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Being a subversive teacher educator

Pete Boyd, Professor Emeritus at University of Cumbria

In this blog I am making a call on university-based teacher educators to be subversive (Rolfe, 2013). We are well-placed to nurture subversion within teacher education partnerships.

In making my argument I will blur the boundaries between our learning as academics and the learning of our student teachers. Both we as teacher educators and our student teachers are involved in identity formation, networking and gaining full membership of our professional learning communities. Both we and the teachers we work with have experienced the ‘age of accountability’, including marketisation with high-stakes inspection, league tables and performativity. This policy context might reduce us to being compliant technicians. In terms of engaging in formal professional learning, I would compare studying part-time for your doctorate as a university-based teacher educator with the completion of a part-time MA by one of your graduate teachers. For a schoolteacher, completing an MA is a key step in becoming a ‘master’ teacher. For a university-based teacher educator, doing a doctorate is an entry-level rite of passage in becoming an academic. It is focused on contributing new knowledge and publishable material, and develops disciplined thinking and writing.

Socialisation and skills development are two approaches to supporting academic writing. A traditional ‘socialisation’ approach tends to ignore power and struggles to manage diversity. A ‘skills development’ approach often slips into a deficit model that labels students while ignoring institutional, cultural or wider socioeconomic influences. An alternative ‘academic literacies approach’ foregrounds writing as ‘practice’ rather than a merely technical focus on ‘text’. It adopts a perspective of writing practice as socio-culturally embedded and involving a knowledge power struggle, rather than as an autonomous individual skill (Lea & Street, 1998). In university teaching from this perspective,

‘the teacher, as subject expert, has three key roles to play in enabling learning: lending the capacity to participate in meaning, designing well planned excursions into unfamiliar discursive terrain and coaching students in speaking the academic discourse.’
Northedge, 2003: 169

The emphasis is on enabling the learner to gain membership of the subject discipline learning community.

To return to the issue of completing a doctorate, it is the epistemic quality of doctoral study that makes it such a strong candidate as a fundamental step in becoming a university-based teacher educator, an academic.

A key characteristic of higher education is that it is underpinned by scholarship. But scholarship itself is a contested arena. Gary Rolfe (2013) proposes that the fourth mission of an academic is ‘subversion’, to be integrated with teaching, research and academic service to the community. He identifies three maxims for the subversive academic:

  • ‘be good’, by which he means ‘be values-based rather than complying with institutional accountability pressures’
  • ‘be collegiate’, meaning ‘include administrators and students as well as academics’
  • ‘be radical’ – that is, work within a research-teaching plexus in which teaching and research ‘flow together as inseparable parts of a single process’.

In becoming a research-active academic, Joelle Fanghanel highlights the problems associated with ‘managed research’ (2012). She uses this term to refer to the kind of large-scale funded research projects that many senior managers in higher education will strongly value, because they generate income, high-profile impact and published outputs that score well in research audits. The problem is that being involved in managed research may not provide the scope for autonomy and resistance, for being subversive, that more idiosyncratic research provides.

‘As teacher educators our role is surely to produce schoolteachers who have the capacity during their careers to develop research-informed practice in schools.’

As teacher educators we are teachers of teachers, and there is a strong tradition within our field and pedagogy of forms of practitioner research. Our role is surely to produce schoolteachers who have the capacity during their careers to develop research-informed practice in schools. If we take care to use our practitioner research to investigate issues of equity and social justice then it becomes even more significant. To adopt an academic pathway of researching into higher education, or of collaborative action research with schoolteachers, we need to be agentic and bold because our institutions may be rife with managerialism and prefer managed research to practitioner research. Furthermore, policy and practice in schools may adopt a top-down view that favours the development of ‘evidence-based’ rather than ‘research-informed’ practice. However, I would argue that by being good, collegiate and radical it is still possible to carve out an enjoyable, satisfying and worthwhile pathway and contribution as a research-active and subversive university-based teacher educator.


Fanghanel, J. (2012). Being an academic. Routledge.

Lea, M. R. & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education 23(2): 157–172.

Northedge, A. (2003). Enabling participation in academic discourse. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2): 169–180.

Rolfe, G. (2013). The university in dissent: Scholarship in the corporate university. Routledge.

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