The practices of Margaret Bearman’s seminar on practice theory in higher education research

An engaged audience joined us for our second entirely online CRADLE seminar, as Prof. Margaret Bearman (CRADLE) explored how practice theory can inform conceptual and empirical work into higher education research. Here, CRADLE doctoral student Juan Fischer reflects on Margaret’s fascinating presentation.

If you are reading this blog entry, you might be doing it through a digital device, whether it’s your phone, your laptop, or a chip implanted in your brain that allows you to visualise information from distant times and places. Maybe you are reading through the printed copy of ‘The XXI Century Internet’ at your local information repository, for your history assignment on how people lived on Earth before the ‘Planet Exodus’. I can’t be sure of how your present blog-reading practices look, but I am writing this in 2020 AD and Covid-19 is still a thing.

As you can imagine, the way we do things in this era is very different from what we used to do a year ago, due to the movement and social interaction restrictions that have been established by various governments to slow down the transmission of the virus. This meant that Margaret’s seminar about practice theories in higher education research developed in a different manner to other CRADLE seminars. Previous seminars had access to elegant rooms at Deakin Downtown, with small tables that allowed participants to meet each other and delicious catering that PhD students would always appreciate. And yet, the seminar as a practice was recognisable to all the participants. This time, around 85 people from different countries (are countries still a thing in your time?) gathered in a video conference to hear Margaret sharing her journey through practice theories in her research.

During this iteration of the practice of presenting at/attending a seminar, Margaret reminded us that the plural in ‘practice theories’ is important for recognising the diversity within this ‘family’ or ‘bandwagon’ of theories (as Nicolini or Gherardi would say). Her interest in this group of theories started from seeing how education, a practice that seeks to change other people’s practices, tends to focus on idealised and aspirational ideas of what people should do, leaving a gap with ‘what actually happens’.

Using examples from her own research, Margaret showed us how practices are purposeful and emotionally charged clusters of human activity that occur in the local here and now, but also connect with the global (i.e. her use of Schatzki’s theory to analyse practices of Objective Structured Clinical Examinations – OSCEs). She showed us how material objects are not neutral but can exert control over human actors by guiding or suggesting how to carry out a practice (i.e. her use of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory to understand the role of checklists and assessment criteria as invitations in higher education). Margaret also reminded us that, while the practice turn (as Schatzki would call it) has demonstrated enormous potential in higher education research, issues of power and deliberate change don’t seem to be the focus of these theories yet (remember we are in 2020). Highlighting that everyday practices tend to resist change, Margaret suggested to us that practice theories do not provide us with ‘best practices’ in an abstract sense, but that they help us to ‘understand the practices we engage with, and through this examination identify possibilities for change’.

Although it wasn’t included in the content of the presentation, Margaret’s seminar also showed us how the practices of presenting at/attending a seminar don’t exist as abstract images, but occur in time and space. On this occasion, we saw the usual doings (one presents, others listen, then there are questions and answers) and sayings (theories, assessment, research, higher education), plus new ones (sharing screens, muting microphones, sitting at home wearing Uggs and slippers, getting interrupted by a builder…). We tried to go on with our ‘business as usual’, but the current sociomaterial conditions enabled and constrained the possibilities for our practice to unfold.

View Margaret’s slides here.

View a recording of Margaret’s presentation here.

For more of Margaret’s research, follow @margaret_bea on Twitter. You can also follow Juan @JuanFischer_.

PhD candidate studying evaluative judgement from a practice theory perspective.

Category list: CRADLE Seminar Series, News

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