Skip navigation
Speculative Diction

Student engagement and the PhD, part 1


This post is an expanded version of a keynote talk that I presented on August 26, 2014 at the 11th Annual Workshop on Higher Education Reform, at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The post is in two parts, because it’s quite long and I’ve expanded on every point; but hopefully it’s worth reading to the end.


The theme I’m taking up here is that of of student engagement within and beyond the university, and as such, I found it hard to approach the topic for a few reasons. One is that I have a lot of trouble separating “student engagement” from learning and from the university experience overall; I think it’s just the integral thing that has to happen in all aspects of university life, if students are to have an education at all. Another reason is that the research literature on student engagement is heavily focused on undergraduate students, but my research only includes PhD students in the analysis (for reasons that make sense in the context of the work I’m doing). Lastly, I’m skeptical about the systems of assessment that are applied once we standardize and reify “engagement” as a thing to be catalogued, described, measured, and compared (more on this below). For that reason I want to stress that I take a pretty broad view of the meaning of the term.

I’ve been interested in how knowledge connects to the world, for better or worse, for a long time. My interests didn’t always play out in ways that were viewed positively by others, but the need was there, and I remember a few moments that highlight how this directly shaped and drove my educational and professional choices.

In the first year of my communication studies degree, I learned that a favourite prof might not be back to teach more courses, because she was a contract professor and couldn’t be certain that she’d be re-hired. I couldn’t understand why someone who did a good job would not also have a secure position. This taught me to pay attention to (and care about) the context in which my education was happening – the university.

The year after that, I became a teaching assistant. As an undergraduate myself, I knew what made me bored in a tutorial, and I knew I wanted to make things interesting and accessible for the students in my group. But almost from the first moment in the classroom, I realized there was a divide I had to bridge: I didn’t know what it was, or how it worked, but no one was as keen as me – and I didn’t know where to start with that. I just knew it had to happen, because my enthusiasm wasn’t enough for them. I had to learn about the practice of education.

Lastly, because a lot of people ask me about this, I’ll mention how I started this blog. It’s because I realised through using Twitter that there was a whole other conversation going on about the things I’d been studying, and that it was a lot bigger than a single department or institution. I saw that there was a way I could join that conversation, so I created a blog where I could participate in more than 140 characters at a time. Through watching what happened when we critiqued education in these venues, I was able to pay more attention to the context of knowledge and who gets to “produce” it.

So is that what student engagement looks like in practice? Being more “engaged” in the narrower sense contributes to academic outcomes, which is a big part of why the issue has been recognized as a legitimate object of research. But this is only one version of what it means to be engaged with one’s own education, and my point is that we have to look beyond stereotypical markers of academic achievement.

I don’t think student engagement can be seen as a distinct element of the university’s mission. Why? Because it’s integral to everything happening at an educational institution. If we can say that the university has a mission, it’s more than an academic one – and more than the “production” and “transfer” of knowledge. It’s also more than an economic mission, unless we think the only point of knowledge is its contribution in that regard. We live in a world that needs people to care about it, and they need not only to care, but to be equipped to do something with that. I believe those goals are mutually reinforcing, as is their inculcation every level in the education system.

There are of course contextual factors that make some approaches easier to pursue than others. Over the past 70 years or so, the institutional growth and fragmentation of many universities – their increased size and complexity – has made it more difficult to imagine common elements of an organizational culture, and harder for students to find a place and find their way within academic systems. At the same time, some elements of governance have become more centralized, and it can be harder for students to make real contributions to the process. They may be spending less time in the campus community, working more hours at jobs to provide funds for education expenses. For doctoral students there’s also the element of intense competition for the “right” jobs, which can affect the peer dynamic and fuel the pursuit of only the most strategic activities.

Related to increasing expenses are the external demands for accountability that come not only from governments but also from parents and students, and other groups that have interests in the outcomes of the work universities do. Students are implicitly encouraged to see education as a private good that leads to economic security, while governments want “human capital” and innovation, and businesses demand “job-ready” graduates with more directly applicable skills.

In this (political) context of increased competition, privatization, and accountability, the data that universities produce are not neutral. Particularly when they’re tied to resource allocation, these data become tools of comparison that shift our attention to specific, measurable objects, such that those objects – rather than to the goals we have in mind when we imagine the purpose of the university – become the focus of (and reward for) our efforts. Transparency in itself is not the issue, but rather the technocratic systems we construct that too often come to take their points of reference as entirely internal. Just as “getting things done” isn’t the same as “productivity” that is positioned on a scale of assessment, learning is not the same as “learning outcomes”; and student engagement is not the same as an increased NSSE score. But if these scores are what we reward, they become the drivers of our decisions.

The epitome of the technocratic approach is when we see technology being proposed as the panacea to systemic problems through education (a recurring historical theme), with one of the best recent examples provided by the MOOC frenzy that peaked around 2012-2013. Yes, MOOCs were supposed to increase student engagement, too; and they were positioned against the boring lecture as a means of highlighting the inferiority of existing educational models.

A related theme is that of the use of learning analytics (and/or “big data”) as the answer to discovering how and why students actually learn, a problem that has surely been at the heart of a century of pedagogical theory and education policy. Tech development is of course heavily affected by the same political economic context as education; the demand for scale, efficiency, competitiveness, and demonstrated outcomes. Needless to say I’m far from convinced that the magic tech bullet will be any more successful in the future; and technocratic policies, injected into institutional environments in order to quickly solve narrowly-defined problems, are really no better.

“Student engagement” is also an accessibility issue. It’s clear that some forms of involvement in education and related activities are tokens for the entitled, used as ways of indicating their eligibility for scarce resources. This is true from primary school to the PhD level, where we see how cultural and economic capital operate to aid the replication of privilege. The “new super people” referred to by the New York Times are examples of the process at work at the undergraduate level, but more generally, “merit” is constructed and recognized in particular ways that benefit those who had more to work with at the outset. While undergrads can invest in tutoring to beef up their test scores and pad their CVs with juicy extracurriculars, PhD students with funding and mentorship can access prestigious conferences, build more influential networks, pay for coaching services, and spend more time focussed on professionally rewarding activities instead of scrabbling for opportunities. We also have to question which voices are seen as worth hearing, what activity will “count” on one’s academic scorecard, and who gets to feel “safe” enough to speak up at all, since the risks are unevenly distributed.

Next up: In the second part of this post, I’ll be looking at student engagement in terms of some principles and approaches for reframing of doctoral education.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *