Discomfort, Avoidance and Shame: Teaching and Researching Dangerous Knowledge

Joanna Haynes, Heather Knight and colleagues from Plymouth University Institute of Education.

Conflict and controversy are to be expected in university teaching, but higher education pedagogic discourse tends to minimise the trouble and disturbance involved in generating sophisticated knowledge. Knowledge is ‘dangerous’ or ‘troublesome’ when a sense of disturbance is experienced; when certain concepts are difficult to communicate or grasp; when the subject matter is politically or morally sensitive; when tutors or students experience or express strong and unexpected emotions; when group dynamics become problematic. This presentation reports on an ongoing pedagogical research project on teaching and researching dangerous knowledge. A key aim is the development of insights and critical responses to the ethical and emotional complexities of working with disturbing knowledge in higher education. A key question is how to work with such complexity so that it becomes educative.

Over the last three years, with funding from Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory at Plymouth University, a group of staff have been logging tutors’ accounts of difficulty or disturbance in their work. In this study tutors were invited to report on occasions when they experienced a sense of danger in their classrooms or in other interactions associated with their university work, such as tutorials or placement visits. The project team developed and used a writing frame to prompt and log dialogues with participants. These were mostly face to face and occasionally electronic dialogues. We have previously presented at BESA conference with second year Education students who became involved in logging and analysing their own experience of disturbance and danger in their university studies. In this presentation we give examples of major themes from emerging from our cross-coded analysis of the collected tutor accounts. These have included risk, discomfort, shame, avoidance and diminishing professionalism. These themes are discussed in the context of literature on ethical and emotional dimensions of teaching, reviewed and discussed by the research group.