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Nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in Higher Education

Dr. Stavroula Tsirogianni, Social Psychology Lecturer with an interest in values, moral dilemmas and perspective taking talks about her experiences of nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in within academia and Higher Education

In June, I went for the first time to the annual conference of the psychosocial studies to give a presentation on a paper I am writing on with a colleague-friend. Psychosocial studies draws on a range of frameworks like psychoanalysis, critical theory, postcolonial studies, feminist and queer theories etc. The conference, as it is not a mainstream one, was quite small and people were very approachable, which made me really happy to be there. What mostly impressed me about the conference was the chairing style in some of the sessions. Some chairs did a brilliant job in terms of creating an informal, open and conversational atmosphere during their sessions, through arranging chairs in circles or through discouraging presenters to stand up and present using PowerPoint or to talk for more than 10 minutes. It worked. People in these sessions were more open and conversations were more relaxed and more interesting and constructive.

My presentation was on the last day of the conference and normally I would be anxious but this time I felt more relaxed because the setting felt safe. When my turn came and I gave my presentation, I asked the 5 people who attended my session for feedback and ideas on specific things that I felt stuck with. A woman from the audience felt really offended by my ideas, because I mixed mainstream and critical psychological theories to talk about how we construct ourselves as ethical beings through common everyday actions and dilemmas such eating our dead pet dog, eating burgers from KFC or wearing leather shoes etc. She found my ideas to be nonsense. She expressed her contempt by rudely interrupting me, asking me to look at her because she wanted to impart her ‘wisdom’ on me, while a woman from the audience was sharing her interesting experiences of dogs as a black person in South Africa during the Apartheid period. What happened in that session was that she wanted to establish her status as an ‘enlightened’ person, who knows better. I did not take this incident personally as this kind of hierarchical interactions, as most of us know who have been in academia for a long time, are common. If this happened to me 14 years ago when I first got into academia, I would be in tears.

…14 years ago…

When I came to the UK I felt like my perception of myself and the world shattered to pieces. I came from Greece where I grew up in a completely different educational system, where the teacher was the all-knowing figure. I was taught to look at myself and at the world in fixed binaries i.e. right vs wrong, rationality vs imagination, individualism vs collectivism. I was mainly trained to look for the truth, reproduce knowledge and produce outcomes through standardized memory testing. Today, I remember very little about the things I learned in high school and university. My education was based on external authority and drills. There was no space for independent action, divergence of views and ambiguity.
When I first came to London and started my PhD at the LSE, I was completely thrown back by the diversity of people and perspectives. I felt ignorant, exposed and lost. I never talked in seminars or classes and if had to talk to someone senior or someone that I thought knew more than me, my heart was pounding from anxiety. I had internalised so much this hierarchical way of thinking that I constantly felt too inadequate to believe in my own ideas.

Finding myself in such a multicultural and international environment challenged my biases, values and worldviews and brought up questions about authority and systems of power, their effects, how knowledge and identities come to be constructed and challenged. My experience of confusion and loss felt like a personal experience that had to be kept separate from the scholarly and educational process. It was through my exchanges and discussions with my peers and not with my teachers that I started addressing the connection of what I was learning and what I was experiencing.

Doing a PhD was a very confusing and lonesome process. But I was not the only one. A lot of my mates from my year felt the same way. It was this experience of isolation and loneliness that brought us together. We spent a lot of hours having discussions, bouncing back and forth ideas about our work, our plans, our anxieties, our aspirations, our lives, academia, about everything over coffee, beer and cigarette breaks – it is when I took on social smoking which then became regular smoking. I clicked more with some than others. Those who I felt closer to were those who I thought would not judge me for my ideas. Very often, our conversations would get very heated and we would end up arguing and feeling frustrated and defensive, but they were still fun, exciting, informal and above all they felt safe. Safe enough to play with ideas through talking ‘nonsense’. I came to realise that talking ‘nonsense’ is important in the process of elucidating thoughts and ideas.

Sadly from my experience in academia during the past 14 years, this type of academic exchanges are quite rare in the formal academic settings of seminars, meetings, symposiums and conferences even in our classrooms. Scholarly dialogues are usually formal, lack excitement and tend to be competitive. Intellectual conversations take the form of wars between egos. There are always people in the audience, who think of themselves as ‘enlightened’ and see their ideas as better than others’ even if their area of expertise is not related to what is being discussed. The aim of such exchanges is to discredit the speaker and to find holes in arguments. Of course as academics we are passionate about what we do, and we do get attached to our ideas as, which we try to protect and defend as our ‘babies’. Even the language that we use to argue about our ideas or to describe our experiences of conversations with colleagues reflects the aggressive nature of academic dialogues. We often use phrases like, this person ‘attacked me’ or ‘attacked my views’ or ‘shot down my argument’. Even the PhD viva is called a ‘defence’.

While being critical is very important part for advancing science and knowledge, the critical view is often associated with justifying theories, providing answers, finding holes in arguments and focusing excessively on details, on a small aspect of an argument. In my view this type of criticism fails to take a discussion to new directions, open new perspectives and generate new questions. Criticism in this context becomes unsafe and threatening since it prioritises cognitive closure, the quest for truth, a convergence of ideas, shutting down the dialogue rather than divergence of views, complexity, collaboration and opening up the dialogue (It is worth reading Alfonso Montuori ‘s work on ambiguity and creativity).

Going back to the idea of nonsense, nonsense is a very important ingredient in critical thinking and imagination. Of course there are different types of nonsense or bullshit (if you are interested in the topic, it is worth checking out Harry G. Frankfurt’s short philosophical essay ‘On bullshit’). According to Frankfurt, there is nonsense that its main motive is pretentiousness and aims to make an argument that suits one’s own purpose and agenda; and then there is nonsense that does not aim at a specific goal. The second kind is related to the concept of play. This type of nonsense allows us to play with ideas, make sense of them, tolerate and explore ambiguity, imagine and generate different scenarios, questions and answers. From a developmental perspective, Vygotsky was among the first psychologists to talk about the importance of play in children’s emotional, social and cognitive development and its contribution to the development of our unique human ability for symbolic representation such as imagination.

The reality is that for academics as well as for students, our passions emerge, develop, evolve and are expressed within certain economic and institutional contexts, which make the concept of play sound ridiculous. I am not trying to promote here a romantic view of academia and universities, where we need to spend hours staring out of our windows into the horizon or at the stars talking bullshit. Although I quite enjoy doing that with friends when I get the chance… I am also not claiming that there is not enough creativity in academia. However, if universities and academia are learning communities where old ideas, theories and assumptions about the world are questioned and new ideas emerge, there needs to be a space for both convergence and divergence of ideas and idea selection.

A learning community is a place of possibilities. I believe that the theories and the research we discuss represent the best possibilities for understanding at the world only at present, but will be replaced by alternative possibilities in the future. It is important to learn how to give up old ideas about our courses, theories and research and unlearn ways of examining and looking at the world.

The same way that societies are not a comforting ‘melting pot’ where different groups peacefully co-exist and agree to disagree with each other, the same goes with academia. Classrooms, seminars, conferences, meetings are not always safe and harmonious and it would be a fantasy to even try to make them harmonious places. All knowledge is constructed against different histories of antagonisms and misuse of power.

However, it is important to try to foster an environment in our classrooms, meetings, symposia that is collaborative and exploratory. Academic inquiries are not only individual mental processes. They are collaborative and science is becoming increasingly collaborative. If we take into account the growing rates of anxiety and depression among students and academics in universities today, the need for community becomes even more important. Generative dialogue and collaboration and not ‘cutthroat’ cooperation are also key skills that our students need to develop in order to become more able to resolve problems when they leave university. A recent meta-analysis of 168 studies across 51, 000 employees in different industries found that leaders reward people who are interested in the success and welfare of the team and organisation rather than themselves only.

The classroom and academia are places, where students and teachers learn how passionate engagement with ideas can lead to conflict, confusion and mistakes. Academia is also a place where like any other place, where we create, accumulate and use knowledge to defend certain positions. Many times we get stuck in these positions, because they feel safe, as they protect our egos and our privileges. However, especially in light of the current climate in higher education, we need to start fostering collaborative contexts, where the discovery and not the justification of positions and ideas is rewarded. We need to cultivate a culture that promotes a view of human beings, the world and knowledge as evolving not as fixed entities. A view of knowledge as an ongoing and evolving inquiry about ourselves and our discipline that at different stages generates answers but also more questions could start to help us reconcile with the idea that it is ok to let go of our ideas, assumptions and positions.

1 – https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/23/university-mental-health-services-face-strain-as-demand-rises-50
2 – http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0013079

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