Author Interview: Jan McArthur
Dr Jan McArthur teaches on the doctoral programmes in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University. Her research is informed by critical theory, particularly that of Theodor Adorno, and recently she has explored the nature of assessment and feedback, the role of failure in learning and the relationship between conceptions of failure and social justice. She is also Editor of the journal, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. Her latest book, Assessment for Social Justice: Perspectives and Practices within Higher Education, is our latest review and here Jan discusses why she wrote it and how it informs her latest project.
Questions: Naomi Hodgson
Why did you decide to write Assessment for Social Justice: Perspectives and Practices within Higher Education?
I have always had an interest in social justice within and through higher education. As I read more of the literature on assessment for learning I realised that there was a gap that needed to be filled. If we believe that assessment shapes how and what students learn and if we are committed to greater social justice then we simply have to consider how the former shapes the latter. To the extent that issues of justice had been considered in relation to assessment it was often simply in terms of fairness or rather procedural notions of how assessment is carried out. I felt that we needed a deeper exploration which particularly focused on the pedagogical relationships that play out in an assessment context.
What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?
The main aim of the book is a philosophical reconsideration of the foundations for assessment in higher education. The focus at all times is on how to move towards greater social justice within and through higher education. It is important now because higher education is in a state of flux and suffering a genuine crisis in terms of its social role and how this can and should shape its practices. It is vital to keep re-asserting the positive social role that higher education should have, not just for those who study or work with it, but for all of society who are affected by the dispositions and actions of those who study to join various professions and who go on to perform different social roles.
And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?
I am passionately committed to the role that higher education can play in working towards greater social justice. Equally, I believe that we need to constantly move between the broad realms of ideas and the everyday practices of education: social justice encompasses both. So I am very interested in exploring the nature and purposes of higher education in a fairly theoretical/philosophical way. But I then want to take these ideas into the classroom and into everyday pedagogical relationships and practices. Assessment matters so much to student wellbeing and to the integrity of the university as a site for engagement in complex knowledge – we simply cannot leave it out of our considerations of social justice.
What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?
I hope it will start a conversation about both the ways in which a philosophical lens can enhance practices in higher education and the possibilities of doing assessment differently. Assessment practices are notoriously hard to change and people feel constrained in this area of academic practice much more than in other areas. So I hope the ideas in this book give people licence to think and act differently – with a focus on greater social justice. Theodor Adorno has a wonderful phrase where he talks about ‘the passive acceptance of what is merely the case’. I would argue that this is the situation that often faces assessment – we view it as inevitable in its current forms and unable to be changed. So I hope that people reading this book will think it can be different!
What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
This is difficult because there are two audiences and each may read the book in different ways. It can be read as a philosophy of education book with assessment as the focus. Or it can be read as a book on assessment that takes a philosophical lens. My aim is the former, but I expect much will depend on what the reader brings to the book themselves. Equally, I hope that those with a general interest in higher education will see the book as a valuable way of rethinking taken for granted practices.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
I am working with colleagues on a large, longitudinal study funded by the ESRC and Office for Students. The project is called Understanding Knowledge, Curriculum and Student Agency. It is a comparative study of universities in the UK, South Africa and USA, with a focus on Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. It is really exciting for me to take the philosophical ideas from Assessment for Social Justice and apply them to the realities of these students’ experiences. This has led me to build on the book and to consider the ways in which students understand their own achievements through assessment practices: here I draw particularly on Honneth’s notion of esteem recognition. I am proposing that assessment activities, even in the hard sciences, should enable students to feel they have accomplished something of positive social value.
What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?
Most simply it is the application of philosophical concepts to education. But more than that I think it is about a commitment to the values and ideals of the philosophical lens and a strong belief that through education we can promote greater social justice. Of particular importance to me is that we don’t just engage with philosophy of education at the level of ideas, but take it down into the everyday practices of education which can be shaped, nurtured and improved by a philosophical dimension.