Good Work!

Redefining Academic Values

from a Critical Feminist Perspective

Patti Gouthro

Mount St. Vincent University

This paper outlines a critical feminist perspective in adult education that acknowledges the importance of women's experiences and proposes a broader definition of "good work" in academia.

Cette papier describe un feministe critical prospectif en l'education des adultes que reconnaise l'importance des experiences femmes et propose le grande definition pour "bien travaille" en academe.

We are still at the beginning stages of trying to articulate a critical feminist perspective in the field of adult education. Feminist researchers argue that women's perspectives in adult education have been inadequately addressed (Burstow, 1994), and their historical contributions to the discipline have been overlooked (Hugo, 1990). Even when studies in adult education focus on women's experiences, women students are often treated as being somehow "deficient" (Hayes & Smith, 1994). Within academia, women are less likely than their male couterparts to obtain a doctorate (Vezina, 1998). They are less successful than men in academic publishing (Hayes & Smith, 1994), and still overrepresented in the lower ranks in academia (Caplan, 1994). While some progress has been made over the last couple of decades, it is clear that women have still not achieved equal status or recognition in the field of adult education. To understand why these gendered differences in experience exist, we need to look beyond individual circumstances to the systemic structures and underlying value system that prioritizes predominantly masculine values and a marketplace agenda. We need to challenge the narrow, competitive values that have gained ascendency in both academia and the field of adult education to develop a more inclusive perspective that values women's contributions.

The Marketplace

A number of recent critical analyses provide valuable insights into the pervasive influence of the marketplace on education (Barrett, 1996; Collins, 1991, Hart, 1992, Welton, 1995). Increasingly, adult education and academic discourses are sprinkled with terms that draw parallels between students as "customers" or "clients", academic institutions and adult education programs as "services" and "products", and the criteria for academic excellence is increasingly being driven by terms such as "accountability", "efficiency" and the "bottom line".

Some educators and administrators enthusiastically embrace this focus in education, arguing that there will be financial benefits, monetary spin-offs, and societal satisfaction with education that is sensitive to marketplace concerns (Downey, 1996). With diminishing government funding, greater attention to alternative sources of funding is perceived as a practical and sensible focus (Ryan & Heim, 1997). Government support for lifelong education programs are often linked with potential employment and economic benefits (Shipley, 1997 ).

Critical educators challenge this approach to education as being too narrow. The potential for education to develop individuals as citizens, and to enhance individual quality of life is often overlooked in marketplace discourses. Democratic values, issues of inclusion, and equality issues are generally not taken up when the curriculum focuses primarily on employment concerns (Barrett, 1996). As a recent United Nations report notes, education is increasingly being used to create a broader gap between the haves and have-nots in our world (Delors, 1996). Education becomes another commodity, whereby those with purchasing power are able to situate themselves advantageously to compete against others. This competitive, marketplace approach to education is one that demands losers in order to establish winners.

Critical Theory

Critical theory provides a useful framework to begin an analysis of the consequences of this narrow, individualistic approach to adult education. Drawing upon Habermas's theory of Communicative Action, Welton argues that the "system" (the economic/political structure) is threatening to undermine the "lifeworld"(the communicatively shaped sphere of community, church and family). This can be seen in the professionalization influence in education (Collins, 1991), the unwillingness of some educators to assess different moral values and consequences (Hart, 1992), and in the breakdown of communicative discourse (Welton, 1995).

To challenge this influence in education, critical educators suggest that adult educators need to work to develop communicative spaces where education can assume its transformative potential (Mezirow, 1991). Welton advocates civil society as a forum for development, arguing that it embodies communicative principles and is "beginning to reframe the way we see the changing configuration of state, economy, and the social sector (1997, p. 188). Collins proposes that adult educators need to recapture a sense of vocation, to move towards a communicative educational framework. Working within this context, "adult education as a vocation [is] concerned with nurturing egalitarian values and commitments" (1991, p. 49). These theorists suggest that the Habermasian theoretical framework can provide insights into developing more democratic and dialogical opportunities for adult educators.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theorists are often critical of the influence of the marketplace as well. Their interpretation differs, however, in that they link masculinity with the pervasive influence of the marketplace. Some feminists have suggested that one of the weaknesses of critical theorists of the Frankfurt school is that they do not recognize that their critique of society is in fact a critique of a society largely determined by male values (Gore, 1992; Luke, 1992).

A number of feminists argue that we need to develop an alternative approach to education, that is more holistic and life-centred. Mechthild Hart draws upon the concept of motherwork, to outline a different attitude towards education that centres upon life affirming approaches to understanding the world. Hart believes that capitalist goals of profit and accumulation serve to deplete our natural resources, and devalue the importance of subsistence labour. She writes that "subsistence producers are the ones whose labour and production is directly oriented towards life - its creation, sustenance, and improvement" (1992, p. 95). Angela Miles also argues for the need to develop an integrative form of feminism, that emphasizes the richness and diversity of women's experiences, while presenting a challenge to the dominant value system. She writes that "life-centred feminist visions are thus grounded in alternative values whose very enunciation requires the re-definition of key concepts such as work, value, wealth, development and humanity" (1988, p. 256).

"Good Work" in Academia

A clear example of the narrow, linear approach to education that is characterized by a masculine, marketplace understanding of the purposes of education, can be seen in how "good work" is assessed within academia. Feminist scholars have pointed out that women are consistently marginalized within the field of adult education, and continue to experience discrimination in university settings. Women are less likely to complete a doctorate degree (Venzina, 1998), less likely to be published (Hayes & Smith, 1994), less likely to be promoted to higher ranks in the universities (Caplan, 1994), and less likely to have their works cited by other writers (Burstow, 1994). Although the majority of students in adult education programs are women, leadership in the field remains predominantly male (Burstow, 1994). Women faculty are often located in untenured, part-time or contract positions (Dagg, 1998). Women in academia are often excluded from informal networking opportunities, and "have little access to female models or mentors" (Bagilhole, 1993, p. 437). How can we understand the structural barriers that exist which serve to keep women from "succeeding" at the same level as their male colleagues?

By taking a critical feminist approach, I argue that we can challenge the current assessment for "good work" in academia which prizes a singular focus on one's academic work, at the expense of other commitments in the individual's life. The words "commitment" and "productivity" are generally defined within a masculine, marketplace framework. The "committed" employee is one who follows the capitalist agenda for a worker, in prioritizing company goals over personal life responsibilities. A "committed" academic is one who focuses almost all of his/her time on academic work. For this reason, people who attend school on a part-time basis, who take time out of their academic career to focus on family, or who give priority to the needs of their children, are not as "committed" as other academics.

In the same way as "productive" employees are those who are most effective at creating a profit for their workplace, "productive" academics are those who establish a high profile as researchers for their institutions. "Productivity" becomes narrowly defined by the publication of academic articles in refereed journals and the capacity to obtain research grants. Teaching, mentoring and counseling students is not recognized as productive labour (Litner, Rossiter, & Taylor, 1992). Raising children and attending to family needs are concerns that are treated as incidental and inconsequential (rather than as primary productive work). These goals are often perceived to be detrimental, because they divert one's focus from traditional academic work. Because this work is so devalued in the academic sphere, women are often reluctant to raise it as an issue (Caplan, 1994). Some female academics take on the mindset of their male peers, being critical of hiring young women as they may take maternity leaves (Bagilhole, 1993), and unsympathetic to women who take time off to tend to their sick children(Fisher-Lavell, 1988).

Critical Feminist Approach

A critical feminist approach is one that draws upon both critical and feminist theory to challenge the dominant discourse in adult education that asserts the primacy of marketplace values. It challenges the masculine values that advocate a singular focus on the workplace, and overlooks the importance of lifeworld issues that have always formed a central component in women's lives.

Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) argues that women have always had to deal with complexity in their lives, because of the numerous demands placed upon their time. She argues that in a word that is becoming increasing diverse and complex, this aspect of women's lives should come to be seen as a strength, rather than as a deterrent. Instead of prizing a singular, linear focus on world, there is a need for all of us to become more aware of how our actions in one sphere impact upon other aspects of the world around us. If educators can focus on the needs of their own families and children without threat of reprisal, they will be comfortable with being more attuned to the needs and interests of their students who may also have family responsibilities. They may also explore and become aware of the important potential for informal types of learning that take place in the homeplace. To take this approach would help provide a balance for the dominant marketplace discourses, that tend to place priority on profit over life (Hart, 1992). It would lead to a more holistic approach to education, that affirms the value of lived experience in both male and female contexts.

Litner, Rossiter, and Taylor (1992) argue that we need to develop a more inclusive teaching practice where women are encouraged to speak of their experiences, and to develop analysis by comparing what they know in their daily lives and what they are taught in the academic setting. Adult educators have a long history of advocating the importance of recognizing that learners are able to bring a great deal to the classroom from their personal lived experiences. We need to acknowledge the strengths that women bring to academia in terms of relational qualities, life experiences, and different feminine viewpoints.

This would require the willingness of male and female educators to develop more dialogical opportunities. Critical theorists talk about the importance of being open to learning about other viewpoints (Collins, 1991; Welton, 1995). Often, however, there is resistance from male academics who are unwilling to move beyond their comfortable boundaries. As Burstow notes, many male faculty appear to be uncertain as to how to respond to feminist concerns. She points out, though, that "of course, it is in their interest to be confused, to not understand, just as it has always been in men's interests to not understand "just what it is that women want" (1994, p. 12). Feminists argue that male academics need to interrogate their own position of privilege, yet they are often resistant to the idea of having to spend time educating men, feeling that this is just another way women have to accommodate male interests (Burstow, 1994). In the same way, some feminists reject spending time reading research by male colleagues, feeling that they have already devoted enough of their lives to learning from a masculine perspective.

For a critical feminist perspective to emerge, both men and women would have to make a commitment to openness and the possibility of change. Taking this approach would mean reassessing lifeworld values, and challenging the existing educational framework that is modeled after the marketplace. Instead of women constantly having to model their behaviors in academia after that of their male colleagues (Bagilhole, 1993), a more balanced perspective could emerge where men also learn from what women have to contribute. We could come to validate diversity of lived experience, recognizing the value of divergent perspectives. In doing so, we may broaden the definition of "good work" in academia and adult education.


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Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group