Critical and Alternative Perspectives on Student Engagement

Provocative excerpts from the Higher Education Policy journal

June 1, 2017

When you have a graduate degree in higher education, student engagement is everything. It's the center of your academic and professional pursuits. There's even a National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

The NSSE organization defines student engagement as “the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities” and “how [an] institution deploys its resources and organizes [its] curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.”

Student engagement is generally accepted as being connected to academic success, retention, learning, and the student experience. It's a guiding force at most higher education institutions.

In February, a higher education listserv (I'm subscribed to dozens of them) post caught my eye. The subject was “Special Issue, Critical and Alternative Perspectives on Student Engagement.” To be honest, I don't think I've ever seen anything that ran counter to the prevailingly positive view that student engagement was an absolute necessity. I contacted my editor and said that I had to have a copy of this journal. Thankfully, Palgrave Macmillan was nice enough to grant me gratis access in March...and then my consulting schedule filled up and I put the journal on the digital shelf.

Fortunately, I've had a free moment to sift through all 140 pages of “Critical and Alternative Perspectives on Student Engagement” and I must say that it is intense. It flips the table on traditional views of student engagement:

This special issue brings together contributions that represent critical or alternative perspectives on student engagement. They are alternative in the sense that they do not approach student engagement, as the overwhelming bulk of the literature does, as a positive and unproblematic goal on the basis of an oft-cited link between levels of student engagement at university and academic achievement.

Critical thinking is important. And, if we can't critique and pull apart student engagement, we're not thinking with our critical hats on. While this article may be challenging to read, its alternative framing of student engagement is an important read.

It's not surprising to me that the “Critiques of Student Engagement” article comes from academics in the UK. In the United States, student engagement is essentially a sacred cow that underpins the fundamental fabric of the entire student affairs profession. In the UK, student engagement has less of a foothold. As with a lot of things in higher education, there's a lot of nuance with student engagement. It's important, but perhaps not as important as it's currently framed?

Student Engagement, ‘Learnification’ and the Sociomaterial: Critical Perspectives on Higher Education Policy” is by another UK-based academic:

[T]his position reflects a broader trend towards ‘learnification’ in higher education, which positions teaching as problematic and inherently repressive. I seek to build on this critique by arguing for a reframing which recognises the sociomaterial and radically distributed nature of human and non-human agency in day-to-day student engagement.

The idea that student engagement can be reconceptualized is a fascinating concept. The unifying thread throughout is that higher education is a “student-centred” endeavor. Which, ironically enough, is a bit of a radical idea for UK higher education where academics are very much situated at the center of institutional influence and perceived importance. This is actually reflected in the next article in the issue - Student Engagement: Towards A Critical Policy Sociology:

If student engagement policy and practice is able to elevate students as active co-producers of self-directed learning, they may also potentially affirm their role as regulatory customers.

Reading this whilst sat in the UK (how's that for some British English) with my US-educated lens makes for an interesting jumble of agreement, dissonance, and complexity.

Whilst student engagement is often read as a proactive, student-centred agenda, it might also be read as a performative mode of practice that not only links to students’ changing role and position as regulators of HE — at its ‘heart’ — but also as the ways in which institutions seek to manage this changing dynamic.

I'm honestly not sure if the academic “champions” of student engagement literature, research, and theory in the United States are equipped to counter most of the arguments in this entire critique. Perhaps it's more about a process of awareness and evolution?

The remaining articles in the issue are equally challenging, informative, and eye-opening:

Put the kettle on (more of me being a bit British-like), make some tea, and dig in to each article. If you don't end up thinking differently about student engagement, at least you'll have a solid understanding of the many ways in which it can be subject to scholarly critique.

None of us would argue that student engagement is not a laudable aim but that there is a need to revisit how strategies might be broadened to promote genuinely student-centred, democratic goals that respect the rights of students as learners.

I couldn't agree any more with that last bit. Here in the UK where a new framework for teaching excellence is being implemented, student engagement is definitely front and center in the hearts and minds of those who work in higher education.

Additionally, this critique of student engagement should be required reading for everyone who is in a graduate level higher education / student affairs program. In fact, this journal issue could easily form the basis of an entire module or class.


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