug and smiles through at me, cereal boxes and jars balanced on a shelf behind her, a toy on the table. In the next room my daughter is curled up in her bed with her phone, watching BBC bitesize videos and sneaking Roblox games. My son lies on his bedroom floor, leafing through a textbook and checking wattsapp messages. Downstairs my partner sings as he makes coffee.
One key feature of education life under lockdown is our peeping into one another’s domestic spaces. This may be a primary feature of education research for some time to come, and will have echoes for what educational space looks like post-pandemic. For many adult returner students and education workers, the domestic space has always been colonised by the world of work, and learning has included the struggle to carve out time and space to think in the busy-ness and competing demands of the home. Now, in the pandemic, the cluttering between student, worker, parent, domestic-worker intensifies and divisions between tasks and territories blur. In the universalising if not democratic classrooms of our institutions we are afforded some anonymity. Now our interactions bring intimacy, as the cyber-windows on our living spaces open and close, each glimpse giving detail about the way power falls in and layers domestic space; the new cottage industries of learning.
This intimacy is not equal for lecturer/student or researcher/researched. What are the consequences for developing democratic research locations in pandemic and post-pandemic FE? In the absence of hierarchical education institutions, does cyberspace create a more level area for collaborative democratic research to take place? Or is it new territory to be colonised by existing power relations? For Dennis (2014), digital spaces allow reassertion of dissent and agency as features of FE, but also raise ethical questions through the blurring of public and private discourse. Researching the experiences of FE students and activists in digital spaces has the potential to leave a permanent trace: there is a need to facilitate a platform for critical reflection, but also a responsibility to protect the voices of those often facing a hostile environment.
There are other ethical issues to consider in whatever emerges as the research environment. In striving for what Hughes and Willinck (2014) refer to as co-reflexive critical dialogue, there is a need to recognise the expertise participants have in selecting and framing what is meaningful in their experiences of education. If education research is to be research-as as well as research-into activism, then the process should aim towards emancipatory practice as well as documentation. In naming and exploring the meaning education territories have for those who transgress into and occupy them, there is collaborative work to be done in exploring what the future shape of an education to be fought for might look like.
Our windows are not equal. Some students work from phones, devices vary in speed, application access, capacity. Participation is differentiated by digital capital in terms of hardware, software, skill, ability to access assistance. For students with no way of accessing the lockdown virtual world of the college or university, there is delay and the prospect of making up time (while socially distancing? with sterile equipment and PPE?) in partially-reopened institutions. For many students and education-workers, the home/work space is cluttered with chores, requests, the mess of domesticity and build-up of debris of condensed use of space. What Dunscombe and Marsden (1995) call the triple shift (of formal work, childcare/emotional labour, and domestic labour) is now happening competitively under one roof: a condensing of time and space without a proportionate reduction of demands, with lone mothers particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this workload (Zhou et al., 2020). We field demands for time, labour, emotional care and often simply a response to another’s question or comment as a donation of thought-space. There is increasing interruption to learning flow in increasingly condensed space. For many students and education workers, intersectionally layered by racialised class and heteronormative gender, the lockdown home may be an island in a chain of working spaces, labour in other environments (domestic work outside of the home, retail, care) continuing. This again has an impact on the time and mental energy available to “do” formal learning.
This has consequences for what the geography of learning spaces of the future as well as the present look like. Durham was the first university to publically opportunise the pandemic to push for permanent online learning (pushed back by resistance, for now) and the murmurs (Lefebvre, 2017) of senior management across FE and HE echo this. In an article for the TES on 22nd April Bedford College Group CEO Ian Pryce begins by reflecting on the lasting impact of his “classical” education in allowing him to make sense of the chaos of pandemic before going on to ponder over his previous belief that home-working disguises inefficiency, and reflect that
“a lack of productivity is more easily disguised under the camouflage of office work. One outcome, therefore, may well be more home working but far fewer staff being employed… It is far easier to lose staff if they and their results are less visible”.
What does the “post-pandemic” mean for education? Some leaders will emphasise remote learning as a social leveller, allowing participation to transcend the barriers of physical attendance, childcare arrangements, time clashes with the employed shift pattern. On a simplistic level it works: one of the most radical interventions into the fortress of prestigious academia of the later 20th century was surely the OU, opening up the space for critical thought and the cultural capital of university qualifications to adult learners already engaged in working life (domestic and employed). However, what happens to the already casualised labour force of further and higher education in an incursion into online learning spaces? Invisibility, as pre-sensed by the Bedford principal, increases precariousness.
Chipping away and destabilising physical human interaction in learning could come at a great cost: as Smith and Duckworth (2020) identify, part of what makes colleges “engine rooms for social mobility and social justice” are the social relations they facilitate. Colleges undertake emotional labour in giving students self-belief. This comes in part as Smith and Duckworth note, through the teacher-student relationship. College life is intimate and stretches beyond the curricula in creating a shared “everyday” in which learning spaces can be collective, learning time is protected from other demands, and solidarity is forged. As Addo (2019) states, colleges exist as communities of human relations, so while buildings may be superfluous, intimacy of shared physical space is more central. For hooks (1994), it is in the shared space of the classroom that we have the co-existence of theory, self-recovery and collective liberation. It is difficult to imagine how this crucial feature of FE will persist in scaled-down virtual spaces in which protected time and social space-sharing is eroded. Without physical classroom spaces, learning for students at the margins of education may increasingly mean atomised negotiation for the time and space to think amidst the crowding of other daily demands.
If the process of learning involves having physical space to move around, to process, to develop “flow”, under racial capitalism, the learning environment beyond the college or university is already shaped by what Danewid (2019) has described as the “inherently global and colonial… violence of neoliberal urbanism”. This has surely intensified in the “geography of containment” (Crenshaw, 2020) of the pandemic, the inequalities of access to and policing of use of outdoor space.
Access to education includes access to the mental space to think, and to some extent, this maps onto the physical landscapes we live and move around in. Having already discussed the multi-layering of tasks and crowding of demands for cognitive labour in the problematic current lived space (and possible post-pandemic space) of the “household”, it is worthwhile also thinking about how this extends into wider territories. Like the home the wider lived environment is not neutral: there is a cognitive as well as material capital in having access to green space, freedom to walk unchallenged in places quiet and untroubled enough to induce reflection. Whilst trying to avoid romanticisation of oppression, arguably the impact of noise and risk create more urgent insights into what access to education means and what it may be fraught by in terms of whatever emerges post-pandemic. My task is developing research practices to develop a critical framework which facilitates this urgency in imagining and contesting the future in what access to participation in education looks like from the borders and margins.
Addo, J., 2019. Hello, who am I? – The Change Agent or the Game Player of Performativity?. In: P. Bennett and R. Smith, ed., Identity and Resistance in Further Education. London: Routledge.
Crenshaw, K., 2020. Under The Blacklight: The Intersectional Vulnerabilities That COVID Lays Bare. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoFGUrkGbmo> [Accessed 26 May 2020].
Danewid, I., 2019. The fire this time: Grenfell, racial capitalism and the urbanisation of empire. European Journal of International Relations, 26(1), pp.289-313.
Dennis, C., 2015. Locating post-16 professionalism: public spaces as dissenting spaces. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 20(1), pp.64-77.
Duncombe, J. and Marsden, D., 1995. ‘Workaholics’ and ‘Whingeing Women’: Theorising Intimacy and Emotion Work — The Last Frontier of Gender Inequality?. The Sociological Review, 43(1), pp.150-169.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hughes, S. and Willinck, K., 2014. Engaging co-reflexive critical dialogues when entering and leaving the “field”: towards collaborative research methods at the color line and beyond. In: J. Carmona and K. Luschen, ed., Crafting Critical Stories: Towards Pedagogies and Methodologies of Collaboration, Inclusion and Voice. Oxford: Peter Lang.
McKie, A., 2020. Durham VC moves to clarify plans for online learning. THE, [online] Available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/durham-v-c-moves-clarify-plans-online-learning> [Accessed 11 May 2020].
Pryce, I., 2020. Could colleges have more home working and fewer staff?. TES, [online] Available at: <https://www.tes.com/news/could-colleges-have-more-home-working-and-fewer-staff> [Accessed 4 May 2020].
Smith, R. and Duckworth, V., 2020. In Praise Of Further Education Colleges: Empowering Students Who Have Been Written Off. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/in-praise-of-further-education-colleges-empowering-students-who-have-been-written-off-135391> [Accessed 4 June 2020].
Zhou, M., Hertog, E., Kolpashnikova, K., & Kan, M. (2020). Gender inequalities: Changes in income, time use and well-being before and during the UK COVID-19 lockdown. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/u8yt