Forced perspectives in higher education
The notion of dominant social imaginaries is useful for illustrating how hegemonic constructions of the student in HE limit possible forms of becoming and reinforce problematic conceptualisations of agency. Rizvi and Lingard (2011) define a social imaginary as:
A way of thinking shared in a society' by ordinary people, the common understandings that make everyday practices possible, giving them sense and legitimacy. It is largely implicit, embedded in ideas and practices, carrying within it deeper normative notions and images, constitutive of a society'
(Rizvi & Lingard, 2011, p. 34).
We adopt this concept of dominant social imaginaries to foreground the presence of ‘the imaginer’ as part of any project to reimagine the HE student. Whether it be a HE professional, or policymaker or scholar, ‘the imaginer’ brings a lens or gaze to bear on this process. These forced perspectives are contextually produced and are commonly the product of dominant social positions. In a similar manner to the Bourdieusian conceptualisation of doxa, dominant imaginaries operate in the symbolic and arbitrary social systems as ‘common-sense’, natural, and thus ‘go without saying’, misrecognis-info the deep historical struggles that have formed them. Doxa hence reflects a ‘particular point of view, the point of view of the dominant, which presents and imposes itself as a universal point of view’ (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 57). In the Australian HE landscape, we have seen a particular doxa of aspiration (Sellar, 2013) within policy agendas to ‘raise aspirations’ for university study among students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds.
A recently developed Ames Room analogy (Lumb & Burke, 2019) helps here to consider the assumptions we make as ‘imaginera’ regarding the arrangements in our social realities that might be more ambiguous or preconstituted (rather than natural) than might appear to be the case. The Ames Room illusion is a heavily distorted physical construction commonly used in filmmaking and set construction that misleads the subject into accepting a particular ‘reality’ through a forced perspective or lens. The illusion can lead to unsettling experiences as underlying assumptions support the subject to deal with ambiguity and ‘make sense’ of improbable arrangements. Stepping away from the compulsory physical viewpoint reveals the concealed dimensions of the experience, yet, as the subject steps back to the forced perspective, the assumptions return effortlessly and the illusion holds again, even with this new ‘knowledge’ of the deceit.
Lumb and Burke (2019) argue that we ‘know’ students in HE in ways that are analogous to an Ames Room, as socially dominant imaginaries force perspectives that arc construed as legitimate ways of being, doing and knowing in HE. As highlighted earlier, policy and programme language in the UK and Australian HE sectors consistently deploys the term aspiration with the discursive framing of particular aspirations as legitimate, adhering to the hegemonic neoliberal ideal of the entrepreneurial and socially mobile competitor-individual, de-meaning and de-valuing ‘Other’ personhoods (Sellar, 2013). Social policy operates to frame as desirable and legitimate only certain ways of being, knowing and doing (Ahmed & Swan, 2006) and we would argue that this framing is conducted through a largely male, white, middle class background forming an ‘implicit collusion among all the agents who are products of similar conditions and conditionings’ (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 145). While playing out differently in different contexts, these framings create the conditions for multiple misrccognition(s) that arc themselves difficult to recognise, raising again the importance of acknowledging the frame ‘the imaginer’ brings to projects of reimagining.
It is important to consider the assumptions dominant social imaginaries bring to projects of equity or widening participation in HE. Forced perspectives within dominant social imaginaries shape ontological possibilities including what it is possible for students to legitimately be and become. An example of which are the predominant conceptualisations of agency and employability in education. In previous work (Bunn & Lumb, 2019a), we have problcmatiscd conceptualisations of agency in education by considering how the rampant construction of an individual student determined by his or her own internal capacities has become the norm within educational policy. This, we have argued, yields undemocratic educational spaces that ignore the contextually bound ways production and reproduction of disadvantage and advantage occurs within the educational system. In this sense, it too is a forced perspective, a construction and subsequent reification of the HE student as a ‘hyper-individual’. We want to further this interrogation to consider how the hyper-individual interacts with the increased focus on employability as both the doxic purpose and product of HE. Reification (a concept with a diverse history in Marxist theoretical traditions and popularised by Lukács in connection with processes of alienation) is the ‘error of regarding an abstraction as a material thing, and attributing causal powers to it’ (Scott, 2015, p. 638). This arguable danger of misplaced ‘concreteness’ is an important consideration here in terms of the ways in which dominant constructions or frames enable certain horizons of student being in HE while limiting others or closing them entirely.
It needs to be stressed how powerfol these imaginaries arc, and how much energy is required to make a break with them, if only briefly and partially. Indeed, as Barad (2014) points out, one of the important contributions of the physicist Niels Bohr’s work was to provide a break with a dominant Cartesian imaginary. She points towards how, in order to understand emerging problems in physics were to fundamentally rethink epistemology and ontology', and in doing so, required a break from the subject-object dualism that had become taken-for-granted to produce a ‘new quantum epistemology'’ (Barad, 2014, p. 173). While this chapter is not about quantum or particle physics, we are however interested in the implications for scientific approaches and attendant methods when it has been demonstrated that the apparatus used to mea-sure/know is co-implicated and entangled with that being measured/known. We are attentive here to the deceit of the masculinised rational sciences that we can escape perspective and attain God’s eye view (Bennett, 2010) of the world. In this we want to recognise the history' of feminist work in education interrogating historical formations reproducing inequalities and facilitating understandings of power relations within and across both micro and macro level politics (e.g. Lather, 1991; Epstein, 1998; Butler, 1999; Kenway & Epstein, 1996; Burke, 2012; Mirza, 2014). We also want to acknowledge how traditional universalisms of science feel all too familiar and neat:
Matter is discrete, time is continuous. Place knows its place. Time too has its place. Nature and culture are split by this continuity, and objectivity is secured as externality'. We know this story well, it’s written into our bones, in many ways we inhabit it and it inhabits us.
(Barad, 2010, p. 249).
These universalisms form part of a ‘common sense’, a doxa seemingly beyond the need for interrogation, and unfortunately helpful for a continual complicity within the reproduction of domination.
In contemporary times, these universalisms are being taken up enthusiastically in fields of education (including HE) as increasingly our systems, practices and experiences are ‘datafied’ around quantum notions; that is, how much. It seems irresponsible in these contexts not to question the apparatus by which we know students in HE, particularly given that increasingly our relations seem grounded in an economic rationality via a generalisation of neo-libcral epistemology (Shamir, 2008). This Tyranny of Metrics (Muller, 2018) privileges a now longstanding ‘regime of numbers’ in which ‘research is equated with particular forms of data collection and comparison and its quality is judged in relation to its usefulness in assessing comparative performance’ (Ozga, 2008, p. 264). McGowan (2016) contends that a conceptual lack exists regarding ‘understandings of what the university is and is for, and of how systems interact with and impact the rest of society’ (McGowan, 2016, p. 506). In a context of rampant commodification of HE, and also ‘unbundling’ (whereby there is a separating into constituent elements for consumption that which was previously held/sold together), we tend to agree with McGowan that political claims to quality on which the broad project of HE rests are deeply connected to the project of reimagining the HE student. Harwood (2010) explains how the imagination is connected to politics, in that ‘The imagination not only enables us to appreciate the plurality of the world, it is invaluable in supporting the ongoing task of identifying exclusion: in the world, in our own assumptions...’ (Harwood, 2010, p. 366). It is with this in mind that we move to the next section, seeking to trouble assumptions that arguably hold in place a mainstream discourse of employability within the Australian HE context, a discourse that simultaneously colludes and excolludes (Goffman, 1974). For Goffman, this term is used to consider fabrications that occur when primary frames are reworked to induce a ‘false belief’ about activities. These can be more benign (playful deceit or practical joking) or more exploitative (demonstrably against the interests of the deceived). Goffman argues that when groups are involved in these processes of deception, there is collusive interaction required involving ‘those in on it constitute a collusive net and those the net operates against, the excolluded’ (Goffman, 1974, p. 84).