THE HAPPY TEACHER: A critical examination of the joys of object-based learning and teaching in higher education

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The aim of this paper is to explore university lecturers’ articulations about the joy and happiness of using object-based learning (OBL) in their teaching. I investigate the lecturers’ articulations of happiness as social and cultural practices and, in line with Sara Ahmed (2014, p. 191), I acknowledge the performative level of emotions and ask what these expressions of happiness do. Joy and happiness are not often words that are associated to the work within the university, as academia is often portrayed as one of the most stressful and hierarchal work environments there is (Berg and Seeber, 2016). Many lecturers experience occupational stress and burnout and the negative work environment in academia has been accredited to the stress of publishing research (Abouserie, 1996), and to the workload in terms of teaching and student contact (Watts and Robertsson, 2011, p. 46). Studies have accredited the negative impact on well-being to the effects of the neoliberal university (Mountz et al. 2015). The meaning of neoliberal and neoliberalism can sometimes be difficult to discern as critics have argued that it has become ‘a catch-all term for abuse’ without precise definition (Thorsen, 2010, p. 188). Neoliberal is, however, in this paper defined as ‘hegemonic mode of discourse’ that ‘seeks to bring all human actions into the domain of the market’ and restore the power of the elite as well as something that has been incorporated into the commonsense way of interpreting the world (Harvey, 2005, p. 3). A neoliberal university is an institution that puts emphasis on cost minimisation, quality control and customer satisfaction (Abraham, 2017, pp. 45, 55). It is also argued that a neoliberal university places demands on teaching efficiency and productivity at the expense of the worker (Mountz et al., 2015, p. 1254; Berg and Seeber, 2016). Yet, it is not only about how much and how fast a lecturer must work, but also about how this dominant mode of discourse moulds education into being about employability and the capitalist market and less about critical thinking (Feigenbaum, 2007, p. 338; Ek et al., 2013, p. 1305). Within academia there have, consequently, been calls to ‘slow - things — down’ in order to counteract and disrupt the negative effects of this discourse (Mountz et al., 2015, p. 1238, p. 1254, see also Berg and Seeber 2016). Scholars have recognised that it is ‘not just about time, but about structures of power and inequality.’ This means that to slow things down ‘cannot be about making individual lives better but must also be about re-making the university’ (Mountz et al., 2015, p. 1238). In this paper I will not only explore the articulation of joy and happiness that the lecturers express when using OBL, but I will also discuss it in relation to the requirements within the neoliberal university structure. I will suggest that their expression of happiness is not about individual happiness but about the power that OBL has to disrupt neoliberal demands in academia.

Previous research

This paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing research of OBL and well-being. Within this field it is argued that museums can contribute to well-being as they can promote relaxation, social resilience, contribute to visitors understanding of one’s feelings and foster health education (Silverman, 2009, p. 43; Chatterjee and Noble, 2013). Researchers have focused on the usefulness of museums and they explore topics such as the use of museum objects in terms of dealing with neurological rehabilitation (see e.g. Ander et al., 2013), mental health (see e.g. Binnie, 2010; Ander et al., 2013) and dementia (see e.g. Johnson et al., 2017; Morse and Chatterjee, 2018) and show ‘that handling objects can have a positive impact on patients’ wellbeing’ (Chatterjee et al., 2009, p. 175). This positioning of museum can, nevertheless, be problematic as it suggests introducing museums into feelgood and wellness industry that Barbara Ehrenreich (2009) and Sara Ahmed (2010) critique for being largely capitalist driven. Using museums for enhancing well-being can be interpreted as an extended argument for the usefulness of cultural institutions and a way to motivate their existence in a neoliberal economy. I believe that we need to contemplate this in the same way that researchers have contemplated the use of museums for nation-building purposes. The reason for this is that the discourse of wellness — much like discussions of whiteness for instance — valorises certain practices, emotions and lifestyles that seem to neutralise power and privileges (compare Ehrenreich, 2009, p. 8; Binkley, 2011, pp. 379—380, see also Ahmed, 2010). Nevertheless, the purpose of this article is not to argue against the results in abovementioned research as I have no objections to using museums to enhance well-being, but I suggest that we should be wary about the political implications when we do this. For this reason, I turn the focus away from somatic and psychological perspectives of well-being and emphasise the social and cultural practices connected to happiness.

My contribution also lays in that this paper focuses on lecturers. Previous research within the field of wellness and museums focus on visitor or patient well-being when exposed to OBL and it has been argued, for example, that heritage and public health professionals should partner in order to make the best use of museums in order to assist service users’ well-being (see e.g. Camic and Chatterjee, 2013, p. 68). Studies, consequently, focus primarily on how museum staff and healthcare professionals can improve client’s well-being. A similar trend can be noted when OBL is used in teaching. Studies focus predominately on students learning experience (Bonner, 1985; Kim, 2007; Tam, 2016; Hardie, 2016) and there is to my knowledge no research focusing on lecturers using OBL. Chatterjee et al. (2016, p. 3—4) suggest that the anthology Engaging the Senses. Object-Based Learning in Higher Education (Chatterjee and Hannan, 2016) explores lecturers’ engagement with OBL and that it inquires as to what role lecturers have in the pedagogical activities. Although many of the articles are indeed written from a lecturers’ perspective it does not particularly discuss the lectures’ role, but evaluate students’ activities working with OBL (see e.g. Arnold Foster et al., 2016; Hardie, 2016; Willcocks, 2016; see also Boddington, Boys and Speight (2013) for a similar situation). In fact, research suggests that lecturers become facilitators and take a step back to allow objects to speak for themselves (Hardie, 2016, p. 26; Willcocks, 2016, p. 44). The positioning of lecturers is not unsurprising following the constructivist approach to learning in museum and heritage studies that has focused on visitors and students meaning-making (Falk, 2009, p. 147), as well as the focus on students’ self-learning ability in higher education (Tam, 2016, p. 122). The focus on visitors and students, following Sharon Macdonald (2011, p. 2), has become a dominant lens in museum and heritage studies and I agree with Lynn Tran and Heather King (2007) who suggest that there has been limited recognition and understanding of the work carried out by those who teach in museums (Rodehn, 2017). This also suggests that there is limited recognition of how the lecturers express emotions when they are using OBL and how it impacts them.

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