Postmodernism: what engineering education might learn from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies

August 19, 2016 – 6:53 pm

Drawing on the idea I brought forth in the previous section, discount that postmodernism can provide a theoretical language for describing some aspects of engineering and engineering education practice, skincare a logical next question might be: what might it look like for that to happen? To conceptualize what a “postmodern turn” might look like in engineering education, recipe I turn to a place where it has already occurred. Specifically, I look at the collection of disciplines termed “educational studies,” where the “postmodern turn” in educational research has matured over roughly the past 25 years.

As befits a practice that draws heavily on postmodernism as both theory and methodology, there is no clean and unified history of educational studies, nor a single unified group that can be said to represent the entire trans-disciplinary phenomenon. However, the Society for Educational Studies (SES) was established in 1951 and largely based in the United Kingdom, publishing The British Journal of Educational Studies as one of its activities (SES, 2016). 17 years later, the American Educational Studies Association (AESA) was established in 1968 with a companion journal called Educational Studies (AESA, 2016).

Educational studies is a broad term for a loosely conglomerated, trans-disciplinary movement that looks at education through the lens of various fields, typically fields in the liberal arts; the American Educational Studies Association describes its members as “utilizing one or more of the liberal arts disciplines of philosophy, history, politics, sociology, anthropology, or economics as well as comparative/international and cultural studies” (AESA, 2016). Educational studies practitioners might describe themselves as studying the “XX of education,” meaning “taking an XX perspective on education,” where XX is one of multiple arts, humanities, or social sciences disciplines: the philosophy of education, the sociology of education, and so forth — and education is the site of study.

Just as engineering education graduate programs are not primarily focused on producing engineering instructors, educational studies graduate programs are not the same as teacher preparation programs. Although educational studies activities have strong ties to teaching practice and many educational studies scholars have experience with classroom teaching, educational studies includes both research and policy arenas and focuses on the broad sociocultural contexts of education.

To draw from a few selected program descriptions in educational studies: Tufts describes its program as “explor[ing] education as a site of critical scholarly analysis through the disciplinary strands of the field, including: history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy… engag[ing] these topics through critical theoretical frames such as feminist theories, queer theories, Critical Race Theory, post-colonial theories, and socio-cultural theories” (Tufts, 2016). Yale’s program “promotes a multidisciplinary understanding of the role of education historically, socially, politically, and economically” (Yale, 2016). Brandeis educational studies students “explore educational history and policy, human learning and development, and the place of education and schooling in families and societies, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives… to examine the impact of political, historical, psychological, cultural, economic, and social forces on education…” and provides examples of the sorts of questions its students ask: “Who decides what should be taught?  What kinds of learning, schools, and teachers do young people deserve?  Why is there so much disagreement about the purposes of schools?” (Brandeis, 2016)

In contrast to an educational studies approach that brings liberal arts disciplines to bear on education as a rich site of study, engineering education research uses the engineering discipline itself as the rich site of study, and brings tools from other disciplines to bear on that. As such, engineering education can be said to belong to discipline-based education research, which works within the bounds of a discipline to understand and progress the ways in which that discipline forms its practitioners. (In postmodernist terms, engineering education research works “with, within, and against” current engineering education practice.) Other examples of discipline-based educational research include other STEM fields, such as math education, chemistry education, and physics education. Engineering education research also bears similarities to other professional education programs such as medical or legal education. In other words, while educational studies takes “an XX perspective on education,” where XX is typically a liberal arts discipline, engineering education belongs to the group of disciplines that focus on “the education of YY practitioners,” where YY is typically a STEM or professional field. This is, of course, an oversimplication with many ways to create exceptions and intersections, but such a distinction provides additional context for understanding educational studies and its practice in relation to engineering education research.

So what might educational studies teach us about how it looks when a field goes through the “postmodern turn”? One insight from the history of educational studies is that ideas take time to travel across cultures, languages, and contexts — and that the latency inherent in a hermeneutic and material world shaped the way ideas proliferated across disciplines within it. When Elizabeth St. Pierre, now a professor at the University of Georgia and an influential postmodernist/feminist theorizer in educational studies, began graduate school in 1991, Foucault and other French poststructural philosophers were just beginning to be translated into English for the first time. As she recounts it, due to the language barrier, “not many educators or educational researchers in the U.S. used poststructural theories at that time; and some academics, without reading that literature closely, accused the “posts” of being relativistic, nihilistic, deliberately obfuscatory and then just dismissed them” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 5).

Although French philosophers had laid the groundwork for postmodernist philosophy as early as the 60′s, these works took time to become available to an English-speaking audience. To list a few notable examples of “classic” pieces in postmodernist philosophy: Derrida’s “De la grammatologie” was published in French in 1967 and translated into English as “Of Grammatology” 11 years later in 1976. Foucault’s lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” was given in 1969, but was not translated into English as “What is an author?” until 1984. Similarly, Lyotard’s “La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir” was written in French in 1979 and translated into English as “The Postmodern Condition” in 1984.

St. Pierre began her graduate studies in 1991 under Patti Lather, who had just published “Getting smart: feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern,” one of the first works to engage the newly-translated postmodern philosophies in the context of education. The term “postmodern” was not consistently being applied to works of that time that employed resonant philosophies. For example, Deborah Britzman’s “Practice Makes Practice,” a study of student teachers also published in 1991, mentions the (then) present-day “cultural shift” in educational studies (p. 16-17) and practically copies Lyotard’s reluctant definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” by proposing “an interest in conflicts and contradictions, no ‘grand remedies’ here” (p. 11). However, instead of “postmodern,” Britzman describes her work as “critical.” Two years later, William Tierney coined the term “critical postmodernism” to describe his study of difference in higher education (Tierney, 1993).

Of her experience as a student formed in this sort of methodological ferment, St. Pierre writes: “In 1991, qualitative methodology had just been invented and was still considered radical. Even early descriptions of the new methodology drew on conflicting humanist knowledge projects: interpretive, critical, and positivist approaches in the social sciences… the critical turn and the social justice projects of feminists, race scholars, gay and lesbian scholars, and others who demanded action and not just interpretation” (2014. p. 5-6). In parallel, engineering education was taking advantage of similar radical ferments in its own arena and beginning to come of age as a discipline its own right, for example with the re-launch of the Journal of Engineering Education (JEE) in 1993.

Another lesson to be learned from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies is that the introduction of a new paradigm is neither neat nor complete. Paradigm shifts — or rather, the layering of new paradigms over and alongside preexisting ones — trickle into a field over time, such that multiple paradigms remain at play during the same timespan. In the educational studies space, “The School as a Work Environment: Implications for Reform,” a collection of education studies published in 1991, provides a useful comparison to “non-postmodern” educational research outside of engineering/STEM education, at the time and disciplinary place where St. Pierre was beginning to experience the “postmodern turn” in educational studies for herself.

To take one example chapter, “Creating a teacher work environment for the development of classroom knowledge,” moves briskly through a “general description of the structures and processes observed in Ms. Dove’s class… allow[ing] the reader to move quickly into the daily life of the classroom teacher and her students, and provides an analysis of the typical activities, routines, and actions the teacher used to solve the problem of order…” (Carter, 1991, p. 47). Carter then paints a straightforward picture of the classroom, then jumps on p. 57 into five general principles of classroom management. Absent is a reflection on contradictions, tensions, exceptions, or acknowledgements that the narrative of Ms. Dove’s classroom might not be quite as simple as presented in a few brief pages.

However, the cracks were beginning to show. In 1994, F. Michael Connelly penned a foreword to the book “Teachers’ stories: from personal narrative to professional insight,” which was published the following year. Connelly described an education research world where “not only have there been shifts in the frames of reference for inquiry, there have been shifts from the researchers’ experience to the voice of those in the experience,” naming the book as a work that “elegantly marks the crumbling boundary lines between researcher and researched” and positioning it “within a ferment of ideas on inquiry in the social sciences, adding phenomenological, interpretive, and humanistic methods to the “look and record” descriptive research traditions,” while adding that “not many years ago, it might have been seen as teacher gossip, stories better left for the staffroom.” Connelly’s description of the book, which he also describes as “a harbinger” that “challenges sacred notions of the preeminence of theory over practice,” echoes with the language of postmodernism: ferments, crumbling boundaries, and the challenging of previously sacred notions (Jalongo et al, 1995, p. xii).

By 1998, Ohio State had formally approved its program in “Cultural Studies in Education” after a protracted struggle for legitimacy described by Lather in her 2006 paper, “The Foundations/ Cultural Studies Nexus: An Emerging Movement in the Education Field.” The legitimizing shelter of formal programs at Ohio State and other universities parallels the increasing legimization of engineering education as a research field a few years later. For instance, the National Academy of Engineering formed its Committee on Engineering Education (CEE) in 1999, and the first PhD program in the field was established at Purdue University in 2004. In both cases, the establishment of a practice’s legitimacy — postmodern research techniques in educational studies, and “rigorous” research at all in engineering education — created room for more research of that sort to be done without having to constantly defend its own right to exist.

As engineering education was defending and establishing its right to exist as a practice, so was postmodern theory and methodology within educational studies. 20 years after its introduction, the “postmodern turn” is embedded within educational studies as a viable research paradigm, and engineering education is accepted as a legitimate research discipline, with multiple degree-granting programs and its first few rounds of tenured faculty. Having established themselves, engineering education and the postmodern practices within educational studies now have a much easier opportunity to bridge the gap between them, which can be described as “living in a time warp” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 2) and reaching across to a field that is simultaneously “paradigms behind” as well as ahead (Patton, 2008, p. 269) — engineering education as a place where postmodern paradigms are lived out, and educational studies as a place where it is theorized and incorporated into research practice.

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