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  • Mark 4:20 pm on January 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , audit, , , , , narratology, poetics,   

    some thoughts on the poetics of impact 

    In the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetics of impact. I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the impact agenda, initially suspecting that it might open up opportunities for valuable activity to be recognised within the increasingly restrictive confines of the accelerated academy. I wasn’t alone in this. This is how Les Back described his own changing relationship to the impact agenda:

    It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?

    Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.


    Underlying this ambivalence is a tension between the impact agenda as a top-down imposition and a bottom-up expression of a desire to make a difference through research. This tension explains why, as John Brewer puts it, “Impact is at one and the same time an object of derision and acclaim, anxiety and confidence”. While it’s seen as innocuous within the policy evaluation community, it’s irrevocably tied up with the unfolding audit culture within higher education, particularly within the UK. It’s an imposition which seems liable to profoundly reshape working life, in unwelcome and unclear ways, but it also resonates, however vaguely, with a sense of what motivated the work of many people in the first place. I’ve always like Michael Burawoy’s description of this as the sociological spirit:

    The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.


    The impact agenda both reflects this spirit and is tied up in the apparatus which is crushing it. How could it not provoke ambivalence? My growing interest is in how this manifests itself at the level of discourse surrounding impact. Could the tendency towards what Pat Thompson analyses as heroic narratives of impact be in part a response to this underlying tension:

    You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

    There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.

    These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.


    I realise this is more narratology than poetics but these perhaps constitute two distinct phases of an investigation. What are the structures of stories about impact? What do they share and how do they differ? What rhetorical devices are used in these stories? What linguistic techniques are used in talk about impact more broadly?

    The tendency that fascinates me involves a perpetual oscillation from idealism to pragmatism. Impact is hailed as an opportunity to live a more authentic life as a researcher, change the world with your research and be a better human being. Plus this is the way things are now and you’d better adapt or you’ll be left behind. The invocations are at times explicitly ethical (right or wrong to do), supplementing the aforementioned moral dimension (good or bad to be):

    1. You have a responsibility to tax payers to ensure your research is put to use.
    2. You have a responsibility to knowledge to ensure your research leaves academic silos.
    3. You have a responsibility to society to ensure your research makes a difference.

    At an event in Belgium at the start of December, I saw a senior figure in the UK impact community explain that academics who claimed not to ‘get it’ should be “ashamed of themselves”. The expression varies in its tenor and force but it’s usually there. But this is accompanied by a pragmatism with a similar range. From mild claims that being engaged will make you a better scholar, up to outright threats that you’ll be left behind and won’t be able to survive in the new academy unless you develop your impact skills.

    When I raised this on Twitter, Penny Andrews made the fascinating suggestion that this oscillation between carrot and stick resembled a religious sermon in its tone. I think there’s a fascinating project which could be undertaken exploring this comparison at the level of the texts, as well as detailing the poetics and narratology of impact discourse* and situating them within an account of the accelerated academy.

    *I don’t feel the slightest bit capable of doing this with a sufficient level of sophistication, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch!

  • Mark 6:41 am on April 2, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: audit, , , , ,   

    How obsessive auditing produces “a profession which is incompatible with a normal life” 

    80% of new teachers in 2005 were still teaching after their first year. In 2015 that has shrunk to just 62%, coupled with record numbers leaving mid career. In the intervening period, we’ve seen successive governments seek to transform schooling in a way that has left the “profession monitored to within an inch of its life”: increasingly teaching can’t retain its new recruits and given 76% of new teachers report having considered leaving the profession, it’s possible the retention rate will continue to collapse over time.

    Can you blame them? David Cameron recently pronounced that “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change” and that “If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you” – with ‘good or outstanding’ constituted through the unreliable judgements of an audit regime utterly disconnected from the realities of teaching. The result is a ratcheting up of situational demands amidst a climate of fear, leaving teachers drowning in assessment, terrified of negative assessments and increasingly prone to illness, as a recent survey found:

    • 83% had reported workplace stress.
    • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
    • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
    • 5% had been hospitalised, and
    • 2% said they had self-harmed.

    This has produced a situation which the general secretary of the ATL describes as teaching having become “incompatible with normal life”. This is what audit regimes do when they’re pursued as an instrument of workplace control. How far behind is higher education? Will the greater sunk costs of newly qualified PhDs preclude a mass exodus from the profession? The analogy is far from perfect, not least of all because of the much lower ratio of available jobs to newly qualified academics, but there seems to be a similar direction of travel in both professions.

    • rbotoole 7:57 am on April 2, 2015 Permalink

      “let experts come in and help you” – that’s the motivation, the creation of a massive industry of assessors, advisors and expensive literacy and numeracy schemes. Some people have got very rich from this.

    • JeffVass 10:34 am on April 2, 2015 Permalink

      Performance monitoring is a technology. Its main thrust is to effect a ‘re-attribution of responsibility’ from those deploying the technology to those who become its objects. The main difference between schools and universities is that the technology is aimed at whole schools, so, e.g. so one can talk about ‘failing managers’. In universities it is the managers that deploy the technology. After all, it cannot possibly be the managers that fail when research rankings drop, NSS scores sink or student recruitment falters. I once worked briefly in an institution where academic staff ftes were linked to student fte recruitment. Academic staff ‘recruitment performances’ were monitored. If student recruitment fell then academic staff were laid off. Meanwhile the same institution had a growing ‘ Marketing and Recruitment’ department. This department was unaffected by any drop in recruitment – as a management department its ‘performance’ was not monitored. There was no monitoring technology to do this. Oddly, whenever the work involved in recruitment arose (producing copy for brochures, marketing in schools, dealing with ad hoc inquiries etc.) these were all directed to the academics on the grounds that they ‘best knew their own programmes’ etc. Staff in Marketing had standard non-academic appraisals so there was no performance criteria critical to the institution’s strategic aims in their personal record. The responsibility for all critical criteria are always transferred to staff who are positioned in such a way as to be least able to affect the context of those criteria.

      School teachers are simply in an absurd situation. Frankly one cannot have a good conversation while the interlocutors are focussed on a screen monitoring the metadata of that conversation.

    • Safar Fiertze 3:42 pm on April 2, 2015 Permalink

      I question the expertise of the ‘experts’. A criteria for good or outstanding is the ability to demonstrate all students’ learning progress. Behind this criteria is the flawed assumption that learning is a linear process. An additional erroneous assumption is that a good or outstanding teacher is one that achieves good or outstanding results. Isn’t that the achievement of students? And what about the teacher who is good one year, requiring improvement the next, but is using the same techniques and strategies that were once regarded as outstanding? As a ‘secret teacher’ in the Guardian recently wrote “Dear Ofsted, please can you send me copy of the real rules?”

    • Mark 6:38 am on April 3, 2015 Permalink

      thanks for such interesting comments. i’ve just reproduced them & responded here https://markcarrigan.net/2015/04/03/12229/

    • Mark 6:40 am on April 3, 2015 Permalink

      I think that opacity is inherent in the process because the assessment regime will always be hyperactively orientated towards continuous improvement – what else would the assessors do when not assessing? Add big data into the process and this gets really scary…

  • Mark 5:37 pm on March 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , audit, , , , , , ,   

    Heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest 

    This expression by Will Davies has stuck with me since I read it a few months ago. Teaching is a disturbing example of the process Will is alluding to: ratcheting up demands on staff to the point where many are unwilling to continue. In fact increasing numbers seem unable to continue:

    The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

    Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

    • 83% had reported workplace stress
    • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
    • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
    • 5% had been hospitalised, and
    • 2% said they had self-harmed.


    Much of the issue here stems from the demand for ‘excellence’: as David Cameron recently put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. For head teachers a bad Ofsted report can mean the end of their career and this tyranny of excellence mutates into something ever more brutal as it works its way down the hierarchy.

    Replace ‘heads’ with ‘HoDs’ and ‘Ofsted’ with ‘REF’ and we can see the same trend at work in higher education. Meanwhile the VCs fly around the world, creating strategic partnerships to actualise latent synergies. Here on the ground, one in six universities refuse to answer freedom of information requests about their expenses.

    Across both spheres, we can see people breaking the professions, one personal tragedy at a time, while rewarding themselves extravagantly for doing so.

  • Mark 10:23 am on February 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , audit, ,   

    Coping with Acceleration 

    I wrote yesterday about cognitive triage in higher education and its ramifications for personal reflexivity. My claim is that an inflation of situational demands leads subjects to prioritise the urgent, moving immediately from one necessity to another, in a way which crowds out the important. While the urgent/important dichotomy is a feature of the ‘productivity culture’ I’m trying to analyse, I nonetheless think it’s actually a useful contrast. It loosely reflects the distinction between first-order desires and second-order desires offered by Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt: between our immediate desires and our desires about our desires e.g. I don’t want to go outside into the snow to walk to work but I want to want to do this and will if my second-order desire wins out over my first-order desire.

    I’d like to develop the urgent/important contrast as a way of conceptually unpacking how reflexivity operates in working life. Dealing with both entails reflexivity but of very different sorts. The reflexivity of  urgency is much more limited in its scope, often instrumental and usually restricted to situational considerations. The reflexivity of importance is much more expansive, often value-rational and tends to transcend situational limitations. It’s the latter that is the foundation of agency, as what is important leads to action orientated towards changing our circumstances or exiting them (another aspect of what I’d like to do with this project). This is an overview of what I’m trying to argue:

    1. Social acceleration leads what is urgent to crowd out what is important via an escalation of situational demands
    2. In doing so, personal reflexivity tends towards the urgent rather than the important
    3. This has important ramifications for how subjects behave within the workplace
    4. Coping strategies by subjects reinforce this tendency towards urgent reflexivity
    5. These coping strategies also tend to reinforce acceleration within the workplace, as they facilitate the continual escalation of situational demands

    Along with Filip Vostal, I want to develop this argument using higher education as a case study but I believe the process is far from restricted to the academy. In short, we’re trying to explore how a ‘circle of acceleration’ is intensified by personal coping strategies. These questions seem politically pressing to me because social acceleration is not an inexorable phenomenon. While some important aspects of it are technological, there’s nonetheless a large element which emerges from new technologies of control within the workplace (and is in turn being entrenched through an expansion of the technological facilities for audit & intervention). This amounts to, as Will Davies put it, “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest” (I’ve had this line stuck in my head since I encountered it) – what we’re interested in is how people seek to get better at hopping and how this reinforces the overall trend.

    • Kelly Nielsen 6:01 pm on February 11, 2015 Permalink

      I really like this line of inquiry. One question that maybe I’m overlooking in your own thinking is whether people in situations where nobody is heating up the floor (if those even exist) are inclined to heat it up themselves to the extent that they can or imagine it to be. In this way, people are reacting to social acceleration more generally but not in an urgent response to immediate pressure. If so, this may be a case of the urgent and the important converging.

    • Mark 5:57 pm on February 21, 2015 Permalink

      sorry I missed this. I think people probably do this through self-definition as ‘productive’ and enacting ‘productivity’ even in the absence of any immediate imperative to do so

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